It’s Super Bowl Week at Sequart, so you know what that means!
What’s that you say? You think it probably means nothing? Just the usual assortment of insightful articles about comic books and movies and such? Well normally you’d be right. But not this morning. Nope. You’ll get no insightful articles from me this morning. Um …
Well, the point I’m trying to make is that I’m calling an audible. Since it’s Super Bowl week, I thought, “Why not write about football? Better yet, why not write about football and comics?”
Yep, that was my plan. But a funny thing happened between the opening kickoff and the final gun. It seems that even though American football is the most popular sport in the United States, there aren’t exactly a lot of comic books about football. On first down I tried to go deep and discovered that decades ago there were a few comics extolling the virtues of sport in a neo-Victorian sort of way—you know, the kind of comics Wally and the Beaver might’ve read in their copy of Boys’ Life. But that’s not what I wanted to write about. Instead, I was looking for something that really cut to the heart of the sport, something that would explain its appeal, add to its mystique, and relate to today. A comic book equivalent of Bull Durham, only about football.
So on second down I did some more research and found … Kickers, Inc. It was one of the New Universe titles Marvel experimented with in the late ‘80s featuring football players as superheroes. That certainly wasn’t what I was looking for either. And on third down I discovered a new series, The Protectors, co-written by Ron Marz and an NFL player, Israel Idonije, but it doesn’t appear to have come out yet.
But just as I was looking at three-and-out and having to punt, I decided to throw a Hail Mary on fourth down. That’s when I remembered The Goon. If you follow Eric Powell on social media, you know he’s a pretty big football fan—a pretty big Green Bay Packers fan in particular. And one of my favorite issues of The Goon focuses almost entirely on football.
In many ways, The Goon #9 is a perfect antidote for the nasty reality of the NFL these days. In case you don’t know, it’s been a particularly rough year for professional football. Despite widespread derision, the Washington Redskins have continued to cling to a nickname that sounds like it might’ve been coined when Andrew Jackson was President. In other news, a security camera recorded one star player punching his wife in an elevator, knocking her unconscious. Another star player scored headlines by “disciplining” his child so effectively that it required a trip to the hospital. And despite the league’s denials, several medical experts have pointed out the long-term repercussions for players who receive multiple head injuries.
But the coup de grace came this past week with the revelation that one of the two teams scheduled for the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots, won their championship game by playing with footballs that were illegally underinflated, making the footballs easier to pass and catch, giving them a significant advantage over their opponents—especially since their game was played in the rain.
As an aside, I should add that I’m completely neutral here. I’m neither a fan nor a hater of the Patriots, and I have no partisan feelings about either their coach, Bill Belichick, or their star quarterback, Tom Brady. But the situation is telling. As I write this, no one seems quite sure how to handle the problem. But if pro football is truly a sport, as it’s billed, then this is an easy one isn’t it?
Imagine you’re in a kids’ neighborhood sports league or part of an intramural sports group on a college campus. One team wins a game but then is exposed for having won with an illegal and unfair advantage. What is the remedy? It’s not difficult to imagine, is it? The team is disqualified and forfeits their victory. If they’re playing in a tournament, then the losing team advances to the next round. The morality seems clear. That’s how things are done … at least when we’re talking about games.
But of course that’s ridiculous, right? No one in their right mind expects the Patriots to be disqualified and to send the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl. Even more preposterous would be to disqualify the Patriots and declare the Seattle Seahawks the Super Bowl champions by default. But isn’t that what we would expect from a PeeWee soccer league? From a school spelling bee? From a local chess tournament? Or from an intramural flag football game? The morality of the situation seems perfectly clear if we’re talking about a sport or a game. So why is the moral imperative so different for the NFL? Shouldn’t the same standards of right and wrong apply, regardless of the level of play?
The difference, of course, is that professional football is not really a sport; it’s a business. And historically, when large sums of money are involved we have a long history of lowering or even eliminating our ethical and moral standards. Looking back over the NFL’s scandal-plagued season, the organization’s much-criticized ineptitude at handling most of the problems comes largely because it has responded, not as an athletic organization, but as a corporation. The NFL is a business masquerading as a sport.
That’s why I like the version of football Eric Powell captures in The Goon #9. Like so much of Powell’s work, this story fires on multiple levels, simultaneously ironic and sentimental, edgy and old-fashioned. The cover sets the tone—a beautifully painted Norman Rockwell homage, romanticized but also irreverent. In place of Rockwell’s wide-eyed, middle-American innocents, Powell depicts the Goon, brutally running over the tough neighborhood kids who desperately attempt to bring him down, one of them even biting the Goon’s shirt.
The story itself is rather simple. In the opening scene, the neighborhood kids goad the Goon into an afternoon of football. A stranger, who happens to be interested in starting a professional team, catches sight of him and decides to make the Goon his first recruit. Together, the Goon and the stranger assemble a team of local bruisers and for a few short weeks the team goes on a legendary run. That is, until the local gangs decide enough is enough, bringing the story to a tragic end.
On the surface, all of that is about as plausible as one of those old Andy Hardy movies where the kids all decide to put together a show for the weekend. But plausibility is never really the point in the world of The Goon. In many ways, the series has always been the epitome of a creator-owned comic, with Powell writing and drawing whatever interests him in the moment. That’s why the series often defies categorization. How does one succinctly describe a horror-zombie-science fiction-gangster-period piece-comedy mashup that often manages to be both cynical and sentimental at the same time?
What stands out in The Goon #9—especially when re-reading it this week—is the way in which Powell contrasts the purity of sports with the corruption of business. As usual, Powell couches his themes in humor, but the dividing line between sport and business seems pretty clear. When the stranger makes his pitch for starting the football team, he tells a long, somewhat cliché story about having wasted his own talent and wanting to give his community something to inspire them. It’s like a corny halftime speech, but it’s played straight which leaves the overall tone teetering between sentimentality and parody. Then, after a perfectly placed silent panel, the Goon breaks the silence with the simple, crass question, “How much you payin’?”
However, as is often the case, the Goon’s question masks his own earnestness. This is, after all, the same character who just spent an afternoon playing ball with the neighborhood kids. And a few pages later, after the team is formed and begins winning, we see the difference between the Goon and two of the rival gangs. In parallel panels, members of the Calabresi and Ferrara families struggle to try to figure out what the Goon is up to, speculating that he must have a financial angle or that the games are fixed.
But unlike the gang families, the Goon has gotten wrapped up in the sport. In one of the most memorable sequences of the whole series, the Goon is then summoned by Don Dantini, a dying member of yet another rival gang. In a series of panels, Dantini deconstructs the Goon’s character, recognizing that rather than simply being an enforcer, the Goon is actually in charge of the Labrazio family: “Everyone takes you as a hired fool. A witless gorilla paid to break legs. I always knew better.” The message is clear. The Goon, revealed as both earnest and smart, chooses to masquerade as cynical and dumb. In the same way, football, in The Goon, is the opposite of the NFL. In Powell’s world, football is actually a sport; it only masquerades as a business.
We could use a little more of that.