Sparta U.S.A. #1

Sparta U.S.A. #1
A technique currently in fashion among writers of serial entertainment is to confuse the audience by dumping so much disparate information that it leaves them scrambling to make sense of it all. This forces them to obsessively follow future installments if they want to untangle the mess that's been deliberately presented to them. This might seem clever at first; but it only works if the pay-off at the end is perceived as worth the trouble of following the entire series. If not, it can feel like a terrible bait-and-switch.

The inaugural issue of Sparta U.S.A. is that kind of story, even if it's supposably a relatively short six part series. Writer David Lapham and artist Johnny Timmons open the story with an image sequence accompanied by narrative panels of an idyllic small town nestled somewhere between snow-capped peaks, pristine forests, and crystal clear lakes. "Anything worth a darn in this life is right here in the good ol' U.S.A." declares the unidentified narrator. The reader is informed that the town, called Sparta, has less than 10,000 people, has a heap of professional sports teams for a town this small - the most honored being the local football team the Mighty Spartans. "How American is that?" the narrator rhetorically asks of their unbeaten record. Oh really? Off course this picturesque image is going to be shattered by the events in the issue. But Timmon's visuals are so dark and inky, and Wildstorm FX's colors so muted and ugly, they make Sparta look positively forbidding from the opening page. There's really not a lot of subtlety on display here.

Sparta U.S.A. #1

The town's former hero is football star Godfrey McLaine. No one's apparently left Sparta before. But Godfrey disappeared into the mountains three years ago and was presumably eaten by the Yeti, the town's bogeyman. But he's suddenly returned to Sparta looking like he stepped out of a Mad Max set, and most noticeably red-skinned. No one reacts like this is out of place. Perhaps it's because the town leader is the blue-skinned and no doubt very evil Maestro. So far the Maestro's job seems to involve keeping up Sparta's idyll image by hiding the internecine violence that's a regular part of Sparta's social life, and handing out orphans to deserving families.

If Lapham's political allegory isn't very nuanced, the casual connection between small town America and ancient Sparta feels a little slapdash. The parallels between the Greek city state's warrior ethic and the town's cult of sport is never convincingly established. It's not enough to simply say that team sport is a kind of warfare and leave it at that. Neither is the ancient Sparta's feudalistic politics squared with the violent cutthroat competition that defines town's social order. How does the ancient king Leonidas relate to the murdered general store manager with the same name?

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But the first issue Sparta U.S.A. deliberately leaves so many questions unanswered; not least being: just how does a town so isolated stay connected with mainstream America to have so many professional sports teams which presumably compete with teams from other parts of the country? Wouldn't an undefeated football team attract widespread media attention? Heck, how can a town whose citizens embody libertarian values to this extreme level even be aware of, let alone be in contact with, national institutions like organized sport franchises or the NRA? No one seems to have a television set, let alone internet access. So what exactly is feeding their collective ideology? The Maestro? He's a tyrant and a mastermind of sorts, and seems to be in touch with the larger world. Just how old is Sparta supposed to be anyway?

In short, Sparta U.S.A. is something of a mess that promises to resolve itself in the next five issues. Or not. I can't really say for sure if David Lapham knows what he's doing.