Joe Keatinge & Nick Barber Wrestle with Passion, Sacrifice and Industry in Ringside

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A lifelong fan of professional wrestling, comics scribe Joe Keatinge (Shutter, Glory) came to an epiphany more dramatic than any mat-bound double cross or last-minute upset: the hulking gods of the ring were just as fragile and human as the fans watching. And for Keatinge, no figure represented this exercise in contrast more than four-time world champion ‘80s icon, Mick Foley.

“He was the hardcore champion. He was doing stuff like jumping from steel cages,” Keatinge says. ” And genuinely, not an angle, he lost his ear. And then I saw Beyond the Mat, and he was the sweetest guy on the planet. And that was when I realized these titans that I was loving were human. A lot of them were broke. It really resonated with me on a different level.”

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Foley isn’t the only legend to fall from the ropes to less fortunate circumstances. Jim Harris, or Kamala, relied on crowdfunding to aid medical costs after he was forced to amputate both of his legs in a diabetic complication. Suicide and drug addiction have loomed large for a number of performers as well.

Like other entertainment fields, wrestling is an industry where passion and sacrifice can collide with the indifferent cogs of industry. New, eager talent contrasts with grizzled veterans, wary of their careers that guaranteed fame but nothing else.

Alongside New Zealand artist Nick Barber, Keatinge will explore this complex ecosystem in Ringside, a new Image ongoing comic whose first issue released this week. In its debut chapter, Ringside frames its dynamic through former star Dashin’ Dan Knossos. In a scenario reminiscent of Diamond Dallas Page and Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Knossos returns from a trainer stint in Japan to assist a fellow pro who’s had less luck in the aftermath of their careers. Newcomer Reynolds shows the full spectrum of the ouroboros, eager to make his mark in a field he’s adored since childhood. Future issues will expand the behind-the-scenes scope to writers, music composers and bootleggers. Articulated through Barber’s minimalist line work, Ringside dives into a deep dramatic ensemble of ardor and regret with huge ambitions.

Paste spoke with Keatinge and Barber to dissect Ringside’s development and how the comics industry relates to wrestling.

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Paste: Joe, we’ve discussed how the wrestling and comic book industries mirror each other regarding their instability for creators in the face of corporate interest. Why is now the time to explore that relationship? Why communicate this through a comic?
Joe Keatinge: It was conceived as a comic. Why didn’t it happen earlier? It wasn’t right and I didn’t have Nick, yet—I didn’t have the right collaborator. I was pitching it around since 2010 and refining it as I went along. Really, Nick is the missing piece of all of that. Comics is the best format for it. It’s what I always thought it would be.

Paste: Whereas Shutter is wildly whimsical and fantastic, Ringside is defined by realism and definitely shies away from any romanticism thus far. How important is it to you to have that balance, stylistically and artistically?
Keatinge: It was always methodical. For a long time, I wanted Shutter to be the primary thing you could get from me. I knew I wanted my follow up to be opposite for a number of reasons. There’s only so many dollars per creator, and I want to make sure what I have out there isn’t cannibalizing itself. In terms of perception, I see a lot of guys getting pigeonholed early on. At this point, I wanted something that was the total opposite. And I don’t like saying the same thing twice.

I like having a lot of variety in the material I’m working on. What excites me about comics is the potential for the new, and I like the idea of working on things I haven’t worked on before and styles I haven’t worked on before and collaborators I haven’t worked with before. Everything I work on is finite as it’s conceived. When Shutter ends, I’m sure I’ll work on something else in the future, and that’ll be totally different.

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Paste: Do you already have a scope in mind for Ringside?
Keatinge: I do, and I’m not giving the record about it. I know what it is, but there’s a whole structure to it. The way I’ve looked at it since conceiving Shutter is building a roadmap and knowing stuff you want to do: where it starts and where it ends, and knowing where I want to go in the middle. But the truth of the matter is that as you work on something, it evolves into something else, or you go on a different route, or you spend more time on certain characters than you initially intended. I like having that freedom. The cool thing with comics, especially under the Image model, is that it’s up to Nick and me. That’s not to say it’s not tight at all, but it’s tight with the freedom to change it up. That’s exciting to me.

Paste: Nick, this is your first comic. What attracted you to Ringside?
Nick Barber: Joe and I talked about what we might want to work on together. It didn’t come up immediately, but when we said the types of things we’re both interested in and what we might want to do as a comic, Joe pitched me the previous version of Ringside. It just seemed to fit perfectly; it just seemed like a great setting for that tone that I wanted to draw.

Paste: Wrestling tends to be articulated through the surreal and hyper-masculine, whereas Ringside is incredibly understated with more European flourishes. It fits the theme incredibly well of being more grounded.
Barber: That’s the sort of stuff that I get influenced by mostly—European stuff. Some Japanese stuff as well, probably more in the storytelling than the actual art. It’s definitely one of my interests.

Paste: What kind of tactics did you take to define these characters visually after Joe charted out the characters?
Barber: I’d read the scripts and Joe would explain what the characters look like and more so who they are as people. And then I’ll do that layouts, which are 20 or so pages. I have a pretty good idea of how people look, sort of like when you read a novel and you picture the characters in your head. It’s as simple as that really. I just let them come out onto the page.

