Reviews

Queen of the Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Hernandez 1980-2020

Queen of the Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Hernandez 1980-2020

Jaime Hernandez

Fantagraphics

$24.99

128 pages

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Jaime Hernandez has always been candid about how the weird little strains of genre elements breaking through his largely serious dramatic storytelling are echoes of the childhood aesthetic fixations that pushed him into comics as a career in the first place (camp sci-fi, Harry Lucey & Dan DeCarlo Archie, '60s Marvel) - but the drips of pro wrestling stuff that appear in his mainstream work really struck me in how clearly they stem more from an interest in the kitsch culture surrounding wrestling than anything about actual wrestling itself. Todd Hignite's The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death touches briefly on the influence of '60s & '70s wrestling magazines -- their headlines reading like Stan Lee narration, with full-color cover photos where brutes snarl in fury or agony, dripping oversaturated blood -- but it provides little analysis aside from contrasting a Hernandez sketch with an example of the magazine aesthetics he's emulating.

We are truly blessed to have a book like Queen of the Ring to give space for Hernandez himself to articulate his passions (through a mixture of cut-up fragments of a recent interview & detailed process shots). It reveals the fascinating truth that, as much as Hernandez's vision of wrestling is formed through a distant interest in its aesthetic signifiers & garbled childhood memories of television, his passion for the sport runs as obsessively deep as the passion for comics that gave birth to Love and Rockets.

Compiling 40 years of unpublished artwork, Queen of the Ring documents an undefined multi-decade period of Hernandez's self-invented wrestling world. Wrestling as it appears in Love and Rockets is mostly an incidental element to give Hernandez something extra to play with visually, while maintaining the fundamental human drama of the narrative; it's no different from his early dabbling in fantastical sci-fi (even the handful of purely wrestling-themed stories ultimately thread themselves heavily into the central drama like "Mechanics" did beforehand). As a result, the wrestling world of Love and Rockets consists of little more than a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the classic image of the luchador as a dignified & regal Bruce Wayne figure (a la Blue Demon, El Santo & Mil Máscaras), and pastiches of the female stars of early television-era wrestling. Queen of the Ring (as the title indicates) takes the reader deep into the latter element; there is no discussion or documentation of Hernandez's lucha libre inspired work, and, unlike the Hignite book, there is no photographic contrast for those unfamiliar with this very specific strain of American wrestling culture.

Hernandez's personal stylistic quirks naturally shine through, despite the conditions he self-imposes for this art, leading him to take on a very different compositional character from his narrative comic work - though, in the earliest darkly shaded full-color drawings shown, there are hints of his cover illustrations & chapter-opening pages. The book collects portraits of wrestlers (all original creations of Hernandez's, the book reflecting a deeply considered but mostly unspoken history; the vague notion of feuds & title runs, whole careers shown from training to falling into the middle-aged legend-of-the-sport slot), fake magazine covers (the quotes excerpted throughout put a clear focus on the fact that Hernandez's inspiration lies in these publications, the most striking of them a confession that he didn't actually see women's wrestling live 'til well into adulthood) & single panel action shots with stark white all-caps summaries of the context of the action, an homage to the sort of striking sports photography that filled the pages of said magazines.

The pieces most nakedly inspired by those photos of ring action are the most fascinating; the portraits, in contrast, are often rendered illegibly same-y by Hernandez's fixative ticking on the same limited range of real-life referrents (an unfortunate consequence of a vision of wrestling bound only to memories of the past - distant, abstracted ones at that) and a gradually deepening reliance on his own stylistic shorthand as the decades pass (he admits as much in the interview, noting Love and Rockets protagonist Maggie Chascarillo is "the universal face my hand draws"). The magazine covers are beautifully styled and reverent to the spirit of their influences, but without an appreciation for that context they can easily come across like a joke. Nonetheless, the action shots make it clear how this fantasy image of wrestling came to occupy Hernandez's thoughts for so long.

In wide or tall dramatic compositions, the mechanics of wrestling moves and the emotions of combat are captured in minute detail: the form of a power slam before the drop, frozen in amber; an anguished bleeding face screaming beneath an eye-catching blurb emphasizing the shocking nature of the violence; bodies thrashing as the dastardly heel pummels the poor defenseless babyface with closed fists in the corner; images of matwork emphatic of the strain & stress of grappling (torture holds on the neck & joints, exhausted wrestlers leaning against their foes from the top of a chinlock) instead of clean exchanges of holds, emphasizing physical geometry and winking homoerotic imagery.

Hernandez dispenses with the cliché camp pageantry of the popular modern image of wrestling to focus on the deliberately grimy vibes of kayfabe-era magazines: publications that presented wrestling as a life or death struggle as much as a sport, a thing impossible to do in a post-internet era where even casual audiences have a cynical awareness of the inner workings. That Hernandez is more invested in his memories of wrestling instead of the actual realities of the sport, past or present, restrains him from such meta gestures - the women's wrestling league of his dreams is a deadly serious athletic competition where it has remained 1965 forever, a lawless land of tough old broads biting gashes into the razor-sliced foreheads of softbodied rookies.

The drawings featured are undated and free of annotations short of small notes made by Hernandez himself on the original images; it feels from the stylistic progression that the art is arranged in chronological order, but it is never clarified. This frustrates efforts to relate the ideas he's working through on a surface-style level to his published works, but the vagueness and loose sense for the passage of time bleeds into the book's narrative scope: a decades-long effort to document a decades-long history of a purely personal vision of wrestling, a self-developed kayfabe; imagined but scarcely articulated histories of triumph & defeat that existed until now only for Hernandez's own satisfaction. I cannot imagine what this must look & feel like to comic fans who have no familiarity with wrestling - or hell, even what it looks like to wrestling fans not old or learned enough to be familiar with the tradition he's playing around with, a Dargeresque fantasia of blood & bodyslams.

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