Reviews

Foul Play in 'Strange Sports Stories #1'

There is plenty of horrible fun to be had in this weird mixture of horror, science fiction and good old fashioned, healthy, wholesome sports.


Strange Sports Stories #1

Publisher: DC/Vertigo
Length: 34 pages
Writer: Gilbert Hernandez, Amy Chu, Gilbert Hernandez, Tana Ford
Price: $4.99
Publication Date: 2015-05
Amazon

Look closely. See this strange baseball game! See the long strings of pulpy intestines that mark the base lines. See the two lungs and the liver that indicate the bases . . . the heart that is home plate. See Doc White bend and whisk the heart with the mangy scalp, yelling . . . "Play ball . . . Batter up!" – from The Haunt of Fear #19 (May-June, 1953) by Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and Jack Davis.

Vertigo's four-issue series, Strange Sports Stories, shares a title with the six-issue anthology series published by DC Comics in 1973 and 1974. But those stories carried the seal of approval from the Comics Code Authority, all but guaranteeing that there was going to be very little scary about them. They were weird in the sense of being strange or abnormal, but not weird in the sense of the uncanny or eerie. "Why did the devil challenge a world series team to a game of baseball?" the cover of the first issue asked. "What was the secret of the odd little man who always bowled perfect 300 games?"

The new Strange Sports Stories, whose first issue features four weird sports tales, is more in the spirit of the old EC line of horror comics, and is especially reminiscent of one classic tale written by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein and illustrated by Jack Davis. The story, "Foul Play," appeared in The Haunt of Fear #19 and caused quite a stir. In addition to keeping kids up at night, it served as one of the central pieces of evidence brought by Dr. Frederic Wertham against the comic book industry. It was cutting edge in its depiction of violence and gore. Aimed squarely at the juvenile crowd it would never have passed the muster of the Comics Code Authority. I mean, just think about it: the wholesome sport of baseball made all bloody and awful. "Foul Play," perhaps more than any other comicbook story, crossed the line, shook the foundation, and almost brought the whole comicbook industry crashing down.

"Suggested for Mature Readers" Vertigo's cover blurb reads. And some of it is pretty shocking. But shocking is a lot harder to come by today. Wertham may have won the battle, but Gaines and Feldstein and Davis and George Romero clearly won the war. Blood and guts we've grown accustomed to. Even if they fail to make the impact that "Foul Play" made way back in 1953, however, there is still plenty of horrible fun to be had in this weird mixture of horror, science fiction and good old fashioned, healthy, wholesome sports.

Gilbert Hernandez kicks things off with "Martian Trade." The sport is backyard soccer. The setting is sometime in the future, a time when Earth children think nothing of receiving a soccer ball as a gift from a passing Venusian, Uranian or, in this case, Martian spacecraft. Bullies will always be bullies, however, and gifts seldom come without some strings attached. Hernandez writes and illustrates a quirky little tale, not so much scary as it is odd, unsettling because the story is at once both so familiar and so bizarre.

Next up is Amy Chu's and Tana Ford's "Dodgeball Kill" which does indeed have a lot in common with "Foul Play," even if its setting is in some outer space penitentiary instead of a bucolic American baseball diamond. These dodge balls are deadly things. Razor sharp and brutal, they look and perform like the dodge balls of my childhood imagination when, as a diminutive and nerdy kid with glasses, I always suspected that the damned things could be crippling if not deadly in the hands of the big, dumb jocks who always sought me out.

The third tale, by Lauren Beukes, Dale Halvorsen and Christopher Mitten is called "Chum." In this tale, again set in some dystopian future, hockey has truly become the blood sport that it has always been at its core. Prisoners are sacrificed on the ice to keep some ancient, alien, Lovecraftian thing at bay.

And then, in "Refugees," Ivan Brandon and Amei Zhao tell a touching and moving story about the survivors of some earth shattering disaster, thrown together out of necessity on a dark ocean in a dark world. This is, I think, the best story in this strong opening chapter and it is fitting that it comes at the end of the book, after the blood and gore. Here, baseball is redemptive, humanizing, salvific. It is the world that is weird, the game that is familiar and true.

If I had read Strange Sports Stories #1 as a ten year old kid, I think that it would have helped to warp my mind in the way that "Foul Play" warped the mind of the generation before me. Of course I managed just fine. Comics might have been fairly tame in my day, but there were plenty of other sources of depravity for a kid who wanted it badly enough. But still, comicbooks were special, intimate, in a way that movies and television were not. And the "Mature Readers" warning wouldn't have kept me away. I can imagine hiding under the bed sheets, reading the story by flashlight, hoping that my parents wouldn't find it, shivering and then reading it over again, thinking all the while that it proved what I always suspected about the horror at the heart of sports, especially dodge ball.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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