It's no secret that it can be hard to fit in as a teenager in a new school. It can also be difficult to take a stand for something you know is right -- and doing so can utterly derail any chance of blending into the crowd. In "Play Ball," Oni Press' April-debuting graphic novel by the husband-and-wife writing team of Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir and newcomer artist Jackie Lewis, Dashiell Brody looks forward to starting life at a new, co-ed school, for very different reasons than her boy-crazy sister: the new high school will have a baseball team, so Dashiell won't have to settle for softball, which she sees as a pale imitation. But, of course, school officials, classmates and current members of both the baseball and softball teams have other ideas.
Comic Book Resources spoke with DeFilippis, Weir, and Lewis about the book, baseball, overcoming painful family situations and more.
The story of "Play Ball" centers around the role of baseball in a young girl's life. Are you all fans of the game?
Christina Weir: I've been a baseball fan since I was a teenager. I grew up in Boston and loved the Red Sox. (We won't talk about the fact that I married a Yankees fan.) One of my high school math teachers was also a Red Sox fan, and in 1986, when the Red Sox went to the World Series, he took [the time during] several of our math classes to teach us the fine art of how to keep score in baseball! So much cooler than algebra.
Nunzio DeFilippis: I grew up in New York, and even though I was within walking distance (well, a very long walk, but still) of Shea Stadium and the Mets, I grew up in the mid-'70s, when the Yankees were dominant. So I became a Yankee fan. Baseball has been a part of my life ever since. Christina and I try to ignore the Red Sox/Yankee rivalry as it would be bad for our marriage. Though I confess I'm also a Red Sox fan, so that makes it easier.
Jackie Lewis: Actually, I didn't know much about baseball before getting this book. I've learned a lot more now, and have watched a lot of baseball on TV, which is actually awesome to have on in the background while working on pages. I still can't say I'm an expert, though!
For Christina and Jackie, did you have to deal with the sorts of issues seen in the book, relating to the implicit separation by gender in high school sports?
Weir: I actually went to an all girls school, so I never had the opportunity to worry about competing with boys. But much like Dashiell, our school only had a softball team, so I played Varsity softball for three years and loved every minute of it. Unlike Dashiell, I was not good enough to try out for any state championship boys' baseball team. I think perhaps Dashiell is my fantasy of what I wanted to be in high school.
Lewis: I've never really suffered from that. I didn't go out for any sports in high school, so I never really experienced that type of segregation. Being a girl in the comics industry seems like it would present the same types of issues, but I haven't yet run into any overt sexism directed at me personally. There was a kid at my middle school who would make fun of me for reading comics, but that was about it. Of course, there was also the kid who would stick up for me, so that kind of cancelled it out.
I do remember the days of being the only girl in a comic shop, but that's changed so much in the past twenty years. As a kid, I was always a little embarrassed going into comic shops, just because I was the only girl and I kind of stood out. There would be all these middle-aged guys getting their comics as this obnoxious little red-headed eight-year-old girl came in drooling over X-Men and Wolverine books. Of course, that never waned my resolve to get my comics every week!
Even outside of the baseball angle, it's often difficult for teens to find their place in high school, especially in the case of transfer students -- and we see a bit of this here. What do you think will resonate with your story for readers who don't have much of an interest in sports?
Lewis: Oh, this story resonated with me right away, and I've never played sports (except soccer in second grade, but I spent my time on the field drawing in the dirt). I've been the out-of-place kid in the theater group during high school, desperately wanting to succeed while being marginalized. Of course, I was never as good an actor as Dashiell is at baseball! But aside from that, I really felt a connection to Dashiell through her and her mother's relationship. Dash's mom is so supportive of her, but Dash pushes against her, taking out her frustrations on her, trying to keep her separate from the baseball part of her life. My mom was one of my best friends, but when I was a teenager, I'd get irrationally angry with her. She was always so supportive of me and my choices, so it was kind of ridiculous that I acted the way I did. It was partly the age, with that visceral desire to rebel, but also partly because I'm very stubborn and can be very contrary if I'm in the right mood. Dash is stubborn and ambitious; she knows what she wants, and she's determined to get it. I'm like that when it comes to my work, so I'm right there on the same page with her.
Weir: At the heart of this story is a girl who still hasn't gotten over the divorce of her parents. She's struggling for her father's approval and to make sense of how her family works without him. It's also about friendship, family, romance and fitting in at school. Baseball is just the (very colorful) backdrop.
DeFilippis: Baseball is always a great backdrop for stories that aren't truly about baseball -- "Field Of Dreams," "The Golem's Mighty Swing," "Moneyball." It's a game that positions itself as a stand-in for American culture, so any story that deals with the society we live in can be told through baseball. For any girl who's been told she can't do something just because she's a girl, this story should hopefully resonate. And for any boy who has desperately wanted to fit in someplace he wasn't allowed to, it should do the same.
You mention Dashiell's searching relationship with her father. How much of a motivator is this for her, whether consciously or subconsciously?
