The Vertigo 4-issue anthology miniseries has long been a staple at the imprint. It's one of the few places at DC Comics where shorter stories can still appear, and its presence has always been a little reassuring; no matter what the quality of an individual issue, it's always serving as a place for established and new creators to rub elbows. "Strange Sports Stories" #1 is the latest effort from Vertigo and, while the theme seems a bit odd at first, the end result is a solid if somewhat safe comic.
"Strange Sports Stories" #1 opens with "Martian Trade" from Gilbert Hernandez. Over the years, Hernandez has carved out several niches within comics for himself, and the one that I appreciate the most is when he's dealing with adolescents. Here, what begins as a simple story about kids playing ball turns into an oddity involving aliens, slave camps and kidnappings. Hernandez wisely keeps the bulk of the otherworldly action off-panel, instead filling us in through exposition and absences. It definitely fits the theme of the book -- it's strange and there is indeed a sport -- and it has an ending that serves to be upbeat even though there's still a dark vein running through it. Part of this has to do with Hernandez's clean and cute art style with rich, flat colors from Trish Mulvihill; it sugarcoats the nastier elements of "Martian Trade." It's so sweet that the dark elements sneak up on you; they end up having that much more impact, though, because you're unprepared for what's to come.
Amy Chu and Tana Ford's "Dodgeball Kill" and Lauren Beukes, Dale Halvorsen and Christopher Mitten's "Chum" are given a disservice by not only appearing in the same issue but running side-by-side. The settings are different (a space station and an iced-over Calgary) but both of them use the idea of sport turning into arena death matches. It's a shame because they both have something to offer the reader. Chu's story is fun with a nice shift halfway through, and I love how Ford's art can switch from gruesome to adorable to hard-edged at a moment's notice. In "Chum," Beukes and Halvorsen also pull out a sudden surprise halfway through, and Mitten's jagged art is appealing in its hardened energy and ability to give us a proper scale for the large events. By appearing next to one another in this comic, though, they effect is ultimately diminished.
The comic closes with Ivan Brandon and Amei Zhao's "Refugees," which is the closest one gets to an out-and-out sports story. It's a story that's actually best described only vaguely -- just know that there are refugees from something awful and that the love of sports plays a part of the story -- but, even if you did know the big reveal, it's not the most important thing. It's about the ability for our entertainment to soothe people in horrific times, and Brandon's story tonally hits the nail on the head. Zhao's art is a great match, too; her art is soft and gentle, and she uses a soft palette of colors that helps soften some of the doom and menace looming overhead.
"Strange Sports Stories" #1 is a solid first issue. There aren't any stories that jump out and make you think that you'll remember them forever and a day, but there are also (more importantly) no duds. I am a little worried about there being two similar stories in the first issue; hopefully, that isn't a trend. Still, for now, it's a good enough first issue that I'm looking forward to seeing what the remaining issues have in store for us as readers.