This is going to be a different type of post. I’m “in the weeds” right now. One of my favorite sayings. I’m too focused on some big projects, so I’m going to write about what I’m thinking about, especially in regards to storytelling. It all connects. But this represents how I think. This is a good gauge of what is all in my head at a given moment.
Twenty-five Pages of Comics, Coming Up
I’m nearing the end of completing twenty-five pages of comics. It’s a commercial job, and it should be appearing soon. I’m at that late stage of the game though, and I’m beat. I have eighteen pages done and the finish line is in sight. I get like this towards the end of comic projects. Because the work is so time consuming, it ends up feeling like all I do is draw. Just draw, draw, draw. As soon as I get home from my job, I sit down and start drawing. I’m doing this project by hand. I rule out the panels, then do my lettering, then my rough pencils, and finally I ink it all. If nothing goes wrong, I can get a page done a night.
Unfortunately, 2016 has been a bear. Something is always going wrong. You don’t notice when things are going right for you. And you think to yourself, “yeah, I can do this huge project.” Then life gets in the way.
Buying a new car is a hassle
Cars stress me out. Anything else you buy, it usually appreciates in value. Not cars. I haven’t had a car payment in years. But it finally happened. Cars die. Or get to the point where putting money into it leads to diminishing returns.
I am happy with my new car though. I’ve been side-eying the new Subaru Legacy for a long time. They live up to the hype. It’s a rock solid vehicle that has a lot of luxury car features. Quiet. Almost no road noise. Smooth ride. The all-wheel drive is wonderful. I’m so used to driving shitboxes that it’s weird when I take a corner and I don’t fishtail a bit. When I got in for the test ride, I just couldn’t believe I could buy the car for real. I’ve only owned circa 1993–2000 cars my whole life. And car technology seems to have evolved dramatically. It feels like Buck Rogers arriving in the future.
One of the best features of my new Subaru is the Bluetooth connection to my phone. I recently bit the bullet and subscribed to Apple Music. Definitely getting my money’s worth out of it. I think I’ve downloaded near 20 albums since I joined1. Much cheaper than buying albums every month. Plus, having the ad-free Radio channels has been wonderful to set it and forget it while I work.
Go Cubs, Go!
Baseball is back! Last night, I had the Cubs/Diamondbacks game running on my iPad while I was drawing. If you haven’t tried drawing to a baseball game, I recommend it. There is something so zen about baseball. When the first iPad came out, MLB’s app didn’t have video yet (maybe it did and I just didn’t subscribe to it). One of my most favorite times in my life was drawing a backup Lydia comic and listening to the Cubs. It reminds me of the present. Same conditions. I’m trying to bang out a comic in a month, it’s April, it’s beautiful out, and the Cubbies are helping me out. Though this year, they seem unstoppable.
The Wrong Quarry
Again, like that last frenzied run of comics, I can’t just stop and go to bed. I have to decompress for an hour. Before, I used to sit in my garage and smoke a cigar with a beer or scotch and enjoy the cool spring nights. I can’t do any of that shit now or my cardiologist would kill me himself. So I sit down with a good book and drink Sleepytime Tea (don’t knock it). And I finished The Wrong Quarry(Amazon Affiliate Link) by Max Allan Collins this week. I love Hard Case Crime books. You know exactly what you are getting. In general, I love crime fiction. Love it. I’ve been actually poking around at a crime novel in my free (ha ha) time.
Something I thought about reading the book: Collins doesn’t make his protagonist a superhuman. Look around at most protagonists in crime fiction anymore, be it movies, comics, TV, or books. Most of them are all ex-SEALs who are “on the edge” and are “alcoholics.” Yet when the need arises, they are goddamn supermen. And sure, maybe, if your story works in a weird hyper-realm of believability, that can play. Crank, or John Wick come to mind immediately. Fun stories. But they also are doing it with a wink and a nudge. The creators, they know. They work it well.
