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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

There’s nothing far-fetched about violent racism in the United States. The fact is so horrifically obvious, it’s disturbing to receive an email from an editor asking if I am aware of it. This was in February. I had just submitted a review of Ben Passmore’s graphic novel Sports is Hell. The email began with a request for revisions, followed by a page of bolded comments between my sentences.

February seems like a decade ago. CV-19 was more theory than tragedy, no states had issued executive-order lockdowns, and George Floyd was still alive.

So was Ahmaud Arbery.

So was Breonna Taylor.

Four months ago, it was unimaginable that the square in front of the White House could be renamed “Black Lives Matters Plaza” and the street-wide letters painted in fluorescent yellow down two blocks.

It was unimaginable that the NFL could declare: “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”

That fact makes Sports is Hell startlingly prescient, since the take-a-knee controversy was the novel’s inspiration.

Sports Is Hell |

I’d tried to describe the tone of Passmore’s parody accurately, but there’s a gulf between cartoon reality and actual reality.

I wrote: “a man carrying a We The People sign is trying to catch a bus to a Black Lives Matter protest. Seems plausible enough, until a couple at the bus stop start talking. ​First, the white woman asks the black stranger if he wants some money, and then her boyfriend exclaims, ‘We love black people!’”

But outside of the novel’s fictional context, does that sound implausible?

I wrote: “The tone is already farcical”

Yet a summary of the novel might sound disturbingly real and not farcical at all.

I wrote: “The ambiguous merging of political protest, pointless vandalism, and football party seems about right too—but would a protest organizer really start shouting for the city to unite behind the leadership of Birds wide receiver, Collins?”

Yes, if he were viewed symbolically like Kaepernick.

I wrote: “Of course the police soon open fire on the unarmed crowd, but Passmore doesn’t plunge into full farce until the Nord Football Club for Racial Purity starts shooting too, followed by the Holy Nation of Second-String Quarterback Sherman Muck.”

Of course police have been violently dispersing crowds long before the George Floyd protests started.

I wrote: “the white characters are on the receiving end of most the humor.”

Which is appropriate. My editor suggested I read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.

I responded in an email: “Clearly I didn’t adequately describe in words the VISUAL tone that Passmore creates. The graphic novel IS unquestionably farce, though I accept that my verbal description didn’t convey that to you. I am indeed deeply aware of everything you listed (though, no, the four students who died at Kent State fifty years ago were not shot by riot police but members of the National Guard, and the scene Passmore draws is nothing even remotely like that in either tone or substance) but I appreciate your editorial concerns.”

I made the changes.

The problem was mostly miscommunication. An image tells a very different story than a sentence, and Passmore’s images are darkly cartoonish. Like any cartoon, they are simplified and exaggerated. His white characters are distorted caricatures reflecting an accurate critique of U.S. race relations. That’s the point.

But the miscommunication was mine.

I’m a white writer. I don’t get to be anything but precise when writing about race because I don’t have the right to the benefit of the doubt. My editor assumed I was suffering from garden-variety liberal racism. And that’s a fair assumption. If I want someone to not assume that, I need to demonstrate that it’s not true. I can’t expect it as a default setting. Just the opposite. If the topic is race, readers should second guess me, and I should work twice as hard knowing that.

So I’m lucky to have a good editor.

Here’s the review at is appeared a thousand years ago in February:

Sports Is Hell: Passmore, Ben: 9781927668757: Books

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after not standing for the pre-game national anthem for the first time in 2016. “To me,” continued Kaepernick, “this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Kapernick’s fictional counterpart in Ben Passmore’s graphic novella Sports Is Hell is less eloquent. When asked by a reporter, “Do you intend to kneel during the national anthem, despite many people calling it disrespectful?” Birds wide receiver Marshall Quandary Collins simply answers, “Yes.”

Passmore’s sportscasters (who have logos for heads) call that single response “inflammatory.” Collins seems anything but.

Passmore draws oversized beads of sweat across Collins’ face. His eyes shift with every noise rising from the stadium crowd. On the field, Collins looks like a man who’s afraid he’s about to be shot. Since Kaepernick was taunted with death threats, this is one of the least farfetched things about this apocalyptic parody of racism in the US.

Sports Is Hell' Narrows the Field to Identity Politics - PopMatters

Passmore’s Sports Is Hell is about football in the sense that Melville’s Moby Dick is about seafood. Which means there’s plenty of football, including Collins’ Super-Bowl-winning touchdown reception. There’s also a later post-penalty reenactment performed at gunpoint in the courtyard of an all-white condo complex while militias battle in the burning streets. As one of Passmore’s anarchist characters explains: “Football teams are just a stand-in for identity.”

Despite the cover image—a weapon-toting football player standing in a field of skulls and debris—Passmore begins the novella with a few roughly realistic vignettes that imply that the story world is our world, only slightly more so. Children shoot pretend guns in the street until a bowtie-clad neighbor scolds them. But with his warning he points at a police car and says, “You don’t play with them. If you point something at them make sure it’s real.”

A page later, a man carrying a “We The People” sign is trying to catch a bus to a Black Lives Matter protest. A white woman asks the black stranger if he wants some money, and then her boyfriend exclaims, “We love black people!”

Turn the page and we’re with a different couple in a bedroom planning for the after-game celebration. Only they’re packing hammers and spray paint in hopes of a literal riot, not that “dusty nonviolence shit” of Black Lives Matter.

Though the tone is already moving toward farce, the ensuing riot begins realistically enough, with roving street crowds and a toppled can of burning trash. The ambiguous merging of political protest, pointless vandalism, and football party seems about right too—even when a protest organizer starts shouting for the city to unite behind the leadership of Birds wide receiver Collins.

Of course the police soon open fire on the unarmed crowd. The police retreat before the Nord Football Club for Racial Purity starts shooting too, followed by another team of neo-Nazis, the Holy Nation of Second-String Quarterback Sherman Muck. Did I mention the other Super Bowl team is named the Whites?

Like most cartoon commentary, Passmore’s doesn’t suffer from subtlety. Though the cast is mostly black (all those folks we met in the opening pages get thrown together like zombie survivors in a boarded-up mall) the white characters are on the receiving end of most the humor.

Passmore’s two-tone color scheme—black and an oddly appropriate beige—reduces but doesn’t obscure the increasing gore. His characters are also only mildly exaggerated, and since their universe obeys the same basic laws of physics as ours, cartoon bullets do non-cartoonish damage to their almost-proportional bodies. Yet still, most of the cast survives.

To say the novella’s ending is abrupt would be an understatement. That’s clearly Passmore’s intent. This is just another day living under US racial dystopia. Basketball season probably won’t be any different.

Meanwhile the real-world Kaepernick still isn’t playing football even though it’s been a year since he came to a confidential settlement and withdrew his lawsuit. The lawsuit accused the NFL of colluding to prevent his being hired after he became a free agent in 2017. According to the President of the United States, Colin and other players who take a knee during the anthem are at fault: “They’re ruining the game.”

With that kind of cartoon-like reality for a national backdrop, farce may have been Passmore’s most realistic option.

Ben Passmore « SPX: The Small Press Expo



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