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Discussing Sports and Comics with Sloane Leong

Bombastic neon wolves and epic high fantasy, like in Image’s From Under Mountains — I thought I had a pretty good handle on Sloane Leong’s comics. I’ve been reading everything that she’s put out for a few years, so of course I was interested when I heard about her new project Maps to the Suns. Especially after I found out that it involved basketball.

Maps to the Suns
is 34 black-and-white pages of deep-breath pacing and blossoming summer friendship. It’s nothing like I was expecting from Sloane. It also might be the best piece of comics storytelling she’s ever done. Late last year, we spoke about her bold first step into an ambitious undertaking, the importance of dynamic accuracy, and good sports comics—or the lack thereof.

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RJ CASEY: Much of your work can be categorized as fantasy or science fiction, so Maps to the Suns is quite a change of pace — more of a slice-of-life story or a character study. Were you consciously trying to make such a tonal and thematic shift from your previous comics?

SLOANE LEONG: It’s definitely a conscious genre shift for me. Most of my work is just exploring specific human experiences, relationships, and sociocultural dynamics. I really enjoy working in different genres (I write a lot of fiction that I don’t care to share) and messing with their rules and formulas, but at their core my stories are often centered on people. I always try to make them feel whole, like they’ve always been around and you’re just getting to peek in on some experience they’re having for a moment.

But sometimes really strong genres, like sci-fi, or fantasy, or horror, which I absolutely love, can kind of confuse that focus. Many of the core elements often expected in those genres can be fun to play with, but are also really flashy, either because it’s just an aesthetically strong element or the metaphor the element represents is too overpowering. So with Maps, I’m trying to approach it from a more naturalistic sense, in that there’s no huge genre set pieces or any unusual world building details that would distract from the characters.

The world definitely feels real and natural. We get to know your two main characters, Ren and Luna, by brief glimpses into their family life and how they both have a similar escape — Ren gets on the court to shoot hoops and Luna gets on her board to surf. Why did you choose basketball and surfing as their outlets?

They’re both sports I have experience with. Surfing was a big part of my life growing up in Hawaii and later on I was on a basketball team for a little while. My brother and dad also love basketball and play it often and I sometimes play it casually now with friends.

Both of these sports also reflect the girls’ personalities. With surfing, no one can really help you do it. You can get verbal directions and practice on the beach but it’s a very self-reliant sport. Ren is a very self-reliant person. Basketball is the opposite, being a team sport, but in this first chapter of Maps to the Suns, you only ever see Ren playing alone or on her own side. Both Luna and Ren are athletically gifted, but very independent. As the story progresses though, basketball is going to be the main sport I focus on.

Did you do any research before drawing your basketball sequences?

Yeah, I’ve been watching a bunch of NBA games on YouTube and doing a lot of studies of figures in motion. I’ve also been reading a lot of Mitsuru Adachi to prepare myself because his pacing and paneling is so assertive and open and the atmosphere in his stories are what I’m after in Maps as well. A lot of sports manga, like Inoue’s Real or Kuroko no Basuke, are very “shounen” and adhere to the louder emotional beats the genre requires. With Adachi’s stories, they can revel in the excitement and physicality of the game, but are just as comfortable following the characters as they participate in the mundane aspects of their lives. That back and forth of loud motion and silent stillness is what really intrigues me.

Matsumoto’s Ping Pong also achieves a similar feeling and his drawings are spectacular, but I don’t find his layouts and pacing as successful as Mitsuru’s in the sense that his paneling doesn’t feel like it compliments the kinetic feel of the art happening within them and the story seems slightly hurried — like it’s being shooed forward to chase the game scenes. I’m also really into following the small movements in actions sequences, like the fights in Blade of the Immortal or early Battle Angel Alita. It’s something I’m interested in exploring more once I get into drawing the larger game scenes.

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I’m a huge basketball fan and noticed that you really nailed the feet placement when you have your characters dribbling around a corner or taking jump shots. It’s little details like that that make this comic work for me and would probably throw me off if they weren’t accurate. You mention kinetics — was it difficult to find the perfect balance of fast-paced movement and precision in the drawings?

