Costumed men and women, fighting for glory, revenge, or something greater. Sounds like superheroes, right? It's also professional wrestling. Sure it's choreographed, but so are most movies and TV. But what goes on behind the curtain?
The upcoming Image series Ringside pulls back the curtain in a "behind-the-scenes" style drama about the real lives of the men and women in the "fake" sport. Created by writer Joe Keatinge and artist Nick Barber, the ongoing series goes from the theatrics of WWE to the rugged real lives as seen in The Wrestler and Beyond the Mat.
Set to debut November 25, retired wrestler Daniel Knoss, a.k.a. the Minotaur, takes center stage in the first arc of Ringside. Once a megastar in the squared circle, he's found peace and happiness moving on from that part of his life. But something happens that brings out his dark side and makes him confront the past he left behind.
Newsarama had the chance to talk to Keatinge and Barber about Ringside, and while the creators wanted to keep mum on certain details about the story, they talked at lengths about their love of the sport of professional wrestling and the noir influences that helped shape the script.
Newsarama: Joe, Nick, Ringside isn't just a "wrestling comic book" as the story takes place "ringside" or outside of the ring. Can you tell us why that made for an interesting story?
Joe Keatinge: I’ve been fascinated with the overall systems behind anything you read, watch or enjoy for years. Who are the people you never see who are putting in long hours to make sure this thing you enjoy gets to you? I’m not even talking to performers, I mean people making sure the shirt manufacturers have the right files or the 13-year-old who’s at home working on her sign to hold up at her first live event. That kind of thing.
The funny thing is, in the first arc of Ringside we’re primarily concentrating on a person who’s already done with the ring and the industry in all its forms, having primarily worked in a televised corporate promotion. He hasn’t been on card in years and just quit training others. I wanted to explore what life was like without it before we completely dive into it. I’m interested in the idea of what happens once the dream’s been realized, when it’s over, but unlike Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, this isn’t someone chasing past glory. If anything, they’re doing everything they can to avoid the past, especially the life they led before they ever got in ring.
That said, my hope is to continue on to other aspects — not just wrestlers of indie or international wrestling, but who’s the guy bootlegging shirts outside the arena? What’s their deal? Someone’s got to compose these theme songs? Why do they do it?
All that said, Ringside is a dramatization. I’ve done, and continue to do, a lot of research, but there’s a struggle between accuracy and alienation of the casual reader. My hope is people who love wrestling dig it, sure, but similarly to how Friday Night Lights explored Texas high school football and how Ballers is exploring professional football, it’s done. I’m also extremely wary that I’m writing about an understandably closed community. The last thing anybody needs is someone claiming to be a smark [a wrestling term for a fan that knows it’s choreographed, but still appreciates it] and saying “this is wrestling exposed.” It’s not.
There’s a lot of stuff in Ringside that’s over the top and would never happen in the real world. I also chose to be specific on when to use certain terminology as to not make it unreadable for anyone off the street, but aim is to give it a heart and being mindful and respectful of those who do the things who we’re making a comic book about, even if it’s a substantially fictionalized one.
Nick Barber: Joe really summed this up. A comparison I've used before is to The Sopranos - mainly just in the sense that despite being about the Mafia, it's not a story about crime - it's a story about family. In a similar sense this is how Ringside is to me. It's about wrestling but that doesn't mean every issue there will be an in-ring match up.
Nrama: I'm taking a wild guess here, but are you two both wrestling fans or just you, Joe? I'm an unabashed fan as well, but what do you find so fantastic about this world?
Keatinge: Like a lot of people, I grew up in the 1980s era of the larger-than-life super titans during the rise of the corporate WWF. Folks like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, the Undertaker, Rowdy Roddy Piper — Heck, the Honky Tonk Man! They were all these real world cartoon characters come to life, immortalized on lunch boxes and in movies and… everything, really. They seemed more than human.
Barber: This goes for me too. You couldn't escape that 1980s WWF mania. My brother and I had the figurines, the magazines, posters, calendars you name it.
Keatinge: As I got older I fell out a bit until someone called me and said I had to start watching wrestling again “right now,” because this guy "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was going to be taking on Mike Tyson and it seemed like some of the craziest shit they had ever seen. It was around the birth of the Attitude Era. The whole thing had an edge to it which completely appealed to me as a teenager. Instead of someone telling me to say my prayers, take my vitamins and drink my milk, you had this dude going on the top rope, smashing down two beers and being straight up sacrilegious with his catch phrase.
Through the Attitude Era, I marked out hard on Mick Foley and through him my perspective changed a lot. Because reading his first book opened up the world of what wrestling could be for me. Stints overseas. In Japan. The indie circuit. ECW. It was bigger than the ‘80s super gods and their then contemporaries.
Barber: “Attitude Era” was a term I didn't hear until later, but this was just as big a part of growing up as the 1980s WWF era. There was some pretty crazy stuff at that time like the rebranding of Hogan as a heel in NWO. The Rock, Stone Cold... it was an exciting time for sure. Mick Foley as definitely the guy that came from left field, with multiple enigmatic personas. On a physical level he was just as groundbreaking.
Keatinge: Then I really started to see the other side of it, the darker side, especially when Beyond the Mat hit. Seeing the real world toll their careers take. Naysayers like to claim wrestling’s “fake,” and sure, I’m well aware matches are predetermined, but the truth is people actually do have their spines smashed, their ears torn off; they fall into drug use or gambling debts. The drama outside the ring is even bigger than what’s being performed.
