Thursday, October 29, 2009

Satchel Paige - Reviewed

The World Series is here and, even though my team isn't playing, I still have the baseball itch. The easiest way to scratch that itch is to read a comic book about baseball so I read Satchel Paige, Striking Out Jim Crow written by James Strum, with art by Rich Tommaso.

For those that don't know, while Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player in MLB, Satchel Paige was the first black pitcher in MLB. Satchel Paige was a larger than life character that many a book, and a couple of movies, have been made about. With so much already written about the man, I was very curious what a comic book could say that hasn't already been said.

The story isn't about Paige but about Emmet, a black ball player and farmer. The first third of the book is a thrilling, roller coaster of a ride as Emmet, the young ball player, faces Paige, the young pitcher. It is 23 pages of nail biting tension in the top half of an inning. That's right, 23 pages and only one out is recorded. And, an amazing 23 pages it is. Strum manages to show all the little details that make baseball exciting. At the same time, on each page, he ratchets up the tension as both hitter and pitcher silently taunt each other. Tommaso, for his part, primarily uses six panel pages. This creates an almost claustrophobic feeling to the pages as each tends to focus on either hitter or batter. I can't accurately describe how thrilling this section of the story is.

The middle third of the book highlights Emmets return to the farm after his baseball career ends. Emmet lives in the South and Jim Crow laws are in full effect. And, Strum, to his credit, doesn't sugar coat the situation. He doesn't show the full extent of the Jim Crow laws but he doesn't make Emmet's life easy either. There are several scenes of racism that are shocking by today's standards, but were probably common place at the time. The grim reality of Emmet's situation is offset by updates on the success that Paige continued to have in his career.

The final third of the book is another baseball game. This time, instead of playing, Emmet is in the stands with his son. The final third offsets the gloom of the middle by showing the hope that Paige brought with him where ever he was. The baseball game is exciting, but the results and impact of the game are even better. Finally, there are a couple of pages of cliff notes to explain the various settings and events that are referenced throughout the book.

Overall, this is an amazing book that shows just what is possible with comic books. Strum and Tommaso manage to create tension in the simple act of hitting a baseball. They also manage to make a moving story about a serious subject like the Jim Crow laws. Even if you aren't a fan of baseball, this is a fantastic read. At 90 pages for $10, it's a great investment.

James Strum, the author, is the director of The Center For Cartoon Studies. You can visit the Center here.

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