Definitely! I had to draw the same figures over and over just to get the different shooting and dribbling poses down in a way that didn’t look like my line was stilted as I was drawing it. It’s really nice when I can capture the energy in the pose, but also in the weight and movement of the line. I’m trying to simplify the shapes in my figures enough so that they flow well, but aren’t totally cartoony. On the other hand I like reveling in the physicality of the characters when they’re in an action sequence, like getting in close-up shots of sweat and sweat-matted hair and blood. It’s hard finding a balance.

This leads to a question that constantly bothers me — why are there no good sports comics? You mentioned a few manga series, but North American comics seems completely devoid of the genre.

I have no idea why. I tweeted last month asking for any Western sports comics people knew of and ended up with Roy of the Rovers, Look Out for Lefty, and Toth’s Hot Wheels comics, all of which are pretty old. The only new sports comic I’m aware of is by Ngozi Ukazu called Check, Please! — it’s very cute and follows a university hockey team. Beside myself, though, there are a few other women comic artists that are planning on storming the new year with sports comics, so I’m stoked about that. The sports genre seems like such a rich place to work in, so it’s strange to me that it’s still so desolate.

Do you think it somehow hearkens back to the “jocks vs. nerds” mentality that some people in comics still hold on to?

Maybe? But then I feel like why wouldn’t you hate superheroes because they’re basically jocks? I guess some of them started out as frail little boys and then became power fantasies, but superheroes would probably hate nerds, right? Nerds always forget that they’re often really insufferable and mean too. I don’t get it! I’ve also never really seen the “jocks vs. nerds” thing in real life. I just remember troubled kids and then really troubled kids and the really troubled kids would fight among themselves. Everyone was always hurting someone else to distract from his or her own hurt. Seems like another outdated White American fragile masculinity thing happening. I’m not really about that.

You mention superhero comics, where competition is usually depicted as “life or death” and over the top. In alternative comics, competition usually manifests more as seething jealousy. At this point though, Maps to the Suns has neither — Ren and Luna play in a beat-up park with flip-flops on. It results in them developing this nice, if not quickly intense, friendship. Is the idea of competition, especially female competition, something you wanted to comment on or a theme you’re going to return to as you continue Maps?

It’s definitely one of the main themes. Ren and Luna and a few other girls will all be recruited into a high school team in the next few chapters, some willing and some not, and a lot of their personalities clash and they try to overpower one another. A lot of the sports stories I love are often focused on one character and their journey to achieving some sort of goal that relies on their physical and mental strength alone. With basketball, you really need to form a special bond with your teammates, their personalities and style of playing. So it’s a combination of competition, with other teams and with each other, but also cooperation, and understanding, and friendship.

So while a big portion of Maps will be about the game, it will also branch out into exploring each of the teammates’ personal lives and the way they interact with each other. There are not a lot of stories out there about female friendship that centers on women of color and I just need more — more stories with more nuance and variety. Growing up, I was definitely not a femme-presenting kid, so I’d often hang out with boys and slowly their complaints about girls became my complaints and I began to feel alien towards both binaries. Boys didn’t know how to be friends with me and I didn’t know how to be friends with girls, or the idea of girls I had been exposed to. I didn’t see myself as a “normal girl.” I also didn’t have access to any decent stories about girls being friends with girls. I only had stories about boys and men being friends and going on adventures, fighting bad guys, and sometimes each other, but ultimately staying friends.

There’s not that much variety in how female friendships are presented, or used to be presented at least. There are not stories about how it can be hard being a woman of color and being friends with a white girl who might never fully be able empathize with you, or how she’ll often hurt you out of ignorance. There are often hierarchies in friendships and some friends can just up and leave you and expect the friendship to be there when you get back. In my story, I want women to have the ability to compete with their friends, feel actual hate for your friends in certain situations, and come out fine, together, on the other side.

You self-published this first issue, right? What’s next for this series? You mentioned more chapters coming up?

I drew this first chapter in about 10 days for CALA (it was very tiring) but I want to pace myself more for the rest of next year, especially as I finish drawing issue #6 of From Under Mountains. My friend Zainab [Akhtar] invited me to serialize Maps on her website Comics & Cola, so people will be able to read it there with a batch of pages going up each month.

