Legendary Luchadore: Charles Soule on SLG's 'Strongman'

What do you call a man who wears a mask, muscles, a cape and fights villains?

For some that might be ‘superhero’, but for the fans of wrestling you’d be more apt to call them ‘luchadores’. Luchadores is the name of wrestlers in a potent style of pro wrestling called Lucha Libre, which can be played up for both comedic and dramatic results. In many ways, these masked luchadores are a throwback to the pulp heroes of yore: The Shadow, the Green Hornet, and other stoic figures.

In the recently released graphic novel Strongman, a legendary luchadore by the name of el Tigre is found at the ebbing of his popularity, washed up and living in a New York City tenement – far from his homeland of Mexico. Still brandishing the mask that made him famous, el Tigre is a shadow of his former self – disillusioned from a tragic mis-step which occurred many years ago. This once-former superstar is now left throwing matches to men twenty years his junior, all for paltry pay and no reward. Down to his last time, it’s the request of a young fan turned femme fatale that awakens el Tigre from his stupor and back for a final shot at redemption.

With the popularity of movies such as Nacho Libre and The Wrestler, this graphic novel comes out at an apt time and portrays this luchadore in much the same mold as an epic hero of comic book legend. Newsarama talked with series creator and writer Charles Soule for more.

Newsarama: Thanks for agreeing to talk to us about the book, Charles. What can you tell us about the central character in this, El Tigre?

Charles Soule El Tigre (by the way, that's his formal name, what his grandmother calls him - grammatically correct or no, most people just call him Tigre) is a masked Mexican wrestler - a luchador. He was one of the biggest things going in Mexico back in the 60s and early 70s. And, like many famous masked wrestlers of that period, he starred in a long succession of Z-grade horror/sci-fi flicks, wore his mask at all times and cultivated a persona outside the ring that was possibly more flamboyant and badass than anything he did inside it. Tigre was a superstar - rich, adored and tough as nails. Until 1973, anyway.

NRAMA: 1973 was a bad year for a lot of people. Luckily I missed it, not being born until years later. But what’s Tigre like now?

CS: He's none of the things I just mentioned. Something happened in '73, and Tigre fled Mexico. Since then, he's been haunting Spanish Harlem in New York City. He's just one of the weird characters that skulk around the perimeters of NYC. Probably not even the weirdest. It takes more than a 65-year-old guy in Sansabelt trousers and a filthy wrestling mask to faze your typical New Yorker. Anyway, Tigre drinks his days away in one dive bar after another, and then earns the cash to do it again by taking the bad guy role in hole-in-the-wall wrestling arenas way uptown. He gets the holy hell beaten out of him in exchange for fifty bucks a match.

NRAMA: Why does he decide to get off his couch and be a hero again?

CS: A hot chick asks him to.

NRAMA: [laughs] Ahh, for life, for liberty… and for ladies.

CS: [laughs] It may not be the most unique motivation in the world, but I think it's honest.

A beautiful gal shows up at his door in the middle of the night and explains that there's a criminal enterprise operating in the neighborhood - an illegal organ-trafficking ring, to be precise - and she thinks Tigre's just the man to shut it down. That's where things start, but the story takes a number of twists and turns, as any quest undertaken for a properly fatal female should.

NRAMA: Sounds like an adventure.

For those who are unfamiliar with the world of lucha libre, how would you describe it compared to American professional wrestling?

CS: It has a healthy and very welcome dose of the fantastic, in a way that's almost charming. Lucha libre wrestlers brought their act into the real world. The really great ones never really stopped being heroes (or villains), whether they were in the ring or not. You might see a guy in a wrestling mask buying groceries at the supermarket. I think the movies helped too - I've seen lucha movies where masked wrestlers fight Bigfoot, vampires, aliens, evil scientists, you name it. I also think there's a real lack of cynicism in lucha libre, which is possibly why American pro wrestling takes a slightly different tack. I'm actually no expert on modern pro wrestling. I remember seeing a few Wrestlemanias when I was a kid, and the Royal Rumble and so on, but I moved on after a few years. I remember liking the British Bulldogs, Jake the Snake and those cats, but ... let's see. I came in after folks like the Iron Sheik had their heyday, and before the Undertaker came on the scene. I'm not sure how much that dates me, but there it is.

NRAMA: Most people know that one of the tenets of masked luchadors is that they never take off their mask. Why do you think that’s so important, and how does it work in Strongman?

