It Has To Get Dark Quickly: Mike Kingston On Remastering ‘Headlocked’
When you see pro wrestling in comic books, it tends to come in stories that heighten the fantasy aspect, playing up the devastating power of a suplex or the mythical heroes that don luchador masks and battle evil in the squared circle. With Headlocked, though, the version of wrestling that you see on the page has all the grit, injuries, and crooked bsinessmen of the genuine article.
Originally released in 2007, the first volume of Headlocked told the story of a college theater major who fell in love with pro wrestling and encountered the darker side of the business, and it immediately gained a following through not just wrestling fans, but pro wrestlers themselves. Now, writer/creator Mike Kingston has launched a Kickstarter to remaster that story for a new version.
ComicsAlliance spoke to him about the challenge of selling comics at wrestling shows after being rejected by publishers, the audience that he’s been able to build, and the pro wrestlers — including MVP, Samoa Joe, and the Young Bucks — who are contributing new stories to the latest volume.
ComicsAlliance: For readers who might not be familiar with it, can you tell us a little about Headlocked and how it came about?
Mike Kingston: I was a wrestling fan and a comics fans since I was like eight years old. I loved them both, and every time a wrestling comic would come out, I would go to the comic book store and buy it, and it was never what I wanted, you know? It was Undertaker fighting demons, or Kevin Nash as Mad Max, or all of those weird wrestling comics where they were doing anything but wrestling. There were never any wrestling comics about wrestling. It just became apparent to me at some point that no one was ever going to make the wrestling comic that I wanted to read, so I decided to make it myself.
I met a lot of resistance from the comic book world. I always tell people this story, but somebody from a big publisher straight up laughed in my face when I pitched it to them initially, back in 2007. It was something I always believed in, so I spent a lot of time going to wrestling shows to build my audience, and eventually I guess I managed to impress enough wrestlers who like comics, like Hurricane Helms and Rob Van Dam, who had come and bought copies of my books, to help us out with raising awareness of it. Once Kickstarter became a thing, we had built enough of an audience and I had enough guys attached that we were able to fund the books through that.
It’s kind of neat, because I think we’ve built a sustainable comic book series without using any of the traditional comic book apparatus, besides going to conventions. I don’t know if anybody’s ever done that before.
The story is my love letter to the craft of wrestling. It’s about a theater major who falls in love with wrestling, and he quits school and decides to become a wrestler. It’s his coming-of-age in the wrestling business, examining the craft through the eyes of a performance artist, as he’s navigating the seedy underbelly of the business. I think it’s a fun, cable-drama type story, but we always try to stay true to wrestling as an art form, and I think that’s what separates it from the pack.
CA: You describe it as a cable drama, and I think you hear that a lot when people describe their comics. You get a lot of “oh, it’s The Wire meets superheroes” or whatever. In your case, though, I think it’s a solid comparison, because you get really dark, and you get there really fast.
MK: Any time you’re on the fringes of entertainment, I think that’s when it’s the darkest, when you have these sharks on the periphery that are there to take advantage of the dreamers. There are guys who have their horrible wrestling schools that are trying to make money off of kids who don’t know any better, because there’s no beaten path. I think the cool thing about wrestling is that no one has the same origin story. Everybody got into the business in different ways. But it’s like the girl getting off the bus in Hollywood, and there are a dozen casting agents looking to take advantage of that person.
I think it has to get dark really quick. In WWE, your big “darkness” is “oh, they’re not giving me a push,” but on the periphery, it’s a lot darker. It becomes “oh, you’ve taken all of my money.”
CA: So when you first started, how did you go about researching that aspect of it? Was it just watching Beyond the Mat and shoot interviews? Did you have conversations with wrestlers about their experiences at the start?
MK: I had just done a ton of research. I’d been a lifelong subscriber to the Observer, and I just consumed everything that I could for that first book, and then as my contacts grew, I would talk to people. I’m in a position now where I’m very welcome in a lot of wrestling locker rooms, which I think is kind of insane to me. I can just be in the back and nobody says anything, so now I see things, and I take things in, and I talk to guys.
I think for what I needed for the very first trade, most of that knowledge could be gleaned from an outsider’s perspective. But as it gets deeper, the access that I have to so many people definitely gives me a leg up on authenticity.
CA: Is that something that’s helped you in a way that going through that traditional indie comics route wouldn’t have? I know that you do a lot of comic book conventions, but I’ve seen you setting up with Headlocked at wrestling shows, right next to wrestlers selling their t-shirts.
MK: I definitely think it helps. A side effect of that is that it gives me credibility with the wrestlers. They see me at these shows, and everybody knows the work that I put in to build this audience. We build it one reader at a time, one wrestling show at a time. If anybody’s bought an issue of Headlocked, they’ve bought it out of my hands. I think that a lot of indie wrestlers respect the miles I’ve put in and the shows that I do, because they see me everywhere. They see me in different states.