Paste: Joe, you’ve both worked as a full-time employee and published books through Image, the largest creator-owned company in comics. Whether in wrestling or comics, do you think we’re looking at a better working relationship between creators, performers and entertainment corporations?
Keatinge: I have worked with Image on both sides of it. I’ve had great experiences at other places. Marvel, especially, was good to me. In terms of what Image does, in terms of original creator-owned material, it’s really the best home for it. Not just in terms of the deal, which is Nick and I co-own Ringside 50/50, and Image owns 0% of it. Other publishers like to say that they give it, but the truth of the matter is, it’s just not the case. Lumberjanes is a creator-owned book, but two of the original creators are no longer part of the series, so it’s nothing against BOOM! If you want to do a fully creator-owned thing, Image is the best way to do it.

I do think it’s evolved. I draw parallels between wrestling and comics, but it’s not just wrestling and comics, it’s really any sort of art form you work in has a crossroads with industry. In Ringside, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say it also crosses into the business of what we hyperbolize as a criminal underworld. The truth of it is, it’s really not that far away from any sort of business structure—that’s not to say businesses are crooked or whatever. Where do you draw the line to protect your art, and also work along with this industry? I feel like Image is the best way to do both. We’re picking everything down from the binding of the book to the paper stock. We choose where ads go, and whether ads are in it or not.

I like starting the comics I work on from the inside front cover, and I really feel that Image is the only place that would allow me to do that. It sounds like a minor thing, but it’s huge. I got it because I was reading this really beautiful comic, but the inside front cover was for Combos and I was really thrown off by that. I was talking to (Prophet writer) Brandon Graham, and you’re supposed to be immersed in this beautiful fantasy world, and here’s this snack that tastes like pepperoni pizza. It sounds like a minor thing, but I feel like it’s a huge advantage.

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Paste: This first issue explores the contrast between young enthusiasm in the form of new wrestler Reynolds and Dan Knossos, who’s a weathered and cynical veteran of the sport. Which one of these characters do you associate with more?
Keatinge: I don’t feel like I’m represented by anyone in here. I don’t think there’s an analogue to me in the book. There was a signing event last night with a bunch of Image creators. It was Leila and me, Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick and Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey. I was bringing up how, in 1999, the Batman movie came out and it was a massive success and it was one of the best-selling comics of all time, drawn by Norm Breyfogle, who’s a genius. Earlier this year, he’s doing an online fundraiser to help with medical bills. Maybe that’s part of Dan. Again, it’s not limited to comics. It’s any sort of art form you look into. There’s a bit about Dan not owning the bit he helped develop—it’s part of this corporation. And Marvel and DC, they’re fine. Marvel was very generous with me, and they outlined the deal; it was very clear.

But it’s not limited to comics and wrestling. It’s any cross-section of art and industry.

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Paste: This is more of a sports industry comic than a sports comic, and you’ve likened it to Friday Night Lights—a narrative with intriguing characters that just so happens to revolve around wrestling. How would you describe Ringside to encapsulate this degree of complexity?
Keatinge: It is kind of tough. The wrestling angle has gotten a lot of heat, and Nick and I have done a million interviews that have asked who our favorite wrestler is, which is fun and it’s nice to talk about, and we talk about it in the interview that goes in the back of the book. It’s not that the wrestling is secondary and arbitrary at all, it’s essential to the book. I’ve taken a lot of inspirations in my own life looking at wrestlers; there was a wrestler named Edge at WWE who was a fan when he was growing up. He trained his whole life and was on top of his field, and then in his late 30s he’s told this thing he’s loved his whole life and trained for can’t be done anymore because, otherwise, his neck would just pop off. He’s doing great now, and doing more acting, but to me that level of sacrifice for the thing you love to do and love to be a spectator of and participate in…

I feel like wrestling really encapsulates these guys who act like and are revered as gods, and they give very real, human sacrifices. In Portland, we have a promotion called DOA Wrestling, and those guys are out there giving real physical sacrifice to participate and entertain and work a room, as if they were in Madison Square Garden. I just get inspired by these people who sacrifice everything for this thing that they love. It’s kind of amazing.

Paste: Nick, do you have that same emotional connection?
Barber: Definitely. One thing I was going to say about the marketing side of things, one of the genres I love reading is sports comics. Obviously that’s more of a Japanese thing, but there’s something interesting about sports—even if you have no interest in a sport—when it’s in a comic. When I was growing up, I read Slam Dunk, which is a basketball comic. I’m not really that interested in basketball, but sports comics are generally pretty light on the sports and big on the drama. To me, in my head, that’s what Ringside is. It’s a sports comic in that sense where it’s about wrestling, but wrestling takes backstage to the character stuff. That was one of the things that attracted me to it as well.

Paste: Ringside seems to come from a very personal place, but is there also a desire to help people empathize and educate on these industries?
Keatinge: Ringside is a dramatization to a great degree. If you want the inside scoop on what’s going on in wrestling, it’s not that book at all. I try to be very clear about that. I am the wrestling community in so much as I’m a spectator of it, I enjoy it, but I’m not really in that community. I do think that the more universal themes are something that are more in line. There are real costs to what these people are doing, but again this will relate to anyone, no matter if they’re a professional wrestler or a race car driver or a doctor or a FedEx guy.

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