I’m a recent convert to professional wrestling. The kind where guys and gals in elaborate costumes step into the squared circle to tell a story for an audience through their physical performance. Talk about wrestling with an avid fan long enough and you find stories of entertainers that rose to the top of the industry only to meet a harsh fall. For every Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson you have ten guys that have fallen on hard times or reached unfortunate ends. The good and the bad, the industry will eat them both up and leave them in dire straights as was the case with wrestler Chris Benoit whose brain damage and steroid abuse contributed to his infamous double-murder suicide. For as many people that can fondly recall their youth watching Hulk Hogan take on the world, very few have an idea of what’s going on backstage for the production of these wrestling shows. These performers and this industry where men and women put their bodies and minds (Hollywood actors only have to embody their characters during filming while wrestlers are tasked with keeping character both in and out of the ring) through unbelievable strain for the sake of entertainment are fertile ground for a story to take place about a strange subculture that most Americans have only scratched the surface of.
Ringside #1 by Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber isn’t telling that story. That’s not to say that the book may not eventually do so, but that potential remains largely untapped as this issue takes a sudden turn at the end from an interesting premise into a cookie-cutter crime comic. It is frustrating to see the square peg that this comic starts as, depicting the realities of an ex-pat former champ returning to the States after teaching kids in Japan how to take hits in the ring, be ground down around its edges to fit into a round hole.
The scenes in which characters like the protagonist of first issue, Dan Knossos, laments the corporate ownership of his in-ring persona and gives some hard earned advice to a young up-and-comer are great. The low-key writing really wins out in them and the relatively light use of industry terms (EX. jobber, house show) delivered in an easy to piece together context keeps things from feeling too inside baseball. The stand-out scene in this issue that most delivers on the potential of the book is a simple diner conversation where retired Dan has a meal with a friend that is still wrestling into middle-age and a young guy that’s just started. There’s plenty of shop-talk but it’s centered by topics such as how to maintain a personal life even as you work for a company that literally owns your name and image. It works thanks to the focus on character that provides a richly detailed look at the different stratas people in the industry occupy. It’s sort of like the Newsroom if it were about wrestling and not a completely self-serious parody of itself.
Unfortunately, a strong foundation of character is almost undone by a general inconsistency to Nick Barber’s linework. It varies from panel to panel and page to page with people going from barely identifiable blobs with no distinguishing features to at times jarringly detailed.
It’s disorienting to read a book that offers no baseline consistency and I wasn’t able to ascertain an intended effect from it. The art simply does not look like it all belongs to the same comic book even as Simon Gough’s colors do their best to provide a unifying palette. And perhaps most troubling is the lack of impact and effective moments in scenes of violence, something that a comic is going to need nailed down if it’s going to feature something like professional wrestling. Instead, speedlines, giant stars, and out of place sound effects have to carry the weight and they absolutely buckle under it. Even the lettering presents problems. The thin, asymmetrical letters are quite small and it became difficult to distinguish between them at times.
Still, even with the art problems, I would be feeling much more optimistic about this comic if it weren’t for the last five pages swerving so dramatically into unwelcome territory. There’s a rule in improv that you don’t pull out a gun in a scene. Once you pull out a gun, the scene you’ve been working on, no matter how interesting it was before, is derailed and now you have to follow through on something rote and uninteresting until the bitter end. This comic pulls out a gun and in doing so puts down the human drama and the low-key stakes it was establishing in favor of something unnecessarily cartoonish that isn’t rooted in what came before. I wish this comic had taken an improv class.