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.