Serving The Truth With The Creator of ‘Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis’

by Rachel Bellwoar

When it comes to famous female tennis players, certain names immediately come to mind. Billie Jean King. Serena Williams. Venus Williams. If Suzanne Lenglen isn’t one of those names, though, it’s not for lack of accomplishments. With his latest graphic novel, Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis, Tom Humberstone illustrates why Lenglen’s impact on tennis and fashion was so remarkable and it was a delight to be able to ask him some questions about the book over email.

Rachel Bellwoar: How did you first hear about Suzanne Lenglen, and what made you want to tell her story as a graphic novel?

Tom Humberstone: I think, like a lot of tennis fans, I only knew her name because there’s a court named after her at the French Open. I knew very little about her life and her achievements. Around 2017 I picked up Elizabeth Wilson’s Love Game and discovered more about Suzanne there.

I thought it was a little depressing that this player, who was so influential and enjoyed so much success, was largely forgotten. That’s maybe not true for a corner of tennis fandom, but if you were to ask most people to name a sports star from the 1920s, the majority would probably name Babe Ruth. Considering her importance in the sport and culture I just found that unconscionable.

I started reading as much as I could about her. So many themes and parallels with today jumped out at me. I read the few books I could find — again, I was surprised there were so few — but it struck me that there was a version of her story that I wanted to read that didn’t exist. And so I set about trying to tell it.

Part of my desire to tell her story through a comic was that I didn’t want her vibrant, dramatic, and colourful life to only exist in dry prose or in stuttering archival footage. I’m glad those things exist, but I wanted to capture and bring to life the heady spirit of the Roaring Twenties and Lenglen herself.

I also liked the idea of making a sports comic. I really wanted to share my love of tennis and attempt to translate the aesthetic beauty of the sport to the page. There’s something about the individual, gladiatorial nature of the sport — and the narratives that are told within it — that I think would appeal to a lot of comic readers.

RB: Was it always the plan to start Suzanne towards the end of Suzanne’s life, or did that framing device come later?  

TH: A bit of both. It’s tricky trying to tell the life story of someone across one comic. You’re never going to be able to capture the entirety of a human being in 200 pages. And it can be easy to fall into the traps or tropes of a biopic structure. I was keen to try to avoid or at least subvert some of those tropes if I could.

After a lot of research, I had to figure out what I wanted to say about Suzanne, and how to efficiently capture her life in a way that remained true to her and satisfying to a reader. I decided to structure the book around four or five key matches that touch on the themes of each chapter. I could then use the buildup to the matches to fill the reader in on Suzanne’s life and everything that happened between chapters.

There was always going to be a postscript joining Suzanne in the late 1930s, but when I was writing the script, I started moving scenes around and I landed on using that scene to bookend the book. It allowed me to establish a tone, introduce important relationships, and create a stark contrast between the decades.

RB: Suzanne’s parents are two of her harshest critics. What was it like writing for those characters?

TH: When I was researching her life, it always seemed very clear to me that the antagonists of Suzanne’s story were not her opponents. Her antagonists were, among others, the tennis establishment, the reporters, and her parents.

Her parents are interesting. They’re the reason Suzanne was such a remarkable player, and the reason, I think, she was often so miserable. There are obviously parallels to today. We’re all familiar with the concept of overbearing sports parents. There are a lot in tennis. But there was also clearly a lot of love there.

Writing them was tough. It was a delicate balancing act between making it clear the effect their ambitions and actions had on Suzanne, while not painting them as unrepentant monsters.

RB: While Suzanne’s father is the more obvious antagonist (especially since he pushed Suzanne into playing tennis in the first place), I really appreciated that you didn’t let Suzanne’s mother off the hook. Is there anything you can tell us about her that you weren’t able to touch on in the book?

