I’m not really a wrestling guy. I’m not mad at it, I don’t look down on the sport or its fans, I’m not into nerd-on-nerd hate. I’m just not a wrestling guy. The fact is, the more I learn about it, the more I’m impressed by what this rare breed of athlete-performers can do. Recently, I caught a Lucha VaVOOM match at the Mayan in L.A. and I will definitely be back. But still, I’m not really a wrestling guy.
Maybe the reason why I never clicked into it the way I have with other pop culture phenomena is because of all the narrative forms, soap operas really aren’t my bag. After an intense but brief obsession with Dragon Ball Z, I became disenchanted with the show; after one too many power up battles to end all battles, only to find that resolution wasn’t right around the bend, I realized it would always remain out of reach so that the melodrama could continue. Once my eyes were open to the Dragon Ball gimmick, that there would never be an ending, I became frustrated and uninterested. The same is true for comics without end, or any other storytelling that goes on needlessly, like wrestling.
I distinctly remember an early childhood weekend afternoon when I sat on the carpet in my mom’s basement too close to the TV and decided I’d give wrestling a go. I don’t remember what league or who the wrestlers were. I do remember struggling to understand what was going on. Who were these people? How was I supposed to understand what they were talking about? Man, did they talk a lot. When would they get to the match? It all seemed so convoluted and roundabout. Where was the wrestling? They must have gotten to it at some point, but to kid me it felt like the whole thing was one long waiting game without a payoff. I’m sure the mistake was mine, but the damage was done. That was the day I wrote wrestling off. I will say that in adulthood I have found an appreciation for camp and absurdity, enough so that I can appreciate the bombastic personalities across the wrestling pantheon. I’ve definitely gone down some rabbit holes watching Macho Man cut promos and the like; I can even tell you the basics of the Montreal Screwjob because of a friend. Now I can appreciate the commitment it takes to dedicate your body to a sport famous for chewing up and spitting out its best and brightest like gristle from a pepper steak. I’ve come to respect wrestling, but it’ll never capture my imagination the way it does with fanatics.
Lucky for me, then, Daniel Warren Johnson decided to make Do a Powerbomb!, an absolute powerhouse of a comic that is truly all killer, no filler. This is everything I like about wrestling boiled down into a self-contained seven issues: drama, thrills, treachery and honor, with enough creativity to blow the bloody doors off. Here he's teamed up once again with colorist Mike Spicer—who has offered his talents on previous Johnson projects like Extremity (Image, 2017-18), Murder Falcon (Image, 2018-19), Wonder Woman: Dead Earth (DC, 2020) and Beta Ray Bill: Argent Star (Marvel, 2021)—for what is probably their best collaboration to date. I hold their run on Beta Ray Bill in especially high esteem, but the colors in Do a Powerbomb! are so vibrant they fairly hum with energy.
For his part, Johnson has found new ways to juice angles, tighten action within panels and do more with sound effect lettering than anyone this reviewer knows about working today in genre comics to heighten the action to levels rarely seen. For context, some hyper-kinetic comics art that might hold a candle to these fights are the incredibly fun two-issue The Punisher storyline "No Rules" (#94-95, Sept.-Oct. 1994) drawn by Frank Teran, notable for his attention to detail and hefty human forms, the masterful perspective drawing of Greg Capullo, and Michael Avon Oeming’s work on early Powers.
Johnson, though, is on his own planet when it comes to comics-making. As he has many times over, Johnson takes us across time and space (the universe, actually) for this yarn, making what could be an overly complicated story discernible and succinct. At its core, it's the story of a family with plenty of love and sadness to power it through life, and enough hate to make it interesting. Yua Steelrose is at the height of her abilities when tragedy strikes, bringing her meteoric career crashing down to Earth. When she comes of age, Steelrose’s daughter Lona is presented with an eerie proposition at the start of her wrestling career when interstellar necromancer and confirmed wrestling fanatic Willard Necroton approaches her with a once-in-a-lifetime offer: compete in a tag-team tournament on his home planet Valthar for a prize purse like no other, the promise to bring back a loved one from the dead.
The catch? There’s no kayfabe in this tournament - every bone-crunching slam from the top turnbuckle is as real as the pain of losing a family member. Lona taps the infamous Cobrasun to be her tournament partner. Their alliance is an uneasy one, as Cobrasun was at the center of Lona’s mother’s undoing in the ring. As Lona and Cobrasun fight their way up through the tournament bracket, their foes become stronger, stranger, and deadlier.
Johnson is a brash inker, unafraid to throw chunky lines on the page; although he's used a quick back and forth pen stroke to create the effect of a buzzy, electrical line feel to bodies in motion before, he seems to have figured something out with that technique in this book. That, or, he just had more occasion to use it for this story. Whatever the reason, it is all over these pages and I love it. It’s kind of genius how simple, and even more impressive how effective it is at conveying blurred movement. Part of me worries that it will be ripped off and used ad nauseam down the line like a cheap slo-mo effect in movies. Speed lines and other manga influences are all over these pages as well, and it could be that’s where Johnson is getting his buzzy line from, too. If he is, he’s owning it and has made it his thing.
Comics like these don’t come around every Wednesday. Johnson has just started a Transformers series at Image - a title I have never read, but probably will now. He's the kind of creator who, no matter the premise, I’m interested.