But mostly, these superhuman protagonists magically solve any conflict in their path. Despite their underlying problems. These characters are wish-fullfillment male power fantasies. And man, it’s time to stop. Just make real characters. Real stories. Or go all in on the fantasy. And if you do, make it fantastic.
The Wrong Quarry balances all this well. It’s fantastic yet completely believable. And Quarry, our guy, he isn’t a superman. He’s just a guy out in the world trying to make a buck. It plays.
Genre rules everything around me.
Let’s get back to comics for a second. I’m working on a graphic novella, as those of you who have been reading here know. The Walk. It’s part of a planned trilogy of small graphic novellas. I’m working through genres in all of them. This will be my sci-fi story. I had an idea to package them all up like a collection of EC Comics. I even planned drawing like those cats, but we saw how that turned out.
Anyway, genre. It’s fun to play with. The big comic I’m working on right now has a great romance chapter in it. It makes me think I should stop with the crime comics and jump all in to the romance comics.
I love rom-coms. This may happen.
I wrote/drew an awesome “meet cute.”
I’m taking a small break tomorrow to watch Midnight Special. I’ve been looking forward to this movie ever since the first trailer came out. Jeff Nichols. Man. That guy is a hell of a storyteller. Watch Shotgun Stories. Watch Mud, the beginning of the McConnaissance. Just beautiful, down to earth stories.
I read an interview with Nichols recently. He talked about how he structures his stories. As in, there isn’t one. He starts with an image and constructs the story around that image in his head. Which is what I do. Every story I do has one powerful image in it that I build the story around. We diverge in the sense that I try to apply a simple three act structure to the story. Gives me enough room to manuever, but not enough to dilly-dally. Which is an issue I have. I have to have a bit of structure. If not, you, the poor reader, will read strange passages that go no where. I got to have some rules.
Speaking of storytelling, creativity, and rules, Jessica Abel is killing it. Her website should be gospel for cartoonist content marketing. She is firing on all cylinders. She is doing everything I would love to be doing with my website. Except she’s brilliant and I’m still muddling through the cave. I’ve always admired and adored her work as a cartoonist. But this new phase of her career is utterly fascinating and incredible.
NXT: Takeover Dallas, Storytelling, and Shinsuke Nakamura
Last Friday was NXT: Takeover Dallas, and the debut of Shinsuke Nakamura. And holy crap. Imagine if you combined Michael Jackson, Pokemon, and a brutal warlord into a professional wrestler. I am amazed at the storytelling in wrestling, because it is by the seat of their pants every night. I think that would be the most stressful job, being a writer for professional wrestling. And yet, they do it. Mostly well. But you need a good actor.
Shinsuke Nakamura had maybe 3 mintues of build before his debut. Just an iPhone video that he was coming. Then his entrance music hit. Everyone stood up and thought “what in the hell is happening oh god this is awesome?”
And then he and Sami Zayn (one of my favs) told a whole story in a wrestling match. No one spoke a word. But it was a story. Man. Wrestling is awesome.
More to come
I didn’t mention the other projects on my docket. I complained about 2016 being a crap year. And it is so far. But so much opportunity. There are a lot of things happening in my life that I can’t wait to share. More projects. More news. More comics.
But the Cubbies are coming back on. These West Coast games are killing me. I’m not sleeping a wink. And it’s time to get back to work.
See you on the other side.
I’m listening to the Midnight Special soundtrack while I’m writing this post. ↩︎
Wrestling comics have always been sort of a mixed bag. Historically, they have been terrible. My theory is that “kayfabe” kept wrestling comics from being great stories. I know what you’re thinking (unless you are already a wrestling fan). What on earth is “kayfabe?” Let me give you a brief history of wrestling.
The origins of the term “kayfabe” will never be known for certain. Most experts believe the term started when professional wrestling toured with carnivals. Carny lingo infused into the business. “Kayfabe” means that the portrayal of the pre-determined matches are “real1”. Kayfabe is also its own secret language of terms. It’s meant to keep outsiders, or “marks”, where they belong. On the outside. This is how business ran for years. We “believed” Hulk Hogan had a leg drop that would stun men into submission2.
