Monday, 10 May 2010

Interview: Jarrett Williams, creator of "Super Pro K.O.!"

Jarrett Williams, no doubt challenging his readers to a test of strength

Last week, we squeezed ourselves into our sequined tights, laced up our boots and prepared to face Jarrett Williams, creator of the upcoming pro-wrestling themed graphic novel Super Pro K.O.!, in an all-action high-flying interview match-up for the ages. Secretly fans of the squared circle, we jumped at the chance to ask him about the influences behind the comic. Countering our questions with expertly-timed answers that featured everything from Stone Cold Steve Austin to Nintendo and even the great expanses of universe itself, it's a fun and enlightening read about one of the most action-packed indie comics of the year so far.

Caveat Emptor: there's a teeny-tiny amount of wrestling-lingo, so we've included notes for those of you who might not be so interested in big oily men grappling each other. Fools, the lot of you.

With the comic featuring a fair bit of insider wrestling lingo, it’s very obvious that you’re a genuine fan. What made you decide to create the characters and over-the-top world of Super Pro K.O.!?

It's pretty crazy actually. I've been into pro wrestling from young. My cousin was really into it and that pretty much rubbed off on me. He was seven years older than me so he was cool by default. At the same time comics, cartoons, and video games super inspired me. They all seemed connected to me as a child.

Around two years ago, I was looking to draw something different. I had been drawing my web-comic Lunar Boy for years and self published a bunch of mini-comics and graphic novels. I needed to draw something brand new. I remember feeling like I definitely was pigeonholing myself.  Not that it’s a bad thing to really stick it out with one story for the long haul, but I felt like I wanted to be the type of artist that could tell all sorts of tall tales. Super Pro K.O.! was sparked from a place of wanting to push myself out of my comfort zone. I needed to draw something new. I wanted a fresh beginning, kinda'.

I always think you should pull inspiration from things around you. I started really thinking about why I loved pro wrestling and thought that there was something there that would really fit with the type of stories I loved to draw. The rules of pro wrestling can be as simple or as technical as you want them to be. But the confinement of the ring and the nature of that business sort of helped me lay some solid ground rules for that universe.

Jarrett was kind enough to draw exclusive SPKO art for ATF. What a gent!

The comic is somewhat of a treat for wrestling fans in their mid-twenties onwards, with the characters seeming to be especially influenced by the late 1980s/ early 1990s WWF roster. What do you think is so appealing about this era of pro wrestling?

Because it was all about the larger than life characters. The Mr. Perfects, The Giant Gonzales, Sgt Slaughter, Kamala, and the Undertaker. You look back at this time and see super defined characters. The 70s also had their share of crazy guys too but they were a little more grounded in reality I think for the most part. Guys like the Von Erich’s and Andre the Giant still had a flare about them though. They popped right off the screen! With SPKO, I can combine all of those eras into one though the 70s-early 90s are the largest influence.

Conversely, the major plot unfolding in the background of this volume seems to mirror the real-life transition of wrestling into an edgier older-demographic show in the late 90s. Is this similarity intentional?

Most definitely. I, like many fans, watched the program change. It mirrored the puberty I was going through and it was honestly a really easy transition to watch for me. Not so much for the older wrestling fan at the time. Similarly, the whole PG thing is also kinda’ jarring for me and other fans sometimes who saw wrestling during its edgiest stint. But everything goes in cycles, and if you don’t embrace it, you kinda’ get left behind.

SPKO’s totally a wrestling company rooted in the traditional pro wrestling value system. Strong heels, even stronger faces* are present. But there’s this other company that rivals them, Rowdy Rumble. You start hearing about some of the exploits over in that company in this volume. It not only worries the wrestlers in SPKO but it sets a solid foundation for what’s to come in this series overall. I’ve got big plans!

* The expressions of "face" and "heel" describe the moral alignment of a wrestler. "Faces" (short for "babyfaces") are the good guys of grappling and "heels" are the low-down dirty good for nothings.

1990s wrestling homage in full-effect as Tomahawk Slamson delivers a double axe-handle to Yoko Nono in SPKO 

The staged nature of pro wrestling is partially obscured in the comic. References are made to the predetermined nature of contests and backstage politics throughout, but the actual in-ring action appears to be presented as genuine. Was this a conscious decision when writing?

