The modern world tells us that anything we desire can be ours. The problem inherent with this generous philosophy is that no one truly knows what it is that they want. We can ask for cars and money and sex, but ultimately what fulfills us is not something that can be purchased on stores or achieved through a 10-step program. The things we all desire most are freedom and meaning, two articles bathed in illusion.
In Sublife, which is a compilation of mini-comics from his series “Substitute Life,” artist and author John Pham explores that notion. He creates a myriad of characters, including an aging religion teacher at a boy’s school named Hubie, a store clerk with an unusual fetish named Vrej, a drug addicted student named Mildred, a high school student named Terence, and his mother Sarah. All of these characters live in the same house.
These three characters are in similar predicaments. Mildred is a lonely, crack addled, college student. Her life consists of lost time, regret, and class. In the first scenes, we see Mildred struggling to go to class. She claims to have gone a long period without sleep, but continuously falls asleep with no memory of it. She struggles with this lost time throughout the book, and often urges herself to pull together. Ultimately, she seems to give up on any semblance of normalcy in the way she executes her daily tasks, and winds up laying in bed even more.
Mildred is never explicitly shown to be taking drugs, but constantly makes reference to cocaine, to having a bag of it, and wanting to gum it to ease her withdrawals more quickly. Her status as a student helps demonstrate that she regrets her current lifestyle. She also regrets her constant tardiness and memory gaps, more signs that she laments the direction her life has taken. At one point, the land lord leaves a note for Mildred, reminding her of money owed. Mildred frantically computes her available money and works out the deficit in her head. Her solution is to try to steal from Terence, one of her housemates. She hides under his desk, finds his piggy bank, and then stays there frightened as he comes home and takes a nap, not noticing her. Mildred’s problems continue as she is confronted with the physical degradation her body undergoes with the drugs. A friend gives her concealing powder to cover her facial blemishes.
The scars of her addiction, of the emptiness of her life, are taking a physical toll. This comes to light when Mildred spends an evening out with three of her friends. Her friend Rose Eileen is her enabler, providing her the concealing powder and writing off her addiction. Another, Sylvia, seems to be ignoring the problems and going about her own empty existence. The third, Olive, holds Mildred in outward contempt. She says, at the end of their night, “Get out of my car, you disgust me.” Each of these characters symbolize a different part of Mildred’s own psyche. Rose Eileen is the apologist, facilitating and excusing the continuing spiral of destruction in her life. Sylvia is apathy, concerned only with immediate gratification and superficial matters. Olive is her self-loathing, hating what she has become and wanting to cast that part of herself out.
Vrej is a young man living in the house. He is known for being a bit of a lummox. He is large framed and has broad facial features. He is sensitive about his size, often referring to himself as a big ‘walrus’ or other things. At one point, Vrej has Terence help him update his web profile. He suggests that his picture is too ugly, and it makes him look bad. He asks Terence to ‘photoshop’ the image to make him look likes like a ‘fat fucking Armo.’ Therein lies his other point of shame. Vrej is Armenian. He is stigmatized, at least in his own mind, for being big, dark, fat, and smelly. He expresses constant regret at his heritage and even tells Terence to say on his profile that he is Mexican, so that he doesn’t have to admit to being Armenian. This shame dogs Vrej, and makes him feel subhuman. During the story, Vrej is asked both at home and at work to take out the garbage. The task is afforded him for a variety of reasons, but the general implication is that others are in some way ‘too good’ to do this task. Vrej does it grudgingly, accepting his place in society as the lowest. The act is particularly offensive to him because of Vrej’s other distinction.
Vrej is an osmophiliac. He has a distinct love of smells. He enjoys smells that most would consider pleasant, like the smell of a loved one, and he also enjoys ones people would find highly offensive like his own soiled pillow or a used bit of toilet paper. His fetish isn’t necessarily sexual. It is never depicted as such. Instead, Vrej just seems to tie all of these things he enjoys the smell of to some other pleasant or satisfying event– such as enjoying the smell of a particular food that he enjoys, or even, grotesque as it may sound, the smell of his own cotton swab after having cleaned out his ears. Vrej spends the book trying to form a superficial barrier between himself and the world. Despite that, his mind reaches out by being deriving extra stimulation from one of the most base of senses– the olfactory. There is little more intimate than the act of smelling something, and that is the level at which Vrej embraces these things in his life– such as his own father, or the sheets of his friend Terence. This makes the act of removing garbage to be even more offensive to him, as this most sacred and special of things in his existence is impugned in what is a vile, albeit domestic act.
