Trouble with Comics
TWC Question Time #24: Sports!

This week’s question: what’s your favorite use of sports in comics?

Mike Sterling: I’ve never been one for sports, really. I mean, as a young'un I did play baseball and football with the neighborhood kids, but I never had much skill for it or interest in it. Any sports interest I did have probably peaked in high school nearly 30 years ago, as our volleyball team made state champion, and that was essentially that.

As such, I didn’t really seek out or pay much attention to sports in comics. It was always there, of course…Ronald Raymond was a high school basketball player in Firestorm The Nuclear Man, there were the weird mystery tales of DC’s Strange Sports Stories, and of course the famous DC heroes versus villains baseball story, but I think my favorite sports mention in comics actually involves a fictional sport.

Befitting a young nerd like myself, I perused the science fiction section in the local library, slowly working my way through the shelves. I particularly enjoyed the anthologies, the annual collections like Orbit and Nebula and such, and it was in one of these hardcover collections that I first encountered “Rules of Moopsball” by Gary Cohn. (You can read it yourself right here, presented online with permission by the author.) It wasn’t so much a story as…well, as the title says, rules for a bizarre, fantasy-tinged team sport. I think my particular interest in it came from an odd obsession I had (and still have, in fact) about reading game rules and examinations thereof. Not playing the games, necessarily, but enjoying how the various parts of the rules were detailed and worked together. (A favorite book of mine from that library was a history of the Monopoly game, for example.). As such, “Rules of Moopsball” was an unexpected diversion from the more traditional prose stories in the countless number of anthologies I would consume.That was the late ‘70s/early '80s when I read that story (and would occasional reread on later checkings-out of the same book). Not too long after that, I discovered the Legion of Super-Heroes comics and started following that series…in which, eventually, I would come across the occasional reference to the 30th century sport Moopsball.

Well, that surprised me a bit. There were two options I considered at the time: either the folks responsible for the Legion comics made up a name that coincidentally was the same as the sport from the story I’d read, or it was a specific, in-jokey reference to that very story. This wasn’t some huge mystery that occupied my time for years on end or anything…it was just something I noted, and as I became more immersed in comics, and eventually realized that the Gary Cohn who wrote “Rules of Moopsball” was in fact the same Gary Cohn who was also writing comics I was reading at the time, I eventually realized that, yes, it was bit of an in-joke.

As I recall, I don’t believe we ever saw the actual game of Moopsball in action in the Legion of Super-Heroes comics themselves, which was probably fine (particularly if they attempted to duplicate the game as described in the original story, which might have been a little too weird for a mainstream superhero comic). Despite that, I did appreciate this odd collusion among three different oddball interests of mine, reminding me that just maybe, I wasn’t alone in enjoying all these things.

Logan Polk: I know it’s hardly original, but I have to say I always loved it when we got to see the X-Men playing softball (or any sport really) in their downtime. I couldn’t tell you the first time I came across it, or in what comic. I do know that it wasn’t one of Claremont’s issues, as I didn’t come to the X-books until after he’d already left. But, since then I’ve probably read a dozen or so of those tales, including many of his. I’ve always been a sucker for sports films, so I’d venture to say that melding even a bit of that with the superhero genre just hits me in exactly the right spot. Considering the excessive crossovers of the last several years, it’s rare that the books slow down long enough to show the characters having anything close to fun. And under Brian Bendis’ pen the slow moments are usually time for him to “showcase” his dialoguing skills. I do remember a fairly recent issue of Avengers Academy (in the last few years at least) that pitted them against the new generation of X-Men in a football game; it was a fun throwback to much better days in both of those franchises.

Joe Gualtieri: Generally speaking, there are no best answers to the questions asked in this column. This is not a week where this is a case. Sure, like a lot of people who read X-Men comics in the 80s and 90s, I’ve got fond memories of softball games (which the Avengers tried to appropriate) or of John Byrne and Jim Lee’s attempt to switch the tradition to basketball in X-Men #4. I’m also just the right age to ironically love NFL Superpro (I want the trainwreck of this coming back so badly!) and Godzilla playing a game of hoops. Still, none of those are “Foul Play.”

