Strange Sports Stories
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The Brave and the Bold
These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number. They were edited by Julius Schwartz.
Strange Sports Stories was a series that ran for five issues in the tryout magazine The Brave and the Bold in 1963. Each issue contained two longish stories. Each tale was a science fiction story centering on sports. The tales were created by writers (Gardner Fox, John Broome), an artist (Carmine Infantino) and editor (Julius Schwartz) who frequently worked for the anthology sf comic books Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures. This series should basically be regarded as an off-shoot of those two magazines. There were no continuing characters; the magazine was an anthology series. One of Schwartz's letter columns talks about developing a continuing character who would run through some of the tales, to be known as "The Sports Master", but the series did not last long enough for this to come to fruition.
Infantino used an unusual approach here. Each panel has a vertical side panel, containing narration. It also has a silhouette picture at its base, illustrating the story in the main panel. The silhouettes recall the little pictures that often decorated silent movie title cards. Infantino did something similar for his King Faraday tales (1950).
Challenge of the Headless Baseball Team (#45, December 1962-January 1963). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Based on a cover by Infantino. An Earth baseball team is challenged by an alien team who are invisible except for their baseball uniforms. The concept of large groups of invisible beings wearing identical clothes also turned up in the Fox-Infantino Adam Strange tale, "The Invisible Invaders of Rann" (Mystery in Space #73, February 1962). It seemed extremely sinister in both tales. It is typical of the plot ideas of the early 1960's, being spooky and atmospheric, but not at all gory. The cover also resembles Curt Swan's cover for the first Tales of the Bizarro World story, "The Shame of the Bizarro Family" (Adventure #285, June 1961), in that it has a human hero playing a baseball game with a lot of strange alien beings. This is the sort of catchy idea that made a good Silver Age cover. There are few things as social as a baseball game. It is deeply embedded in traditional American ideas about socializing with people. So playing a baseball game with aliens suggests that humans and aliens are meeting and interacting at a very deep level.
The story here is not as good as the cover. Fox develops one of his three cornered plots, in which there are good aliens trying to prevent a second group of militaristic aliens from performing an aggressive military action. Humans get caught up in these events as a third, independent force, coming to the aid of the good alien group, helping to defeat the militaristic aliens, and protecting their own planet in the process. The good aliens are non-militaristic, instead relying on brain power to put their ideas into practice. This is a good framework for a story, allowing for many plot complications. However, Fox used it with more skill in "Raiders of the Giant World" (Strange Adventures #119, August 1960).
Much of this tale is taken up with endless depictions of the baseball game itself. This is pure sports action, not very well integrated with the sf plot of the story. It shows the difficulties the writers were having with the hybrid sf-sports story format of the series.
The story makes much about different levels of conscious and subconscious knowledge possessed by the human hero. These are manipulated by the aliens, sometimes putting knowledge into his head at one level, sometimes erasing it, while it persists at another, subconscious level. This view of knowledge existing at different levels seems unique to the Schwartz magazines, turning up regularly in Green Lantern, as well. I do not recall it in the Weisinger edited Superman family, or in other Silver Age comic books. In the Superman stories knowledge was only on one level - either you had it or you did not. It could be erased by amnesia, a frequent plot device, but then it was permanently and totally gone.
Goliath of the Gridiron (#45, December 1962-January 1963). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. A scrawny botany student develops a plant-based growth formula that turns him into the school's giant football star.
The University background of this tale, its research scientist hero who does much lab work, its plant-oriented science, the different sizes assumed by the hero's body, and the way the hero's body is transformed by his own experimentation, all link this story to Fox's series hero, the Atom. The emphasis on the hero's machismo also recalls the Atom, who loved getting into fist fights with bad guys. So does the hero's eventual attacks of exhaustion, something also faced by the Atom. However, there are differences. This protagonist is just a student, unlike the successful grown men heroes of most Schwartz comic books. Also unlike them, he lacks a steady girl friend, something which torments him. In fact, the early pages of this tale play like a romance comic book, with our hero agonizing over his inability to get a date. His main motive for wanting to be a football hero is to impress girls.
For a discussion of the football uniform in this story, see Sports Numbers and Their Symbolism.
The Hot-Shot Hoopsters (#46, February-March 1963). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Based on a cover by Infantino. When a university coach temporarily loses all his basketball players due to quarantine, a group of young science geniuses aged 12 to 14 volunteer to step in, playing the game well using the laws of physics.
Like the previous issue's "Goliath of the Gridiron", this is another fantasy story about intellectuals turning into great jocks. It is much more upbeat and light hearted than the previous tale, however. These guys are taking on the game as a challenge, and to help out the coach; they have none of the desperation felt by the student in the previous tale. Their self esteem seems to be high. The story has a consistently comic tone, with Fox and Infantino relishing every aspect of their young heroes' underdog status and upset victory.
