Once upon a time, despite the fact that the two genres share similar tropes, pro wrestling just wasn’t represented well in comic books. Instead of in-ring characters struggling against each other, or the real wrestlers struggling against the business itself, you’d get the Undertaker fighting zombies or Kevin Nash in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
“None of those things were too exciting for me,” said Michael Kingston, writer of the independently-published Headlocked for the last seven years, at the “Wrestling and Comics Collide!” panel at this year’s New York Comic Con. Kingston’s collaborator and former wrestler himself, “Hurricane” Shane Helms,” put a finer point on it.
“That shit was garbage,” Helms said.
Sam Roberts, host of the popular, eponymous wrestling podcast, was on hand to moderate NYCC’s first ever panel on wrestling and comics. The initial step in writing a better wrestling comic, Roberts found out, was for Kingston to “take some bumps” in a real wrestling ring to get a feel for what the athletes go through.
“I played football for 15 years and never got hurt,” Kingston said. “I did that for a day and a half and couldn’t turn my head to the left for a week.”
Helms spoke of how the climate has changed on the other side, too, where comic references are now more accepted in wrestling. No one actually knew he read comics when Helms was offered the gimmick of “The Hurricane” around the turn of the century, and he was worried that it might not work. “It’s not like you can say no to the McMahons,” though, Helms said.
The WWE locker room at the time was pretty lacking in comic readers, excepting a couple famous fans like Raven. Of course not many people at all were willing to stand up as proud geeks 15 years ago, leading Helms to to ask the packed room an exasperated question.
“Where were all you assholes when I was The Hurricane all by myself?” he said.
In the modern day, when WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan wanted to look like a superhero, he asked comic artist Jill Thompson to design some ring gear for him. Thompson recalled how the two became friends after she saw Bryan reading Beasts of Burden on the sadly now-abandoned Hot Nerds Reading Comics blog. A simple, “Dude, you’re reading my book,” on Twitter was all it took.
The evening’s most compelling comments came from WWE Hall of Famer Jerry “The King” Lawler, who routinely provides covers for Headlocked. A comic fan from the start — he was outraged when floppies shot up from 10 to 12 cents — Lawler originally thought he’d find a career as an artist.
Lawler’s homage to the Norman Rockwell painting “The Discovery,” the cover for the soon-releasing Headlocked: The Last Territory Volume 2.
“Without a doubt, art was what I wanted to pursue, growing up,” he said.
Lawler’s father was an usher at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, and would bring him to the wrestling matches there. Lawler’s first ever interaction with wrestling was when his drawings of the action were shown onscreen by announcer Lance Russell, in lieu of replays. While attending the University of Memphis, Lawler started coming around the arena more and begged Jackie Fargo for a chance to train, though Fargo said he should stick with his art. Fargo finally relented when he asked for just one match, and 45 years later, Lawler’s still going strong.
People who remember Lawler’s early days in Memphis might think he fits in better at a comic convention than others realize. Lawler once encountered a cosplayer in a wolf mask who assured the King that you can’t wrestle a werewolf, to which Lawler forcefully replied, “I HAVE wrestled a werewolf!” Many of his first opponents were actually outfitted with monster masks from Lawler’s own collection.
He bought those masks because as a child, Lawler once had to take Halloween photos with the well-to-do neighbors in his homemade ghost-sheet costume. His father hated that he couldn’t provide more for his kids, so once Lawler began making some money, he started the mask collection as a tribute to his dad. At this point Lawler choked up and asked someone else to talk, while Thompson jumped from her seat to comfort the emotional King.
Kingston and Lawler taped a segment for the WWE Network’s Culture Shock program at NYCC 2015.
The mood lightened at the end of the panel when Roberts moved away from wrestling and asked everyone about their favorite superhero movies. Lawler said despite Superman being his favorite character, he’s never liked a single Superman movie, and Thompson said she’ll like any film that actually gives the creators of the source material some credit. Helms couldn’t help but bring things around again, when he compared the Hulk’s role at the end of Avengers to a teammate storming in to take control of a match.
“It all comes back to heat and hot tags,” he said.
All images courtesy of the Headlocked Facebook page.