Peeking Behind The Curtain
A funny thing started to happen in the mid 1990s. Kayfabe finally started to drop, and fans got a peek behind the curtain. The first major incident occured at Madison Square Garden in May of 1996. Known as “The Curtain Call,” four wrestlers hugged each other after a match. Two of them were leaving to go to another promotion. Yet the problem was the audience saw each pair battle it out in the ring earlier in the night as sworn “enemies.” It was one of the first times that fans had proof that what they were watching wasn’t real3.
Soon after in 2000, a popular documentary opened titled Beyond the Mat. It promised a behind the scenes look at professional wrestling. It gave us more than we bargained for. A large segment of the film focused on Jake “The Snake” Roberts. You get to see the beloved former WWE star battle drug addiction and wrestle on the road in bingo halls4. His story went on to become the springboard for The Wrestler, released in 2009. With Mickey Rourke’s heartbreaking performance, the film blew “kayfabe” open for the masses.
Wrestlers Were Real Life Superheroes
“Kayfabe” means the illusion of wrestling was real. And that reality reflected itself in wrestling comics before 2000. With their superhuman physiques, wresters were gods come to life. Or superheroes. But most wrestling comics took wrestlers out of the ring. They became like their comic book counterparts. Heroes who fought crime or had outrageous adventures outside of the ring.
I’m not sure if “kayfabe” was a double-edged sword or not. Once the wrestlers were outside of the ring, it became so unbelievable as the premise for a comic book. They were unreadable. Most people would rather read Batman fight crime than a wrestler.
Enter the Reality Era of WWE
Between 2000 and now, wrestling became meta. You know it’s fake. The wrestlers know that you know it’s fake. And then that became the story. Elements of wrestler’s real lives started to make their way into the ring. This became known as the “Reality Era” in WWE. It kicked into high gear in 2011 with CM Punk’s infamous “Pipe Bomb” speech during an episode of RAW. While in front of live cameras, Punk sits down at the edge of the ramp after interrupting a match. And he gives the WWE universe both barrels. Punk was considered the best wrestler in the world. A reputation built from his years on the independent wrestling scene. He moved to WWE. But since he didn’t look like a typical wrestler, he was “buried.” He flamed the management of the company, all the way to the president, Vince McMahon. Then his microphone lost power and the show cut to commercial. Give it a watch when you can.
It was all a “work.” None of it was real. Punk and McMahon worked together on the whole stunt.
This dynamic played out again with the retirement of Daniel Bryan last week. Bryan was the wrestler most able to take advantage of CM Punk’s trailblazing. He was another indy darling who came to the WWE and was “buried,” but fans loved him. They loved him so much that they were actually able to influence how the company booked him. Which is a bit insane if you think about it. The audience hijacked RAW and propelled Bryan into the main event of Wrestlemania 30. His story culminated with winning the WWE Championship. I watched his rise, week in and week out. It was an amazing time to be a fan.
Wrestling is fake. But it’s also very real. The matches are pre-determined, but the people wrestling are incredible atheletes. Athletes with no “off season.” Athletes that get hurt peforming almost nightly. They are always on the road without much of a break. And those stories, those are the ones that are fascinating.
Finding My Way Back To Wrestling
I fell out of love with wrestling the same way I did with Christmas when I discovered Santa Claus wasn’t real. With sudden disgust and resentment. I can’t remember exactly when I realized that wrestling was fake as a young boy. I seem to remember a botched spot involving Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff. I also remember figuring out the story beats in a match. “Oh, he always loses just like this at this point in the match… wait a second,” my 7 year old mind deduced. Just like in fiction, if the story structure becomes too obvious, it takes you out of the story.
