Sunday, February 04, 2007

DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest, vol. 2, no. 13: Strange Sports Stories

DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest, vol. 2, no. 13: Strange Sports Stories
various contributors

In many ways, Superbowl Sunday epitomizes the antithesis of geek culture. On a shallow, stereotypical level, the geek and the athlete have been mortal enemies as long as the distinction has been made – at least as far back as 1955, to reference the classic McFly/Tannen confrontation in the Hill Valley High parking lot. Further, while the Superbowl itself is akin to a Justice League vs. the Avengers epic, as two accomplished teams from different spectrums of the same domain collide (DC/Marvel in comicdom, and the eastern/western divisions of the NFL), for the sports fan, their heroes are real. So, yes, we geeks are jealous, and, to my final point, our minds cannot absorb the entirety of knowledge necessary to completely comprehend and enjoy the Superbowl event, as our brains are already brimming with the stats and battles of make-believe characters on a cosmic level. We would never know that the Colts’ coach is only the third to win the Superbowl as both a coach and a player had we not watched the event, nor would any jock know that Hal Jordan has had two distinct tours of duty as the official Green Lantern of Earth. The human mind cannot retain both fields of expertise, and since we geeks value the strength of our mind, thusly Superbowl Sunday is the antithesis of our culture.

Still, as a pseudo-holiday that has inspired its own traditions in millions of homes throughout the world, and as a pop culture phenomenon that has garnered millions of dollars to influence the airwaves for nearly twenty-four hours of coverage, we geeks are drawn to event with as much fervor as anyone else, if not more so. In the past, geek culture has attempted to infiltrate “Super Sunday” (which often drops the “bowl” in an attempt to piggyback the success of a certain Last Son of Krypton, I assume), with significant commercials teasing upcoming films like Hulk and Batman Begins or blatantly starring a stable of heroes promoting VISA credit cards or some such. Yes, comics and sports can share the same forums, but the former usually extends its hand to the latter, and rarely the other way around. Comic book stores tend to carry sports cards (my friends at Geek in the City share my opinion about these “combo shops”), but hardly does a hardcore sports memorabilia store boast a comic book rack. Marvel staged Spidey and Mary Jane’s wedding at the Mets’ stadium back in the late eighties, a huge draw for the community, I’m sure, but I don’t recall any athlete making an appearance at the Comic Con to refute claims of steroid use, a media circus that would do nothing but heighten the Con’s exposure. Finally, and most notably, DC even dedicated an entire series of comics to “strange sports stories,” and does the athletic community create a sport inspired by geekdom? Not even a patriotic shield-throwing tournament! It’s no wonder Thor didn’t help any damsels find their lost debit cards this year.

This issue of DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest is similar to the digest-sized Best of DC anthology I read on Christmas Day; in fact, the format is so similar, I risk breaking A Comic A Day rules by failing to research if these issues are from the same series, merely re-titled with every volume, as comics were prone to do back in the day. Still, just as Christmas with the Superheroes begged to be read on Christmas, Strange Sports Stories cannot be denied on the day when, strangely, all else halts in the wake of athletic splendor and competition. This issue is a proverbial decathlon of tales, featuring nine comic shorts and an entertaining behind-the-scenes essay, each of which will be best served by their own synopses and brief reviews. So, like an onslaught of Coke and commercials, here we go:

“The Great Super-Star Game” – Like the Superbowl and its touchdown inside of the first fourteen seconds, this Blue Ribbon Digest starts with a bang, with a story starring DC’s pantheon of heroes unwillingly pitted against their biggest baddies in a baseball game to settle an argument between the Huntress and Sportsmaster. If the good guys win, Huntress vows to joint their ranks, but the heroes’ loss means she remains by the evil Sportsmaster’s side. Of course, the good guys win, as the villains’ cheating attempts to use their powers fail. This reprinted tale represents the fun lost in modern comics; for Superman, Batman, Robin, Kid Flash, Uncle Sam, Black Canary, the Huntress, and Plastic Man to team up for such frivolity without the burden of continuity of pre-establishing in-fighting for in-fighting’s sake is impossible with today’s “shake things up” status quo. I enjoyed the respite, but unfortunately, the following yarns didn’t retain such familiarity. Self-contained “strange tales” in their own right . . .

