Roller derby is one of those fringe sports that comes in and out of favor with the public. It had quite a moment in the mid-20th century with televised derby bouts, and has experienced full revival since leagues started popping back up in the early 2000s. Modern roller derby is different (and safer) than the televised derby that is mainly remembered for its violence, but it nonetheless continues to be on the fringe. It’s a sport that appeals to outsiders who want to come together and build a team, a community, and, in many ways, a family. It offers a perfect backdrop for stories about women trying to find themselves, women like those we meet in Slam!
In Slam! we are introduced to Jennifer Chu and Maisie Huff. Jennifer is sporty, working towards her master’s degree in geology, and lonely; Maisie’s marriage has fallen apart and so has she. They both find derby, and both find each other. With a great new friend at their sides, they think everything is looking up, only to have this friendship tested when they are drafted by different teams.
While there is a fair amount of skating in this book, the sport itself is by no means the emphasis. (In fact, readers don’t even get a full rundown of the rules of roller derby until the last chapter). The book’s strength lies in its focus on Jennifer and Maisie’s interactions with each other, with new people, and their moments alone.
With each chapter, writer Pamela Ribon captures how tricky friendship can be. She takes the reader through the different stages of Jennifer and Maisie’s friendship, from the immediate connection that feels like they found the missing piece in their life, to the difficulty to keep the friendship when their teams pull them in different directions, to the sweet feeling of finding out a true friend will always be there in the end. It’s a story that feels all too familiar and will easily resonate with any reader at a transitionary stage of their life, be it a teenager who sees her friendships change as she moves from high school to college, a recent graduate who finds herself lost and unsure of what’s next, or even a new mother who finds her friends treat her differently now that she has a child. While the friendship is central to the book, Ribon does a great job of letting Jennifer and Maisie grow outside of it. They each have their insecurities and each have to learn that when you fall you can always get back up, and in many ways the challenges of their friendship allow them to do so.
Veronica Fish’s art compliments Ribon’s storytelling, bringing movement to the page when characters are skating, animated facial expressions that add dimension to Ribon’s dialogue, and even reflecting how Maisie’s body changes the more she plays derby. Colors from Brittany Peer are the cherry on top, straddling that same grungy/pretty line that roller derby itself tends to be on as well.
Roller derby has proved to be a go-to sport for stories of self-discovery, with Whip It and Roller Girl connecting with moviegoers and readers who just don’t quite feel like they fit in. Appropriate for teenagers and older, Slam! carves out its own well-deserved space in the genre. And if I know anything, I know it’ll inspire more than a few readers to tie on some skates and see what they discover about themselves while racing around the track.
Slam!, vol. 1
by Pamela Ribon
Art by Veronica Fish
Boom! Box, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: