Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Review: Super Pro K.O.!, Jarrett Williams (Oni Press, 2010)

Jarrett Williams | Digest; black and white; 256 pages | Price: $11.99
Released: July 2010

Famed semiotician Roland Barthes once wrote that “The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess”. More than just a pretentious way to start a review, it's also a perfect summation of Jarrett Williams’ upcoming wrestling-based graphic novel, Super Pro K.O!. Combining the two most essential spheres of entertainment today - pro-wrestling and western-tribute to shōnen manga - it’s a veritable nerdgasm of a graphic novel that fans of either (or both) will be chomping at the turnbuckle for. Straight-forward and relentlessly action-packed, it invites the reader to know their role, shut their mouth and sit their candy-ass down to watch  the fun unfold. 

Super Pro KO! is a clearly a book that’s designed by a wrestling fan for anyone who grew up (at least in part) on heady Saturday morning cocktails of pro-wrestling and cartoons. Big kids everywhere are sure to enjoy the litany of insane manoeuvres and characters on display in Williams' bold, dynamic visual style. Very much informed by the conventions of shōnen manga, the star of the book, Joe Somiano, is (unsurprisingly) a young rookie aspiring to reach his dreams by ascending the ranks of professional wrestling. Labelled as the first volume of a series, things sure are going to be tough for the green contender as there are a whole host of bizarre "testosterone"-fueled (wink wink) lunatics between him and a shot at the SPKO title.

Not quite as linear as you might imagine, a multitude of sub-plots support the main story, revealing in the process that life within the ranks of the company is not all it seems and disharmonious even by the standards of pro-wrestling. There’s an undercurrent of unrest throughout the company, and its dysfunctional locker-room is teetering on the verge of collapse. The heavyweight champion showing up for the main event blind-drunk is the least of their problems, with a burgeoning mutiny in the works and increased pressure from SKPO's edgier rival Rowdy Rumble Wrestling. Most problematic of all though, is the mysterious sinister plot underway behind the scenes, involving the shadowy executive types that control the promotion’s boss. Ooh boy, are those suits evil.

Tezuka-esque shadowy executives run the show; misery all around.

Perhaps due to his years spent at the helm of a webcomic (Lunar Boy), Williams exhibits his strengths in pacing and structure, finding just the right balance of action and exposition, which is no mean feat considering this is a 256 page comic primarily about wrestling matches. In this debut volume, the creator lays down the setting and characters expediently, and the reader will have no problems quickly getting to grips with the world of the comic. Whilst the book never strays too far from its expected framework, it certainly feels like that that’s kind of the point, and I definitely found myself drawing fond comparisons with watching Saturday morning cartoons as a child; you might have seen all of these character types and basic plot before, but damn does this guy know how to make them awesome again.

Due to its over-the-top action and shōnen stylings, the comparison between Super Pro K.O! and Yoshinori Nakai and Takashi Shimada’s classic wrestling-themed manga/anime Kinnikuman (Ultimate Muscle in the West) is inevitable. As correctly stated by Williams in his interview with us last month, whilst the core element of over-the-top wrestling exists in both, the focuses of the books are very different. Whilst Kinnikuman can be seen as a wrestling-centric take on the Kaiju genre, SPKO is much more solidly rooted as a straight (well, as straight as overblown and semi-comedic gets) take on the actual wrestling industry and its internal politics. 

Yoko No-No and Tomahawk Slamson go at it in the comic's opening bout.

In this sense, the comic is actually made up of a surprisingly complex fusion of elements. Underneath its retina-bursting action lays a compelling mixture of reality and falseness, one that mirrors the real-life “kayfabe” approach of pro-wrestling in real life. Although there’s now an understanding that audiences accept that contests are predetermined, the illusion is still important. Williams’ touches on these elements in the way he chooses to portray the matches in the comic. Whilst allusions are made to the backstage politics and pre-destined conclusions to contests, the in-ring action remains portrayed as completely legitimate with characters fighting tooth and nail to win. Just as in the real deal, it’s a wonderful contradiction of elements that knowingly walk the fine postmodern line so essential to it.

Featuring a decidedly nostalgic roster of wrestlers reminiscent of the pseudo-sport's heyday in the 1980s/ 1990s, there’s sure to be an ersatz musclehead in there to illicit a warm glow of nostalgia in even the most steadfast of wrestling deniers. Whilst it might lack the emotional beauty of Jaime Hernandez’ Whoa, Nellie! or the detailed, mechanical insight of Brian Azzarello and Scott Levy’s “The Last Shoot” (Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #14, true believers), it throws everything and the kitchen sink* at the reader in the name of maximum fun. With the already over-the-top wrestling element colliding head-on with the high-octane flair of the action-oriented shōnen influence, it's certainly not a dull comic to look at or read. There's no mistake about it, Super Pro K.O! is a comic that knows exactly what it's going to be and sets out to be it, wearing its respective influences proudly on its sleeve, and enthusiastically utilising them for all they are worth.

If, like us, you smell what Jarrett Williams is cooking, Super Pro K.O! will be released on the 7th July, and is available for order at all good comic book stores now (Diamond Code: APR10 1036). Until then, make sure to say your prayers, eat your vitamins and try to forgive us for including so many wrestling catchphrases in this review.

* "Kitchen sink": literally a term used for a running knee to the gut in wrestling. So there.


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