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Sitting 'Ringside' with Creators Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber

Comic Books

Sitting ‘Ringside’ with Creators Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber

On November 2, Image Comics will release Ringside, a pro wrestling themed comic from writer Joe Keatinge (Shutter) and newcomer artist Nick Barber. Being huge fans of the worlds of both comics and pro wrestling, we were excited to get the scoop from both of them about what to expect.

AiPT!: Joe, you’ve said that you started talking to Nick when you noticed his art online. How did you two discover that you’re both wrestling fans? Were there any early, heated arguments about who was better, Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels?

Nick Barber: The idea of collaborating on something came before any fandom of wrestling. We first talked about what we might like to work on together. I wanted to do a Michael Mann style comic, which is a little ambiguous, but Joe got exactly what I meant. Joe had a version of Ringside that he had developed and I thought taking pro wrestling and looking at it through that lens would be really cool. We definitely don’t get into any arguments over who is the best wrestler or anything like that – we generally just talk about our own story.

Joe Keatinge: What Nick said. When I saw his art, I knew he was the perfect guy to collaborate with on a story like Ringside. It’s a story behind the story. For instance, the first issue doesn’t have much in-ring action; a lot of the first issue focuses on the every day — people on the road, grabbing a bite in a diner, that kind of thing. You need someone who can convey the mundane in a visually interesting manner and keep it engaging, which is damned hard to do. Nick’s storytelling is impeccable; drawing from the schools of Toth and Pratt while creating something his own. He’s the perfect partner for the series. Our mutual love for wrestling is there, but working together on the right story comes first and foremost.

Sitting 'Ringside' with Creators Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber

AiPT!: As kids, which did you get made fun of for liking more, comics or wrestling? Why do you think the stigma has been mostly lifted from comic fandom, but it’s still hard for some to admit being into wrestling? Aren’t the two things pretty similar to each other?

Nick: Not a very exciting answer, but I didn’t get made fun or for liking either, especially not wrestling – most kids in my high school would wear Stone Cold 3:16 shirts or The Rock merchandise… stuff like that, it was very mainstream and acceptable. Is there a stigma with wrestling in the United States? It seems very popular over there. As for being similar to each other, I’m not sure… Personally I don’t get a similar experience from reading a comic than I do to watching wrestling. But I can see their might be similar tropes in pro wrestling and say super hero comics or something like that. They’re very different art forms though.

Joe: I’ve always thought — and continue to think — it was/is absolute bullshit to have any shame for the things you enjoy, assuming they’re not violating the life and liberty of anyone else. I don’t recall ever getting made fun of for either thing in specific; I always owned it. Still do.

What I’m getting at is, f--k “guilty pleasures”; like the things you like.

And yes, there are a lot of parallels between comics and wrestling on the surface, but even more once you peer behind the curtain. Wrestlers and creators are all contracted, “freelance” even though some people are exclusive to one corporation or another. A lot of the old guard isn’t treated as well as they should be. A lot of people go to a dark place pursuing the thing they love. It goes on. The more research I do for Ringside, the more the I see an inherent bond between the two art forms and the industries surrounding them. It doesn’t surprise me a lot of creators are big wrestling fans and vice versa for wrestlers. I only got to meet CM Punk once, very briefly, but instantly got the impression that guy’s as hardcore into comics as any artist or writer working today.

Sitting 'Ringside' with Creators Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber
Former WWE Champion CM Punk’s first ongoing series, Drax #1, hits stores November 6.

AiPT!: What kind of research have you guys been doing? Talking to wrestlers and other people in the business? Do you think Ringside will resemble a locker room as it really is, or is there some necessary artistic license being taken?

Joe: You have to do a lot of research for this type of series. Even in Shutter, which is hugely over-the-top and fantastical, you’ve got to do your research. That said, I’ve never found research to be about showing off you know every single detail of every facet of what you’re writing about, it’s about being able to create a level of empathy with the reader and what you’re writing about. I’ve never been a professional wrestler, I’m assuming most of our readers haven’t, so the point is to get your research down to create a relationship between reader and this profession they’ve never experienced.

Luckily for me, I’ve not only been “researching” this in a way my whole life, I’ve been going to shows whether it’s WWE or local joints like Portland’s DOA wrestling, but once it came time to focus on Ringside, there’s more great writing on and discussion of wrestling than there’s ever been. Years and years back, Mick Foley was the guy who got me interested in what happened off camera, especially with his first book. He talked so openly about what the road was like, how damn hard the life is, the real toll it takes. You can learn so much about wrestling in the 47 minutes Stone Cold Steve Austin and Jake “The Snake” Roberts spent on their recent podcast interview. But yeah, it goes beyond that.

Sitting 'Ringside' with Creators Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber

Nick: I’m taking huge artistic license. It’s not really about ‘realism’, more about verisimilitude. That’s how I feel about ALL comics, it’s a representation of reality, it only has to feel believable… not necessarily look like a photograph. So on that note I don’t do a great deal of research – only as much as is required to tell the story as effectively as possible. As you would have noticed in issue one, the majority of events aren’t inside the ring – so the bulk of the research was more to do with what kind of car might a certain character drive, what does their home look like… that type of thing. More mundane. I’ve watched a lot of wrestling in my life though, so a lot of it’s instinctual.

