There are many sports that involve elbowing peers, crashing into them, pushing through the wave of bodies to score points somehow so one team will take the game. None of them are quite like roller derby. Roller derby is a chaotic mish-mash of tripping the opposition, leaping over other players, whipping ‘round the track to lap the pack, and grappling with others to prevent them from scoring points. Players choose aggressive names like “Bitchy Butcher” and “Rusty Razor Blades.” The game of roller derby involves a deep intimacy with your pack mates, an understanding that all will go home happier and more bruised in some way at the end of the bout. There is a community of women that drives roller derby, both professionally and in local leagues, and is unique to the sport.
Roller derby draws many who need the strength that comes from a community of determined women with personal agency, from queer women to women across the globe. It takes a certain aggression, a grit and a willingness to fall down and get back up, to participate in a rolling contact sport. It gives women players an arena for a rough and tumble game without the restrictions of misogynist exclusion from most professional sports. There are many tales of how the game changed the lives of the women who play. Roller derby is a fantastic safe place for women to express themselves, and has been for a long time.
This is something that the world of comics could learn from roller derby. The importance of creating safe spaces for women of all colors, shapes, backgrounds, countries, athletic skill levels, and personalities is vital. It is rare that a woman can find that in a comic she’s reading. As a result of this rare diversity found in roller derby but not in comics, the middle of the Venn diagram of comics creators and roller derby players is a bit small. The world is lucky to have a couple of quality roller derby comics readers can turn to when we crave the action and friendship prominent in the derby world.
SLAM! Volume 1 (& SLAM NEXT JAM!!!)
SLAM! is a story about two women who really need roller derby; women in need of a strong community. It’s a derby tale about a personal reflection, and using that strength all women have within to find steady feet on the roller rink. It’s a story about making friends; about a friendship going through hard times. In 2016, BOOM! Studios brought us the adventures of two derby friends, “Knockout” and “Can Can”, two women recovering from real life and in need of an outlet for their frustration with the world.
SLAM! is written by Pamela Ribon of Moana screenwriting fame. The heartfelt conversations, terse disagreements, and moments of friendship written by Ribon are portrayed lovingly by Veronica Fish (Archie artist as of 2016) in bold palettes and heavy lines. Fish’s art style is clean, and adds to the excitement and the action of the story. Despite potential confusion around roller derby game rules for derby newcomers, Veronica Fish draws smooth action that is easy to follow. Even Fish’s portrayal of characters, from personal style, to individual physics motion on the roller derby track, to each woman’s unique facial expressions, makes SLAM! the kind of story that pleases the eyes as well as the heart.
SLAM: THE NEXT JAM is the continuation of the story of Knockout and Can Can, which is perfect timing as the newest roller derby season begins. So far there are only two issues, but they are packed with derby drama brightly colored and illustrated by a set of creators new to the series.
The new colorist Marissa Louise chose to use grays and blues instead of black for shading, creating an intricate set of shadows throughout the comic that seem to be barely there. Louise’s colors are vivid and rich, full of aqua, turquoise, fuchsia, lime green, and cotton candy pink. She does a killer job of choosing the right colors for the right emotional moment, darkness crowding a character’s space on the page and in the mind, or melancholy restlessness depicted in purples and blues. SLAM: THE NEXT JAM is brings the derby world alive with brilliant colors, and is a great extension of the first series.
Let me tell you about Roller Girl. This is a book that can make readers (me) cry. It’s 240 good pages about a young girl who wants to be in roller derby more than anything. Astrid has a hard time making friends at the beginning of the story; she is a young woman in need of community. Roller Girl leads the reader through the beginnings of learning to roller skate, becoming your own person, and gaining a sense of personal agency in your life. These are all essential parts of being a derby skater, from a special chosen identity and skater name to the grit it takes to make it on the track.
The graphic novel explores the ins and outs of what it’s like to not make it on the track. Roller skating isn’t easy, and like any sport requires a lot of practice for any skillful level of play. The women that are out there actually crushing it have been skating for years. Balance, precision, and a keen eye are all necessary in play. Roller Girl shows what Astrid goes through as she, a girl in middle school, tries to skate and play roller derby with the adult women. This is what makes Roller Girl real; Astrid asks herself if she should be doing this in the first place. Yet she finds that inimitable solid core within herself, and gets back on the track, and tries again. And again. And again.
In the midst of puberty and youthful angst, Astrid learns what it’s like when friends begin to grow up and grow apart. Can her friendships be reconciled? Or is it the kind of childhood friendship we have all let fall by the wayside over time? Roller Girl portrays young friendship honestly, showing both its sweet and bitter moments.
There is real meaning in a account like this from Victoria Jamieson, who pulled parts of her own experience with roller derby to share in the graphic novel. She too draws strength from the team and the fast-paced action on the track, now coaching for the Rose City Rollers in Portland, Oregon. Jamieson’s writing and art style are clearly for a younger generation, but the story is one that speaks to all ages. Her comfortable, repetitive backgrounds and character outfits make Roller Girl a relaxing read, easy to follow. The artwork leaves room for the reader to invest in the story itself, and become familiar with the settings in Astrid’s world.
Roller Girl and SLAM! are amongst many powerful derby accounts about women of different ages and ethnicities, and their struggle to find a place in the world. Others include characters like Dot in Amazon’s The Tick, and Bliss Cavendar in Derby Girl. These women are looking for themselves, beyond any sport or community. Ultimately, that is the part of roller derby that is so inspiring. It gives players and participants the confidence to find themselves on the track, to find out that they can persevere or take a fall. Often the women who play roller derby, young and old, have found themselves bruised in some way before they ever came to the derby track. They know what it’s like to fall, and they’ll do it for love of the team and the game (and the derby bruises). SLAM! and Roller Girl are great comics about roller derby, women, friendship, and finding personal agency. Check ‘em out!