Politics & War Through the Lens of Football in Ben Passmore's SPORTS IS HELL

Sports is Hell
Credit: Ben Passmore (Koyama Press)
Ben Passmore
Ben Passmore
Credit: Koyama Press

Your Black Friend cartoonist Ben Passmore returns with a new politicall- driven comic book published by Koyama Press called Sports is Hell. Inspired by the Philadelphia riots ignited after the city's football team, the Eagles, won the super Bowl in 2018, Sports is Hell mixes sports riots with anarchist political philosophies and the problematic connection that sports have with capitalism.

In advance of the OGN's February 5 debut, Newsarama spoke with Ben Passmore about his political influences, his sports influences, and how he came to decide on Sports is Hell's main character.

Newsarama: Ben, first I have to ask, are you a sports fan?

Credit: Ben Passmore (Koyama Press)

Ben Passmore: I’m pulled in two directions with professional sports, between my general hatred of capitalism and my general love of the act of sport.

I grew up being trash at football and basketball, so I like getting with friends and watching physical geniuses do nuts things. Sports is a part of my culture in the way that the Bling era is. It’s shameful, but when it’s on my brain locks into it. It’s a guilty pleasure. But I’m a strong anti-capitalist so I can’t ride for professional sports really.

This comic uses the subject and culture of sports, professional football in particular, as a stand-in for a socio-political ideology. I think sports is a pretty easy fit for that, it already sits on the intersections of political thought and feelings. Across the world there are deeply political soccer ultras. Even here in the USA, obviously, sports is steaped in politics.

Nrama: Do you feel sports and comic book fan culture are similar in any way? 

Passmore: I mean not really. Sadly no one is going to riot over a comic book. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe Sports Is Hell will be the one that kicks off people throwing trash cans through Starbucks windows? A boy can dream. People use both things as a short-cut to identity and meaning, that’s as much of a similarity that I can see. The real question is who is more annoying, a Yankee’s or a Robert Crumb fan?

Credit: Ben Passmore (Koyama Press)

Nrama: Sports is Hell takes a deep dive into sports and fan culture as a whole. What made you want to explore this concept for your story?

Passmore: Like I said, Sports Is Hell doesn’t have much to do with football. It’s really about politics and war through the lens of football. There’s definitely plenty of takes on football and football fan culture in there though.

I try and show the way sports coverage resembles both war correspondence and the slave auctions. And football can easily show us the flimsiness of creating identity and creating false heroes out of institutions and people that don’t really care about is.

Sports Is Hell started out primarily as a comic about how the deference to false heroes and leaders keep us from freeing ourselves. I ended touching on those things but really investigating how conflict forces people to reapply their beliefs. Rather, I wanted to ask myself that question. Having had only marginal experience with the intersection of violence and political belief, how would I change? 

I’m an anarchist. I believe in, or more like jones for, the total destruction of authority. The common fantasy anarchists have about how this might happened is in a massive riot. I share aspects of this dream, but I also spend a lot of time following various conflicts around the world and realizing how limited my view can be. The revolutions in Ukraine and Syria made me think a lot about how conflict itself shapes the communities that wield it. This doesn’t mean I’m a nonviolence person, it’s just that like with sports masculinity makes us forget the emotional fallout of war. I wonder if we can have an revolution in which we don’t delude ourselves?

Credit: Ben Passmore (Koyama Press)

Nrama: Why do you think it was important to tell this with a female protagonist?

Passmore: There’s always a risk with writing outside of your personal experience and I was obviously worried about making an unconvincing, if not offensive, female character because I’m a basic azz man. But I was just sitting with the idea of the book and thinking about how boring a story about a riot turned civil war would be with a male protagonist.

I’d watched the movie Children of Men again recently and thinking about how disinterested I was with the Clive Owen’s character, he seemed like the least vital person in the movie. I couldn’t make another war story about a man, never mind a white man, they’re the weakest people in a war. So, it felt like it was worth the risk.

Nrama: You’re from Philly, is this story inspired at all to how the city reacted to the Eagles winning the Super Bowl?

Passmore: Most definitely. After the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018 I went outside to check out the scene on the street. You could hear the whole city screaming, it practically shook my house. It was tight. I’d just moved to Philly the year before and people were telling me about how Philly fans went buck whether they won or lost. Apparently, they mostly lost.

