Considering how similar the two are, you would expect a significant cultural overlap between pro wrestling and comic books. Pro wrestling’s colourful characters, heightened melodrama, and rather simple ‘good vs evil’ storylines should translate easily onto the pages of a comic book, at least in theory, but that hasn’t always been the case. It is easy to see why, though. Pro wrestling is an experiential sport, that works best when you see it live with an audience, one that is losing their collective mind at every move in the ring, as you clap and cheer until you are left with a hoarse voice. Capturing that magic on paper has proven… difficult, to say the least. That being said, when Daniel Warren Johnson drops a pro wrestling comic book, you sit up and take notice.
Johnson is one of the most exciting creators working in comics right now, and has accumulated an impressive body of work in a rather short amount of time. Space-Mullet!, Extremity, Murder Falcon, Wonder Woman: Dead Earth, Beta Ray Bill: Argent Star are all worth your time and money. The visuals hook you in as you flip through the pages of these books – the perfect marriage of the hyper-detailed rendering that has become the staple of modern western comics and the sketchy, kinetic linework more commonly associated with manga – but it’s the stories, full of heart and human emotions, that make his work so special. His latest, with regular collaborators Mike Spicer and Rus Wooton, is set in the crazy world of pro wrestling. Advertised as – very ambitiously, if I may say so myself – “The Wrestler meets Dragonball Z” by the publisher, it is a passion project. Not just in terms of a creator taking their rather weird and extremely personal interest/hobby and exploring them in great detail through their work, which it very much is, but in the sense that it is designed to bring you, the readers, into pro wrestling through the inviting medium of comic books. “The goal,” as Johnson puts it in the back pages of the first issue, “is and always has been to invite people in, no matter where they’re at. So if you aren’t into pro-wrestling, damn am I glad you made it this far! And if you are into it,” which I, of course, am, “welcome, old friends!”
Looking back at his work now, it seems as if this was perhaps the book Johnson was always meant to do at some point. Pro wrestling exists in all his stories – from powerbombs in Extremity, his Eisner-nominated limited series that brought him into the spotlight, to suplexes in Beta Ray Bill: Argent Star, his last Big Two project. Death and grief exists in all his stories too, and Do a Powerbomb! is no different. This is a story of loss, and mourning, and the seven stages of grief explored over seven issues.
We begin, as all great stories often do, with a flashback. Yua Steelrose is set to defend her Tokyo Grand World Heavyweight Championship in a bout against the masked luchador Cobrasun, her once tag team partner and now bitter rival. Behind the scenes though, Yua and
Cobrasun Jacob are lovers, with wrestling being almost like a love language between them. They have a daughter, Lona, who is unaware that her dad is the “Poisonous Powerhouse” of TGPW. Perhaps a wise decision by the parents – you wouldn’t want to confuse a little kid with the backstage intricacies of pro wrestling, that when dad rains down insults on mom in the ring, he is actually playing heel (the “bad guy” in wrestling terms) – but one that would come to haunt both Jacob and Lona.
Yua is the Manami Toyota of this wrestling world – one of the greatest to ever lace up the boots and step into the squared circle. She is the face (the “good guy” in wrestling terms) in this rivalry, competing against the “high-flying scorcher” Cobrasun, whose look and in-ring gear is a cross between Jushin Thunder Liger and Kenny Omega. Johnson doesn’t have a lot of pages to set up the characters, the rivalry, and the stakes for this match – the real meat of pro wrestling, if you ask me – but also, it’s not important to this story.
So, to best use the space he has, Johnson pulls a leaf out of the pro wrestling booker playbook and gives the face an elaborate entrance – Yua’s music echoing through the arena, streamers flying into the ring, and the Kimihiko Ozaki of TGPW howling her name during the in-ring announcement. She cuts a passionate pre-match promo, the babyface’est of them all, and dedicates the match, her tenth title defense since becoming the champion, to her fans, because, since becoming a mother, she doesn’t fight for the fame and the glory, she fights for her family – and her fans are her family too.