“Challenge of the Faceless Five” stars a quintet of unbeatable basketball brawlers, whose coach receives a prophecy that their expertise leads to world domination at the hands of an alien race. Yes, the boys so master their athletic skills, the U.N. recruits them as an elite squad for special missions, and their cockiness handicaps them in the face of intergalactic invasion, which enslaves, and erases the faces of, humanity! Fortunately, the boys’ faceless sons arrive from the future to humble their fathers in a pick-up game, presumably changing their fate. Talk about saving face.

“Man with the Golden Gloves” reminded me of a young Matt Murdock story, as a boy rebukes his father for his boxing vocation just before the old man dies of a violent alleyway stabbing. The boy accepts his father’s good luck charm, two small golden boxing gloves, but rediscovers them in his adulthood as an established detective. When his father’s old rivals become his, and they capture the cop and outfit him with 50-pound “gloves” in a makeshift ring, the old charm transforms the weights so the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and wallops his attackers! The guy, and thus the reader, never knows if he was too punch-drunk to remember the bout accurately, but blind rage always does a boxing story good.

In “Volley of Death,” an orphan adopted to become a champion tennis player faces his trial by fire by playing a match with a live grenade. Fortunately, the champ realizes that his opponent hasn’t broken a sweat during their hours-long match and must be a robot, delivering a serve that blows up the bomb and effectively ends the match in his favor. I’m grateful my high school P.E. teacher didn’t take tennis so seriously.

“A Tall Tale of Tenpins” has the meek, peculiarly named Ripley Van Wynne fleeing from a bad date at a bowling alley in a local forest, where he meets the specters of Henry Hudson (of Hudson River fame) and his crew during a ghostly reunion over a game of ten-pin. Assuming Rip to be a descendant of their old pal Rip Van Winkle (which bears no other significance to the story unless I’m missing some critical historical context or mythology), they teach him the skills of the game but warn that humility is most important. When Rip returns to the alley to show off his new skills, an ashamed, spectral Hudson denies the lad a perfect 300 game. Why they would endure the effort to teach him but deny the kid any reward is beyond me. Perhaps Rip’s intentions to score with his date meant his mind was too in the gutter for Hudson – if he only knew that’s what his namesake would become.

The “Man Who Leaped Over the Earth” is merely a time-traveling pole-vaulter temporarily trapped in what history ends up calling “The Age of Excess,” i.e. the twentieth century! With the iPhone right around the corner, I can only imagine what history calls the twenty-first century . . .

The “Hockey-Mask of Death” stars a lumberjack that moonlights as a local superstar hockey player whose father was apparently accused of killing his partner years ago. The lumberjack fulfills his pop’s legacy and does the same, only to face an odd helmet-wearing foe on the ice later that night. When the ice beneath their feet breaks and the two fatally plummet down a waterfall, the specter reveals itself as dear ol’ dad’s murdered partner that achieves revenge and can finally rest in piece. Of all the trees to chop down, that’s one family tree the world won’t miss.

“Warrior of the Weightless World” is the only tale in this bunch that features a made-up sport: Spaceball, basketball/billiards hybrid, sans gravity. The star of this story is a three-time champ in Spaceball, using his league as a cover to fund his efforts to attend medical school, but when an intergalactic war erupts, he determines that the army could use his expertise before any hospital would hire him. Alas, the military recruits him merely as a Spaceball competitor, but the guy figures his skills in weightlessness would be an asset in a well-planned attack on their enemies’ gravity-free homeworld. Surely, his plans works and his team achieves their dreams, not to mention a healthy dose of celebrity. This story best represents my argument about the contrasting worlds of athletics and geekdom, yet in this case, brains and brawn work in concert to save the universe. Perhaps we can learn from this one . . .

. . . as well as “Gridiron Knightmare,” a story about a college of bookworms unwillingly recruited for the football team. However, when Merlin travels to the future to research new sports that will amuse the King, he equips the geeks with knights’ armor to defeat the brutish, championship team. See, reading is fundamental.

Whew. Yes, that was a long review, a veritable Olympic effort. I read 100 pages of comic book goodness today, between cleaning the apartment for our guests and wondering how any company could justify five million dollars for the commercials I beheld . . . I didn’t don any football gear, but I’m beat. Alas, therein lies another connection sports fans and comic book fans share; as fans, we are by nature fanatic, often tireless in the pursuit of our respective hobbies. All I’m saying is, I give up a day of my life every year to respect their compulsions. You find a jock reading an issue Space Beaver, I’ll reconsider my position. Until then, I want our super back. I think we had it first. Go call your bowl something else.

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