Football played by men is going on all around us, in this, the year of “World Cup 2014”. That’s not entirely interesting to me, but maybe it is to you, and besides — the irrelevance of American Football to my life did not keep me from enjoying Down Set Fight! A story is a story, no matter which colour shorts it wears. So let’s talk football comics.
If you follow us on twitter (and you should, we’re fun) perhaps you saw me asking for football comic help last weekend? I was doing pretty badly looking by myself, finding only the occasional webcomic with “jokes” based in bigotry, or getting stuck in synopses some bold soul wrote up for the Mail’s long-running strip Scorer, or the Sun’s Striker:
Other plot lines included Jarvis being framed for drug possession; a club chairman from America fleeing a guilt-ridden past; Jarvis being forced (at gunpoint) to marry the pregnant daughter of a Mafia boss; helping a Russian player and his wife defect to the West; and getting involved with a juvenile delinquent with promising football skills and an abusive father. — Wikipedia
Today I’m doing much better, reminding myself that outside of newspaper strips we’ve seen some long-running football comics in Britain-of-the-past. Roy of the Rovers and Billy’s Boots ran for years — Roy for nearly fifty — and built enough goodwill that they’ve both got decent wiki synopses. What’s clear is that in football comics, as elsewhere, football alone is not enough. Story needs people, characters, threats from outside the match or the tournament. Roy was shot, bombed, helicopter-crashed… Even sometimes different sports are a welcome relief, as Billy’s second pair of boots allowed him time to shine in cricket, too.
Greg Carter pinged me with the comic I’m chatting up today in response to my plaintive cries on twitter. It’s a football comic that wears the necessity of football+ on its shirt: Keeper, issue three out tomorrow after a two-year hiatus, is a horror/procedural following a hot team’s star goalie (obviously) whose back-up plan for fame is “be a serial killer”. The regular opposing team is naturally the task force within the police assigned to his case. Ritualistic carvings are found on every body, and an “oh no…” moment over a map, which I was excited to assume to be a repeat sigil writ large (what can I say, it’s a classic), caught me with a swerve: the officer pinning in locations has noticed not a shape, but a pattern. The killings relate to a fixtures list. The murderer must be a fan.
When one knows the identity of the murderer, it’s very satisfying to see the detective(s) think hard, use their intuition, and follow leads that are in the right direction. Of course, they needn’t be fully correct — right enough is good enough. Maybe better! It keeps the tension strung, lets both sides carry on with their business in slightly closer proximity, and show us more of themselves before the ideas eventually shift and the truth is spotted at last.
Attempting to get away with murder is a balancing act — trying to make a lie sit straight with the truth. If you did a murder and you’re pretending that you didn’t, you probably need to do a lot of running to fill in the gaps between the truth of what you were actually doing, and the false front you’ve erected over the time spent killing. Quite apart from the stress the average person (our protagonist is not an average person) will feel due to guilt, remorse, shock or horror at their actions, there’s a lot of stress that comes with the territory of stabbing people until they die, if your character wants to continue their life as if they have never stabbed anyone and should not be sent to jail. Stress, in a story, is excellent, because pressure compacts, distills and warps a character. But they remain a character — the murderer is still a person, like you, and “what would I do if…” is a fun game to play. It’s fun to read about somebody scrabbling to cover their tracks and keep their successful, famous life looking shiny at the same time.
As of issue three, Keeper Scott doesn’t have too much personality (I couldn’t have a drink with him, even if I didn’t know he was a serial stabber, because there is no evidence he has anything to talk about beyond practicalities, at any time). But he’s an energetic curiosity, and the newly-introduced parental flashback left me terribly enamoured with his father’s bastard-bristle moustache and apparent sense of quiet righteousness. I don’t fear that Scott’s motivation will be excused, or even explained, but I’m happy for the book to illustrate the rules and standards under which a kid misconstrued that the way to be satisfied with one’s life was to be famous, famous, murderer, famous. Is there going to be some 70s-80s hangover British Politics head-shaking in future issues? I sure hope so!
The rest of the cast are normal enough for me to worry about them like humans. Scott’s new acquaintance (girlfriend?) Sirka — sister of a member of the task force hunting, unknowingly, Scott, although this has yet to impact the story (slow burn, mmm) — seemed something of a wet dream until her texts with our villain were shown on-page. They’re homely and supportive, and I just can’t help believing in them, and her. Lol babes :-), u no? The police team don’t fully get along, which is taken to extremes that I found a little ridiculous at one point in issue three, but the lazy, mean, too cynical to be affectionate relationship between the lead detective and her apparent second in command is sweet in a grotty sort of way. I like a good crime-team love-in as much as the next Criminal Minds viewer, but I’m also keen on the idea that it’s weird and creepy to expect cherished tenderness between workmates as par for the course (sports!). Every character has his or her own concerns, and a lot of these people are pretty aggro. That works for me, cos that’s football, right?
This new issue is an aesthetic departure from the first two. Jeff Simpson has come off interior duties (he remains, I’m thankful, on covers) to make room for Carlos Pedro and Steven Denton’s colours. The old Simpson way is psychedelically coloured, anatomically tortured; everyone looks like they’re in hell and it’s terrifically atmospheric and tactile. The new stuff is much hipper, less nostalgic. More like a contemporary crime or horror comic than a retro pastiche football comic subversion. Still, it may be a change but it’s not a regression, and this more contemporary style is probably an easier sell. Both Simpson and Pedro engage with depth in their drawing, and closeness of characters. They both use extreme and varied angles, shake your nerves, really remember that their art needs to form the story. Simpson had Detective Inspector O’Connell’s boobs squeezed up oddly, but Pedro’s let that go. Pedro draws her looking younger, less harsh, though, so it’s a toss up for whose I like better. Denton’s colours are more subdued but I like how he uses coloured linework to sculpt fabric and hair. That detail provides continuity with Simpson’s issues, and I appreciate it.
As yet, the sigil Keeper carves into his victims is unexplained — I hope it’s something lurid, meaty and large-scale. Despite my disconnect with the “football” concept, these issues feel full, solid, interesting. They satisfy me as a crime fan, and they’re vigorous enough for me to suggest that if you like horror, you could give it a try. Football fans? It doesn’t forget you.
The website‘s buggier than it needs to be when you’re navigating between pages. Sometimes you’ll click and it just won’t register; pages take longer to load than feels reasonable. I don’t feel like it’s short changing you to suggest purchasing the individual issues in DRM-free digital format if you want to try them out — or print if you’re really sold. Apparently the book will be on Comixology at some point, but why wait? Football’s coming home…
…Or is football calling from inside the house?