Originally printed in Haunt of Fear #19 and illustrated by Jack Davis, “Foul Play” is one of the more infamous EC Comics horror stories. It’s not actually one of EC’s best. Oh, it’s ably drawn by Davis in wonderful, gory detail. Unfortunately, the characters and motivation are minimal, even by EC standards. The star pitcher on a team leading in the ninth inning of the last game of the minor league baseball season puts poison on his spikes and kills the best hitter on the opposing team. The team doctor figures out how the hitter died and rather than contacting the police, the players decide to handle the matter themselves. So they trick him into appearing at the ballpark the night before the next Major League Baseball season begins (as the pitcher was promoted) then dismember him and play a baseball game using the pitcher’s body parts as the equipment. The last page, with the hitter’s intestines used as baselines, his chest as the catcher’s well, chest protector, a leg as a bat, and his head as the ball make for some of the most indelible and grand guignol images in comics history. It’s little surprise that “Foul Play” was specifically excerpted in Frederic Wertham’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent. So while the story is thin, both for it’s unforgettable imagery and place in comics history, it’s my favorite use of sports in comics.

DC 51 Week Two, Part Three - Not so Terrific or Super and a little bit Lost

The last portion of the alphabetical writer tour of Week Two comes to its conclusion with some mild enthusiasm, a superhero the way he should be done and the end of a habit that’s lasted over 30 years.

Writer Scott Lobdell has three books coming out this month from the new DCU and he seems to have been given his own little corner to play in because he’s going to be responsible for the various Titan-esque characters that don’t have a connection to the main Bat-books.  So his new comics are Teen Titans, the awkwardly entitled Red Hood and the Outlaws and this week’s Superboy.

Superboy #1 is a continuation of the Kon-el/Connor Kent version of Superboy, not the ‘Superman as a boy’ concept that probably doesn’t exist in this continuity.  A little research shows that the clone version of Superboy has been around for almost 20 years which I found quite surprsing. And if you want a glimpse of bad haircuts and horrible costume design through the years, please feel free to do an image search for the character – it is a scary trip down 20 years of bad fashion memory lane.

This series starts with the captions “They call me Superboy.  I have no idea why” as the clone then proceeds to narrate the entire issue from inside a huge life-size test tube.  And then, on page two of the book, one of the head scientists utters the first words in the story with this snappy bit of dialogue, “But at least wait for the results of the C Stem scan and tri-phasial bioplasty. The nanoplants injected into his limbic cortex…”

Now, what that scientist is saying might actually mean something in a “I’m so smart that no one in the real world could ever understand me because that’s how really super smart I truly am” but as a reader making his way into page two of a comic book, it’s like stomping through deep, cold mud: as hard as you try to move forward, you still get bogged down, get annoyed and get stuck when all you really want to do is just move on.

The whole book tries really hard to make the scientific gobbledy-gook sound interesting, but it’s really nothing more than over-written mumbo-jumbo.  The main character in the comic is supposed to be Superboy, but instead issue #1 of the new series focuses on some red-haired scientist who maybe feels guilty about the teenager in the test tube, or maybe is attracted to him, or maybe is just so smart that she always pouts a lot.  For a better take on a very similar scientific character, Grant Morrison’s WE3 is the book that gets it right.

But the biggest problem with Superboy #1 is that everything in this entire issue could have been done in five pages.  He’s in a test tube, he’s a “trans-terrestrial clone, the first-ever fusion of Kryptonian and human DNA” and some super-secret and probably evil organization has created him.  Fine.  Got it.  Let’s move on with the story.  But no, the whole issue drags out the concept until a final splash page that acts as a teaser for one of Lobdell’s other upcoming comics.  And considering how Superboy is going to be center-stage in that book, this issue reads like an unnecessary prelude to something that is going to amount to nothing more than another embarrassing image search in years to come.

The next book comes with a confession: I have been reading the various incarnations of the Legion of Super-Heroes for a very long time.  A very, very, very long time.  Just as many science fiction fans have their favorite Doctor (mine would be Tom Baker, although I do admit I’m loving Matt Smith’s portrayal of the character), my Legion of Super-Heroes will always be by Dave Cockrum.