TH: I’m glad that worked for you! Anais Lenglen remained something of a mystery throughout my research. She was often seen (or rather, heard) at the matches with Charles but stayed out of the spotlight. Much less is written about her than Charles — there are no interviews I could find. I relied on personal recollections of her from people like Ted Tinling (in his book Love and Faults). Despite having less information about her, it was clear she was a key part of Suzanne’s tennis career and I knew the comic should reflect that. Most of the stories I came across [about] her found their way, in one form or another, into the book.

RB: How did you approach doing the colors for Suzanne?

TH: I like to work with limited colour palettes because it forces me to be very intentional about how I use colour to aid the storytelling. I experimented with a few palettes before I ended up picking a very warm red — which felt appropriate for the Mediterranean heat and the terracotta clay — and a cool blue for the shadows, evenings and the greyer skies of England. The palette of the book (about 50 colours in total) is entirely made using different amounts of those two colours and black.

I wanted scenes in the present (1938 in the book) to lack passion and life so the colour palette uses exclusively blue tones. Everything that happens in the past uses the full palette of reds, blues, and purples. When there are flashbacks within that part of the story, I use exclusively red tones and then a very minimalist, stark blue/red palette for important/dramatic moments. Hopefully, a lot of this will work subconsciously on the reader to set the tone and atmosphere for certain scenes without drawing too much attention to itself.

RB: It turns out fashion in tennis could be just as touchy a subject during the jazz age as it can be today. Were any of the trends especially fun to draw or research?  

TW: Yeah, the tendency for men to want to control what women wear is something of an evergreen issue.

Suzanne’s influence on fashion was one of the things that drew me to the book. Her celebrity and the straight, androgynous Patou dresses she wore on court could arguably be said to have inspired the flapper aesthetic of the 1920s. There’s also a long history of sportswear having a huge influence on fashion in the 20th Century.

The key for me, in the book, was to make sure the fashion trends noticeably evolved as the story progressed. I wanted the reader, by the time we got into the mid-20s, to pick up on how fashions were developing without it being made explicit in the text.

I loved researching that aspect of the book. Part of the fun of being the artist of a comic is you get to be the actors, the set designer, the costume designer, the stylist, the location scout, the cinematographer … You get to wear so many hats. It’s incredibly satisfying. That said, this is also why comics can take a while!

RB: Another thing that hasn’t changed: fans and the media trying to pit women against each other, which is why I love that you occasionally turn the spotlight on Suzanne’s opponents. Why was it important to you to include scenes from their perspectives?

TW: I’m really pleased that was an aspect of the book you loved! I wanted to reflect that while the rivalries of these players were dramatic and life or death on the court — off the court, they would often be friends. Andre Agassi talks very romantically about tennis and how a match is like a relationship in miniature. I treated each match in the book like that.

But while I was keen to portray the real antagonists as the tennis establishment, the press, the parents and so on … I also didn’t want the players to lose their own agency. I wanted to show that they had their own opinions, beliefs, desires and reasons to compete. Every single person in the book had a full and fascinating life that could easily be the focus of an entirely different comic.

RB: In the footnotes for Suzanne, you’re very transparent about where you’ve taken creative license with some of the facts. What made you want to get ahead of the fact checkers and explain your reasoning behind those changes?

TW: One of the first things I do, after I’ve seen/read something that’s allegedly based on a true story, is immediately look up the Wikipedia entry and find out how much of the story really happened. So I wanted to make it easy for people to do that.

The book is historical fiction. No matter how closely I’ve stuck to real events and real scorelines, the reality is the majority of the book is composed of entirely fabricated conversations. While that’s the case, I have Norm Macdonald’s quote in mind: “I decided to skip past fact and go for truth”.

But yes, I think I just wanted to be transparent about the liberties I took so people didn’t feel cheated or angry about finding these things out later. It was also important for me to explain why I made those decisions and that I didn’t make them without careful consideration.

RB: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Tom!

Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis goes on sale September 1st in the UK and September 8th in North America from Avery Hill Publishing.

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