Hanging Out With Flair, Being Best Friends With ‘The King': Mike Kingston’s Absurd Journey to ‘Headlocked: The Hard Way’ [Interview]
Mike Kingston has described Headlocked, the comic he writes with artist Michel Mulipola as a cable TV drama-style take on the world of professional wrestling, centered on an aspiring actor who gives up on theater to focus on making it in the King of Sports. With three volumes funded through Kickstarter campaigns, the series has become a cult favorite among wrestling fans and comics readers, both for the ongoing story and the involvement of pro wrestlers as writers and artists for bonus stories included in the paperbacks
Now, as the campaign for Headlocked Volume 4: The Hard Way is rolling along, I sat down with Kingston at Emerald City Comiccon to talk about bridging the gap between comics and pro wrestling, the strange journey he's taken, and what it's like to share a table at a comic book convention with the legendary 16-time world champion, Ric Flair.
ComicsAlliance: The last time we talked about Headlocked, you talked a lot about the difficulty you've had bridging the gap between comics readers and wrestling fans, and how sometimes it feels like you're too comics for wrestling fans, and too wrestling for comics.
Mike Kingston: Yeah, definitely. I still feel like that in a lot of ways. A lot of it is that both sets of fans can be brand slaves, between superheroes having such a stranglehold on comics and WWE having such a stranglehold on wrestling. There's a significant portion of the fanbase that are just brand zombies, but we're chipping away at it. For me, using some of the actual wrestlers in the stories seems to help with getting people interested and intrigued, especially now that two of the guys who have done stories for me are two of the top guys in WWE, but it's though battle.
To me, it's harder to get people who are strictly comics fans than it is to get wrestling fans, honestly. I feel like wrestling fans are a little more open.
CA: What's interesting to me about that is that with this new volume, you've talked about having a "murderer's row" of not just wrestlers contributing, but comics creators as well.
MK: Yeah, I had to move some talent around because of the people I had. I had big names that I had to push off to other books, because I try to hit all the audiences. Obviously Ric Flair and Mick Foley appeal to a certain segment. Foley's got the Attitude Era fans, with Ric you can get the older NWA fans, and then Cody Rhodes appeals to people who have watched WWE or are big on the indies. Kenny Omega's the super-smart indie darling. Having all of those guys is great.
From a comics standpoint, having Ed McGuinness, Robbi Rodriguez, and Andy Belanger, to me, those are awesome artists in their own right, and I'm super excited about that lineup.
CA: What was it like to get them on board? I know that Andy's a wrestling guy.
MK: Andy wrestles.
CA: Does he really?
MK: I just learned this. He wrestles for IWS as "The Animal" Bob Anger.
CA: I did not know that! But hey, now you're exposing the business with his shoot name!
MK: [Laughs] I had no idea. I knew of him as an artist and someone told me he was a wrestler, and I was like, "No, I think I'd know this." This is the kind of thing that people come to me with right away, and it took this long for me to find that out. I actually approached him.
Ed's a big fan of the book, he actually asked to do something. Robbi's a big fan of the book, and we were supposed to do something in the pre-Jerry Lawler days, doing floppies through Markosia, but that never panned out. He's been down with it for a long time, so it's cool that we could circle back and make it happen.
CA: Here at Emerald City, you had Ric Flair at your table, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. Obviously, Flair's involved in the book, but you're sitting next to someone who has his own thing going on with this audience, some of whom have been fans for 20 or 30 years, or more. Does that actually help to bring people in and get them interested in what you're doing?
MK: I feel like it works i one of two ways. Now that Ric's here, if I see people stop by who have a comic book shirt on, or they have comics in their hand, I can say, "Hey, Ric's doing a story in this comic." It's a lead-in so that I can get into my pitch. Obviously, lots of people are coming here not knowing what Headlocked is, just to meet Flair, but it's exposure.
I've been coming to cons for a long time, and I didn't necessarily feel like they did wrestling right at cons, so one of the things I've tried to do is evolve and create a better experience for wrestling fans, bringing in better guests than they were getting. Before, it was just Virgil, Greg Valentine, the Honky Tonk Man, or whatever, but now we've got Flair. We had seven people at New York Comic-Con last year. We had Flair, Christian, Mick Folely, Noelle Foley, Joey Styles, Booker T, you know? It was all about creating that better experience, because as a wrestling fan, I found wrestling to be extremely underrepresented at comic cons. We had prints for the guys, we had shirts, and I obviously like to talk wrestling and banter back and forth with fans, so it really was all about giving wrestling fans a place to be.
At San Diego, we always have something happen. The year that CM Punk won the belt and then "quit" and did that whole storyline, he crashed the WWE panel as part of the angle. He came on the main floor, he went to Jill Thompson's booth, then they both came to our both, and then left. Last year, they had me win the DDT Pro Ironman Heavymetalweight title at San Diego Comic-Con [Note: the DDT Pro Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship is a "24/7" title that has been held by professional wrestlers and non-wrestlers, such as an inflatable doll, several animals, an imaginary person, and a ladder]. We always try to have these really cool experiences so that fans will want to hang out and see the cool stuff that's gong on. I feel like somebody needs to do that for wrestling fans, and I'm glad to be the guy to do it.