CS: Ah, that is important. It goes to what I said above, about the fact that the lucha guys seemed to realize their importance to the pop-culture landscape. You wear a mask, you're more than just a well-built, athletic guy. You're a symbol of something bigger. I also think its easier for your fans to identify with you, in a semi-paradoxical way, if they don't know the man under the mask. In Strongman, I take that idea and twist it a bit. Tigre's mask is both how he hides and how he punishes himself. The "mask" failed, and all sorts of people and institutions suffered for it, up to and including the entire country of Mexico. Tigre might be the only person in New York who knows what happened back then (he's not) but wearing the mask every day is a reminder of just how guilty he's supposed to feel. He wears the mask to never let himself forget. If he took the mask off, he just might be able to get a gig working a regular job, and life would just take over and dull the old pain. By being Tigre all the time, there's no chance he'll be able to slip into an ordinary life.

NRAMA: When I read this book I’m less reminded of wrestling and more of classic pulp stories like Doc Savage or the Shadow. Was this your intention?

CS: Absolutely. I also liked the idea of taking a hero who's sort of out of time and plopping him down into a modern-world conflict. Tigre hasn't changed all that much since 1973 - well, he's gotten fatter and older and drunker, but his value system has stayed the same. In comics parlance, he's a Silver Age guy in an... I'm not even sure what we're in right now... an Information Age (?) conflict. The story has a wrestler as its hero, but only because of all the cool iconography that goes along with lucha libre. It's a way to realistically (sort of) have a dude in a mask running around wreaking havoc. There's a (tenuous) precedent. I could have used an old retired cop or something, but using a masked wrestler just seemed so much more... well, awesome.

NRAMA: Awesome indeed. Some people compare luchadors to superheroes. What would you say to that?

CS: It's an obvious comparison, and I think it's a valid one. More Batman than Superman, though - these are self-made men in every sense. They put on a mask and literally fought evil (in a wrestling sort of way). I think that's pretty fabulous. It's even better because they really exist.

NRAMA: Speaking of fabulous, the art in the book is great. How’d you end up working with Allen Gladfelter on this book?

CS: He responded to an ad I placed, and won the gig from about a hundred contenders. What really nailed it for me was a sketch he sent during the audition process of a wrestler walking down a city street that really nailed the mood I was looking for. The other guys sent the sort of typical shot you'd expect with a book called "Strongman" - muscle-bound dudes smashing things. Allen was the guy who realized that the title was supposed to be a bit more layered.

NRAMA: Since you and Gladfelter made such a great team, do you plan on doing more El Tigre stories?

CS: Without a doubt. The second volume is in process now. I've scripted it, and Allen should begin drawing it soon. We're aiming to have it in shops next summer, again from the wonderful people at SLG Publishing (aka Slave Labor). The provisional title is "Country, Liberty," and it sends Tigre back to Mexico to see what's happened in his homeland after 35 years away. If you've followed the news at all about the cartel wars, the Mara and the rest of the happenings down there, you know that it'll be a fertile environment for stories. Throw in a little swine flu (everything goes better with swine flu) and it should be a great book. Looking a little longer than V1, too, which is nice.

I'm also planning to do some shorts that I'll release on the web while V2 is in the works, drawn by non-Gladfelter artists. The plan there is to explore the 35 years Tigre spent in the US before the events that we see in V1. Tigre got up to some crazy business.

NRAMA: Now that this book is done and released – what do you have planned next?

CS: I'm currently very excited about a book entitled 27, about a famous guitarist who loses the ability to play on his 27th birthday, and has to navigate some treacherous mythical waters in order to get it back. It touches on the deaths of Hendrix, Cobain, Joplin and other people who died at 27. That's being drawn now, and I'm hopeful that it will be out early next year. Beyond that, I would like to do another series of Strongman short films, like the ones I did to promote the first book (they can be seen here: www.youtube.com/user/cdsoule), although they're pretty effort-intensive and expensive. I do love them, though, and the actor who played Tigre really wants to do some more (he kept his mask on all during filming! Keen!) Otherwise, I'm just getting the word out about the book. It's my first time at the rodeo, so I'm hitting as many conventions as my recession-tapped budget can afford. For one, I know I'll be at San Diego at the Slave Labor booth.

On a final note, if people are interested in a superbly-drawn book that's long on action but doesn't stint on character or heart, Strongman might be up your alley. It seems to be pretty well-stocked at shops around - reviews have been great, and retailers are embracing it, which makes me really happy. (Of course, if your LCS doesn't have a copy, there's always Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/cnozlg ). Check it out, you'll love it!

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