US: May 2010
One of the benefits of being a reviewer is that it forces you to read comics that you might have previously dismissed. With a finite amount of money and a list on-going series’ that have been accumulating for years, often times it is difficult to justify purchasing a book whose concept doesn’t immediately grab at you. That is why I am always pleased when I get a chance to check out a book I wasn’t able to put into my buy pile and discover a new gem. Sparta U.S.A. is one of those books that didn’t grab my attention at first -it’s story relies heavily on Football! I’m a geek, what do I know about football? - but now it is added to my monthly must-haves. Written by David Lapham (Stray Bullets), with art by Johnny Timmons, an artist whose work I was not familiar with but whose style really compliments Lapham’s writing, this is an innovative new series that places a critique of the idealized culture of the American heartland within the context of a folksy small town isolated by yeti-filled mountains and under the control of a strange blue man called the Maestro.
The story begins by discussing the city of Sparta and the people’s primary preoccupation: football. With a population of approximately 10,000 people the narrator informs the reader that there are countless football teams, including 12 pro teams, and that everyone follows the exploits of the top squad, The Mighty Spartans, with an almost religious devotion. The quaint small town sense is quickly disrupted when a family commits murder in order to seize control of the local store. This subplot introduces the Maestro, the inexplicably blue-skinned ruler of the city, who enforces the entrenched status quo and is the city’s only source of information from the outside world. The only other person who dared to leave Sparta was star quarterback Godfrey McLaine, the story’s apparent hero, who returns to the city, red-skinned and wielding a samurai sword, to disrupt the Maestro’s plans and speaking a world of magic beyond the mountains.
My quick summary of the plot of issue 1 naturally doesn’t do justice to a story that is very cleverly constructed thus far. The book has the tone of The Prisoner meets The Truman Show, with just a hint of the Twilight Zone atmosphere; although everyone pretends everything is ok there is actually something terribly wrong and underneath the romanticised facade. Lapham does a good job of allowing the reader to fill in some the blanks of the plot, while leaving others tantalizingly obfuscated. Timmons’ art seamlessly transitions from glorified scenes of football games and children swimming in the river while eagles fly in the sky, to gritty violence and the unspoken tension the surrounds the city’s inhabitants. All of these devices come together very effectively to make the reader want to know more - not an easy accomplishment when stories following similar templates permeate our pop culture.
The most compelling aspect of the series is the embedded critique of the glorified small-town American sensibility. As the Culture Wars continue unabated and protests against the President gain in intensity, the old-fashioned values of a more rural and classical citizenry, personified by an idealized little hamlet somewhere in America’s heartland (or Alaska), have become recurring talking points for conservatives and Republicans. Although this trope isn’t new, politicians on either side of the isle have been using it for decades, it has found increasing utility from opponents of liberals by offering a world-view antithetical to the agendas of progressives and Democrats. Lapham takes aim at this idealized picture by revealing the potential corruption and hazards inherent in such a vision.
The city of Sparta itself reminds the reader of then Democratic-nominee Obama’s ill-spoken, but maybe worth examining, comment that in times of trouble people cling to their guns and their Bibles. The guns are clearly evident in Sparta, both by the “I support the IRA” buttons worn by some of its citizens and the gun battle that takes place, and the religion is manifested in the town’s devotion to football. As the narrator explains in the opening pages of the book, “Anything worth a darn in this life is right here in the good ol’ U.S.A. And nowhere is that better epitomized than on the great gridiron.” So thankfully for readers like myself who don’t understand football, the sport is being utilized as a metaphor for America - that we can understand.
Consequently, looking at the political way in which this story can be read, the Maestro becomes an even more compelling and central figure. It appears that a crucial part of Lapham’s criticism of the small-town ethos is that it most be secretly and zealously enforced by a pervasive and monolithic authority. When one family violently seizes a general store from its owner, the Maestro visits the main person responsible for orchestrating the plan and chastises him for letting it get too public. He says, “We are all free Americans…Let no government intrude upon the sanctity and privacy of closed doors…and when ugliness spills into the open for all to see, we damage the very fiber of our being…When terrible things become public they must have closure of all will suffer.” Later on in the issue the man to which the Maetro is speaking is found dead with a suicide note that takes full responsibility for the violence that occurred.
Thus the figure of the Maestro can be seen as a metaphor for the authoritarian social enforcement embedded in small town ideology. An ideology that does tolerate deviation in any way. That world view, despite how it is sometimes presented by politicians and the media, requires and strong set of social rules and codes of behaviour that while unseen are ubiquitous nonetheless. The Maestro is that set of rules; he never overtly orders the man to kill himself, but his hints and subtle commentary are like commandments written in stone to the people who live within Sparta.
Godfrey McClain then stands as the obvious protagonist and the natural enemy of the Maestro. Once the greatest quarterback in Sparta’s history he can viewed as the Maestro’s idealized citizen. Consequently, as these types of hero stories go, it is fitting that he become the one that must take the Maestro down and reveal the city’s ethos for the lie that it is. From the critical perspective of Lapham’s political component to the story, it remains to be seen whether McClain will usher in a new world relying on the same flaw; replacing an idealized conservative world-view with an idealized and equally flawed liberal world view, or will he take another approach? What truth does McClain represent is primary question lingering in my mind as I finished the first issue.
Sparta U.S.A. is a very well-written book that is loaded with rewarding subtext and embedded meaning. Moreover, where lesser creators have been unable to sustain the balance between entrainment and commentary, the politics of the real-world with the creation of an authentic fictional world, Lapham and Timmons are able to maintain the metaphor while creating a story that is just on-face entertaining as well. The first copy was a freebie for me but I will gladly put down the money for the subsequent issues if they continue to provide the high-level of quality that the first issue has given.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.