The small size and young age of the heroes makes them underdogs. Scientists and intellectuals are always heroes in Silver Age comics, and it is hard not to root for these guys to win. Fox and Infantino do not caricature their opponents, or make them out to be villains or in any way dishonest. They seem like a professional, conventional and sportsman like group of athletes. This is in contrast to modern day sports movies, which always make the Other Team out to be odious. The basketball game in the story is a sports contest, not a grudge match. Fox and Infantino would have cheapened the tone of the story if they had made the opponents here someone one could not respect.
The story emphasizes that the young heroes of the tale accomplish things by thinking. This identifies them with Fox and Infantino's hero Adam Strange, who also solves all of his problems by brain power.
Infantino's art is excellent throughout. The story has a great splash, showing both teams jumping for the referee's tossed ball at the game start. Infantino loves to depict people up in the air. In his sf tales, they are often flying, but he is just as pleased to depict leaping basketball players.
Infantino frequently uses vertical panels here, as he did in Adam Strange. These panels' composition tend to be strongly based on verticals, formed by the players' leaping bodies. When Infantino wants to show a wider action, he develops broad horizontal panoramas. He gets much compositional use out of the marks on basketball court floor, weaving them into the geometric patterns of his panels. There is also a good campus landscape (p 5). Infantino frequently showed gracious outdoor plazas on Rann and other futuristic worlds; this campus scene has something of the same effect, although consistent with present day Earth landscaping ideas.
Danger on the Martian Links (#46, February-March 1963). Writer: John Broome. Art: Carmine Infantino. Wale Marner, Earth's champion golfer of 2372, plays in a Martian tournament that is interrupted by an alien invasion. This comic toned story is notable for its look at the many innovations that have taken place in the game of golf in these future times. Some of the ideas are ingenious, and could be put into place with today's electronic technology. Broome always had a flair for new technological devices. Others involve non-violent hunting and evading of alien animals; these recall the similar tracking of alien animals in Fox's Star Rovers tales. Broome was quite insistent in his tales about the reality of social change. Several of his stories suggest that today's conventional ideas will change drastically in the future. Even a comic tale like this one has a subtext about change coming, even to a game as familiar and traditional as golf.
In Broome's future sports tales, such as this one and "Warriors of the Weightless World", the athletes spend a lot of time at awards banquets. These are upbeat, happy occasions. There is much public recognition at these events, something that is always important to Broome's protagonists, who dream of being heroes. The men are often dressed all alike, in future versions of tuxedos, sporty, cheerful clothes that convey a sense of social prestige and acceptance. There is a sense of brotherhood to all this, and one of belonging. As is usual in Broome, the organization to which the hero belongs is completely benevolent. These sports associations are civilian, non-violent, and utterly lacking in malice. They are good guys. Everyone at them smiles and is completely friendly, in a low-key way. Broome's characters often start their lives as socially marginalized characters, and such organizations represent deep dreams of belonging to society and finding brotherhood. They are perhaps more intensely longed for by social outsiders, than by people who already have strong social ties.
The expert athletes in Broome future sport stories remind one of all the magician characters in his other works. All of these men are highly skilled, and they can bring this repertory of skills to bear on unexpected science fiction situations in which they find themselves. They are also men who perform in public, and who get fame and public acclaim for their work.
It is a real life cliché that golfers must have steady nerves, and be imperturbable to anything that happens to them on the course. Broome repeats this truism, and raises it to the nth degree, by emphasizing all the strange sf events that can happen to his hero. This has a comic ring to it.
I did not like the alien invasion finale of this tale as much as its golf-oriented earlier sections. As an anti-war person, I dislike seeing war used as entertainment. Far too many of Strange Sports Stories involved war like themes. They also disfigured many of the early 1960's tales in its parent magazines, Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures.
The Phantom Prizefighter (#47, April-May 1963). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Based on a cover by Infantino. A boxer is transformed by an alien so that opponents' punches travel right through his body; he becomes a carnival attraction. This is a minor tale without much entertainment value. Infantino's splash, showing the boxers in the ring, has merit. Elements of this tale recall the Joe Samachson - Carmine Infantino "Man of a Thousand Shapes" (Strange Adventures #66, March 1956).
Saga of the Secret Sportsmen (#47, April-May 1963). Writer: John Broome. Art: Carmine Infantino. In a future world where all sports are played through virtual reality, small underground groups of athletes carry on the traditions of actual, physical sports events. This story sounds much more interesting than it actually is. Broome spends only a couple of pages here on virtual reality; he depicted it earlier in greater depth in "Explorers of the Crystal Moon" (Strange Adventures #56, May 1955). Still, this is the best and most imaginative part of the story. It is very similar to modern proposals about virtual reality, especially the large TV screens. Broome shows how the downfall of actual sports took place gradually, through a process that involved both technical innovation and social attitude change. This is similar to the more elaborate exposition of the decline of wood in his "The Wooden World War" (Mystery in Space #33, August-September 1956). Finally, his sports teams form an underground, rallying against an alien invasion; we've also seen all of this in other Broome tales, such as "The Doom From Station X" (Mystery in Space #15, August-September 1953).