Yes, that’s how long I’ve been reading the series.  Dave Cockrum drew my Legion.  But as for the Legion of today…

Writer Fabian Nicieza has been given the unenviable task of taking a handful of the Legionnaires back to current DC continuity.  And I have to admit that this has always puzzled me – why do these books have to be so ‘now-centric ‘that the future always has to come back to our time period? These characters are from the 31st Century.  Didn’t anything interesting happen in the next 10,000 years?  I understand the marketing appeal and the fact there can be a Justice League/Teen Titans/Legion crossover, but it just seems ridiculous to have a series set in the future to be so incredibly tethered to our present.

Regardless of my time travel quibbles, Legion Lost does indeed bring a bunch of futuristic super-heroes back to the 21st Century where they’ll probably have to go undercover and try not to destroy the time vortex, step on a butterfly, or interact with the present timestream because that would risking destroying their future, create a time disruption and cause dinosaurs to once again rule the universe, etc. etc. etc.

But the thing is this:  this has all been done before. As far back as the 1970s with Karate Kid, up to Star Man in the latest incarnation of JSA, and also for a period in the late ‘90s when a bunch of Legionnaires were stranded in the 20th Century, fought beside the Metal Men and were around for the company-wide The Final Night event.  For a bunch of superheroes living in the future, all of this has been done in the past.

As much as I love the Legion, I don’t care about this book.  I will probably buy the Secret Origins mini-series that is being written by Paul Levitz (and oh it is a horrible realization that I am such a fanboy/sucker that I publicly admit I’m going to buy yet another re-telling of the group’s origin) and I’m definitely going to be there for the Legion/Star Trek book that’s coming out.  So I’m still there for the Legion, but this book has lost me.

Peter J. Tomasi manages to write a Batman book that I would happily continue to read as I turn my back on Detective Comics.  One of my favorite parts of Batman and Robin #1 harkens back to something I remember Greg Rucka saying while he was on a comic book panel about the character: Batman should be over the death of his parents and he is now fighting crime not because of vengeance but because that is what he does – because he’s Batman.

The dynamics between the Dynamic Duo of Bruce Wayne and Damian might get a little tiresome as the series continues (I think the relationship between Dick Grayson and Damian had a lot more potential) but at least this isn’t the over-the-top Batman from Detective Comics.  I prefer to shove the latter in its own little continuity corner that I can happily ignore.  If I’m going to read a Batman book, I’d much rather read Batman and Robin. At least it’s a book I could share with someone rather than be embarrassed by another book’s torture porn aspirations.

And last on this week’s journey is Mister Terrific, a book about the third smartest guy in the world who is also ultra-rich and has a tattoo of “FAIR” and “PLAY” on his two biceps.

May I say this:  if you’re going to have tattoos and be a superhero, you probably shouldn’t wear a sleeveless costume that shows off the ink because whenever you’re on the beach or at the gym someone is going to say, “Oh my god!  You’re Mister Terrific!!” and the whole secret identity thing gets thrown out the window.  Or if they’re fake tattoos that are slapped on when you go into action, then maybe you aren’t very serious about the superhero thing cuz fake tattoos are just stupid.

This book, like a lot of the re-launches, tries a little too hard to introduce a substantial supporting cast and unfortunately the plot twist at the end of the issue seems to come out of left field for a character we barely know.  At this point the series is trying to be cosmic, political, race conscious and gritty, and that’s too much to do in one issue and may be too much for an entire multi-issue storyline to support. 

Having said that, Eric Wallace crafts an interesting introduction to the character (who is now on his own and without the Justice Society in this brave new DCU) and the idea that this guy is so smart that his headquarters is in a different dimension is a great indication of how creative the series might become.  After slogging through a bunch of different comics and getting stuck in the mud with others, at least Mister Terrific attempts to do too much rather than far too little.  Hopefully a balance and some sort of focus will be found in issues to come.  It’s not terrific, but it gets points for trying.

–Kevin Pasquino