"Sullivan's Sluggers" Step Up To The Plate

When sitting through a baseball game on a hot, grueling summer's day, there's nothing quite like waking yourself up with the seventh inning stretch. Unless, of course, you happen to live in Malice, Texas - in which case, you'll want to be as far away from the stadium as humanly possible.

In "Sullivan's Sluggers," writer Mark Andrew Smith and illustrator James Stokoe fold two of America's favorite pastimes - baseball and monsters - into one wonderfully chaotic story. The Image Comics original graphic novel tells the story of a ragtag team of baseball players who suddenly find themselves tasked with becoming warriors in the face of certain doom, because in the town of Malice, the rival baseball opponents are juiced up on something awful - and it sure ain't steroids!

"'Sullivan's Sluggers' is a mash-up of two classic American genres: baseball and horror," Smith told CBR News of the book's premise. "What would an All-American athlete do when faced with the prospect of a ghastly death? Naturally, he uses everything at his disposal, including his training, to save his ass. It's also a character study of the 'team' concept and the human psyche under siege, all contained in a wrapper of dark humor and magnificent Stokoe art."

At the center of "Sullivan's Sluggers" are the Dragons, the baseball team led by the titular coach Casey Sullivan. "Casey Sullivan is the hard-partying manager of the Sluggers," said Smith. "He thinks he's a good coach because he knows his players have a great time. But in reality, he's just a washed up major leaguer hiding from his past, when he 'Bucknered' a World Series game. He's a glorified cruise director who cares more about developing drinking buddies than baseball players. Secretly, though, he wants to redeem himself - and a bizarre twist of fate gives him the unlikely opportunity to do so."

And what a twist of fate it is. Sullivan's team consists of various minor leaguers who travel around the country "[taking] whatever games [they] can get." Their latest game comes in the form of an invitation from the ball club in Malice, Texas, a seemingly ordinary town. In truth, Malice is anything but ordinary, as the town's entire baseball squad and surrounding population are secretly a pack of ravenous monsters.

"Let's just say they have a potential for evil and leave it at that," teased Smith. "The townies have a colorful past and a dark secret to keep. I tried to avoid the small town cliches and create strong supporting characters."

Needless to say, wonderfully horrific violence ensues thanks to Smith's delightfully twisted imagination and Stokoe's signature frenetic art style. "I thought the idea of mixing America's [favorite] pastime with one of its favorite genres was a home run, pun intended," said Smith. "And I must admit, the pure imagery of baseball players in peril defending themselves with sports equipment, including beating monsters with bloody bats, is awesome. When James came on board, the idea really took off. The more art he generated, the more excited I became. I wrote my ass off trying to top each scene, seeing how far we could push it."

Smith's relationship with Stokoe goes further back than the development of "Sullivan's Sluggers." "I knew about James before he started generating heat with fans and creators," said Smith. "It's been a joy to see him gain the respect of the comic book community. His work is stylized and full of energy, which works to make each panel vital and the characters memorable. My objective was to find an artist that could convey twisted humor and emphasize horror - otherwise I would end up with a narratively flat comic book version of 'Saw.' I knew before we started that he was the perfect artist for 'Sullivan's,' and I was correct. His contribution has been immeasurable."

In addition to his longstanding connection to Stokoe, Smith said that his status as a baseball fan goes way back, too. "I love baseball," he said. "In my family, it's kind of a big deal, and I played a lot of sandlot as a kid. To try and give 'Sullivan's Sluggers' a level of authenticity, I did a lot of research, primarily in terms of character and the archetypes that dominate the sport."

Despite Smith's love for baseball, don't expect a straight sports story from "Sullivan's Sluggers." If that's what you're looking for, you're barking up the wrong tree. "This is first and foremost a horror story. If it's pure baseball you want, I suggest 'Casey at the Bat,' 'Moneyball' or Ken Burns' wonderful 'Baseball' documentary," advised Smith. "This is not an all-ages book. It's horror and dark comedy with a high level of action and violence. It's certainly not for the younger kids. Fans of horror, comics and baseball will all be pleased."

"Sullivan's Slugger" is slated to arrive in comic book stores in August as an original graphic novel. From Smith's point of view, unleashing the entirety of "Sullivan's Sluggers" as a graphic novel as opposed to a miniseries was a much more appealing option from a storytelling perspective. "The graphic novel format works best for self-contained stories," he said. "With a miniseries, you wait at least a month between issues. For this type of story structure that builds quickly to a frenzied climax, it was too much to ask of readers to wait. It would have been a momentum killer."

But don't let Smith's mention of a "self-contained story" fool you into thinking that he doesn't have plans for "Sullivan's Sluggers" beyond the upcoming graphic novel. According to the writer, there are definitely other places he could take the concept and the characters - assuming that a few factors pan out in his favor, that is. "I have a pretty damn cool idea for a sequel," he said. "But when that will happen depends on our schedules, fan response and, of course, the powers that be at Image Comics."

For now, don't dwell on extra innings. Instead, horror and sports fans alike are advised to keep an eye on "Sullivan's Sluggers" as the graphic novel prepares to step up to the plate. "If you're a fan of the 'Evil Dead' films, 'Zombieland' and 'Shaun of the Dead,' then pick this up," said Smith. "You won't be disappointed - I'll bet my soul on it!"

"Sullivan's Sluggers," an original graphic novel written by Mark Andrew Smith and illustrated by James Stokoe, hits comic book stores on August 11, 2010 courtesy of Image Comics.

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