Sullivan’s Sluggers originated as one of the many Kickstarter grassroots projects that have flooded the internet in recent years. While it pigeonholes itself comfortably into predictable tropes familiar to the horror genre, it exhibits more depth than meets the eye. What it offers is a universal story, familiar to all cultures: an enduring curse and a ragtag group of outsiders to put it to rights.
The story centers around Casey Sullivan, a has-been former Major League baseball coach now touring the American Midwest to pick up tournaments to fund his team, the Dragons. It is not mentioned what league or division he plays in, a detail that would have catered to baseball aficionados open to the story’s foundational concept, but interspersed throughout are plenty of references that blend the sport’s imagery into the driving narrative of the story, like corked bats or Sullivan’s players dispatching demons with grand slams. Like most horror films, the weight of the graphic novel gravitates around a small collection of survivors, leaving the rest of their fellow teammates to be cannon fodder for the nondescript demon hordes of Malice, a typical Midwest small town. Right off the bat (pun intended) the story reveals its malevolent undercurrent in the form of ominous premonitions surrounding the town’s dark history. It follows the routine beats of horror and nails them concisely.
What makes Sullivan’s Sluggers stand out from the rest is the convincing backstory to the evil that now grips the small town of malice (spoilers to follow). Where most horror fiction revolves around malevolent agents that instigate the narrative’s conflict, Sluggers departs from this motif and brings the conflict back to reality. William Carver, a descendant of a free slave sharecropper, is a well to do African American who owns his own farm built on the blood, sweat, and tears of his ancestors. After striking oil, a local affluent citizen named George Malice (whose father founded the town) tries to force the family through intimidation to sell him the property. When William doesn’t budge, George rounds up a mob and burns down the farm with the Carver Family trapped inside. Afterward, a mock trial follows, dismissing all charges in the wake of a mass lynching leading to the death of most of the African Americans living in Malice. The event precipitates a dark insurrection between the incumbent Catholic-ish priest and the townspeople who murder him in the streets for speaking out. What is so striking about Sullivan’s Sluggers is that its backstory is hardly fantastic; many incidents of lynching were carried out in the deep south during the height of the Reconstruction Era, when freed black men were being afforded the right to vote and own property. It’s a very convincing premise that highlights the cruel acts of racism that African Americans endured as their communities developed in the post war period.
Printed on 9 x 13 inch hardcover with 200 pages of hi-detail rendering on gloss paper, Sullivan’s Sluggers leaves the reader with a lasting impression of presentation. Though this incarnation was originally exclusive to kickstarter supporters, it is now available through Mark Andrew Smith’s Sullivan’s Sluggers webstore for purchase. It is worth mentioning, however, that this high resolution presentation increases the visual fidelity of the reading experience, with high contrast black line work to separate colors. The artwork is reminiscent of Geof Darrow and Jean Giraud (also known as Moebius), who both mirror the Nouveaux Réalistes art tradition common in the 1960s. James Stokoe doesn’t pull any punches, depicting lurid spreads of extreme violence, creating an odd palate of mixed imagery drawn from influences such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Peter Jackson’s Cult hit Braindead. The Bruce Lee throwbacks and marijuana culture references often jar the consistency of the comic’s atmosphere, distracting the reader from the horror vibes at hand, but it is a minor trifle. Sullivan’s Sluggers, if not for the presentation alone, is a work that will impress, even if it’s not as dense as most comic books. Keep your eyes peeled for James Stokoe’s ongoing Image publication, Orc Stain, as well. These guys aren’t going anywhere!