Hubie is a religion teacher at an all-boy’s school. He spends the book lamenting over the shameless teasing he gets from his students, and venting that frustration in conversations with Terence. Hubie, who is evidently very easily frightened, is discontent not only because his own youth and vigor have slipped away, but because the youths around him are not receptive to the same stories and ethics that he was bound by. It isn’t merely the fact that they tease him that riles up Hubie. It is also the fact that these boys are apathetic about their lives. Hubie is one of the few characters in this book who cares about something. He may be impotent to do anything about it, at least at first, but Hubie genuinely wants to change what’s wrong with his life.
At first he doesn’t know how to go about that. His conversations with Terence, who is silent throughout, help him to uncover something within himself that will help him go forward. He decides to give it to the boys straight, telling them that he is worried for their futures, and that these lessons are important. In that lecture, he is overcome by his own emotions and passes out. When he wakes, Terence is the only one there. One of the other students, however, left a ruler for Hubie, which is what they used to torment him. He never figures that out, but the catharsis helps give Hubie a modicum of peace.
Terence is perhaps the most important and interesting character in the book. He never has a story of his own. Every section is afforded to Vrej, Hubie, Mildred, or some other characters. Instead, Terence exists as accessory to the others, but it seems rather that they are accessory to him. In the beginning of the book, Terence is wearing a sheet over his head, like a primitive ghost Halloween costume. All that is visible is his eyes and feet. This is a silly thing, to be sure, but the symbolism is clear. Terence is, literally, faceless. He has no identity, and is often invisible to the other characters. They often ignore his feelings in their selfish quests to better their own lives. Furthermore, Terence is silent. His lack of speech denotes that he is not heard by anyone. Finally, Terence has no arms. He is powerless, and completely unable to control his destiny. However, rather than being in contrast to the others, Terence is a reflection of them.
This comparison is made most clear at the end of the book. For Vrej, Hubie, and Mildred, there has been some limited transformation, as Terence has, in some very small way, contributed to the improvement of their lives. He helps Vrej with his online profile, helps Hubie handle his students, and helps Mildred inadvertently when she steals his money. These things are examples of characters taking matters into their own hands. Speaking to that, Terence soon finds himself armed, with his sheet cut down to a mere cowl. The cowl is significant, though. While Terence and his friends have improved their condition, they have not solved their problems or moved in a direction that takes care of that. They remain faceless and unimportant, consumed by their petty lives rather than being the masters of them.
Adam and Steve (not Adam and Eve)
The other characters in the book are a bit of an afterthought. They are a couple of xenophobic white supremacist ‘brothers’ who are depicted apparently as a homosexual couple. The irony of a pair of old gay neo Nazi’s is cute, but their tale gets more meaning when A______ (that is the character’s name)’s nephew Phineas comes to live with them. The nephew’s prologue depicts him as a young man who is totally disconnected from his parents and loved ones. He is on good terms with his uncle and his partner, but only because ‘they have always been nice to [him].’ He feels no deep personal connection with anyone. This small, small bit of story reaches some closure, though. A_____ and his partner B______, have purchased and are raising a rottweiler puppy they named Freya. They’ve been training her to ‘kill niggers,’ and when Phineas attempts to pet her, it is a tense moment. He must approach her in a specific way, and B____ supervises and sends the dog visual cues to avoid an accident. Despite the training, the dog sniffs the teenager’s hand and remembers the boy he was. Freya is immediately warm to him, and these two unlikely characters share a moment. They manage to connect despite the lives and circumstances that have played against it.
This is an unusual book. The comics are well-drawn, meaningful, and clever. The stories are moving in their depiction of the futility of modern life and its lack of meaning and fulfillment. The book, though, still manages to inspire hope as the characters all continue to struggle even through their own lack of direction.