The riot in the city was pretty famous so I don’t need to tell you the scale of it. I could barely move the streets were so packed with people rocking green. People were climbing over everything from street lamps to police cars, and even garbage trucks the police brought out to make barricades were carpeted with drunk people in Eagles hoodies. They were flipping cars, smashing up some and setting some modest fires. Meek Mill was locked up then and people were alternating between chants denouncing the Patriots and calling for Meek’s release.

Credit: Ben Passmore (Koyama Press)

While I was watching people tossing empty champagne bottles through some of City Hall’s windows, I thought about how this sports riot resembles political riots I’d "attended," the iconography was the same. I’m not an Eagles fans and I didn’t follow the season so I was totally mystified by most of the chants, references, and disputes everyone else were yelling about around me. I thought "this is what an apolitical person must feel in the middle of an anarchist riot."

Nrama: Tell us a bit about the main characters - Tea, her friend, and this star receiver?

Passmore: Tea, along with her friend Kweku are black anarchists. They like anarchist, anarchist, not some jawns that share Gritty memes and throw up Bernie stickers on their Prius. #nooneforprez.

Anyway, Tea and Kweku are typical anarchists in that they love a good riot but don’t know a thing about football. Their entrance into this world of sports is purely cynical. They want to enjoy the riot. Kweku represents a reprehensible and common stereotype of a male anarchist, or “manarchist” if you want to be spicy, who love to reference French thinkers no one cares about, and over hype their physical abilities in conflicts.

It turns out all his access to references don’t help that much and Tea, like a lot of non-men, ends up pulling the real weight in the story. The rest of the characters like Collins, who is a stand-in for Colin Kaepernick; Mawz, a National Islam dude with an AK; a BLM type; and two white liberals play various roles in Tea’s journey across the city to find Kweku after they’re separated.

The cast is probably too big, but I wanted to investigate how the many different people in an American city would respond to a massive political riot turned civil war.

Credit: Ben Passmore (Koyama Press)

Nrama: You’re no stranger to political cartooning - what larger idea did you want to tackle with this comic?

Passmore: I like to think that everything is political, but it’s true that I like to cover a lot of socio-political topics in my fiction and nonfiction comics. I’m not particularly interested in what’s happening in government. Obviously, they wield the highest access to violence so what they do affects us, but I’m a lot more interested in how small completely disempowered people are managing to find liberation.

This comic is about small people in a roiling ecosystem of revolt and how the conflict between what they want and how to get it changes them. Violence has a way of dropping the facade of what we tell ourselves about ourselves, it’s a wholly necessary and unromantic process. White guilt turns into white supremacy, fragile masculinity is turned in to tyranny. I guess masculinity stays being tyranny.

All in all, though I wanted to disabuse people of this idea that riots are just chaos. Like Martin Luther King said, riots are the language of the unheard. From Chile to Hong Kong people are using their bodies to combat the old and build something new. I wanted this book to promote that, but with jokes and stuff.

Nrama: What inspired the art style?

Passmore: If I’m honest I’m just out here trying to make comic versions of the movies Tout Va Bien and/or Do The Right Thing, but with better politics. Or at least lefter ones.

Nrama: What’s your process in putting pen to paper as both the artist and writer for this story?

Credit: Ben Passmore (Koyama Press)

Passmore: I usually walk around my neighborhood, like to the poppi shop or something, and listen to some relevant music. I build a movie-style trailer for the book I want to make in my head, you know, all the big moments. Then I go home and try and justify all the goofy things I thought about with story and character building connecting them. That’s fun part, the fantasizing in the beginning. Most of the heavy writing and creating resemble something like Sisyphus.

Nrama: What are you most excited for fans of your work to see with Sports is Hell?

Passmore: I drew a lot of horses and crowd scenes for y’all, it was hell. I hope you guys appreciate all the little people. My next book is gonna be about a tick in a blizzard, just so my wrist gets a break!

Nrama: Like your previous work, Your Black Friend, would you like to see this story adapted into another medium?

Passmore: If some inspired people would like to translate this book into an actual insurrection I won’t ask for any residuals.

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