I came back to wrestling more than 20 years later. I had ignored it for so long that my interest with it came just as immediate as I had lost it so long ago. I read an interview about a local Omaha wrestler, “Mad Dog” Vachon. He reflected on his life on the road and the hardships he faced. It captivated me. I couldn’t let it go. I started picking up wrestler’s autobiographies. Ric Flair’s To Be The Man. “Classy” Freddie Blassie’s Listen Up, You Pencil Neck Geeks! I scoured for every bit of information I could find. Because like it or not, a story was starting to form in my head.
Wrestlers of a particular era seemed to share certain traits. A lot of them died young. And they seemed to have terrible personal lives. Either they grew up in a bad household, or they themselves were not good people to live with. Many of them were hardcore partiers. Most of them lived with a decent amount of pain. All of them loved wrestling.
The Omaha Civic Auditorium
“Am I making a wrestling comic?”
I wanted to create a comic about a wrestler that wasn’t only about wrestling. It was about his family. It was about the little brother he was putting through medical school. It was about his dead father, who was also a wrestler. I wanted it to take place in 1990. And I wanted it to take place in Omaha, which has past roots in wrestling. I took down a lot of notes and made several outlines, but I couldn’t get it to quite work. Oh, also it was 500 pages. It was a sprawling family epic. And I was terrified to actually draw it. I didn’t want to put in 500 pages of work for a wrestling comic. You know, the type of comic that never finds an audience and will remain unseen.
Several years later, I was entering my second year at the Center for Cartoon Studies. I needed a thesis project to graduate. I decided if The Crippler’s Son was going to have a chance to see the world, this was its only one. At least it would have a purpose. It might not find an audience, but it would help me graduate.
The first thing I did was the most important. With the help of some amazing advisors, I whittled the story down to a brisk 50 pages. Five hundred pages was crippling me (pun intended). I did 10 thumbnail drafts during most of my second year to nail the story down right. Then I briskly created the art in a month. I detailed that process back in my post How to Draw a 50 Page Comic in One Month.
I’m happy with the results. The Crippler’s Son was released by Fantagraphics in November 2014. It exceeded my requirements. It not only helped me graduate, it helped me join the ranks of Fantagraphics, a publisher I have admired since my youth. As far as finding an audience, it’s done about what I expected. It was never going to be a smash hit. But the readers who do give it a chance are always impressed by it, and that’s enough for me.
More Wrestling Comics
I’ve started to notice a few more wrestling comics appearing on the stands. I have even thought about going back to the well and creating another one. If the WWE Network had existed even 5 years ago, The Crippler’s Son might have been extraordinarily different. There is just so much information available about the life of wrestling behind the scenes now. It all still fascinates me. I am a regular viewer of NXT, WWE’s development program which has become a brand unto itself. I watch independent promotions now online, looking for wrestlers with great stories and abilities.
Part of me does think about re-making The Crippler’s Son, to go after that 500 page monster I conceived. But I’m going to take a page out of wrestling: if you aren’t getting over, time to try something new. It’s time for some different stories. But you never know. Wrestling waited 20 years for me to come back to it. It’ll be there when I’m ready for another comic.
Note: links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you like what you read, consider supporting my writing by using my links. I get a cut, you get some entertainment.
As fans, we’re often asked by outsiders, “you know wrestling is fake, right?” Of course we do. That’s the fun of it. ↩︎
If anyone is interested, watch the Triple H documentary, Thy Kingdom Come. They talk about it much more extensively there than I’m going to here. The four wrestlers in question were Razor Ramon (Scott Hall), Diesel (Kevin Nash), Shawn Michaels, and Triple H (Paul Levesque). Levesque bore the brunt of the punishment from the incident. ↩︎
Jake “The Snake” Roberts seems to have found peace from his addictions finally in the recently released The Resurrection of Jake The Snake. I was a big fan of his when I was a boy. I haven’t seen it yet because it’s supposed to be especially poignent, but I will soon. ↩︎
There are several exceptions of course created by “smart marks.” Check out the Love & Rockets for some excellent wrestling comic storylines. My friends Jason Caskey and Phil Hester also did a genre-bending wrestling comic titled Holy Terror which I adored. ↩︎