CA: What's it been like for you as a creator with this book that you believe in, and you've been very open about this, that's also been very difficult to pull off? Two or three years ago, I met you in a community center in Easton, Pennsylvania, and you've gotten to the level where you can pull off something like that, set up with Ric Flair at Emerald City, with multiple successful Kickstarter campaigns. It seems like it would be surreal to think about that journey.
MK: Every day. I try not to forget about where I came from, and I think you'll see it with sports guys. Aaron Rodgers never got over the fact that he was picked in the fourth round or whatever, or Tom Brady. I remember all my rejections, knowing in my heart as a wrestling fan that this was a book I'd want to read, knowing there was a market for it, and having a guy in my hometown at the comic book store say "no one will ever read this." That stuff sticks with you, you never forget that.
So I try to never take it for granted, but at the same time, I try to enjoy the ride. I got to watch WrestleMania from a luxury box last year; 2K Sports had me in as a guest. How neat is that? I get to hang out with Flair, Jerry Lawler's one of my best friends. It's been an absurd journey --- one day, randomly, Booker T called me up to ask if I knew Vanilla Ice.
MK: He wanted him for his radio show! That's what I woke up to, it was like 10 in the morning. It's an absurd life, and there's a lot of hours in the car by myself, a lot of hours hunched over a desk, and I work 65 to 70 hours a week at a regular job. I feel like everything that happened made the book stronger.If we'd just been picked up by Diamond years ago, we'd probably been done and gone. It forced me to get wrestlers involved and try different avenues.
With Kickstarter, we have a sustainable model, and I've got guys lined up for the following book when I haven't even written this one yet. I think it worked out the only way that it could've.
CA: Let's talk about Volume 4, The Hard Way. Where are we at in the story at this point?
MK: It's coming right out of The Last Territory, Part 2 Mike is still down in Texas, he's still working under a mask, and one of the things that we've been teasing since we started the book was that there was this event where he was beaten and bloodied up, and got blackballed from the wrestling business. We're going to reveal what happened, hence The Hard Way. It's also about how, you know when you come out of college and you have all this optimism? You're young and you think that the world is going to bend to you, you're going to do all these things, and he's got this mentality going into wrestling. "I'm an actor, I'm going to be good, I know all this stuff," and he's literally having it beaten out of him.It's him coming to grips with that as a person, entering life and having life just pound the hell out of him, so he has to adapt his way of thinking and his personality to survive.
A lot of those experiences are experiences that I had in comics, and that I think anybody has moving from youth to adulthood and attempting to have a life.
CA: One of the things I've always been curious about is that you have that core ongoing story, but you also have the backup stories by wrestlers. Is there any story you've heard that's either been something that you really wanted to use for the core of Headlocked, or one that you were going to do and now you can't because, say, Ric Flair dropped something too similar on you?
MK: No, most of the guys are really cool. The story that Samoa Joe wanted to do for his book was not fit for six pages. It took him an hour and a half to tell me, and I just couldn't get it into six pages --- I'm concerned about Mick's story fitting in, too. I think that we're actually going to turn around and use that story for our guy later on, with Joe getting a creator credit for it.
Some of the stories are just insane, and some of them I really do want to use at some point just keeping them in the bank. Even experiences that I've had with the guys. Even in my limited capacity on the periphery, I've seen some crazy stuff.
CA: Is there anything you won't put in the comic because people won't believe it?
MK: I don't know if we've gotten there yet, thankfully. I mean, most of them, I think people have heard about Ric's proclivity for nudity. [Laughs] All of those quirks end up coming out. People hear about them, and then at that point you're just talking context.
CA: You mentioned already having talent lined up for the next book after this one, which leads to the question: How long do you see Headlocked going? Is there enough in that core story to keep going forever?
MK: I mean, I could write it forever. Wrestling has such a rich history, and right now, I mean, he's just taking bumps. We're just building the frame, we haven't even painted the house yet. We can take him to Japan, to the UK, to Mexico, we can do anything with this story. I could write it as long as people will support it. I know what the ending is, I know how his journey ends, but it's the middle that's important.
I'd like to start doing anthologies if I can find the time --- I have a hankering to do an all-female book, with all women wrestlers and all female creators. I think that would be really cool to see, because one of the things about wrestling is that that history is underrepresented. I don't know a lot about the history of women's wrestling --- people treat it like it just started with Lita, and Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young are there, but people don't know their history. That's fascinating to me, and I'd love to get in there. We have a character, Crystal, in the book, and there's a lot I want to do with her to explore those types of things, but obviously that's a separate book.
CA: I think now would be a good time to do that, because it is something that feels like it's out there. There was that great documentary about GLOW, and now we've got that Netflix series coming out, too, and they're making that movie about Paige and how she grew up in a family of wrestlers.
MK: Paige actually lent a little bit of a story to the last book. She was telling me about how her family was teaching her to sell, so they blindfolded her and stood on four sides of her, and they'd just attack her and she had to sell it without seeing it coming, so she could learn how to realistically sell. She told me I could use it in the book, and we actually worked it in because I think it's really cool. It's such an interesting thought process. I don't think you can ever get over how much of wrestling is teaching your body to ignore its natural defense mechanisms.
CA: Just like working in comics.
MK: [Laughs] It really is, dude. But yeah, it's been a fascinating journey. As much time as I've spent studying the business and learning and talking to people about it, there are still so many layers that people don't even know.
You can check out previous volumes of Headlocked out over on the official site. Headlocked, Vol 4: The Hard Way is currently still seeking funding on Kickstarter.