Oh yeah. Let’s be honest, suspending your disbelief when watching pro wrestling isn't the easiest thing to do for the average person. But the true fan manages to look over the theatrics and just enjoy what’s taking place. But if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. I decided early on that trying to expose the nature of the sport wasn’t the way to go. There are enough books and shoot videos* that uncover it out there.

My number one goal was to ultimately set the rule that the battles in SPKO aren’t predetermined. Things can always go either way. It makes the comic a lot more “fun” and less about being “real” so to speak. And it truly brings the athletic nature of the characters into focus more so.

On the flip side, I do sort of blur the line between revealing the gimmicks the characters are taking on. You’ll see King Crown in his wrestling attire but also in his everyday clothing. You’ll see that some good guys in the ring aren’t necessarily the best guys during their day-to-day lives (and visa-versa). That’s what’s so awesome about pro wrestling, there’s a large grey area that can be a lot of fun to manipulate. It’ll really take the reader for a loop. 

* "Shoot video": "Shoot" describes something genuine and real that contrasts against the staged nature of the business. shoot videos are usually  interviews with wrestlers speaking out of character.

With visuals that evoke comparisons to shōnen manga, it seems wrong not to mention Kinnikuman/ Ultimate Muscle. Are you a fan? What do you consider the direct influences behind the comic to be, visually and in terms of narrative construction?

Sweet deal. I’m really glad this came up actually. I was familiar with Kinnikuman back in the day in terms of the little pink action figurines that used to be everywhere at one point it seems. But I didn’t realize there was a comic until about a couple years ago. I saw the cartoon on Fox before I saw the comic. I decided to pick it up  about half way into working on SPKO. I’ll be honest and say I was afraid to. I knew it would suck if a lot of what I was doing in SPKO had already taken place in Ultimate Muscle. My fears were alleviated once I read a couple volumes of it. Ultimate Muscle is on a whole other level. They’re  “alien super-heroic” wrestlers almost. I’m not even close to going for that vibe. But I expect the comparisons and I welcome it almost. Because any fan of Ultimate Muscle might think SPKO is too toned down if they’re looking for that sort of thing. SPKO has its over the top moments. And the world where SPKO takes place in is definitely all about pro-wrestling. But the comparisons pretty much end there. SPKO is rooted more in the tradition of wrestling.

What are your influences as a creator, in general?

Lots of video games and lots of music. Actually, I haven’t played games much lately but I listen to lots of music. I’m talking Streets of Rage Soundtrack one minute and Earth, Wind, and Fire the next.  I think it helps with the retro vibe I’m going for. I’ve always been into disco and R&B and old tunes in general. I’m also a bit of a pop/hip-hop head. I listen to everything. And those tunes totally influence how I’m moving when I’m drawing and the lines I lay down. I think that energy and tempo translate to the pages. I try to keep it upbeat for the most part.  And helps when you’re drawing in the wee-hours of the A.Ms to have at least some happy tunes playing, so I’m not falling asleep before I need too.

Plus, I’m a major Nintendo-head. I think that timeless Nintendo, simple, storytelling vibe kinda’ meshes with the kind of comics I draw. I like happy stories that can possibly throw you a sad curveball here and there. But at their essence, they’re still pretty happy go-lucky stories. The world gets real enough as it is. I like to escape from all of that with my comics!

I run and work out a lot and I usually come up with some great ideas after. It’s weird. I think all the testosterone I store up allows me to create some insane stuff.

I try to read a lot of comics too. My peers inspire me. I won’t make this interview a shout out board but when I go to cons, I’m always in artist alley and trying to see what others are doing. Knowing I’m not the only insane cartoonist out there is really motivational.

I’m also really inspired by space and stars and all that universe type of jazz. I was a NASA head as a kid and I always look up for inspiration. I guess it’s that feeling of realizing how small you are in the grand scheme of things that sort of makes drawing a comic that much more accessible and possible. It’s like, if all this exists out there, I can surely make these comic characters come to life right here… if that makes any sense at all? Hah. That was a little out there. Next question!

 The latest arc of William's long-running Lunar Boy webcomic: Lunar Boy and the HoloBooster Chase!!! 

Outside of the very obvious homages, to what degree are your characters based on real wrestlers? Vander Slickback definitely looks like Psycho Sid/ Sid Vicious to me...