None of Broome's main characters is a scientist. This is not typical of the Schwartz sf magazines, which often have a scientist hero. Broome perhaps compensates for this by flashing back to the inventor of virtual reality, briefly including him as a character in the tale. Fox will do something similar in "Duel of the Star Champions". This look at the historical development of new ideas is a persistent Broome approach.
The Man Who Drove Through Time (#48, June-July 1963). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Based on a cover by Infantino. A driver-inventor whose early car has accidentally transported him from 1896 to 1964 enters the Indianapolis 500 race, hoping its high speed will send him back to his sweetheart in 1896. This is the sunniest and happiest of all the Strange Sports Stories, and the best work of the series. This story has the same sort of structure as "The Hot-Shot Hoopsters", with the first half being the events leading up to the Big Game, and the second half being the athletic contest itself. Fox loads this story with charming detail. The first half has much on technological change, both in the 1890's and the 1960's. It is a vivid lesson in the history of science, all integrated into a well constructed time travel plot. The second half contains an inside look at the Indianapolis 500 and its traditions. This sort of informative scientific and historical detail recalls Fox's scripts for The Atom. This is the only work in Strange Sports Stories in which Fox included this sort of historical detail about a sport; it is a good approach, and one wishes there were more of it in the other tales.
Fox's best work has always been oriented towards his heroes and their technical challenges, and not towards bad guys, and this is true here as well. There are no villains in the tale. Everyone in the story is likable, especially the modest but determined hero. He is far more interested in getting back to 1896 than in winning the race, which seems pleasant. The hero is oriented towards the science fiction plot. The sports and racing aspects of the story just take place in the background, something that he accidentally gets involved with. This is appropriate to the tone of the story, which constantly evokes gentle humor at his being so out of place. There is something both surreal and delightful at seeing an 1890's car in the midst of all the sleek 1960's race cars at Indianapolis. This fish out of water effect is present right in Infantino's cover. The fact that the hero is completely oblivious to all this, that he is simply trying to get the time travel aspects of the story to work, only adds to the story's gentle charm.
This tale constitutes a Fox cycle, in the classic sense. Please see the article on Adam Strange for an in-depth look at Fox cycles. As in all Fox cycles, at the end the hero is in the same state at which he started, in this case back in 1896. The story is a very pure example of a Fox cycle. The entire plot consists exactly of one Fox cycle. The tale starts out at the beginning of the cycle, follows the hero's progress through the detail of the cycle, and concludes with the cycle coming full circle at the end of the story. This sort of plot construction adds to the personal, even intimate tone of the tale. We are seeing something archetypal coming out of Fox's mind, something that embodies his core approach as a constructor of stories. The story's wealth of detail can also be viewed as Fox exploring one of his cycles in depth. Each new step in the plot can be viewed as another stage in the cycle. Fox clearly enjoyed his cycles, and the reader does too.
The tale pleasantly echoes other Fox time travel stories. Fox wrote several time travel tales in 1962 for Strange Adventures; please see that article for more detail. This story is perhaps closest to "The Two-Way Time Traveler" (Strange Adventures #143, August 1962). Both of these stories concern an ordinary guy who accidentally starts making time trips to another era; both plots concern his attempts to end this travel, and get back to his own time. Both stories involve pleasant, well constructed comparisons between our time and others, and the process of historical change. Both stories involve Fox cycles in their construction; both have a happy, upbeat quality.
The tale also recalls Adam Strange's occasional time travel adventures, especially "The Multiple Menace Weapon" (Mystery in Space #72, December 1961). In both stories, the location of the time travel is a busy street in New York City. Both tales involve a comic encounter with a New York traffic policeman, who is bemused and slightly bewildered by the events.
The hero of Schwartz magazine sf stories is often a scientist. This does not correspond very well with the needs of sports stories, which traditionally have an athlete hero. But in this tale, everything works out perfectly: it is logical for the inventor of a new car to be the hero of an auto racing tale. This gives the tale a natural, unforced quality in its choice of protagonist.
Duel of the Star Champions (#48, June-July 1963). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. An Earth athlete on his way to the interplanetary Planethalon contest is waylaid by another contestant on a deserted planet, who uses a ray to drain the hero's brain of his "will to win". This is an OK story. Ever since Fredric Brown's prose sf story "Duel" (1945), there have been numerous tales about Earthmen and aliens fighting private contests on deserted planets. I like some of the challenges the hero faces in the first half of this tale on the strange planet; they remind one of the Star Rovers' adventures on various planetoids.
