For a comic book based on professional wrestling, very little of Ringside‘s debut issue takes place inside the “squared circle”. Instead, writer Joe Keatinge and artist Nick Barber focus on the complex personalities and backstage politics of “sports entertainment”, exploring the lives and stories that fans usually don’t get –or sometimes want– to see. Although there is plenty in this first issue to attract the attention of wrestling fans, it also provides an intriguing, character-driven story that will appeal to non-fans as well.

As a pro wrestling fan myself, I was immediately interested by this title, and wondered just how it would portray the backstage aspect of the business. In the interview with wrestling journalist Danielle Matheson that closes the first issue, Keatinge mentions that Ringside was inspired in part by Barry W. Blaustein’s classic 1999 pro wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat and the autobiographies of former wrestler Mick Foley (aka Cactus Jack, Mankind, and Dude Love). These no-holds-barred (pun obviously intended) looks at the day-to-day life of professional wrestlers show that, often, mundane reality is just as entertaining and engaging as the fictionalized “reality” –or kayfabe in wrestling jargon– they create in the ring.

However, while documentaries and biographies rely on sometimes hazy personal memories, Ringside gives Keatinge and Barber an opportunity to add high-stakes dramatic tension to the secretive world of pro wrestling. The first issue introduces us to Dan Knossos, a former wrestler best known for portraying “The Minotaur”, who now making a living as a wrestling trainer in Japan. The issue follows Dan as he returns to the United Sates, and his interactions with his old friends and coworkers make it clear that he has no interest in getting back into the ring. Instead, as he makes clear, he is simply back to help out his old friend Teddy, who apparently has a knack for getting himself into trouble. The nature of Teddy’s predicament, and his relationship to Dan, is left untold in the first issue, but leaving that unexplained makes for an engaging hook. For his part, it seems that there are more than a few burned bridges in Dan’s past that would make a professional return impossible, and by the end of the issue it’s clear that he is in a situation well beyond his control. The final page offers a chilling cliffhanger of sorts that underscores the book’s tagline: “The real violence is outside the ring.”Ringside 01-02

In a way, the book isn’t really about professional wrestling, but about the collision between art and business. Early in the issue, there are scenes showing the backstage politics that go into producing a wrestling TV show like WWE’ s flagship program Monday Night RAW. As a member of the shows creative team expresses his frustrations with the show’s direction, the assistant producer points out that anything can change at the last minute on a live TV show. In the locker room, a young wrestler, Reynolds, vents about his place on the card. As an older, experienced grappler explains, talent and ambition don’t determine success in the wrestling business, only making money matters. It’s easy to see how the grind and disappointment of the business can wear on the characters, yet they continue to work simply out of love for the art form and entertainment. Much like the nature of Dan’s return, these glimpses into the daily lives of the workers offer a hint of the story to come in future issues, but they do show that Keatinge and Barber have done their research and are committed to an accurate portrayal of the business, warts and all, from a number of different perspectives.

RingsideCIn addition to Keatinge’s knack for wrestling jargon and dialogue, Barber’s art work in the issue helps convey the realities of life backstage. His cartooning style, augmented by Simon Gough‘s nuanced colors, is similar to Jason Latour‘s work on Southern Bastards: it may seem loose and simplistic at first, but he has a feel for both kinetic action shots and subtle facial expressions. The contrast in body language and expression between Reynold’s youthful optimism and Dan’s weariness helps show their respective experiences and expectations in a way scripted dialogue might miss. Since this first issue is heavy on exposition and discussion, Barber is able to focus on these small details to help introduce the characters, and it will be interesting to see how he draws the choreographed chaos of a wrestling match in future issues. Even though this is his first professional comics work, Barber is an excellent fit for the material and has a natural eye for pacing the story.

Much like the aforementioned Southern Bastards, which uses the near-religious devotion to high school football in the South to explore its characters, the first issue of Ringside takes the highly secretive world of pro wrestling as a starting point for a larger story. Keatinge and Barber weave together the various perspectives of the ensemble cast in a way that makes the issue feel like a tiny scratch at much larger stories to follow. It also allows the creators to take a more nuanced look at all aspects of the wrestling business –from the wrestlers themselves and the fans– rather than the one-note way wrestling is usually presented in other mediums.

Being a wrestling fan, I admit I would have liked to see even more backstage politics as well as in ring action, but the bits we have in this first issue does seem both reverent and critical of the wrestling business in a way that will satisfy fans. The strong, character-driven approach to the material will attract readers with little interest in “sports entertainment”, for whom the book will probably be an intriguing, and maybe unexpected, peek into the real life politics and consequences of a “fake” sport. If this first issue is any indication, this is clearly a passion project for Keatinge, and his enthusiasm and respect for the material make it a book well worth your attention.

Ringside can be purchased at your Local Comic Shop, from Image Comics, or on Comixology.

Overall Score
85 %

With this solid debut issue that introduces an ensemble cast and an engaging hook, Keatinge and Barber show that the real action happens outside the squared circle.

About The Author

Paul R Jaissle is a philosopher, collage artist, and musician. In his free time, he enjoys reading comics (especially ones with Batman in them), listening to power pop, and watching wrestling.

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