Down Set Fight! (Oni Press) Review

Down Set Fight! by Chris Sims, Chad Bowers, and Scott Kowalchuk takes a wild concept about as far as it can go. And it works!

Down Set Fight! is the first and (probably last) of its kind; a mascotploitation comic. “Fearless” Chuck Fairlane was a star football rookie who quit after having a breakdown and punched out a mascot and both football teams. Ten years later there’s a rash of attacks on sport stars by costumed characters and the FBI thinks Chuck is involved. Forced on the run, Fearless has to prove his innocence by beating up every single mascot in America.

The selling point is over-the-top running back on mascot violence, and the book delivers. Scott Kowalchuk included as many different mascot designs in as many different beat up poses as he, Sims, and Bowers could fit in the comic. The climax features a dialogue free ten-page sequence where Fearless takes on over two dozen mascots. It’s an impressive feat that Kowalchuk pulls off. Drawing a human punching another human is something that can be photo-referenced or acted out to determine how it should look; drawing a human performing a wrestling move on a group of people inside a massive Chinese dragon costume is something that I’m not even sure anyone that didn’t work on this comic would have even thought of.

The best action sequence though is a tribute to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Sudden Death, which has the greatest fight with a mascot in cinema history. Fearless fights a bear (that’s very proud of his team’s Native American heritage) in a restaurant and kitchen. The two trade brutal blows and use their surroundings in some creative and terrifying ways. The fight ends with nightmare fuel as the bear is engulfed in flames and is followed up by an obvious, but still funny, capper.

Kowlachuk’s humor isn’t just limited to action (like the visual of Chuck catching a tiger by the tail); the pages are filled with visual gags, ranging from references to Oni Press to reworked real mascots to a clever subversion of a classic Super Bowl ad. The design aesthetics are heavily inspired by the ’60s and ’70s,* although there are cell phones and HD jumbotrons alongside antennae television sets. When tasked with drawing people at a smaller scale, Kowalchuk’s faces tend to be blobbish and lose some distinction, but his close ups are vibrant and full of expression, especially for Al Fairlane, who’s face oozes sleaze, and Molly, who’s facial structure is reminiscent of Kirby.

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*Because it’s a Sims/Bowers joint, Josh Krach letters the comic; his circular chapter numbers and title fonts are heavily influenced by early 60s Marvel and suit the comic well.

With Chris Sims as a co-writer, it was expected that the focus would be less on pro sports and more on pro wrestling, but what focus there is on football helps build DSF!’s dystopian world. Chuck’s assault on the mascot leads to players in all sports “Fairlaning,” where athletes would beat up the opposing mascot after winning a game. This caused a decrease in interest in sports as society became fascinated with mascot fighting. This society craves violence; football was the number one sport until they could find something more brutal to watch. It’s ECW on a national scale; a blade wasn’t enough, so now we have death matches with barbed wire bats and fluorescent light tubes. It’s an interesting commentary on society hidden in the fringes of the comic.

Along with a nation’s blood thirst, there’s a focus on the sports industrial complex. Chuck’s career in football was created because of his father’s desire to make money. Before he was even born his parents thought he could be an athlete and he was raised solely to play football. Chuck has little free will in the comic; he fights because his dad has manipulated him in to this life. Even when he tries to disobey his father, it’s revealed that his father’s gambit involved Chuck going against him. The only choice that Chuck is able to make is how to coach his students. His practices are interspersed with flashbacks to his father’s abusive training regimens, which leads Chuck to choosing the opposite route. The training sequences are hilarious (not even Stalone in Rocky IV could pull off running drills on a highway… blindfolded) but given some of the coaching decisions seen on Friday Night Tykes, high-knees through bear traps doesn’t seem far off.

Announced at the 2012 New York Comic Con as part of Oni Press’s webcomics initiative, Down Set Fight! was supposed to be part of their second wave of free digital comics. The program never happened, but Oni has finally started releasing collected versions of the comics. It’s a shame the initiative didn’t work out, but the experience of reading Down Set Fight! benefits from being a printed graphic novel.

Down Set Fight! is an action flick in comic form and wears its heart on its (fur covered) sleeve. But, like any good action film, there’s table setting to do. The comic is split into six chapters and an epilogue so it could be serialized easily, and two of the chapters take place in Chuck and his father Al’s past. The deterioration of a father-son relationship caused by a gambling addiction is surprisingly mature for Sims and Bowers and gives a weight to the action that they’ve never reached for before. Those two chapters are important for developing the story, but there’s still a distinct lack of powerbombs. As a (somewhat jarring) fifteen minute break between set pieces, the life story of Al Fairlane might be the saddest tale Sims and Bowers have written; but if it were a three-week long detour in a webcomic it might have just been a frustrating distraction.

Kowalchuk and Fischer’s coloring also benefits in printed form. The colors are heavily muted earth tones and match the white of the paper well. The coloring and paper helps build the ’70s feel of the world, which is somewhat lost in the brightness of the digital version.

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Sims and Bowers have collaborated together for years building up an impressive rapport with their usual artistic collaborators. This is their first comic with Kowalchuk, but the three work together well, creating a visually dynamic comic that lets Kowalchuk play to his strengths while also giving him the chance to innovate. Down Set Fight! shows that Sims, Bowers, and Kowalchuk are ready for the big leagues and can tackle any assignment that comes their way.

Down Set Fight!Oni PressWritten by Chad Bowers and Chris SimsIllustrated by Scott KowalchukLettered by Josh KrachColor Flats by Jason FischerDesigned by Jason StoreyEdited by Charlie Chu

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4.5 out of 5