ELAYNE RIGGS: Baseball, comics and all that jazz
It’s said that there are only a few established art and entertainment forms that America can truly call its own — baseball, jazz music and comic books. It’s a bit of a hubristic statement, not surprising coming from a country as relatively young yet as vast as our own. It almost sounds as if we’re trying to convince ourselves of our own cultural relevance — even more so because we realize that each of these things has its roots elsewhere. But hey, so do most of us. And just as this "nation of immigrants" has brought disparate peoples into a "melting pot" atmosphere wherein their contributions have mixed to form a melange all its own, so have jazz, comics and baseball taken previously existing elements and turned them into something new and unique.
Now, I don’t know much about jazz, so I leave that topic for someone more savvy than me to tackle. But speaking of tackling, George Carlin has a famous monologue where he contrasts the essential natures of baseball and (American) football, so I thought it would be interesting to compare baseball to "mainstream" (i.e., primarily "Big Two") comics. I believe the two have more things in common than many people may realize. Both are team efforts in which individuals can excel and stand out, but which have the best outcome when everyone involved is working toward the same goal (in baseball, winning the game; in comics, telling the story). Both have bullpens and wacky nicknames (as Stan Lee well knew), and both have equally enthusiastic fan bases. And while the split between baseball fans and comics fans has always been presented as a "jocks versus nerds" scenario, both of those stereotypes have been pretty well dismantled in recent years. Despite American baseball still not being gender integrated (but hey, it only took a century from its inception to integrate the game racially) it boasts male and female aficionados of a wide age range. Despite American mainstream comics being largely created by and targeted to straight white post-adolescent males, they too have drawn in male and female readers and admirers of all ages.
There’s something quintessentially welcoming about the game, and the literature, of amazing visual possibilities and poetry – something that can’t be squelched by all the talk about contracts and exclusives and all the business stuff that’s extraneous to spectators, that’s beside the point of what happens between the white lines or the black borders. We all know it’s there, and admit it has its place, but that it’s more the realm of the voracious media who need their daily dose of sensationalist copy and crave the breaking story even when it’s a non-story. Mountains are made from minutiae – is this pitcher healthy? What about that book’s lateness? Did he really sign a 2-year contract for that much money, and will it include his creator-owned work? Was he on steroids when he drew that or what?
And we root, root, root for our home teams, don’t we? Many New Yorkers insist that if you like the Mets you better not like the Yankees, and vice versa. But me, I read both Marvel and DC, and find things to like and things to sigh about in each lineup.
One of my favorite nonsense games is "equivalency." Who’s the equivalent of the editor in baseball? The manager, or the GM? Not the owner, that’s the publisher. The assistant eds are the coaches, the pitcher is the writer, but that’s not right either, because the catcher is the inker (at least as I’ve always thought it) so who’s the writer now? Maybe the manager, which would make the GM the editor and the penciller the pitcher and… well, these things have a way of breaking down, but they’re fun to play around with.
My husband Robin grew up with comics but not baseball; for me it was the opposite. I didn’t start reading comics until my early 20s, when my first husband was in the Navy and had me buy them and ship them over to wherever he was stationed. Steve’s also a big Boston Red Sox fan, and I’d followed the Mets since a few years after their formation, so the 1986 World Series was a very interesting time in our home. Robin, on the other hand, knew from rugby and football (my people call it
"maize" soccer) and cricket, which bears a few surface similarities to the Great American Pastime but is in reality completely… zzzzz…. oh, sorry, just the thought of cricket puts me to sleep. Where was I? Oh yes, as a citizen of a country that believes we’re out of our minds having adults playing a child’s game like rounders for millions of dollars a year (which comes to about 10 quid last I checked the exchange rate), Robin quickly became a baseball widower, although I notice he understands as much about the game as I do in the few short years he’s lived in the US.
One of the only things I haven’t fully grasped after watching baseball for over four decades is the balk. Maybe because he’s an artist and thus hyper-observant, Robin catches a balk just about every time it’s made, even when the announcers don’t quite see it. Alas, there is very little I catch about comics, particularly the artistic aspect of it, that Robin hasn’t already seen and, in most cases, done. I do suspect, however, that he’s pleased I’m not a comics widow. (In fact, as with many folks who disdain "busmen’s holidays," he actually reads fewer comics than I do, having to work on those bloody boards every day.)
Probably the biggest association between baseball and comics in my mind has been through my late best friend Leah, who was such a big Mets fan that she named her younger son Daniel Joseph in honor of her favorite player, Rusty Staub. She loved to tell me about the times she met Rusty, including her 16th birthday. Her other big fan admiration was for Garth aka Aqualad, as she had been a Teen Titans fan since as long as she could remember and she loved the water so much. So whenever I think of Leah now, I only remember the good things about both baseball and comics.
I hope someday some enterprising company brings back baseball comics. Today’s comic creators have grown so used to thinking "action only ever equals fighting" that they’ve forgotten how to write and draw the majesty of the Major Leagues. Or heck, even the minors. Baseball is the great seasonal dream, the breath of promise – it begins with the first flush of spring, and culminates with the falling of the leaves in the crisp October winds. It’s the game of inches, the thrill of reaching outward with just that much extra effort to snag a ball on the fly or smack it over the fence or finesse the plate or whirl around to make that double play. Comics is that ability to make just that much extra effort to depict anything you can imagine in perfect pictorial, sequential form, to show bodies in motion and repose, scuffling and triumphing, thrilling the recesses of our imaginations just as much as that game-winning hit thrills the crowds in the stands. To me the combination of comics and baseball is, well, a Natural.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix’s news editor, and is actually going through a one-day baseball withdrawal on the heels of last night’s All-Star Game.