AiPT!: In a post-kayfabe world, do you think the backstage stuff is more interesting than what’s actually presented? Or are there still things in wrestling to get excited about?

Joe: Of course, there is. There’s always something new and interesting if you’re looking in the right places. Even when I take a break from WWE every once in a while, there’s an entire planet worth of great stuff out there. It’s about telling a story. You can read a journalist’s blog about how they do what they do, what it takes to craft a story, but in the end the real meat’s the journalism, the end result. Sure, if they’re a boring writer, there’s nothing there to really grasp onto. Similar with wrestling — look at Kevin Owens, recently making the transition from NXT to WWE. Sure, you can find all the “real world” stuff you want about that guy, but once he’s in the ring, he can tell a story better than just about anyone else in the business right now. He’s enthralling. That’s the good stuff.

Ringside‘s not a “Smark look into the world of wrestling.” It’s a dramatization, to say the least. But what interested me is exploring why these people do what they do, how far they’re willing to go what they believe in, the struggle of art vs. industry, how their lives can overlap their pursuit and more than not, vice versa. That may seem a bit contradictory, but in the end I’m most interested as a spectator in what these women and men do in the ring, how they got there, how they’ve perfected their craft, what they sacrificed and the stories they tell.

Sitting 'Ringside' with Creators Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber

AiPT!: Wrestling comics seem like a hard sell for some reason. Michael Kingston’s been toiling with his indie book Headlocked since 2008, without much of a look from mainstream publishers. What sets Ringside apart and makes it the right pitch at the right time?

Joe: Yeah, Michael’s a good guy. I haven’t read Headlocked yet, but I can tell you that guy hustles hard to get the word out. He’s the real deal.

Along those lines, Jarrett Williams has been doing Super Pro KO at Oni Press since 2010. Darren Aronofsky did The Wrestler in 2008 as well. Jules Dassin did Night and the City back in 1950. There’s a good, long history of wrestling stories across all mediums of fiction and whether it’s a “tough sell” or not is irrelevant to us.

If you’re doing comics, but especially an Image book, because of “what’s hot” right now, just quit. Stop.

I work in a comic book store. I can confirm there’s enough garbage out there trying to latch onto a trend. They all read like xeroxes with a few dozen generations of quality lost in the process. The comics we sell over the long term are the ones who try something new, even if it’s with long established characters. Whether it’s Jeff Lemire and Emi Lenox on Plutona, Mike Mignola on Hellboy in Hell, Junjo Ito on Uzumaki or classics like Tove Jansson on Moomin, those are the things doing real well for us over the long term.

Even in the corporate circle — you know what comic books we’re going to be selling for a real long time to come? Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye. Two great books putting creators’ vision before “what’s hot.” There’s no one on Earth who thought a comic book about Hawkeye drinking out of a pot of coffee and a completely new take on an old Carol Danvers nickname would be the “next big thing,” but they’re incredible books. Heck, look at Quietly and Morrison’s All-Star Superman. You think anyone did an opinion poll to see if people were dying to read a comic book where Superman gets jacked up by the sun? How about Greg Capullo and Scott Snyder’s Batman. People were really writing in demanding for Batman to take on a bunch of rich folks wearing owl masks? Hell, no, but both were amazing.

Sitting 'Ringside' with Creators Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber

Let’s look at Image, the reigning champ of doing original comics — again, was there ever a huge trend for poetic westerns? No, but Emma Ríos & Kelly Sue DeConnick produced one of my favorite comics of the last few years, Pretty Deadly. How about the big heat for B&W 1950s TV-industry-focused murder mysteries? Didn’t exist, but Chaykin and Fraction killed it on Satellite Sam. Heck, go back a decade. Zombie books were in the toilet when Walking Dead came out. Walking Dead did not initially sell well. It took a while, but Robert was a dude who really wanted to write a never-ending zombie story, just as Emma, Kelly Sue, Howard and Matt really wanted to tell their stories regardless of whatever “demand” preceded it. They were successful because they took risks.

Nick and I are doing Ringside, because it’s the story we want to tell. The end. It’s folly to try to be “the right pitch at the right time” or create something because you think it’s what the market wants. We’re just trying to tell a story and I’ll tell you — in terms of pitching, this one took forever. I conceived of Ringside circa ’09 and pitched it to Image, Skybound, Oni Press, Dark Horse and Vertigo over the years, tweaking it every time. It took a long time to get right and I’m grateful for it, because the story which exists now is the best iteration of Ringside thus far, so to speak.

AiPT!: How would you sell this to a non-wrestling fan? What makes Ringside a uniquely Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber book?

Joe: Look, I don’t know a damn thing about Texas High School Football and I loved Friday Night Lights. Wrestling is the ties that bind all our characters, but it’s not a required love to get in the book. Have you ever had something you were passionate about and put your all in? Did you ever fail and have to rise up? Everyone does and everyone has. The point’s not that some of the characters in our book get in the ring, it’s that all of them have something they’re willing to sacrifice everything for.

Ringside hits shelves November 25.

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