The made up sports contest name, Planethalon, is a pleasant variation on Pentathlon. The all powerful medical device here, the Panmedikron, reminds one of the name of the teleportation machine, the Orkinomikkron, in the early Adam Strange tale, "Invaders from the Atom Universe" (Showcase #18, January-February 1959). One also thinks of Hawkman's Absorbascon, and the Matter Master's Metachem. Fox liked compound names, made up of many parts sometimes used in science.
The second half of the tale, looking at the psychology of winning, is less appealing. Fox's mid-1960's stories looking at human psychology have never seemed enjoyable to me. They often concern men who have lost their drive or ability to function. These tales tend to be gloomy, and full of dubious psychological ideas.
Gorilla Wonders of the Diamond (#49, August-September 1963). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Based on a cover by Infantino. A scientist trains nine gorillas from infancy to be intelligent; they form a baseball team that tours the world. This story is something of a mess. Its biggest problems: the gorillas are treated as villains, out to conquer the world from humans; and the story's serious tone and lack of comedy. It is hard to root for anybody in this tale, and it is hard to enjoy a story which treats gorillas as bad guys. This is one of many DC Silver Age tales about intelligent gorillas. Usually they are treated sympathetically, which is what I and apparently most readers and writers of such comics like.
The best part of the story are the early sections, which deal with gorilla evolution. Fox posits that some radioactive event happened on Earth, which interfered with gorilla evolution, but not that of primitive humans. This allowed humans to become fully intelligent, but not gorillas. This is an interesting science fiction idea. It is one of several DC stories that look at the comparative evolution of humans and gorillas.
Warriors of the Weightless World (#49, August-September 1963). Writer: John Broome. Art: Carmine Infantino. Medical student Cray Duncan becomes a leading player of Spaceball, a futuristic game played under weightless conditions in 2194. This richly detailed story fascinates throughout. It is another of Broome's "future sports" tales, like "Danger on the Martian Links". That story looked at future innovations in golf; this tale invents an entirely new game, Spaceball, and gives us an in-depth look at its play. Broome and Infantino even include a detailed diagram of a Spaceball court, as well as examples of Spaceball play and strategy. Spaceball is a professional sport, played by teams in front of huge crowds in arenas, like today's baseball and football. As is usual in Broome, he shows us how the game evolved; we also see such evolutions of innovations from small steps in many Broome tales. The story has another of Broome's standard approaches, a complete life history for his protagonist.
The Spaceball arenas are enclosed 3D rectilinear spaces. Broome like enclosed areas; he often had Green Lantern operating within such a region.
The second half of this tale involves the hero in a war; here militaristic aliens have launched an unprovoked attack on Earth. Our hero uses his Spaceball skills to defeat them, on the gravityless planetoid Zuuni of the title. Normally I'm not big on war tales, however, I have to admit that even I thoroughly enjoyed this one. This tale resembles Broome's earlier classic "Raiders of the Waterless World" (Mystery in Space #56, December 1959). That story's hero was an aspiring football player of the future, now working as a pilot in the space Navy; here we have a former Spaceball player, now a member of the Space-Force. Both stories contain an unprovoked attack by militaristic aliens. In both stories, the hero's actions help defeat a much better armed group of the attackers, and bring the war to an end. Both stories' hero's actions are ingenious, and involve the laws of physics. Even the titles of the two tales are similar. So are the names of the lead characters: Cray Duncan here, Carr Malcolm in the earlier tale. In both stories, the hero learns to value being part of the team.
There are differences between the two stories, as well. Football in the earlier tale was basically the game as we know it today, but Spaceball is an entirely new sport, and one strongly based in science fiction ideas, at that. This is in line with Broome's tendency to science fictionalize his material as he moves forward, to add new dimensions of sf ideas to ordinary, conventional parts of his previous plots.
The story recalls a bit Robert Heinlein's prose sf novel Starship Troopers (1959). As in that tale, we have an elite group of young athletes, who enlist when war threatens Earth. Mercifully, the war sections here in Broome's tale resemble spy intrigue, rather than any of the future infantry of Heinlein's novel. This tale of an athlete entering the armed services also resembles James Jones' From Here to Eternity (1951) in spots, especially when he is pressured by his superiors to play sports.
Infantino's art is strong throughout. He is especially innovative with the crystalline-metallic planetoid of Zuuni. The curving crystal landscape is beautiful and unique. The advanced Earth civilization shows the futuristic Art Deco cities and gracious living of Infantino's futures. I also enjoyed the white tuxes worn by the athletes at their awards banquet, and the V-necked Spaceball uniforms. The common bank of seats on which the athletes all sit side by side at the banquet both gives a futuristic touch to the interior design, and suggests the solidarity and brotherhood of the athletes.