Talking about mainstream American comics can sometimes sound like an echo chamber. There’s a consistent refrain concerning the need for comics that are about more than superheroes, but besides recent surges in the science-fiction and horror genres, it seems unclear what else readers are interested in checking out at their local shops. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a bevy of genres and interests just waiting to be explored though.
Just consider the wide world of sports!
If you’ve never read a sports comic before, this is no joke. Sports are just as viable of a genre in comics as they are in film or television and just think about how often we celebrate movies about boxing or baseball. There’s an innate drama to these competitions whether it’s found in underdog stories, team dynamics, or great rivalries. Sports form a perfect pretext on which to build great narratives and provide an existing fan base and easily discovered systems to boot. You don’t need to build as much of a world when everyone already knows how basketball is played. So that leads us to the question: Are sports comics viable in the American market?
Sports Comics in Japan
Before we consider what can be accomplished in America, it’s important to look abroad. We may not think of sports comics as a popular thing, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world shares that perspective. Considering what has been accomplished in other markets could make for a great measuring stick as to what could be done here. Just take the manga market in Japan, for example.
Among the thriving comics scene in Japan is a dedicated section of books and fans dedicated to the sports genre. Covering a wide variety of activities, including baseball, basketball, and even figure skating, sports mangas generate big readers and big sales. It’s important to keep in mind that manga is a much more mainstream fare that is still featured prominently at newsstands and in bookstores throughout Japan. However, if that is the goal in America, then considering the diversity of stories available in a very successful comics market like Japan’s makes a lot of sense.
There are a few key success stories to consider. Cross Game is a baseball comic about children growing up in love with the game. It connects baseball to its roots in a community and establishes how the love for this game can build individuals with strong character as well as arms. Haikyuu!! and Slam Dunk are two other very popular series covering volleyball and basketball, respectively. Their emphasis on teamwork and competition make for incredibly exciting plots and interpersonal drama. Those who have read them will know that what happens in a single match can be just as thrilling as any superhero battle.
It is also worth noting the many times in which sports is used as a sub-genre within a series. The very popular Assassination Classroom featured a subplot in which the students of Class E were forced to compete in a schoolwide baseball tournament. Their strategization and hard work reinforced themes of the series while offering readers a new sort of adventure (one with far less guns). No matter where you look in Japan, it’s clear that sports are a popular aspect to manga. Whether they feature as the main event or a fun distraction, they attract readers and maintain interest. That in turn indicates that sports comics can be executed successfully, if nothing else.
Sports Comics in America Today
The use of baseball in Assassination Classroom might remind some superhero fans of how Chris Claremont would regularly use sports in his X-Men comics. The team would play baseball or, later, basketball together in downtime between missions. Claremont and his collaborators would utilize these sequences to show off both the team’s working dynamics and their superpowers. It was a fantastic display of how sports could be utilized to enhance another genre altogether.
Looking at how sports play into mainstream comics today though, it’s clear there’s an obvious lack of selection. Of course, you can always find Gil Thorp in your local newspaper, but that’s not likely to get anyone too excited or attract new readers. That isn’t to say that some creators haven’t been trying new ideas. The Image Comics series Mara was all about an elite athlete and utilized sports as a way to discuss politics. However, it didn’t do incredibly well and doesn’t make for a great argument on a growing American audience for sports comics.
That argument could be made with great sports comics coming from smaller publishers though. There is no better example of that than Fantasy Sports published by Nobrow Press. Each volume of the series combine beloved sports with rollicking adventures in order to create all-ages adventures. In the first volume the heroes of the tale are forced to square off against a mummy in a game of basketball. While elements of fantasy and adventure pervade the story, it’s a great story about basketball at its heart.
Sports Comics of Tomorrow
Fantasy Sports is a multi-volume effort and the critical acclaim behind its earliest entries help show how it could provide an entrypoint for future sports comics. While Nobrow may not have the reach of a publisher like Image Comics or Dark Horse, you only need to show a comics fan or young reader Fantasy Sports in order to see their eyes light up. It’s a beautifully drawn series with action that moves as fast as squeaking sneakers down the court. For publishers or creators looking to try something new, it shows how to do sports comics well in the American market.
That will likely be the biggest hurdle that sports comics face, as well. It’s not simply about making them, but making them so that they deserve an audience. Many artists can draw a homerun, but very few can sell the thrill in the stadium when a ball exits the park. Doing it right is the key and it’s in comics like Fantasy Sports and many, many sports manga that those lessons can be learned. It’s possible to imagine a series focused purely on X-Men baseball games or the Marvel heroes poker nights doing well given the right talent.
So there’s no reason why sports comics can’t thrive in America. Great comics with quirky premises or uncommon genres find audiences all of the time. The resurgence of the Archie brand and Chynna Clugston Flores’ work shows how goofy teen comics will find an audience when executed well. It’s up to creators to tell stories about football and baseball and synchronized swimming that inspire the imagination and drive the spirit.
To steal a line from a famous sports movie: If you build it, they will come.