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I want to give you a scenario here: say you were in front of a room of open-minded sports fans — fans of basketball and surfing in particular — how would you pitch Maps to the Suns to them? How could you get them into comics, or at least get them to give your comic a chance?

Oh man, this is hard! Drawing people into reading comics is hard. I hate pitching, so I would totally blow it. I can’t even think of two movies to reference as a one-line pitch… White Men Can’t Jump meets A League of Their Own? Nope! Maybe more like Love and Rockets meets Real or Adachi’s Rough… I don’t know.

I’ve just been keeping it simple and describing it as a girls basketball drama. Team sports narratives are just so loaded with possibilities. They’re these tiny microcosms of social friction, of vastly different people coming together and putting aside their differences to achieve something. They can influence communities, their fans’ identities — they can become role models. There’s just a lot there to have fun with. And I don’t even think I’m writing for sports fans really, even though I have a lot of love for the sports I’m depicting. I’m just writing for people.

At CALA, a relative of mine I don’t see very often came to visit me and had never read comics before. So I just handed him a bunch and he was just… confused, but also intrigued. I guess if you don’t start reading comics early in life, it’s kind of sink or swim. Anyway, don’t take comics literacy for granted; it’s an acquired skill.

Last question, and I’m going to turn the tables here to make it possibly even more of a Sisyphean task, unfortunately. Same scenario, but you’re in a room full of comics fans and creators — how would you try to get them into sports?

I’m not sure. If you’re not in a sports family or a sports community, you probably don’t have a lot of motivation to watch or follow sports. Also having bad experiences as a kid can turn you off. I had a lot of anxiety playing on a team because of relatives or other people’s parents getting enraged during games if we were fouled or something. There’s a lot of pent up aggression people feel comfortable releasing around games. You also have to have a certain willingness to get hurt which I have less and less as I get older and rely on my drawing hand to make a living. It’s still fun though to go shoot hoops with a bunch of friends at the park though. It can be really meditative.

Getting into sports as a genre is easy. Reading a really well-drawn game or competition in comics can be so fun and hypnotizing, like watching a fight scene for 100 pages — following the characters every minuscule movement and listening to their inner monologue as they try to figure out a way to overcome an obstacle. It’s such a classical narrative structure people are used to and it’s just satisfying watching a character do one thing and slowly get good at it.

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4 Responses to Discussing Sports and Comics with Sloane Leong

  1. From recent times, James Sturm’s baseball comics and an excellent one about swimming that I wish I could remember the name and author of spring to mind. And one about running that I’ve not read.
    There were loads when comics were things you bought in newsagents. Tiger was nearly all sports. Buster had The Wizard of Football. Tough of the Track in either Valiant or Lion. Tons of it back in the 50s-60s-70s. Reg Wootton’s brilliant Sporty in Knockout in the 40s-50s. Harlem Heroes in 2000ad in the 80s-90s…
    Does seem odd that fights are still popular as ever but sports aren’t.

  2. James Sturm – The Golem’s Mighty Swing and Satchel Paige : striking out Jim Crow.
    Matthew Inman – The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances.
    Bastien Vives – A taste of chlorine.

    Bastien Vives also did a lengthy comic called Polina, about a ballet dancer. The narrative has some concerns which overlap with sports, e.g.: the training arc; the focus on human bodies and how they move; competition with peers.

  3. Carl says:

    Speaking of accuracy in sports, a basketball is about one half the diameter of a basketball hoop–not a widely recognized fact.

    Southern Bastards is not a sports comics, but Jason Latour’s drawings of football players poised and in action are really well observed and convincing without seeming overly photo-referenced. Of course, the story is almost entirely about white American masculine fragility.

  4. If I really want to really read a sports comic…why would I settle for something that is drawn a style similar to Craig Thompson …an art style that is not suited for dynamic or anatomically sound depictions of human athleticism? The attempts to be whimsical appear to be confusing because of the crude artwork.

    Sports are more mainstream than that…
    which is why the concept of an “Indie” style comic, crudely written and drawn is perplexing to me.
    Sports narratives, seem to me to be a genre where one would tell a story as clearly and as possible.

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