September 27, 2014

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Final Derby

Written by Danny Djeljosevic
Illustrated by Diana Naneva
Published by Loser City

Roller Derby has moved to become a sport about men, but that's not stopping a young woman from challenging the status quo. Together with a rag-tag group of blockers, she's out to prove everyone wrong in a short comic that tries hard but ultimately comes up a bit short in the final jam.

Though I haven't been to a game in some time, because they're held in a bus-inaccessible location in Portland, I became a big fan of roller derby while I lived in Baltimore, so the idea of a futuristic derby with some really amazingly-designed characters battling it out in a hyper-violent manner definitely appealed to me.

The big problem this comic has, however, is it's got a mini-series worth of backstory that we don't see, and the context for the comic is actually contained on the publisher's website, not on the pages itself. Djeljosevic has a really cool concept on his hands, but he picks a point toward the middle-end of the drama to begin the comic, and without something to help ground us (the explanatory paragraph on the web would have worked, in a pinch, but maybe 2 pages of visual setup would have been best), we lose a lot of the point of the comic.

You see, I think what Djeljosevic was trying to do was create an analog with gaming or comics or other parts of geek culture, where women and other outsiders are scorned. Picking derby to do it, given its traditional tie with women, could have really given this a lot of depth behind the brawling, but as it stands, when her opponent calls her a fake derby girl, it just grazes the surface, and not seeing how much she sacrificed to get to this point hurts the fact that clearly the charge isn't true. In addition, while we know the derby is violent, the degree of the man's attack is blunted--is the girl's fate unusual? I don't know, and Djeljosevic doesn't really give us a way to be sure.

I'd read a comic about each of those
characters in panel 1!
It's a real missed opportunity, which is a shame, because overall, the battle scenes on the track, drawn with strong manga influences by Diana Naneva, are a lot of fun. Alternating between tight close-ups and larger action scenes, she draws the panels in a style that's familiar for anyone who reads their fair share of shonen manga. Naneva does a really good job with reaction shots, though for a comic about derby, one of the fastest moving sports I've ever seen, there's not quite as much of a sense of motion as I'd prefer.

Despite the shortcomings, I really did have fun reading this one. The character concepts are extremely strong and make me wish we'd seen more of them. A science luchador? A gorilla in a suit who plays roller derby? An opponent who tries to use his good looks against her? Each attack sequence is different, and the only complaint, again, is the constrained space in which this one works.

Final Derby shows a ton of potential on the part of both the writer and artist. I know it's really hard to put a single comic into production, let alone a series, but when you have an idea this good, it's a shame to spoil it by cramming it into twenty pages. This one is still worth reading, just to see the creativity bursting at the seams, and the ending line that is just killer.

Here's hoping next time out, this pair will get more room to breathe. I'd love to read more of their work, either together or separately. Sometimes, there's more value in a flawed gem than a polished one. Both of these creators have a lot of potential, as I'm sure you'll agree if you get a chance to read Final Derby.