A square-jawed, foul-mouthed brute with forearms like hams, The Goon did his first favor for society as a kid, when he busted the skull of the lowlife who killed his beloved Aunt Kizzie. But even if he'd done nothing else to improve the world, the brawny superhero could claim, in a roundabout way, that he introduced Eric Powell to Rambo Sambo.
It was with some of the proceeds from his comic-book creation that Powell, a Lebanon resident, decided to become a sponsor of the Nashville Rollergirls, the roller-derby league that regularly draws upwards of 800 people to its matches at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. He knew nothing about the sport, except that he liked the players' attitude. "I started The Goon as an independent comic, just wanting to get it out there," says Powell, who won early freelance gigs at Marvel and Dark Horse before publishing the first Goon in 1999, "and that's what these girls were doing."
But the football fan found one player in the group he could instantly relate to: a quicksilver Amazon who slipped past defenders "like a bad-ass running back," he recalls. As it turns out, that was RambO SambO, who joined the Nashville crew in 2007 after playing in a North Carolina league. Tall, muscular and amazingly agile on skates—she changes costume in them, on a concrete floor, then glides past Powell like rain down a windshield—RambO met him at the annual Santa Rampage of red-suited revelers on Second Avenue, and they hit it off.
So much for the origin story. Over the years, their respective interests have skyrocketed. Ever since a roller-derby revival sprang up in Austin in 2001—a saga chronicled in the documentary Hell on Wheels, which arrives on DVD this week—rollergirl leagues have taken hold across the country. RambO says the sport's appeal to woman power and feminism creates strong bonds even between rivals—except in play.
"We have this saying: you hate them on the track, you love them at the afterparty, and you skate with them whenever you want," she says.
Now in its third season, the Nashville league boasts more than 40 skaters, ranging in age from 23 (RambO's age) to 40. They're a colorful wrecking crew of alpha females, known by handles such as Slammylou Harris, Meanie Pearl and Hildabeast. Their recent All-Star bout at the Fairgrounds against the Texas Rollergirls' Hotrod Honeys brought the fastest sell-out in Nashville league history, a capacity crowd of 1,200. RambO had to miss it, alas—she accompanied Powell to France, where he was a featured guest at a comics festival attended by 60,000 people.
Powell, meanwhile, continues to push The Goon's anything-goes boundaries. A few years ago, he made a risky departure from the Dark Horse comic's hyperbolic black humor with a downbeat, self-contained story about his hero's tragic past—in Chinatown, no less. "Once you set up your parameters, fans don't expect you to change," Powell says. "I expected a backlash." Instead, it became one of the most popular chapters in the comic's history. Today, Powell is writing the screenplay for a digitally animated Goon feature, a collaboration between Oscar nominees David Fincher and Blur Studio.
The two support each other's work: RambO runs Powell's web store, and Powell designs artwork for the Rollergirls. Their spheres will come together the weekend of March. 13, when Powell hosts a 10th-anniversary Goon celebration at The Cannery with bands, dancers, signings, a special limited-edition issue, a Hatch Show Print poster, and a rather shocking announcement about the comic's future. (All he will say, plainly tickled, is that "we'll be crossing over with something not in the comics industry.") The next night, the Rollergirls face off against Tampa Bay at the Fairgrounds. The creed that led Powell to create The Goon a decade ago now speaks for him and RambO SambO both: "I'm not doing somebody else's dream. I'm doing my own."
Photographed in the bowels of Sin City (i.e. the Scene's parking garage) by Eric England with assistance from Sinclair Kelly