I think that’s why they don’t treat me like an outsider anymore. They’re comfortable with talking to me, they’re comfortable with sharing things with me, because they know that I’m living the same life that they are — only I’m not falling down. The roads, the miles, the hotels, that’s the life that I live. Having a regular job on top of this. I definitely think that’s given me credibility with a lot of people.
CA: So when you’re set up at a wrestling show, I’m curious as to where you fall in the overlap. Obviously, there are a lot of wrestling fans who are also comics fans, but there are also fans going to shows who have no interest in comics — as weird as that may seem — and there are comics fans at conventions who don’t have any interest in wrestling. Have you had that experience of being someone’s first comic, because it’s tied into wrestling? Or being someone’s first exposure to wrestling?
MK: Actually, yeah, there’s a ton of those experiences. People come by, and Jerry Lawler’s covers are very evocative. We do the Norman Rockwell homages, and a lot of times people will stop at a show to look at those books, and then I give them the pitch. I always tell people “you don’t have to watch boxing to appreciate Rocky.” That’s the sort of thing that makes a connection with them, that makes them think it’s something they can check out.
One of the things I’ve always wanted to do with the book is educate people who might not necessarily know about or think highly of wrestling about the art form and the craft, but it’s like a dog. You have to hide the medicine in the food. So I try to tell an entertaining story about a kid coming of age, and the medicine is “holy cow, wrestling is a lot more complicated and intricate than I think.” The same with wrestling fans. You have to get past the fact that so many people think of comics as just superheroes. I’d say I’ve definitely been more wrestling fans’ first comics than non-wrestling fans first exposure to wrestling.
Here’s an extreme example. There’s a guy I met at one of the first Ring of Honor shows, and I was his first comic that he ever read, and now he’s so into comics that he doesn’t watch wrestling anymore. Comics took over as his new obsession. We’re definitely a gateway drug on both ends of that, and I like that about our book.
I feel like there’s definitely something for everyone. If you’re a process junkie, you might be into the how-to stuff, if you like cable dramas, if you like coming-of-age stories, if you like wrestling. We try to make it as accessible to as many people as possible while staying true to the story that we want to tell.
CA: In terms of that story, you talked about Nash and Undertaker, and a lot of comics that brush up against wrestling — even the ones that are way better than those — tend to emphasize the fantastical elements of wrestling, and bring that to the page. You taking it back down to the realistic elements, was there ever a time when you thought that wasn’t the right way to go, or that it might be more fun the other way?
MK: I feel like that’s been done, though, and it hasn’t been done in a way that’s been successful. If you want to watch wrestling, you can watch wrestling. I don’t know if there’s a way that you can make the kinetics of wrestling more interesting by making it two-dimensional. You can certainly do things that are cool with it, but I think there’s a reason that traditionally, one of the things a lot of comics writers will tell you is one thing you can’t do in comics is sports.
I definitely disagree, but I think you can’t tell a straight up sports story, just because it’s a different thing. You’ll never be able to reproduce it — a reverse dragon huracanrana from Dragon Kid, there’s no way to make that cooler on the comic book page. So the elements that we focus on are something that we can do in terms of actual wrestling, and the character stuff is the same type of deal.
CA: So let’s talk about the current Kickstarter campaign. Why did you decide that now was the time to go back and do a new version of your first story?
MK: It wasn’t anything that I really intended, but since we did our second book as a Kickstarter campaign, they ended up looking so much better than the first one. I worked two jobs for over a year to fund the production of the first book, but it was everybody‘s first book. I was a first-time writer, Randy Valiente was a first-time artist, Jessika Gravel was a first time colorist, Jerry was just getting back into art. When I look at what we do now versus what we did then, I know we can do better.
It’s different when I’m at a show. You can see the progression on my table. But we’re getting to the point now where I’m starting to consider putting out books through Diamond or Amazon, in less personal ways, so I need that first experience that people have to be the best experience it can be, otherwise they might not come back.
Obviously, I have a ton of affection for that book, because that’s the one that we built everything on, but as we start getting in with more comic book fans, they’re going to have a higher demand for quality. We took shortcuts, obviously — we didn’t ink the original art, and that’s something that a solid, experienced team can pull off, but I don’t know if we necessarily did it as well as we could’ve. I posted a few pictures of how it looks now that it’s been inked and recolored, and I think it’s a dramatic difference.
If I’m not there to explain to people where we’re going and how good it looks when they buy their first book, I want them to buy the next one and come along for the ride. So I need to make sure that the books all fit on the bookshelf, and they all have the same standard of quality.
CA: What was it like to go back? This is something that you lived with for years to make, and something you’ve been selling to people ever since, but did you have enough distance from when it came out that you could go back and look at it as a reader, when it came time to figure out what to change?
MK: Well, I’m not changing any of the story. It’s really just cleaning up the art and putting a fresh cover on it, and putting a little additional content in it. I’m trying not to change the story too much, because I don’t want it to be a punishment for people if they don’t want to buy two books.
The story will remain unchanged, but there is one thing that we are going to do. When I wrote that first book, I originally intended to make it a linear story. Then, when Kickstarter became a thing, I wanted to give it a new jumping on point, because I didn’t want people to get that one and feel like there was something else they needed to have. So what we did was flash forward a little bit and use the Ambrose character to fill in the gaps.
