Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Gorillas play ball, golfers fight aliens, nerds become hoopsters — these are indeed strange sports stories!

Julius Schwartz racked up an impressive run in DC’s Silver Age tryout books, Brave and the Bold and Showcase. Flash. Green Lantern. Adam Strange. Justice League. Atom and Hawkman all went to series. With “Strange Sports Stories” in Brave and the Bold #45 to 49, they crapped out. No regular series, but it was a fun few issues.

The first issue includes a text page discussing why comics don’t do more sports stories when sports are so popular. The answer was that the medium wasn’t suited to telling gripping sports stories. Strange Sports Stories hoped to fix that by mixing them with SF and using a shadow-play approach (created by Carmine Infantino) that gave the stories a feeling of continuous action.The results worked for me, but I’m not a sports fan. If I were, maybe I’d be a lot less enthused (I have no way to know). That said, let’s take a closer look.

The first issue kicks off with “Challenge of the Headless Baseball Team” by Gardner Fox and Infantino. It’s an odd title — wouldn’t “Bodiless” make more sense? — and reading it makes me wonder if Fox adapted something he’d already written for Strange Adventures. The basic premise is a standard one for the Schwartz anthologies — evil aliens need a McGuffin hidden on Earth, good alien tries to stop them — but it takes a shit-ton of convoluted reasoning to explain why the bad guys have to play an Earth baseball team to achieve their goal.

Fox and Infantino’s backup story, “Goliath of the Gridiron,” is a lot more conventional. Science student discovers a plant whose berries turn him into a super-athlete. He becomes a football star, wins the pretty girl, but neglects his research to the point the plant dies. His strength fades until he has just enough left for the championship game — but on the way to the game, he exhausts himself saving a girl from being hit by a car. He wins the game by using his brains and still gets the girl.

This is very much in the tradition of Hollywood’s paranormal sports stories. In films such as It Happens Every Spring, Angels in the Outfield and Rookie of the Year, the protagonist wins with some kind of unnatural advantage, but they win the last game or make the last pitch or touchdown fair and square. In It Happens Every Spring, for instance, scientist Ray Milland uses a wood-repelling chemical to become a superstar pitcher. That’s blatant cheating, but because he throws the winning final pitch of the last championship game without help (he’s run out of his wonder juice), that supposedly balances the scales.

The lead story of the second issue, “The Hot-Shot Hoopsters,” (Fox/Infantino) doesn’t have any such qualms. When State College’s basketball team takes ill before the big game, a science professor offers a solution. He’s tutoring teen prodigies researching ways to give themselves animal abilities (leap of a gazelle, speed of a cheetah) — why not put them on the court? The coach refuses until a cheapskate alumnus promises a cool million to the school if the kids do the impossible — win the championship.

The kids’ biochemical treatments work, of course, and unlike the Goliath of the Gridiron, they rely on their powers all the way to the end. Ethics aside, the story must have been a blast for nerd readers who dreamed of being athletes. Over and over the professor tells his students that it doesn’t take skill or training or physical strength to be a sports star — all it takes is brains!

Reading these in the order they were published — I have them collected out of order in a couple of Bronze Age specials — showed me that all four issues following the first used the same format: contemporary sports story up front, SF future story as backup. This issue’s backup, “Danger on the Martian Links,” (John Broome/Infantino) must have been written with tongue firmly in cheek. In the 24th century, golfing is a sport for the toughest and bravest of men: whether your ball falls into a lake of molten sulfur or a nest of Venusian monsters, you play it where it lies. When the protagonist finds an alien invasion disrupting his golf tournament — well, the invading armada soon learns taking on a golfer was a strategic error.

The third issue’s lead-off story, “The Phantom Prizefighter,” (Fox/Infantino) might be my favorite. As two sportswriters debate the greatest boxers of all time, a blind man interrupts them to say “Socko” Chase was the one fighter nobody could beat. A farm boy with a good right hook, Socko dreams of turning pro but his first big fight ends with him out cold on the canvas. An alien who needs to occupy a human body to leave Eath — he can’t handle Van Allen Belt radiation — offers a deal. He’ll make Socko invincible until the start of next year, when he’ll take Socko’s body and head home.

Socko happily accepts that bargain for a shot at glory. Unfortunately, the alien makes him unbeatable by turning him intangible whenever he’s hit — no way will the boxing commission accept a win like that as legit! Even so, Socko’s mentally compelled to honor the bargain. Socko’s no dummy, though, and he figures out a way to outwit the alien without breaking the deal. It’s a very Twlight Zone story, and ends showing Socko happy despite ending up blind, a rare thing for a disabled comics character in those days.

I won’t review the rest of the run but I’ll note they give us one contemporary story involving the Indianapolis 500 and another with a gorilla baseball team that’s playing with an evil agenda, plus the SF backups.I don’t think we suffered a great loss when Strange Sports Stories didn’t go to series (though the concept’s been revived a couple of times since). In these five issues alone we have four stories of people winning with paranormal help and two evil baseball teams; there may not have been enough range to keep the series going (the Bronze Age revival added fantasy, which helped a little). Besides, Julius Schwartz was about to give up Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures to take over Batman; given how those books dropped in quality when he and his crew left, I doubt a Strange Sports title would have served any better.

For five issues, though, it was a blast.

#SFWApro. All covers by Infantino.


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