Headlocked Vol. 1: A Single Step
Headlocked Vol. 2: The Last Territory
Publisher: Visionary Comics
Writer: Michael Kingston
Artists: Randy Valiente, Michael Mulipola
Throughout my life, there are two hobbies that have remained my most passionate ones: comics and pro-wrestling. It’s really no surprise, as both mediums have commonalities. Both have bigger than life, boisterous, outlandish characters. Both have an almost juvenile way of settling differences through violence. Both have had their share of embarrassing moments that make fans question why they’re still reading or watching. But both wrestling and comics have those unforgettable moments that remind you why you’re a fan and give you reason to keep going. Most times, when comics and pro-wrestling meet, it’s horribly written disasters. Most wrestling comics in the past have been pretty terrible, from the short strips in WWF Magazine to the badly written comics from the now defunct Chaos Comics. Or especially the Ultimate Warrior comics.
In the last few years, though, things have changed a little. Back in June, I reviewed Box Brown’s fantastic Andre the Giant biography. In it, I also recommended Jarrett Williams’ Super Pro K.O. I’ve also recently discovered the hilarious web comic, Botched Spot.
Headlocked, I’m happy to say, joins that list of great examples of the marriage between wrestling and comics.
Created and written by Michael Kingston, Headlocked follows the story of Mike Hartmann, college drop out and wannabe pro-wrestler. He learns early on that the wrestling business behind the scenes isn’t even remotely as glamorous as it seems in front of the camera. The comic follows Mike from one heartbreaking (or body-breaking) moment to another as he struggles to make his way into the business. The amount of good people he meets is far outweighed by the number of assholes. But he still perseveres.
Speaking as someone who tried to get into pro-wrestling themselves (a 7-part series you’re welcome to read here), I already knew a great deal of what Kingston and his artists depict. I knew about how a handshake behind the scenes is actually very soft, with little grip. I knew about blading. I knew how hard those ropes really hurt when you bounce off them. However, for the uninitiated into the business, I imagine Headlocked will be an eye-opener for many readers. Yes,the matches are pre-determined, but being a wrestler can be incredibly painful. But as we learn from Hartmann and the wrestlers he meets, the rush of the crowd can be one of the greatest drugs, better than anything a doctor could prescribe or anything you can buy off the street.
What I liked about Headlocked is how we’re seeing a very slow progression of someone entering the business. We don’t immediately see them thrown into a match. We see each and every step that Mike takes towards fame and fortune. We see him hospitalized for injuries. We see harassed by the boys. We see his friends belittle him for his choice to drop out of college. We see some of the scars he earns for his troubles. Every step through Hartmann’s journey is chronicled in detail we’ve never read outside of wrestler’s autobiographies.
Fortunately, artists Randy Valiente (Volume 1) and Michel Mulipola (Volume 2) deliver some fantastic visuals to back up this very visceral writing. Wrestler anatomy is muscular, but not overly exaggerated. Each major character has a unique, iconic look that makes them immediately recognizable for the reader. The visual highlight of the books, of course, is the wrestling itself. The wrestling action looks crisp and all the moves look just like something you’d see on TV. For some reason, I’ve seen many artists depict wrestling and make it look incredibly awkward compared to the crispness of what we see on television. Not here. It’s clear that Valiente and Mulipola are either wrestling fans themselves or heavily referenced where and how the moves are performed. As a wrestling fan tired of seeing the action misrepresented in comic, this was incredibly refreshing to see. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the two artists’ styles, but the depiction of the characters is still consistent throughout both books. Valiente’s style is a little rougher, but detailed, in some ways similar to superstar artist Gary Frank. Meanwhile, I would compare Mulipola’s crisper, more minimalistic approach to one of my favourite artists, Stuart Immonen. I consider both comparisons to be high praise, believe me.
Now, all this praise is not without some criticism. My biggest criticism is the continuity between the two books. At the conclusion of A Single Step‘s first chapter, we see an incredibly bloody Mike Hartmann crawling across a ring, wearing a police officer costume. However, not only have we never seen this scene transpire, it’s suddenly treated as a flashback in several moments in the second book. In fact, it seems to be the scene that was filmed that made Hartmann famous on the internet. And yet, all we saw as far as any significant beating was from a foul, senile trainer who left Hartmann beaten, bruised, and hospitalized, but not covered in blood like we saw. Nor was Hartmann wearing a police costume. So where and when did this scene occur? If it’s in the future, why are some seeing it as a video already posted? If it already occurred, why didn’t we get to see it? What is its context?
Secondly, the suddenly appearance by Mike’s first legitimate trainer, Scott Nightingale (aka: Dr. Destruction) in the second book is incredibly jarring. The extent of his appearance in the first book was a mention, nothing else. Yet suddenly, we kick off the second book where Hartmann and Nightingale have already met and Mike’s been promised to be trained by him. Obviously, events do occur between the panels or pages of comics. That’s part of the medium. But for a comic that – up until then – provided the reader a very beat-by-beat account of Hartmann’s journey, it was incredibly off-putting. Nightingale’s engrossing tough-love kind of character makes the transition easier to swallow, but it was still surprising for me to go from Volume 1 to Volume 2 without reading what should have been an important first meeting. I’m hoping the cliffhanger at the end of this book will have a satisfying continuation unlike the cliffhanger at the end of Volume 1, which was never followed up on.
Despite these criticisms, I still greatly enjoyed the first two volumes of Headlocked. I’m glad that I pledged enough to get the physical copies because they were absolutely worth it. As a nice bonus, the second volume has a small handful of great short stories written by wrestling superstars like Christopher Daniels, Rob Van Dam, and “Hurricane” Shane Helms.
As of this writing, Kingston has a new Kickstarter for the third book in the series. I’m definitely invested in Mike Hartmann’s journey and the characters in his world, so I will put money down for another book.
In many ways, Headlocked is the wrestling equivalent to Walking Dead: a wide, diverse cast of instantly recognizable characters and deliberately slow-paced, visceral storytelling. It’s not without its problems, especially regarding continuity, but overall, it’s a definite can’t miss read for wrestling fans or anyone curious about getting a closer look behind the scenes of the wrestling business.