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.