And a lot of them love it. Most wrestlers don’t make a ton of money; they’re doing it because they have this love for this thing, in some cases almost an addiction, and it’s hard not to see the correlation between that and other creative pursuits, whether it’s comics, fine art or performance. I always thought it was interesting Aronofsky originally wanted The Wrestler and Black Swan to be one movie, because I get it. They’re almost the same story, the same self-sacrificial ending and it’s relatable to any pursuit which you’d sacrifice everything for.
Barber: Yeah the idea of something you love taking everything from you, both physically and emotionally is very apparent in wrestling, and something I think about a lot.
Keatinge: One of my favorite contemporary guys is Edge -- Adam Copeland --, because that’s a dude there’s photographs of as a kid, in the stands, cheering his lungs out and he gave everything he ever had in him to being part of this thing he loved.
And then in his late-30s he’s told it’s over. Do it again and your spine falls apart. You’re dead.
Can you imagine being barely clocking in at almost 40-years-old and being told your career you’ve given everything for is done? Granted, he’s fine now, acting in movies and has plenty of other opportunities, but when he came out and did that in-ring shoot interview/goodbye, as both a mark and a guy who is making a go at making my creative interests my life pursuit, I was completely gutted. That could be anyone. Could be me.
I don’t get the impression Edge regrets any of it.
That’s amazing. That’s inspiring.
I’ve been progressively getting more and more into the indie circuit here in Portland, like the recent revival of Portland Wrestling and DOA Wrestling and those crews are just as inspiring. The DOA crew works Eagles Halls like they’re Madison Square Garden and completely bring it every single time. That kind of passion is infectious.
So, my overall point is, while I still watch — brought back again several years through CM Punk, now currently marking out hard for Kevin Owens — it’s not so much the the in-ring performance, certainly not the gossip sheets at all, but it’s these women and men giving everything for what they want to do, most for little reward, that I find so interesting and, again, more than anything, inspiring not just to Ringside, but the way I focus on art, career and even life in general.
Nrama: I heard that Joe, you found Nick randomly on the internet. How did this collaboration come about?
Keatinge: I can't remember who followed who first, but I somehow saw Nick's blog and was caught by all these drawings he'd do from movies I'd love by people like Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick and Jean-Luc Godard. Even if you hadn't seen the movies themselves, he perfectly captured the moment and acting. Not only did he have good taste in movies, but his visual storytelling was apparently. As I recall I subsequently shot him an email asking if he'd be interested in working on a comic book and what kind of book he'd want to do. When he gave me the general gist, it sounded like what I had written for the Ringside pitch, so I sent it his way, he was into it and now it's an ongoing series.
Nrama: Ringside has this contemporary noir feel to it, what are some influences that went into the script?
Keatinge: I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, so it’s hard to pin down exactly what was a specific influence. If I had to dissect it, there’s an obvious early ‘80s Michael Mann influence in there, definitely some George Pelecanos and David Simon, specifically due to their work on The Wire. A friend recently turned me onto the 1950s Jules Dassin movie, Night and The City, which is straight up a noir set around professional wrestling, but I only saw that after the first four issues were already written.
That all said, there’s really two main aspects beyond what I’ve read or seen. With the first, I gotta go back to my previous answer. It’s the real people behind wrestling, whether they’re WWE superstars or people killing it on the indie circuit.
The second thing is I’m fascinated by economics on all different scales. Macro economics, micro economics, the stock market, the housing market, everything really. Combine that with working in comics in different capacities for over a decade now — whether it was working inventory, dealing with printers, marketing, sales, writing, editing and most recently, retail — and I really saw and continue to see just how much goes into delivering the good whether it’s comics, pro wrestling — bread, whatever.
There are tons of lives behind every single thing you purchase, eat, watch, and drive. The comic book you are reading is not just written, drawn, lettered, colored and edited, but there are people at every single company who make sure it’s printed, distributed, marketed and sold. Most of those people go unnoticed or appreciated. I wanted to do something which explored all that.
So, that’s really the biggest influence. Not some movie or book or TV show, but seeing there are a lot of lives that go into the things you love.
And there's where the real drama lies.
Barber: Yeah Michael Mann was a big one for me - but the noir thing is unavoidable, it's basically all I know. Comics wise it was like (and always is really) artists such as Hugo Pratt, Ruben Pellejero, Eduardo Risso, Chris Samnee, AlexToth and many many more. When we started Ringside I had just finished reading Ping Pong by Taiyo Matsumoto and I was really obsessed with it, it's also a 'sports' story but not a conventional one, and has a lot of heart to it - just like Ringside - so that was probably my biggest influence.
Nrama: There's a large overlap between comic book superheroes and wrestling superstars, as well as in terms of the divide between fan and professional. Do you think there's a strong correlation between wrestling and comic books?
Keatinge: In terms of what you're talking about here -- Edge being a fan who became a pro -- I think it goes for any sort of creative pursuit. Whether you're a cellist, fashion designer, novelist, winemaker, anything really, your love of the craft came from somewhere. Comics and wrestling also share the aspect of being a serial entertainment medium with people who are fighting out huge moral battles, sometimes with great consequence.
I do know there's a huge number of comic book creators who love wrestling and vice versa. I've met folks like Brodus Clay and CM Punk, not over talking about wrestling, but those guys talking about how much they love comics. There's also a history of wrestling comics going way back, whether it's the licensed WWE comics, the Chaos! run in the 90s or Jarrett Williams' Super Pro K.O. Then look at this recent angle between Stardust and Arrow's Stephen Amell. That was comics just as much as it was wrestling.