Down Set Fight is just the right title for the book that it is. Short. Violent. Peppy. To the point. It’s nominally about American football–but I don’t even keep an awareness of our regular English sort, and I got on with it just fine.
Chris Sims wrote a pretty great piece on Kamen Rider Fourze–coincidentally one of two Rider series to also feature American Football–last year, arguing that it’s “the single best piece of superhero mass media in the past ten years.” With Chad Bowers, Chris Sims also co-wrote Down Set Fight. If I have a reason to think about Kamen Rider, I will be thinking about Kamen Rider. Ergo: whilst reading DSF, I was thinking about Kamen Rider.
Talking specifics, Kamen Rider is an irrelevant comparison. Sims hadn’t even discovered the pleasures of young men in bug suits riding motorcycles all over their inner pain at time of writing. I’m sorry to disappoint you, if you came here for toku. Rider and Down Set Fight are not the same, even if they are both technically about a guy punching guys dressed in freaky animal suits. DSF‘s animal suits are nothing more than that, they’re mascot suits, but Kamen Rider’s dressed up guys are (aah!) real monsters, in-universe. Come, though. Zoom out with me. Let’s look at story structure. Let’s chat with Chris Sims.
I mentioned that I thought DSF was “very Showa”. What I was getting at, after some thought, was that (generally) the difference between Showa era & Heisei era Kamen Rider is that a Heisei season will have a plot, whilst Showa series had a goal. In the older Kamen Riders, and in your book, you set up: This is a guy, he has this manner, he has this specifically relevant backstory, he has this enemy, he must get from here to the solution. There’s very little interpersonal moment-having, and there’s very little “character development”. Was it your intention to write a stripped down story, in order to pack the greatest punch, or does this style of storytelling come naturally to you?
Ha! I was not expecting the opening question to essentially boil down to “does it come naturally for you to write a story without character development?” I don’t think you’re wrong, though, and I love the idea of “plot” vs. “goals.” I think it actually fits in with the characters and how they see the world, too. Al has a plot, Chuck has a goal.
One of the things Chad, Scott [Kowalchuk, artist] and I really wanted to do with the story was set up the idea of someone who’s a physical powerhouse who was completely dominant in terms of strength. That’s one of the reasons that you see that opening chapter, where Chuck gets into a fight that’s so monumentally over the top that it’s basically superheroic. He beats up two pro football teams by himself, and the next time you see him, his shirt isn’t even dirty. The idea was that we wanted to establish not only that he was just ridiculously tough, but also that he has this mindset that you get from football–Chuck takes the ball and puts it in the end zone, and nothing stops him. He sees a goal, like you said, and then goes straight towards it and doesn’t let anything stop him, because nothing can stop him. So when you have a character like that, how do you set up a villain? The way to do it–at least for us–was to give him someone who was a master manipulator, someone who kept changing what that goal was, someone who keeps putting something in front of Chuck and telling him that’s what he needs to deal with, when in reality it’s this whole situation around him. The big reveal in Chapter 4 wasn’t that Al was the one behind the attacks, because that was basically a foregone conclusion from the moment we introduced him, but that he’s profiting from them even while Chuck “wins.”
All of those character traits really get established in the first chapter, and Chuck (hopefully) gets rounded out a little in Chapter 2, when you see that he’s gotten older and changed, and that he approaches things in a completely different way than his father did, with a lot more compassion. You get a little more about those characters and their relationship as the story goes on, but a lot of it’s there early, so that we can get to seeing how they play off of each other. Hopefully it wasn’t too “stripped down,” because if you don’t care about Chuck and Al’s relationship and this history of Al exploiting and manipulating this son, then all it is is a bunch of wacky fights that are just entertaining because Scott Kowalchuk makes them look really great–which, I guess is exactly what I like about those old Kamen Rider shows.
How many artistic directions were there, re: the various stages of Molly? My first read-through, I realised young-Molly and older-Molly were the same person on the third panel of page 143, directly before the connection is made for me in text. That shot of her face turned the key. Was that a part of your plan? Was this a part of Kowalchuk’s own secret plan? Was I supposed to know all along?
Molly’s design was all Scott. Looking back on it, we actually bolded it when the cops come in and call her “Officer Harrison” as the tipoff, but we probably didn’t need to bother. It wasn’t meant to be a big secret or a shocking reveal, but we really liked the idea of Molly starting off a disillusioned fan, someone who really liked Chuck but then kind of turned on him after she found out what happened at the big playoff game brawl and saw him as just a crook, before coming back around to being on his side. I think if you’re paying attention, it adds a little something to her pursuit of him, in that she feels guilty about being starstruck when she had him in the station the first time around, but the more she learns about him, the more she realizes he’s actually a decent person.
Molly, at fluctuating ages throughout the book
I am English. What I know of American football, I know from King of the Hill and Sweet Valley High. SVH didn’t go in for much violence, but King of the Hill also features violence against mascots as tradition. Is this real? What’s with all of the mascot battering?
Does it really? I completely forgot about that! To be honest, I think we were more informed by regular old superhero comics than anything else, where super-strong dudes beating up bad guys dressed as animals is a proud 75-year tradition.
You have Molly say it’s absurd to imagine that someone would walk away from pro-football pay to coach for beans, but that is what Chuck actually did. Why bring that up?
That was another line where we wanted to make it clear that, at that point, she really didn’t understand Chuck’s motivation. When she says that, she doesn’t have the full picture, she just knows him as this criminal athlete who got kicked out of the league under a cloud of controversy and was linked to gambling. From her point of view, he’s just this violent guy who was probably throwing games, you know? But for Chuck, that course of action makes perfect sense. As much as Al’s the one who pushes it into it, Chuck really does love the game, and it’s pretty clear from that first chapter that he’s good at it. He has a knowledge and understanding of it, and in a way, it’s the only thing he really knows, but he’s not a guy who hates football because of what happened to him. He’s a guy who keeps The Essential Vince Lombardi on his nightstand, you know? [I totally don’t know. But I get it. –CN] But if he can’t walk away from football itself, he can walk away from the big money world of professional sports that he was pushed into. It’s his big act of rebellion against Al. Not just walking away from the money, which is something Al would never understand, but also teaching children in a way that’s way more compassionate than we see Al “teaching” Chuck in the flashback scenes. But if you’re Molly and you don’t have the whole picture, if you’re not seeing the flashbacks and if all you know was that Chuck “sold out” his dad to avoid jail time, that’s not going to make a lot of sense to you.
There’s a bit at the end where Al makes fun of Chuck for being a public school teacher in South Carolina–which, by the way, is what my mom does for a living, and a friend of mine thought it was hilarious that we wrote a bad guy who comes out and makes fun of my mom before getting punched out–where he’s basically saying the same thing that Molly does earlier. He doesn’t get it, just like she didn’t get it before. They both have this picture of Chuck that’s different from who he really is, the difference is that Molly comes around at the end, and Al never does.