Roller Derby. It brings about different thoughts to different people. For some the sport is nothing more than Suicide Girls on wheels, to others a simple hobby to be dismissed easily. However, to the hundreds of women involved in Roller Derby, the hundreds of volunteers and the thousands of fans, it is every bit as much as sport as football, basketball or our national pastime. These women have the same passion as any sports hero and the discipline required to do what they do is above reproach. In short, Roller Derby is a sport, a very real sport and one that grows by leaps and bounds every year.
The flipside to the serious nature of the sport is the larger than life element. Helping to feed both sides of the coin is Jam! Tales From The World Of Roller Derby, an Oni Press release that deserves a second look. For those asking what does Roller Derby have to do with comics, well, one of the biggest supporters of the sport is Eric Powell, creator and artist behind The Goon. Jam! has sixteen stories all written by derby girls and illustrated by various artists to varying degrees of excellence. Some of the work here is great, some of it is average, but it’s all done with passion and commitment to spreading the gospel of Roller Derby.
What makes Jam! work so well is that, for the most part, the stories aren’t superhero accolades of roller girls with powers or over-the-top sex and violence tales. Instead, these are personal narratives about what drives derby girls to do what they do. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t flowery or overly emotional – in fact, most of the stories are funny and entertaining. One of the best ideas in the book is the opening story “Roller Derby: Rules!” by writer/artist Jackie Lewis, which explains exactly how the game is played. Another favorite was “Flat Track U”, written by Lea “Gonnolea” Maxwell from the Burning River Roller Girls and illustrated by Paul Salvi, tells Maxwell’s story from girl who couldn’t skate to full on roller derby bad ass. It’s a simple story but one that illustrates how much dedication goes into the sport.
The big seller here is “A Story Of Derby Love”, written and illustrated by Eric Powell. For those thinking Powell has gone soft, “A Story Of Derby Love” has the same smash mouth appeal as The Goon but intertwined is a tale of ignorance told through Powell’s unique sense of humor. He introduces us to Nashville Roller girl Spider Baby Jane and her derby wife V.J.J. Walker. Most of you are saying “Derby wife? Derby girls are all gay?” No, they’re not, and that’s what Powell takes aim at. A derby wife is a girl on your team who watches your back, helps you improve and holds you up when things get bad. In the story, Jane and Walker’s fathers turn to ninjtsu to try and save their girls from Roller Derby, a sport the two men are convinced will turn Spider and V.J.J. into…..GASP……lesbians.
That’s a typical opinion of roller girls, one that I can tell you, personally, is way, way off. The best part of the story is while Spider Jane’s father rejoices that his daughter isn’t gay, V.J.J. Walker debates telling her father that she is. Powell deftly slashes at ignorance on all levels as well as the misconception that the strength and power derby girls have make them lesbians. That’s the same ridiculous thinking that has strong willed women labeled bitches. There are gay women in derby, as well as straight. In fact, show me another sport that welcomes alternative lifestyles and sexual orientations as wonderfully as Roller Derby does. It really is the sport of the future.
Other stories in the book that pack a punch are “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by Flash Hottie from the Windy City Roller girls, “From Geek Freak To Emergency Room” by David Hopkins and Blue Monday, skater for the Dallas Derby Devils, with illustrations by T.J. Kirsch. I especially enjoyed “Stripes” from derby referee Hurtin’ Ernie and artist Thomas Boatwright. “Stripes” lets us in on the thankless job of being a Roller Derby referee. It’s funny and nicely penciled.
Right now Roller Derby it’s a female dominated sport (how rare is that) but men’s roller derby is starting to grow. Some think it’s just girls skating in a circle knocking each other down, that there’s no real ability there. Take five minutes and you’ll understand that Roller Derby is a sport with rules, strategy, skill and it’s also a great fucking time. If you want to get a general idea of derby then check out Jam! Tales From The World Of Roller Derby and also check out your local team. Here’s a few sites to check out but try googling your town or city to see if you have a roller derby team.
"Off The Shelf" is where we'll take books that have been out for a while and give them a second look. Or, if we've just discovered them, a first look.