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Augment the NBA season with Takehiko Inoue’s ‘Slam Dunk’

I grew up watching the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Falcons, and Ohio State Buckeyes (football, of course). Sports are something I’m really into, though not to the point that I’ll paint my face and show up shirtless to your tail gate party. But, y’know, on gameday, I’ll wear a Hawks wristband or shirt to show my support. Sports are great, and it’s hard to match the excitement that comes when your favorite team squeaks by another.

Sports comics, though, are a harder sell. Why would you read about something with a pre-defined end when you can watch the real thing and enjoy the spontaneity? The comics market tends to agree, as near as I can tell. The biggest sports comic in recent memory is Blair Butler and Kevin Mellon’s Heart, an MMA-focused tale that ended up being a pretty good ride. Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk, one of three basketball comics Inoue has created, is another great choice. Here’s why.

Sports comics start out behind the eight ball. Watching sports, whether live or on television, is exceedingly popular. Reading about sports is popular, too. But reading sports stories? Nah. That’s the reverse Blade of sports: all of the weaknesses and none of the benefits. Almost none, actually. Sports comics can often capture a sliver of the devastating emotions that come from succeeding or failing in a game. But it’s tricky. It’s like putting together a puzzle.

Sports comics don’t differ too much from adventure comics, at least in how the story is told. The best adventure comics do a great job of establishing character and stakes, and then use our emotional connection to the characters to push us through the trouble spots, like depicting action or motion. Once we believe in the characters as people, we can believe in what the characters do, no matter how strange it looks on the page.

Slam Dunk‘s star, at least nominally, is Hanamichi Sakuragi. He’s a hooligan who wants a date, but never seems to find a girl dumb enough to date him. Haruko Akagi, however, isn’t afraid of him, and instead asks that he join the basketball team. Sakuragi, mistaking politeness for interest, leaps at the chance. One problem: Sakuragi sucks. He can’t shoot, he can’t pass, and he doesn’t even really know the rules of basketball. But… he’s got heart.

By making the focus of the story the trials and travails of a newbie, Inoue positions Slam Dunk in the best possible way. He makes it into a story about an underdog, rather than a superstar. If you’re reading a comic about a superstar, you expect it to start off with a bang and then keep getting louder. You expect a different type of story from an underdog. You’re following a character into the game, instead of seeing someone already established. That gives Inoue a chance to let you get to know Sakuragi, his teammates, and most of all, the sport of basketball.

Instead of trying and failing to emulate life, Inoue goes for a play-by-play approach. He’s going to teach you the game of basketball at the same speed Sakuragi learns the game. The slam dunks are always exciting, but they aren’t everything. Inoue treats passing, dribbling, and layups with much more importance than you might expect.

It’s a trick, but a good one. Inoue’s building your connection to the cast as he (re-)teaches you basketball. As a result, when Sakuragi busts out his first layup, you’re excited for him. You saw what he came from, you saw his exertion, and you saw the practice. You were right there alongside him, so you get it in a way that you don’t get Kobe Bryant when he knocks down a fadeaway jumper. You expect that from Kobe. You hope for it from Sakuragi.

Slam Dunk works because it doesn’t try to replicate the experience of watching basketball. A slam dunk is a glorious affair, but it is a physical one. It’s a show of power, and that is hard to get across on the page. Instead, Inoue plays havoc with your emotions. He layers in goofy jokes and dumb rivalries to keep you going when there aren’t any basketball games, and then the games themselves take all of those jokes and rivalries and amp them up to an even more feverish state.

Games in Slam Dunk go on for volumes. You aren’t reading Slam Dunk to find out who wins. You’re reading Slam Dunk to find out how they win or lose. You want to see these characters you’ve grown to love get what they’ve worked so hard for. Inoue doesn’t skimp on the emotion, either. When players make mistakes, they have a look of open-mouthed shock that’s incredibly true to real life. When players break down in tears after winning or losing a game, you feel it. You can feel their emotion.

The expression of intense emotion is one area where sports comics excel. The best ones don’t attempt to recreate the sports viewing experience so much as take a stab at showing you what it feels like to play sports. There’s nothing like the feeling that comes when the game is on the line, you’ve got everything to lose, and you hear that ugly clank off the rim as your shot bricks. Sitting on a couch and leaping for joy is cool, but there’s nothing like being in the moment and feeling time stretch as the ball arcs through the air. Slam Dunk does a great job of putting you in that moment and giving you characters you can believe in.

Right now, there are 24 volumes of Slam Dunk in print, and new volumes arrive bi-monthly. If you prefer to watch the show, it’s streaming on Hulu. I think the comic is a little better than the show, honestly — Inoue goes through a couple of major artistic transitions over the course of the series, and you don’t want to miss out on those. I talked a little about Inoue’s chops a couple years ago, if you’re not familiar. The short version, though, is that Inoue is one of the absolute best artists working in 2012. When he was a kid? He was still really good.

The NBA season’s about to get started in earnest. Consider Slam Dunk the perfect solution for the downtime between games.

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