BOOK REVIEW: J&K By John Pham

J&K

One expects many things from a graphic novel: deftly drawn original artwork; exciting plots and garrulous text abridged for comic speech and thought bubbles and an original theme. “J&K” goes even further and introduces readers to a virtually undiscovered genre of music: calc-rock. What is calc-rock? Google and Reddit are of seldom use. The answers lie in “J&K” which comes with its own 5” 33rpm vinyl mini-record by Gaseous Nebula with songs “Alarum Solus Exeunt” and “Deep Space”. These songs (both barely over two minutes each) will remind listeners of 1970’s Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra with a subtle stadium rock tinge. John Pham has more than once provided his skills as an artist to musicians; most recently designing the 2019 LP artwork for Spanish band Los Punsetes.

With the soundtrack covered the only thing left to ask is what is “J&K” actually about? “J&K” is about two friends: orphan girls Jay and Kay who generally experience life through the medium of funny comic-strip-type decompressed gag humour. We begin with the two friends walking home in the crowds during rush-hour. Whilst some of these figures are standard cartoons with giant round facial features on giant round heads some figure are more perplexing. Pham draws one of the characters who cat-calls Jay and Kay follows the cubist logic of a Picasso portrait: three angled squares with a wedge of a mouth on the back of the head and a misplaced nose near the chin. Equally quirky and rare in a graphic novel is the duo’s frenemy called Eggy whose face is composed of a dozen bulbous half-circles. Eggy is something else; he drives away the woman he asks out because he’s wearing a cross and doesn’t realize she’s a vampire.

“J&K” is complete with non-banal hilarities including the pair attempting to play Eggy’s video game “Dance Warrior”, Pham’s transformation of Jay and Kay into cats throughout the last fifth of this novel, the girl’s pursuit for free food: tacos; Jay’s zit located on her back that bulges out her bra and Jay’s absentmindedness as Kay opens up to her in the bookshop. Despite the humour throughout “J&K” and its entertainment value; one cannot escape the sense of unhappiness, purposeless and death that runs throughout the one hundred and forty-four pages and the accompanying mini-comics. Whether the readers like this or not; this is how John Pham planned it stating “cartoons are flat for a reason”. Nonetheless, “J&K” provides a possible explanation as to why people buy music in formats for devices they don’t own as Kay surmises: “I dunno. I just like having it.”

“J&K” began its life as a successful winning entrant for the 2017 Puchi Award competing against genres including “fiction, non-fiction, poetry, novels, comics, picture books, essays, cookbooks, geography books combinations of the above or any other type imaginable.” For a graphic novel to stand out amongst the crowd is a rare feat. After all “Watchmen” was the only graphic novel to feature in Time Magazine’s 100 best novels published in the English language between 1923 and 2010.

Pham’s mastery of the risograph process reveals previously undiscovered degrees of subtlety in colour, tone and shade. This enabled John to create a style of animation that is a utopic psychedelic motley of Tove Jansson’s “Moomin”, The Muppets, Garfield and scenery on par with Hokusai. With extras including a vinyl record,  mini issue of “Cool Magazine,” enjoyed by Jay, a sticker sheet, collectable trading cards, a fold-out map and poster; Pham has truly guaranteed “J&K” will stand out in the increasingly competitive graphic novel market and bring new adventures to music enthusiasts.

To own a copy of “J&K” visit https://www.fantagraphics.com/jk/

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