I told you, the babyface’est of them all.
Boos raining down on him, Cobrasun’s entrance is cut short, in true heel fashion, by his own ego. He walks out with a hot mic in hand – “cut my music!!” – to remind the champion what the match really is for. And thus, in just a handful of pages, Johnson et al. establish what the champion stands for and what a smuck the challenger is. It’s even more impressive when you notice the subtle undertones in which the “good guy” and the “bad guy” are further crystallized in the reader’s mind. When Yua cuts her promo, the gutters are white; but when that slimy Cobrasun walks out, they are black. A nice little contrast, almost subliminal in its execution and intent, but one that adds to the narrative.
The pages that follow are the creative team at the top of their game, delivering lessons in their craft to be dissected and studied for ages like they are the trios team of Misawa, Kawada, and Kobashi back in the day. Johnson is copious in his use of speed lines, highlighting the quick pace of the match; Spicer picks a colour palette that makes the wrestlers pop on the page, thus making the action easy to follow even in the busiest of panels; and Wooton ensures you hear and feel every snap of bone. It is incredible to see a team in such precise tune with the craft of comic book making, that oftentimes becomes a relay race of sorts – writing to illustrating to colouring to lettering.
The spectacle of pro wrestling shines throughout, especially when Cobrasun hits a gorgeous moonsault on Yua, but the real cost of the show is explored soon enough, as tragedy strikes mid-match, sudden and cruel as always, sending Lona and Jacob on to the first stage of grief.
A death in the family is often marked first by the reverberations it sends across. The shock of losing someone you love can echo out through you in strange new ways. It was a cry of anguish, at the suddenness of it all, when my mother learnt of her mother’s death, and it was an odd numbness, at death’s inevitability, when my father learnt of his mother’s. I can only hope I can muster something that is not limited to either end of that emotional spectrum when my time comes to respond to such unfortunate news, though I imagine I wouldn’t have any say in it.
For little Lona, it is perhaps an odd mix of emotions, hard to pin down and difficult to process.
I’ve been fortunate enough that my initial encounters with death have almost always been of it as an abstract idea, of something that had happened to a distant relative or a neighbor I barely knew, allowing me time to understand death, as much as one can, and see it as something unavoidable, before becoming awfully intimate with it with age. The universe doesn’t bless Lona with the same fortune and she has to come to terms with her mother’s death, and the very idea of death itself, in her own way. And thus, shock turns into denial as we see her in the present day, ten years removed from that fateful night, getting knocked around like it is day one of training at the Hart Dungeon. She has never paused to reflect on the pain she has been carrying since and has instead chosen to ignore it altogether by focusing singularly on her quest to become a pro wrestler. “I’m a Steelrose. Just like mom was,” she tells her father, “And I’m going to be just like her.”
This puts her at odds with Jacob, who just wants to see his daughter safe and healthy. But, he is grieving too, and isn’t equipped with the means to express his emotions. As Cobrasun, we see him compete in a hardcore match – a form of pro wrestling looked down upon even within the wrestling world. It is an act of self-flagellation born out of self-loathing; a broken man, punishing himself for things, ultimately, far beyond his control. He holds himself responsible for his wife’s death, for that unfortunate slip from the top rope that night, and hides the pain of losing his love behind a literal mask, burying his guilt deep within him.
Grief fractures Jacob and Lona’s relationship. They lash out at each other often – the father mistaking his daughter’s determination for stubbornness, the daughter mistaking her father’s concerns for restraints. Their equation reminds me of Jerome and Thea’s a lot, the father-daughter duo from Extremity. While in Extremity, Jerome was actively pushing his daughter into a world of violence, for that is all he knew, in Do a Powerbomb!, Jacob tries to keep his away, for he knows that world all too well. In the end, unfortunately, both men end up estranging their daughters when they need them the most.
