Sunday Slugfest: Sparta USA #1

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Jason Sacks, Chris Kiser, Chris Murman
There's never been a more American town than Sparta. In Sparta they believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . through treachery, blackmail, and murder--just like the Maestro taught them as he learned it from the U.S. President.

Sparta is such a great place that no one ever thinks of leaving. It's been three years since anyone has tried, and he was never heard from again--until today!

Jason Sacks:
Chris Kiser:
Chris Murman:

Jason Sacks:

I've been a big fan of David Lapham since his first self-published issue of Stray Bullets in 1995. Through the 45 or so issues of that series and its spin-offs, through his work on Daredevil Vs. Punisher and his "City of Crime" Batman arc, and through his amazing work on Young Liars, Lapham has presented some of the most bizarre, intelligent, and thought-provoking comics of the last two decades.

The thing that makes Lapham so special to me is that he never compromises or backs down from his unique vision. Lapham's comics have always had very healthy doses of violence, but they also have very appealing doses of surrealism, emotional intensity, and social satire. Those elements have combined to create some tremendously unique comics.

The work that is perhaps Lapham's greatest, Young Liars, continually showed those storytelling elements with breathtaking power and energy. In that series, Lapham did a brilliant job of keeping the reader completely off balance on nearly every page. He used the often-dreamlike nature of comics to present a fascinating juxtaposition of a surreal and a grounded world for his characters to inhabit.

There was always a sense in Young Liars that the plotlines were simultaneously occurring on both a grounded and symbolic level--achieving a kind of dreamlike clarity and elusiveness in their evocation of reality. That storytelling style was an amazing tightrope act. In the end, it was probably the tension in that tightrope that made the series fail at the comics shops. It’s a shame, because I'm convinced that in 20 years that Young Liars will be acclaimed as one of the greatest comics of its era.

Lapham's newest series, Sparta USA, continues an exploration of his favorite themes. We get heaping servings of social satire in this first issue as Lapham shows readers a small town cut off from society but nestled deep in the dreams of many Americans--a seemingly all-American town called Sparta of less than 10,000 residents where football is king, fishing is plentiful, and a love for country prevails.

However, around the edges are touches of strangeness that suggest that the small town of Sparta isn't quite the utopia that it first appears to be. For one thing, there's vicious, pointless crime in Sparta. There is also implied incest and explicit suicide. We also have talk of the President sending orphans to the town for dispensation to new families.

Along with those David Lynch-esque elements, Lapham also serves readers blue- and red-skinned men, odd alien creatures, and a messiah returned to lead his people out of the metaphorical and literal wilderness.

Of course, it's yet to be seen if this story becomes more reminiscent of Star Trek than Mulholland Drive. It would be easy for Lapham to resolve this story on a literal level over the next five issues--and the final page of this issue seems to imply exactly that sort of comfort food.

However, my money is on Lapham being too crafty to do things on a strictly linear level. It’s never been his style to have a story progress simply from point A to point B; instead, we can expect some unexpected twists and turns along the way. It's the intelligence and provocative nature of those twists and turns that will help determine if Sparta USA will become a classic like Young Liars.

Johnny Timmons's art is a nice match for the story--providing a slick and grounded style that's the ideal complement for such a strange narrative. Timmons's work is wonderfully literal in its presentation, serving to underline Lapham's plot points. A looser art style might have undercut Lapham's themes, but Timmons's art does just the opposite here.

It’s always exciting to jump into a new world created by David Lapham; here's hoping that Sparta USA is a world as fascinating as some of his other creations.

Chris Kiser:

From the looks of Sparta: USA #1, it seems like writer David Lapham plans to use his new series to skewer many of the common attributes that typify American culture. The town referenced in the book’s title is a strange place where the ideals and passions of ordinary citizens are elevated to the levels of outright obsession.

In Sparta, the capitalist entrepreneurial spirit goes beyond the simple desire to succeed on one’s own merit through hard work and creativity. Lapham’s townspeople view the free market as a matter of life and death, going so far as to commit murder for their own commercial gain.

Then there is the pride the Spartans have for their homeland--an arrogance about their way of living to the exclusion of all others. Nestled between mountain ranges that isolate them from the outside world, the men and women of Sparta scoff at the suggestion that anyone would ever want to leave their beloved city.

Additionally, like many Americans, the residents of Sparta place a premium importance on the sport of football. Whereas NFL fans in the real world may devote themselves to a favorite team with a zealous fervor, the characters in this story literally turn an athletic pep rally into a religious service.

In all of these instances, Lapham employs hyperbole to point out the misplaced priorities and willful ignorance found among the many who profess love for these United States.

