Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis, by Tom Humberstone

I’ve read lots of dry prose about Suzanne Lenglen. Words words words words . . . It’s stuffy inside and I open a window. The breeze coming in feels like turning the pages of Tom Humberstone’s new graphic novel: Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis.  Suzanne’s not a fixed portrait, but a river, a rhythm of emotions.  A flow of pictures and words like a great first date: new impressions, new info, new challenges, new ideas.

Images more powerful than words. (Is that a settled or unsettled truth?) When exploring the scandal Suzanne (that hussy!) created by abandoning chokingly restrictive Victorian dress for clothes that allowed her to move more freely, Humberstone gives us a simple, powerful image: Elizabeth Ryan’s naked back with stripes left on it after removing her corset. (Elizabeth was Suzanne’s close friend and doubles partner.) To depict Suzanne’s father’s training methods, Humberstone draws handkerchiefs dropping on a tennis court, each followed by tennis ball landing with a soft, firm “Pok!” Suddenly, a coin is flipped in the air. It lands on the court. You can read its date: 1909. Suzanne’s father demanding impossible precision from Suzanne’s shots. Demanding, demanding, demanding. That’s how a great athlete is made. Humberstone gives us images of Suzanne in training: walking on stilts, lifting weights, jumping rope, dancing ballet . . .  Mental training, too. I keep repeating this line from Joseph Negro, who helped train Suzanne along with her father: “A tennis player must have, at once, the finest tactical mind and the memory of a concussed goldfish.”

Humberstone’s concise dramatizations of Suzanne’s first encounters with past tennis legends–Bill Tilden, Ted Tinling, Elizabeth Ryan, Dick Williams, Helen Wills—were an absolute joy. These novelistic dramatizations are striking for their ability to create intimacy/emotions/drama within a very short span of time. My favorite encounter was between Helen Wills and Suzanne Lenglen the night before they play the match of the century. Humberstone has them sharing an umbrella in the rain—28 different panels in four pages—and they quickly strike up a close intimacy and respect for each other. Suzanne complains to Helen that men control all aspects about their upcoming match: they write about it, make money from it, and reap all the benefits. Helen Wills asks about Suzanne’s father, who is dying. Suzanne responds that he does not even know that they will play the match of the century tomorrow. The scene ends with an agreement to play the match for themselves as women. As Humberstone states in a footnote, the only meeting Helen Wills and Suzanne had before the match was brief. He wanted to give them a chance for a more extended conversation: “I felt it was important to the story for them to have a chance to speak to each other here.”

Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess, then, is not quite objective history. But it’s carefully researched and so close to the truth, maybe closer to the truth, than any grindingly objective history ever is. If you know a great deal about Lenglen’s life, you will love this book. If you know little about Suzanne Lenglen, you will love this book. She is, after all, one of the most compelling figures of the 20th century. Her own unique style seems best served by the unique style of Humberstone’s book, with its stylish succession of images and words interacting with each other in endlessly fascinating ways.

Artist Bio: Tom Humberstone is an award-winning comic artist and illustrator based in Edinburgh. His debut graphic novel – Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis – was published by Avery Hill in September 2022. He writes and draws non-fiction comics for the Ignatz award-winning The Nib, as well as the New StatesmanVoxBuzzfeed and others. He is the editor and publisher of the critically acclaimed UK comics anthology Solipsistic Pop and co-editor of Over The Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics. You can learn more about Tom Humberstone and his work on his website.

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