This is a common theme in Johnson’s work, from Extremity to Murder Falcon to Do a Powerbomb!, of how in our sorrow, we tend to push people away and inadvertently hurt those closest to us. It is a frustrating state of affairs, and one that I am quite familiar with. Grief torments you, isolates you, and eats away at you. In the days following my grandfather’s death, I cut myself off from the world. I never spoke about his death, declining to participate in family evenings to share his memories over and ignoring conversations with friends who just wanted to check in on me. Not because I didn’t love him, which I very much did, and do, but because that felt like the right thing to do at that time. I couldn’t be with him during his last few days, when an ugly disease had turned him into a shell of the man he was, so suffering through this pain alone was my sentence to myself. It looks silly in hindsight, a grieving boy’s lambast against the hand the universe had dealt him, and I wish I knew better. I wish I had opened myself to the emotions I was feeling but didn’t have the means to process. I wish I had asked for help.
This is also something Johnson is keen on exploring with his work, from Extremity to Murder Falcon to Do a Powerbomb!, of how perhaps the only way to work through suffering is to open up to love. It is a lesson I learnt with time, as I saw the errors of my ways. Everyone grieves differently and, of course, there is no “wrong” way to grieve, but, in the days following my grandfather’s death, I was channeling my energy into my anger, on the unfairness of it all, when I should have channeled it to celebrate his life and his memory, especially with my father, on whom that loss was perhaps the hardest, and who could have used my companionship to chart the rough waters of grief back then. So it is what Lona says to her father at the end of it all, after in their grief they make a Faustian bargain with a mysterious promoter, that sticks with me: “We lost so much time.”
Acceptance is the last of the seven stages of grief. It does not equate to happiness. I doubt one can ever truly be “happy” after death rocks your world. Rather, acceptance is the stage where you make a conscious decision to move on and strive for a feeling of normalcy again. It is not easy. It can’t be, after all. But Johnson argues through his work that acceptance is never about submitting to the challenges life throws at you or even tackling them head-on alone. Rather, it is accepting the inherent fragility of life, accepting your sheer humanity, and accepting love even when that word seems to lose all sense of meaning to you.
I am, like most people who are into pro wrestling, a born-again fan. I was too young to get into it back in the glory days of the Attitude Era, but I didn’t miss the train entirely. In the tail end of the 90s, when the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) finally won the Monday Night Wars, solidifying its monopoly on the pro wrestling industry, it launched SmackDown – on Thursdays, before eventually moving it to its permanent home to Fridays – starring, mostly, wrestlers it had acquired from the company it had put to the ground, World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Wrestlers like Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio were real-life superheroes to this then ten year-old and the stories were unlike anything Bendis was doing at that time, for sure. I was hooked, for life. Or so I thought.
When a company establishes a monopoly over its industry, it is not just eliminating competition, it is eliminating innovation. And that is precisely what happened when WWE became the juggernaut of the pro wrestling business as the 2000s rolled over and into the 2010s. The stories, the drama, the action – things that make pro wrestling special – were given a corporate gloss and “sports entertainment” was firmly established in the wrestling canon. That messy, probably age-inappropriate, thing I loved, that I was convinced was an artform, was nowhere to be found. But, as we all have learned in the age of Disneys and Amazons, if you want the good stuff, and not industrialized nostalgia, you have to go look it up in uncharted territories.
New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) reignited my love for pro wrestling years later. I had moved to a new country and found myself having to define again what made me, well, me. I gravitated towards the interests I had developed as a young adult, of course, but also rekindled with hobbies I thought I had grown out of. And so, in those early lonely days in a strange new country, comic books and pro wrestling became my closest friends. But, much like all friends, they were a constant source of both comfort and embarrassment. Pro wrestling, in particular.
It’s not easy to love pro wrestling. As a fan, you are well aware of how silly it looks; which, in turn, makes it difficult to invite people in. I always have a hard time articulating why I love pro wrestling. My attempts turn into either an awkward defense of its absurdity or an ironic embrace of it. Do a Powerbomb! made me realize that the reason I love pro wrestling is not just the vibrant characters, the moves in the ring, and the spectacle of it all. I love pro wrestling for the same reason I love comic books. I love stories.