But now the problem with the first book is that there’s a cliffhanger that isn’t paid off, and that’s the one… not complaint, but people do ask me, “Did I miss something in between?” So we are cutting that three-page cliffhanger and then putting in a seven-page bridge story done by the current team, so that you can see where we’re headed. It flows better, and people have an idea of what our current art team is capable of.
CA: I think I mentioned that to you after I read the first two books. I was really expecting to see something different hwen the second started.
MK: There were five years between when we wrote the first book and when we wrote The Last Territory. It was something I felt like we needed to clean up, and ultimately, I think it’ll be a better reading experience for people that are jumping on. The people that are already here, they’re already here and they know what we’re doing, and they’ve been through it. If it’s something they want to buy, that’s great, and with the Kickstarters, we do the extra content that you can’t get anywhere else, so I try to make sure they’re getting a good value for their money. If they don’t, it’s not going to impede their enjoyment of the series in any way.
CA: You mention the extra content, and I think one of the trademarks of Headlocked is how many wrestlers you get to work on the comic. Am I correct in saying that you’re the only non-wrestler working on the book?
MK: Well, Jill Thompson, but yeah, pretty much. Everyone else is a wrestler, and Jill’s kind of got a foot in the business, too.
For this one, I’m co-writing stories with Samoa Joe, MVP, and the Young Bucks. Choosing those guys for this book was very important to me. I have a ton of guys who want to do stuff with me, but one of the things that I like about all four of those guys, personally, is that they all succeeded despite conventional wisdom. Joe succeeded, and he didn’t have to be the stereotypical Samoan character. He kept doing what he was doing and was rewarded for that. The same with the Bucks, they were thought to be too small, clones of the Hardys, too many superkicks, and they became one of the biggest acts in the world. And MVP, he left his contract to go to Japan, because it wasn’t his dream to wrestle in WWE, he wanted to wrestle in Japan.
Choosing those guys was important, because I feel like we all succeeded against conventional wisdom. I can’t even tell you how many people in comics said “no one’s ever going to read this, wrestling comics don’t sell, wrestling fans don’t read.” I mean, I heard it all, and we dug in our heels and did what we did. Having those guys as part of the book means a lot to me.
For the art, we have an independent wrestler gallery this time. We have Tom La Ruffa, who wrestled in WWE as Sylvester LeFort, who’s an amazing painter. Scott Lost, a retired wrestler and one of the founders of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla who’s now a comic book artist. Papadon, who’s a staple in the Northeast indie scene. Danny Havoc, who’s been a longtime CZW deathmatch wrestler, they’re all doing art for the book.
That’s one of the things I love, that people find me now. Drew Gulak told me Danny Havoc was an artist and gave me his number, and said “oh, just call him, he won’t mind.” It’s neat, because I’m probably the only guy who’s looking for wrestlers to do art, outside of maybe their buddies who want them to do a t-shirt. Usually people are really excited when you promote them, and I’m excited because it’s good to flesh these guys out as people, as creators and storytellers, beyond just what people know of them as wrestling personas. It’s very fun for me.
CA: You’ve already made your goal for this campaign, which has to feel pretty good.
MK: It definitely does.
CA: What strikes me is that you made your goal this quickly with a book that, essentially, most of your fans already have. I’ve got a copy that I bought from you, clearly you’re reaching an audience at shows that’s ready to support you. What do you think is bringing people back?
MK: I think everybody comes for different reasons. I think there are a lot of people who respect the journey that we’ve had, and what we’ve overcome. I think there are people who are real hardcore fans, they have the single issues from the beginning, everything we’ve done. They’ve been along for the entire journey. There are people who think “hey, it’d be cool to read a comic book story by the Young Bucks.” And there are new readers. We have a lot of big pledges of people who are getting all three volumes, because they haven’t heard of us.
That’s why I was excited about this Kickstarter, as a fresh jumping on point for people. They can support the book if they’ve heard about it, or if they’ve been waiting to jump on, because it’s an easier point of entry. You can always get all the books through any Kickstarter that I do, but it’s a little tricky when you’re like “hey, support Volume Four!” People are like “oh, I don’t have the first three,” even though you can get them as part of the campaign. I always try to make it accessible, but being able to do a volume one, and being able to get people on board for the first time is helpful to us as we go forward.
That’s the amazing thing to me, as I do shows. We just did Emerald City, and I sold out of Volume 1 by Saturday morning, and I sold out of Volume 2 on Sunday morning. That was all the books that I had shipped up, plus the books that I hadn’t sold in Dallas. It was beyond our wildest dreams, but there are still a ton of people who have no idea that we exist. Outside of you and Pat Loika, I don’t know that I exist to people in comics. It’s starting to catch a little bit. We’re getting more love on the comics side as we’ve grown, but there are still tons of people out there that are jumping on for the first time.
The Headlocked Kickstarter runs until Tuesday 17 May.