Sports stories, no matter the medium, seem to fall along a continuum. On one end, you have the stories where the sport serves as a backdrop for character-driven conflict, while the other end boasts complete immersion in the sport, with minimal concern for storylines outside each match’s or season’s results. Dodge City, Fence, and We Race all fall at different points along the continuum, providing entry into the sports comics market whether readers are sports fanatics, casual fans, or merely tolerate sports.
Josh Trujillo (writer), Cara McGee (illustrator/colorist), Brittany Peer (colorist, #1), Goncalo Lopez (colorist, #2) Aubrey Aiese (letterer)
Of these, Dodge City falls on the sports-as-backdrop end of the spectrum. The characters are complex, well-written human beings who just happen to play in the same dodgeball league. Illustrator Cara McGee and colorists Brittany Peer and Goncalo Lopez, with letterer Aubrey Aiese, create bright, engaging art that carries the story visually. Best of all, if there were ever something lots of athletic folks could relate to, it’s getting hit in the face with a large rubber ball, even if you’re just collateral damage in the school gym.
With Dodge City, the game matters, but it doesn’t do all the heavy lifting. Writer Josh Trujillo sets up conflict between our plucky underdogs and the rest of the league in the first few pages that hardly begins to scratch the surface. There’s history teasing around the edges, but it’s clear the future is far more important to the players.
Teen angst? Check. A deaf player whose captain learns ASL between practices to communicate better? Check. Star player who mysteriously ditches practice or even games at inopportune times? Burgeoning intra-team romance? Check. Team with a reputation so poor other teams try to warn off its new captain? Check. All the elements for a successful story exist in Dodge City, whether readers care about the sport or not.
Giulio Gualtieri (scriptwriter), Riccardo Burchielli (illustrator)
At the other end of the spectrum lies We Race, Ferrari’s dystopian future racing web comic. Scriptwriter Giulio Gualtieri focuses on the race itself. There are characters, but they’re not much more than typical sports story stereotypes. They’re meant to establish stakes as teams vie for prestige, but they are no one sports stories haven’t given us a hundred times over.
Where We Race shines is in the art, specifically illustrator Riccardo Burchielli’s work creating engaging visuals. Scrolling vertically animates varied portions of the panels, generating movement. Background music and sound effects contribute to the atmosphere and give the comic a cinematic effect. With more original character development, We Race might be a fun read, even if it remained tightly focused on the racing circuit and each race’s winner.
C.S. Pacat (writer), Johanna the Mad (illustrator), Joana Lafuente (colorist), Jim Campbell (letterer)
Then we come to Fence. This comic lies solidly between the two extremes: everything occurs within the framework of fencing, down to moving the entire setting to an all-male boarding school and zeroing in on the fencing team. However, each character has his own feel and clearly has individual motivations; they aren’t interchangeable or cardboard cutouts. You even get glimpses of their lives off the strip. Still, readers see all the action and character development through the lens of the sport.
Fence is approachable without an extensive knowledge of the sport. Where We Race seems to assume its audience is there for the racing, and Dodge City leverages a sport common in the pop culture and (American) childhood experience, writer C.S. Pacat educates readers subtly as she entertains.
What isn’t spelled out in text is easily gleaned from visual context, which I found helpful in bringing a less common sport to a broader audience. It means you don’t have to be a fan of fencing to enjoy the comic.
Johanna the Mad’s manga-inspired art also rides the line between the styles of Dodge City and We Race. Joana Lafuente’s colors are more muted than Dodge City, the format less dynamic than We Race. Jim Campbell’s lettering is clean and easy to read. Characters flash from irked to ear-steaming outrage in the space of a panel, then regain their cool just as fast. Fence also plays with androgyny and the gender binary, although not to the depth of Dodge City, nor as deftly. Through five issues, we’ve been introduced only to a single female character, although a casual reader would be forgiven for thinking they had seen more.
At the end of the day, Dodge City, Fence, and We Race all fill niches along the sports story spectrum. To me, they show there’s a sports comic for any reader once you figure out how much sport you want to read. Unless you hate even the suggestion of sports, there’s a sweet spot along the continuum just for you. It just takes hitting a few foul balls to find the right one.