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Abhay Tries Writing About James Sturm & Rich Tommaso’s Satchel Paige: Striking out Jim Crow

Abhay Khosla

I.

I first heard of James Sturm with the positive reception of The Golem’s Mighty Swing, his 2001 comic about an all-Jewish baseball team lost in America during the 1920’s. Sturm followed it with Unstable Molecules, an odd sort-of Fantastic Four comic but one transformed by Sturm and collaborator Guy Davis to elaborate upon themes from Golem: families struggling to stay together, families splintering apart; intersections between myth and reality; an America that seems to promise greatness if only just out of reach; grasping characters longing to escape from rural/suburban areas/their identities in society; et cetera.

Sturm’s latest comic is a collaboration with Rich Tommaso entitled Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. It’s “presented by” Sturm’s new school dedicated to comics, The Center for Cartoon Studies.

The comic’s back cover purports that Satchel Paige will “follow Paige from his earliest days on the mound through the pinnacle of his career.” It’s a heck of a dishonest back cover: the comic doesn’t “follow” Paige at all so much as present a story about the Segregation-Era South that happens to intersect with Paige’s career at two differing points in time. It presents not a “story of a sports hero who defied the barriers of race” so much as an historic argument as to the significance of Paige. So: wag of the finger to you, dishonest back cover of Satchel Paige.

I wouldn’t describe it as a history lesson. A few intriguing details aside, the comic is not heavy on historic detail, save what it provides in endnote annotations which prove far more interesting than the comic itself. (But shit: who wants to read endnotes when you could read comics instead?)

At a leisurely paced 85 pages, it feels like a short comic, which hurts here and there. The emotional life of Paige’s narrator (not Paige) dominates Satchel Paige, but given the length, the nameless generic narrator never becomes a full character so much as a stand-in for “all black people oppressed by segregation.” Some might find an unseemliness in presenting a comic about the black experience in US history, where all of one character is “Black Experience” but… you know, I’d imagine many readers will be forgiving given how interesting the figure of Paige himself is, despite the relative brevity of his appearances in the comic.

The high-point of the book for me: a swell 15-page chunk dives into the thoughts of a batter facing off against Paige. While I was reading that bit, I was hoping that would be the entire book. A comic going into a ballplayer’s head? Let alone in a situation like that? Good times.

And it shows off what I enjoy so much about Sturm’s baseball comics: Sturm/Tommaso might not consider the design of the entire page like a manga baseball author might (so it’s hardly never as plain-ol’-fun as baseball manga), but Sturm’s montages are always so crisp. Sturm/Tommaso especially know when to manipulate time— when to speed it up, when to slow it down. Tommaso? He has his highs and lows. Tommaso doesn’t quite land the big bombastic moments: he’s doing a stiff “historical period piece” style that isn’t built for an exciting panel of a guy sliding into home plate, say. With Satchel Paige, the most show-off moment in a baseball comic is a double-page spread of cotton getting picked…? Also, Tommaso is disinterested in drawing backgrounds, so there are times when the backgrounds drop away for dramatic effect that are badly undercut by, you know, the other times they drop away. But Tommaso has his moments, too. For example, there’s a nice nighttime scene set in the rural south that plays to his strengths— it’s regrettable so much of the comic has to take place during daytime.

Still, the bad guy is “Segregation”…? Shit. I suppose you can’t really get that much nuance when your bad guy is Segregation, but I guess I should admit I got a little bored by the lack of nuance to the situation. I kind of know how I feel about segregation already. Personally? I’m against it! Also: I’m somewhat concerned to the extent the comic seems to almost argue that the powerful owners of industry, wealth and capital can be terribly challenged by minority entertainers (or any entertainers at all, for that matter).

I found it interesting how Sturm utilized the traditional Hollywood sports story, though. By gum, it’s a great recipe: (1) a game is “lost”; (2) a change in perspective takes place; and (3) after this change in perspective, a bigger, more important game is played where this change of perspective is tested. (There are, of course, fantastic exceptions to the formula—the skanky 70’s sports movies like Slapshot or North Dallas 40 being my favorite.) What’s interesting to me is how Satchel Paige adheres to the formula (e.g., ending with a Big Game), but plays off of it by making the “change of perspective” one of how the main character views Paige and how that view changes over time and through life-experience. I might have had mixed feelings about the content, but that structure-move had a certain elegance I admired.

II.

Still: Dude! Baseball comics!

Forgive any conflict of interest, but: Is there better material for comics than baseball? Jesus, it just has about everything a boy could want for a comic book: Exciting visuals? Larger than life characters? Rampant drug abuse? Check, check, and checkmate.

My favorite baseball comic creator is manga creator Mitsuru Adachi. Adachi does sports manga that are typically whimsical coming of age pieces; his H2, scanslated by the fine, fine folks over at Mangascreeners, is about a gentle rivalry between competing high school baseball stars and lifelong friends / romantic-competitors. They’re pretty shallow comics, though nastily addictive like all manga; but, shit, I just like how Adachi draws.

Here are fastballs from H2 and Satchel Paige. So… who do you think threw the ball faster? I’m going to go with Satchel Paige because he helped end segregation, apparently.

There’s more out there: Stopper Busujima. Touch. Taiyou Matsumoto’s Hanaotoko. There was Will Eisner. There was Charles Schulz. There was Ray Gotto.

Outside of comics, it’s not hard to find, either, no. There’ve been comedies, dramas, songs, poems. You can wind up with Charlie Sheen or Don Delillo’s Underworld; Phillip Roth or Walter Matthau. Here’s how James Sturm described it: “You could probably tell a hundred baseball stories, one could be about racism, one could be about closeted issues of sexual identity and another one could be about corporate corruption.”

III.

The downside is the competition; Joephisto can’t beat the real thing:

In 1984, Dock Ellis claimed to have pitched a no-hitter on LSD. He says the ball told him what pitches to throw. If you say his name off a roll-call, it goes “Ellis, D.” Bill “The Spaceman” Lee claimed marijuana made him impervious to bus fumes. In 1988 he ran for President of the United States on the Canadian Political Rhinoceros Party ticket. His slogan was “No guns. No butter. Both can kill.” If elected, he promised to repeal the law of gravity. Steve Sparks dislocated his shoulder for the 7th time in his career trying to rip apart a phone book with his bare hands. As a “motivational technique.”

Here’s a quote from Mark Fidrych about giving up a home run to Carl Yastrzemski: “It blew my mind. It blew my goddamn mind. Just because … hey the only reason it blew my mind was because, here I am, goin’, I’m in front of my — Fenway Park.”

Former Kansas City Royal Mark Littell did an ad for athletic support that you can find online. My favorite part is when he says “Here we go, Ramrod.” Here’s Manager Phillip Wellman of the Mississippi Braves. Here’s a photo of Oscar Gamble. You can go to Las Vegas and Pete Rose will sign a ball to you that reads “I’m Sorry I Bet On Baseball” as a souvenir of your trip.

Pete Browning’s father died in a cyclone. He named all of his bats after biblical figures. He used to stare at the sun to “improve his lamps.” He was a “skilled marbles player” and “name figure skater.” He was deaf and illiterate. He was well-known for his love of booze and equally well-known for his love of prostitutes. He used to say “”I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle!” He died after having lost his mind. The Louisville Slugger bat is named after him. His nephew Tod directed the movie Freaks.

Pitcher Rube Waddell used to leave the mound to chase fire engines. He wrestled alligators in the off-season. Opposing team fans used to hold up puppies to distract him on the mound. He was once bit by a lion. He was a superstar athlete. Some people now speculate that he may have been mentally retarded.

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