Book Review: The Art of Running by Matthew Crehan – A Graphic Novel Telling The Story of Legendary US Distance Runner Steve Prefontaine
By Jonathan Gault
May 26, 2015
Things weren’t going smoothly for Matthew Crehan in the fall of 2010. He had just left for college at the UK’s University of Leeds and was no longer working out with his training partner, David Forrester, who had crossed the Atlantic to run at Florida State. Crehan looked to Leeds’ running club as a way of staying in the sport, but he found it to be more of a social club than a running club, not serious enough for his running ambition.
Most of all, he was homesick. The year before, his father, Jim, had been diagnosed with bowel cancer and it hurt Matthew that he couldn’t be home with him. Jim, who had coached Matthew’s mother, Susan, a 1988 Olympian in the marathon, was responsible for Matthew’s love of running, serving as his coach and teaching him everything about the sport. With Jim ailing at home in the town of Ashton-in-Makerfield (90 minutes away), between Liverpool and Manchester in northwest England, Matthew’s connection to running began to fray. He was lost.
Then he watched a movie called Without Limits that detailed the courageous story of a brash young American named Steve Prefontaine. Pre’s tale resonated with Crehan immediately, and he quickly watched Prefontaine (another movie on Pre) as well. Crehan loved Pre’s approach to the sport, that how you ran was just as important as winning and losing.
“When I did compete, that was how I tried to race — put everything out there,” Crehan said. “[I admired Pre’s] passion, determination and willingness to put it all out there.”
Pre’s story encouraged Crehan (who owns pbs of 3:56 for 1500 and 8:27 for 3000) to stay involved in the sport. In March 2012, he started a weekly podcast called OnTrackAndField, attracting guests such as Ato Boldon and Leo Manzano. A year later, in March 2013, he decided to combine his love of comic books with his love of Pre and wrote a 10-page script for a comic about Prefontaine’s life. Crehan did not have a creative background — his degree at Leeds was in sports science — so he sought some feedback from a group of local comic enthusiasts.
“These guys weren’t runners, not interested in running,” Crehan said. “Most were stereotypical comic book fans. Amazingly, they all really enjoyed it. They liked the pace of it, it kept them engaged and they wanted to find out more. I submitted another 10 pages and they liked that and at that point I wanted to get an artist on board.”
And so began a two-year labor of love that culminates on May 30 (the date of this year’s Pre Classic and the 40th anniversary of Pre’s death) with the release of The Art of Running, Crehan’s 128-page graphic novel that tells the story of Steve Prefontaine. Working with primary illustrator Sigit Nugroho and his wife/editor Megan, Crehan has produced a work that should appeal to Pre fans, though that isn’t his only intended audience.
“What I wanted to produce when I was making this book is something runners can pick up and find interesting but can also go in a comic book shop and sit alongside Marvel and DC comics too,” Crehan said of the book which was supported by a £5,261 funding campaign on Kickstarter.
For the most part, the book looks great, with Crehan’s script and Nugroho’s illustrations working well together. With tragedies such as the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre and his death at the age of 24, Prefontaine’s story naturally has some difficult moments to illustrate, but Nugroho handles them with aplomb and those scenes register as some of the most powerful in the work. He also does a nice job capturing the intensity of racing, impressive because Nugroho, who is Indonesian, was not familiar with running before starting the project.
Overall, Crehan does an admirable job telling Pre’s story, and fans of the movies will certainly enjoy it as it is just as inspirational as those two works. It’s a fitting tribute to the man and a nice resource for anyone looking to learn (or re-familiarize themselves with) the story of Steve Prefontaine.
The book is not without issue, however. For 10 pages in the middle of the story, the artist shifts from Nugroho to Nicolas F. Colacitti (pages 84-89) and Santiago Espina (pages 90-93) and while you can justify the change as it comes during a transition period in Pre’s life, it is still jarring to the reader, especially because Espina’s style, featuring many bright colors, is very different from the other two illustrators’. Those 10 pages don’t feel quite connected with the rest of the book.
Crehan’s decision to use multiple illustrators was driven in part by necessity. Nugroho’s home was destroyed by a volcanic eruption during production so the project ran into delays while he tried to pick up the pieces of his life (the script was finished in 2013 and Crehan was initially hoping to have the book ready in time for the 2014 Pre Classic).
“It allows for a different feel for [that section],” Crehan said. “I felt it fitted with the story a bit because that chapter is after the Munich Olympics and he’s lost. He’s finished at the University of Oregon and he’s done with the collegiate system so I think it added to that, that change of pace, change of emotions with Prefontaine. But it’s also a way of helping the production of the book pick up the pace after the delays we’ve had.”
The book also features an illustration of Pre before five of the six chapters, each drawn by a different artist, and in that case, the multiple illustrator approach does work as it’s cool to see Pre depicted in different styles without creating a sense of discontinuity.
One other problem is that some of the smaller details are not quite right. There are several spelling/grammar errors (“Lassie” Viren vs. Lasse Viren) and the singlets of certain NCAA schools — Villanova in yellow, Minnesota in green — aren’t the right color. For the comic book fan — especially in Crehan’s native UK — that might not be an issue, but it is for the American running fan.
The issues with the singlet colors were due in part because Crehan had problems finding exact photo references for each scene and in part because he granted Nugroho some artistic license.
“I sort of learned to do that with him early on,” Crehan said. “I was detailing stuff quite a lot early on. His background isn’t in running, he didn’t know anything about Prefontaine before he started so he did take his artistic license and thought different colors would work with how he wanted to illustrate. There were key bits where I’d write down in the script this color needs to be here, but [this approach allowed me] to get the most out of him as an artist and not just be limited to my writing skills.”
Still, the story is generally accurate as Crehan drew heavily upon both Without Limits and Prefontaine as well as books such as Bowerman and the Men of Oregon and an interview with former Oregon discus thrower Mac Wilkins (which allowed Crehan to include a nice detail about Pre’s refusal to go out prior to big races or workouts). And the book does a great job at two things: inspiring others with Pre’s story and getting across the message that to Pre, running was about more than just winning: it was an art form. As Brendan Foster, who wrote the foreword, said, the book “truly captures the spirit of the man.”
For the author, it also a deeply personal work, something that is evident from speaking with Crehan. There’s a line early in the book from Prefontaine’s coach, Bill Bowerman: “Running, one might say, is basically an absurd pastime upon which to be exhausting ourselves. But if you can find meaning in the type of running you have to do to stay on this team you might find meaning in another ridiculous pastime: life.” That’s a sentiment that very much echoes how Prefontaine helped Crehan reconnect with the sport during a dark time. As Crehan was working on the story, his father passed away and that also impacted how he approached the work, as the ending — an abrupt transition from a celebration of the successful Finnish tour to Pre’s sudden death — hit home for Crehan.
“That’s part of life really, how things can go from being amazing, being great, to darkest moments,” Crehan said. “Writing those final chapters came at a time in my life when I had just lost my dad (July 2013) so those chapters were really written with a lot of me in there.”
Interested in buying a copy of The Art of Running? You can order it online for just £10.00 ($15.40 + £5 shipping for US orders) at MattCrehanComics.com.
Editor’s note: Ordering is a bit confusing. First, click “add to cart” and then scroll to the upper right hand corner and click on “cart” to checkout.
Discuss the book in our running fan forum: Steve Prefontaine Graphic Novel Is Coming Out This Week – We Review It For You Here.