At least, that’s what I think he’s doing.

It’s quite difficult to get a bead on exactly what’s happening in this comic. Even granting Lapham an artistic license to withhold information for the sake of suspense, there’s still a lack of clarity here that robs the story of perceptible meaning. In a setting as bizarre and unfamiliar as Sparta, readers would be well served by a less ambiguous set of explanations.

For example, early in the book we’re told about the undefeated Mighty Spartans football team, yet it remains unclear who exactly this team competes against in light of the town’s apparent isolation. Moments like these make it impossible to pin down Sparta’s place in relation to the rest of its fictional world and therefore identify it as a useful metaphor for our society.

The thick black lines and absence of detail in Johnny Timmons’s artwork also keeps the world of Sparta: USA hazy--especially in scenes depicting the return journey of Sparta’s onetime favorite son. I regularly found myself holding the book inches from my face to inspect it more closely--ultimately still unable to decipher what was being illustrated in certain panels.

Assuming that I did sift through all the confusion to draw a reasonable conclusion as to what Lapham was attempting to convey in this book, I commend him for holding back somewhat in his satire. I feared that his story would devolve into a haughty intellectual’s mockery of small town values. Thankfully, though, this mockery didn’t occur.

Aside from some cursory references to God, Lapham stays away from the topic of religion, and his exploration of American sensibilities never delves into specific political issues. Though I’m not sure every attitude he lampoons here is expressly “American,” I will admit that the many privileges enjoyed by a wealthy democratic populace can put it at risk for some genuinely unsavory behavior.

Perhaps the solace I find in Lapham’s restraint will fade away once subsequent issues further flesh out the world of Sparta. For the sake of clarity in storytelling, I hope the series eventually reveals enough to confirm or refute my interpretations.

Chris Murman:

I mentioned this issue in my "What Looks Good" column this week because there were several aspects to the story that intrigued me--most having to do with where I'm from. I grew up in a town called Ballinger, Texas (I can just see all three of you Google-mapping as we speak), with a population of just under 5,000.

Ballinger has gotten much smaller in the 15 years since I left, but that’s irrelevant. The main two things you want to know about this town are it’s full of hard-working and God-fearing rednecks who love football.

We love football to the point where if you see a stranger on the street (which is rare), you simply say to them, “What did you think of the game on Friday night?”

I grew up listening to stories of great Bearcats from generations past--how such-and-such kid was good, but not as great as some other kid. Thankfully, it is the kind of town people can leave. We run before it’s too late.

Needless to say, I felt I had a lot of real-life experience that would help me in reading this story. I just wish I could say I was as fully on board with this premise at the end of the issue.

Understandably, the town of Sparta is a caricature of how many people view “middle America.” I’ve given up wearing my heart on my sleeve when it comes to this issue; I’m a father now, and Ella doesn’t need to see her daddy getting in someone’s face all the time. So, it isn’t the portrayal of the town itself that got me riled up about this issue. Instead, these things did:
  • Stork Day really had me confused--making me think I missed a page or two somewhere. Are we just supposed to figure out that the people living in this town can’t have children? Do people still have their own children, yet others still get blessed with others?

  • Then we come to Maestro. If this town is as American as is made out to be, you’re telling me nobody thinks it’s weird that their de facto leader is the only gray-haired person in town, and he has blue skin?

  • Speaking of old people, I didn’t see many in this town--if any. Does nobody ever age? Maestro said that the character named Uncle Bill was “one of the first,” so why does he look like he’s in his 30s?

  • Forget about the fact that a town of less than 10,000 people could not support 30 minor league sports teams, let alone 12 "pro teams" (by which Lapham must mean major league teams, of course), could we at least get an explanation as to why a secret tunnel needed to be dug in order to sneak next door and shoot someone? What was the motivation?

  • Let’s not even get into the notion that there is a romantic couple in which the male refers to the female as “Sis” (while the mountains and snow lead me to believe that Sparta is not located in the South, someone dating his sister sure does seem to take a shot at my part of the country, doesn’t it? Let’s move on.
Now, if all of the items I found implausible seem plausible to you, then the idea of the town’s greatest football player waltzing into town with bright red skin, brandishing a blade, and claiming that everyone has been lied to has to be the next logical choice. He seems the most sane out of the bunch I saw in this issue, so let’s hear what the man has to say.

Any time there is a place where people never leave, and their leader is a mysterious man, things will start to get tricky. It’s been used many times, which is why I’m not sure why I wanted to read this book in the first place. Maybe it was the apparent allusion to my hometown, but that connection quickly ended. Lapham is a great artist, and I love much of his work, but this idea is one that I cannot jump on board with.

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