Weir: Dashiell is hugely driven by her issues with her relationship with her father. He was the one who taught her the love of the game. It was "their thing." And so whether she realizes it or not, no matter how much she loves the game herself, a part of it is about loving a thing she shared with him. Dashiell is a feisty, competitive girl, but she also wants to succeed big at this because maybe, just maybe, it will bring her father back to her.
Christina and Nunzio, you of course have a good amount of experience writing teen characters, with the "New Mutants"/"New X-Men" characters at Marvel. What appeals to you about writing young people, with or without superpowers?
DeFilippis: Strangely, I'm not someone who looks back at my high school time or my adolescence all that often. I don't dwell on the pain of high school, nor do I wish I could go back there. It's all in perspective for me -- it kinda sucked, it had some cool parts, and it helped make me who I am. So I'm not sure why we spend so much time writing high school material. I mean, we do plenty of non-H.S. stuff -- but we do come back to H.S. characters every so often. I guess, if I had to try to figure it out, it's that I think comics need to be drawing in teenaged and pre-teen readers. Superhero books, by and large, make no effort to bring in younger readers, so we keep writing books that our nephews and nieces would enjoy, so they can grow up with the same love of comics I had as a kid.
Weir: I think I'm a little obsessed with teenagers sometimes. I blame it on my inner 16-year-old self who friends have sometimes told me is not so inner. But I think it's a fun time of life to write about. Everything is so big and important and huge. Every decision matters. Every good thing is amazing and every bad thing is the end of the world. There's so much room for drama and good story. Plus, I also think I like exploring teen experiences that weren't my own. I went to a private girls' school and had a fairly sheltered existence, which was miles different from Nunzio's going to the Bronx High School of Science, which was miles different from my friend who went to the public high school in the Midwest where they had football teams and cheerleaders. It's all good stuff!
DeFilippis: I guess the short answer from me on why we're always writing about teens is, "My wife wants to."
Jackie, this is your first comic project, I believe. How did you come onto "Play Ball?"
Lewis: I had known [Oni Editor-in-Chief] James Lucas Jones for a couple of years before trying out for "Play Ball." James had been coming to SCAD's Sequential Art editor's weekends, and he had seen the development in my portfolio during that time. He told me that there was a project he wanted me to try out for, and that it was a book about a high school girl wanting to play on her school's baseball team. I wanted this project so badly, because I loved the premise and I kind of fell in love with the relationship between the main character, her sister and her mom.
I was really nervous about doing a good enough job to get Christina and Nunzio's approval. I was a big fan of their writing on "New Mutants," so I was incredibly excited about the prospect of working with them. I still feel wildly lucky that they trusted me with the visual storytelling part of "Play Ball!"
Nunzio and Christina, what made Jackie the right choice for the story you're telling?
DeFilippis: Jackie wasn't very familiar with baseball when this project started, but she was a very skilled storyteller, and her style was exactly right for the characters, the tone and the intended audience. The baseball stuff (despite my passion for it) was almost secondary. We knew she'd do the research and get that part right, and we were there to point her in the right direction. What we needed was someone who could capture Dashiell's energy and spirit, and Jackie was absolutely the perfect person for that.
Weir: Jackie's character designs were totally kick ass! We knew we had a winner on our hands!
Given that the story is about teamwork and comics are a very collaborative medium -- perhaps even moreso with two writers! -- I'd be curious to hear a bit about how you all work together.
Lewis: I have had, hands down, the most excellent experience working on this book. Christina and Nunzio's script for "Play Ball" was so well-written and clear, and I had no problem drawing from it. Their pacing was so good, the dialogue flowed naturally, and their panel descriptions were detailed enough that I knew what they were going for, without killing off any artistic freedom of mine.
Getting notes on my pages from them was actually kind of a pleasure. I'd get their notes and be like, "Yes, this actually does work better, this will immensely improve this page/panel!" I mean, they've worked so much in the industry, so they really know their stuff. They know what works and what doesn't, and they had such a well-developed vision of this story. Also, starting out being pretty ignorant of baseball rules and terms, I would have gotten many specifics of the game itself wrong. Christina and Nunzio had included links to references within the script, which helped immensely.
I really couldn't have wished for a better experience, or a friendlier group of people to work with.
Weir: I think we were very aware that Jackie did not come to this project with the same obsession with baseball that Nunzio and I have. So in the sections that do call for "baseball action," we tracked down video after video of plays being made so Jackie could see what we were trying to describe. We loved her work so much and she was so good with all the characters and conveying the emotion and story that we didn't want to chase her away with scary baseball description. But she rose to each and every challenge and didn't throw things at us when we said "Oh, that part's not quite right there. Could you change this just a little bit?" But honestly, Jackie pretty much nailed everything that we'd send. She'd send back pages and we'd write "Looks great! Can't wait to see more!"
Anything else you'd like to share about the book?
DeFilippis: The big story here for me is Jackie. She's going to be a huge star. Mark my words.
Weir: But no matter how big a deal she becomes, we'll always be able to say we got to work with her first!
"Play Ball" throws out the first pitch in April.