There’s a lot of influence. Slickback has sort of the Sid Vicious jerry curl thing happening so I could see how you link those two up :D Mr. Awesomeness 2 is like Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels combined but with the flare of the Ultimate Warrior. But his move set is very cruiserweight like and he has some more grounded moves in his arsenal. Joe Somiano is your average wrestling rookie and I based his name on a guy I used to work with. His last name was Miano and he had super strong Italian dialect. When I would hear others talking like him, I would say to myself that was “So Miano”. So that’s at least how Joe’s last name came to be. But he was pretty much built from the ground up like a lot of the SPKO cast. But I’m sure readers will find lots of wrestlers mirrored in this comic.

As a fan, what do you think makes a great wrestler?

Quite simply, someone who believes in his or her spiel, which in turn makes you a believer. It’s pretty impressive those that do. The Rock instantly comes to mind, and so does Stone Cold Steve Austin, or the Macho Man. I think characters that seem to almost live those lives in and outside of the ring translate with fans, which translates to ticket sales. I love a wrestler that can “wow” you one second and also get you invested in them emotionally too. That’s what gets you as a fan really into a feud between two wrestlers. If their motivations and agendas are always constant and seem believable, you usually have a great wrestler on your hands. Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, CM Punk, can totally rub you the wrong way and are all different types of heels right now. I like the wrestlers that make you want to see them hold the Title Belt even if they never will.

Similarly, what makes a great match? What are your favorite matches of all time? Can we expect to see dream-booking in future editions?

I won’t be dream booking matched between established wrestlers but there will be a lot of dream matched throughout SPKO. Joe Somiano’s road to the Heavyweight Title won’t come easy at all but that’s the fun of this adventure story, watching all the twists and turns that he’ll encounter while aiming for the Title of all Titles.

As far as my favorite matches, there are too many to name here. But I will list a couple of standouts:

Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania 6 or his feuds with Macho Man make me feel super nostalgic. I loved these matches as a kid.

Jerry Lyn vs. Rob Van Damme had insane matches back in ECW’s heyday. Counter heavy and very much about the shock value. But I think they helped put ECW on the map.

Any of the TLC matches between Edge and Christian, The Hardy’s and The Dudleys.

I loved Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit. These matches were insane and any of them kinda’ amaze me. I know Benoit’s name isn’t too popular, but these matches blew my mind back in the day. Their Cage Match on Raw stands out as well as their match at the Royal Rumble in 2003.

Stone Cold and Booker T in their unofficial Super Market match. Only in pro-wrestling….

The Rock vs. Stone Cold at Wrestlemania 17: 'nuff said. The crowd’s interaction was insane!

Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker at Wrestlemania 25. I was there so it was super special. Truly an insane match where the Undertaker’s streak felt closer to being over than ever before. This match told a great story.

Mickie James vs. Trish Stratus was a pretty awesome Women’s Match at Wrestlemania 22 . There was a lot of build up to their feud and the crowd really got into. it. There’s something about watching the crowd get behind the psychotic super-fan Mickie that’s also pretty awesome. It shows that women can put on a match as awesome as any male on the roster.

I could go on and on…

The crowd goes wild as the show begins in SPKO 

What can we expect to see in Volume 2? More super sneaky forth-wall collapsing Spanish songs, I hope. What else do you have in the pipeline?

Volume 1 lays down the foundation of the SPKO universe. You meet the main players and slowly learn about the force behind many of the happenings within SPKO. However, you also get a lot of easter eggs like the Song you mentioned above. I think there’s something so “old-school funny” about these bulky wrestlers singing all the time like a bunch of pirates. I have a lot of fun in volume 1, and you’ll see a lot of my artistic influences represented all over the place. There’s even a Toriyama shout-out where you least expect it.

As for volume 2, that’s top secret. No spoilers here. Let’s just say, that it starts with a bang and ends with a bigger bang. Hah. That’s all I can say for now. King Crown and Joe Somiano have a long road ahead in this series. And a lot of the wrestlers on the SPKO roster totally make Joe’s life hell as the new guy. With volume 2, you get to see my chops as an artist and storyteller grow by leaps and bounds too. But that’s all you get. You’ll have to wait and see like the rest of the world. But overall, SPKO will make you a believer, you just wait.

A Giant Gonzales-sized thank you to Jarrett for taking part in this interview with us, as well as the fantastic art that he produced for the occasion! Super Pro K.O.!, is due in comic shops this July from Oni Press and readers can expect a full review of the graphic novel's wrestling-based madness from us very soon. Until then, for old fans and newcomers alike, we'll save you the time you would have spent searching for that  infamous Supermarket match and just direct you to it in the links below, which also include Jarrett's website and a 28-page preview of the comic.



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