Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber’s Ringside offers a compelling wrestling-themed drama with a crime fiction twist.
- Paperback/full color/$7.99 (US, digital); $9.99 (US, print)
- Due in stores 15 June 2016
- Story: Joe Keatinge
- Illustrations: Nick Barber
- Colors: Simon Gough
- “Special low introductory price of $9.99! Explore the crossroads of art, industry, and identity from the view of the wrestlers themselves, the creatives they work with, the suits in charge, and the fans cheering them all on. That’s just the beginning. The real violence is outside the ring. Collects Ringside #1–#5.”
When I read the original solicitation copy for the debut issue of writer Joe Keatinge and artist Nick Barber’s Image Comics title Ringside, my first thought was “sounds interesting, but I think I liked it better when it was called The Wrestler.”
After finally taking the time to read the recently released volume collecting the first five issues of the series, I’m pleased to report that my initial assumptions about the comic were very, very wrong. Make no mistake, Ringside does share some similarities with Darren Aronofsky’s critically-lauded film—chief of which is a protagonist who is an aging, down-and-out professional wrestler grappling with the difficult transition to a post-wrestling life. And as with The Wrestler, Ringside also succeeds at the task of humanizing the people who work the regional pro wrestling circuit.
Indeed, Keatinge and Barber could have made Ringside strictly about pro wrestling and it would still have all the potential for compelling drama, with the industry’s roster of personalities and long history of real-life tragedies providing more than sufficient inspiration for fiction. However, the pair opted to go beyond the mat, so to speak, and simultaneously crafted a gripping crime comic in the process.
[NOTE: Spoilers from this point forward.]
Daniel Knossos, the American pro wrestler formerly known as the Minotaur, has spent the past several years as a puroresu trainer in Japan. It’s anonymous work, a far cry from his life in the squared circle, but for an over-the-hill pro like Dan, it’s one of the few ways he can stay actively involved in the business. This all goes out the window, though, when he receives a frantic, cryptic call for help from his ex-boyfriend Teddy. Dan jets back to his old California stomping grounds and soon finds himself embroiled in a one-man vendetta against a local organized crime outfit. In between the modern-day sequences are flashbacks filling out his personal history with wrestling and Teddy.
Running parallel to Dan’s story is that of Reynolds and Davis, the former an ambitious young prospect looking to break through to televised wrestling shows and the latter an old friend of Dan’s and a faded pro angling for one last big match. Paired together on a road trip to a series of small shows and convention appearances across California and Nevada, they provide a study in contrast with Reynolds’ naïve enthusiasm and the counterpoint of Davis’s somewhat cynical world-weariness. Their narrative serves largely to introduce readers to the politics and backroom maneuvering of the pro wrestling industry and its history of using up talent before kicking them to the curb, but the Reynolds/Davis sequences are an entertaining read in their own right and are some of my favorite parts of the book.
There’s potent symbolism in the juxtaposition of Dan’s descent into vigilantism and Reynolds and Davis’s digressions on the nature of the pro wrestling business—in straddling the divide between crime fiction and behind-the-scenes sports entertainment drama, Ringside subverts a lot of reader expectations over the course of its telling, and is much more engaging and unpredictable for it. The use of a gay protagonist, too, helps upend the hypermasculine crime fiction genre’s heteronormative traditions but in a way that sidesteps any charges of tokenism as Dan is not the only LGBTQ character in the book. Even its depiction of Dan’s initial, bumbling foray in seeking out retribution for Teddy is refreshingly unconventional. Add to all this Nick Barber’s effective visual storytelling and nuanced, minimalist rendering and what you have is one of the more interesting comics in a year that has thus far been full of interesting comics. Recommended.