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I was about 8 years old when I had my first glimpse of professional wrestling. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Gordon Solie was doing the blow-by-blow of a match featuring "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" on Championship Wrestling From Florida. I was instantly hooked by the carnival theater atmosphere, the over-the-top melodrama, and of course, the interviews and promos. Thus began a love affair with pro wrasslin' that lasted all the way through the WWE's halcyon "Attitude Era," about which time I finally tapped out.
Jaime Hernandez also has a lifelong fascination with pro wrestling, as fans of his seminal work on Love and Rockets are aware. In particular, female pro wrestling captured his interest. Long before Netflix's GLOW piqued people's interest in vintage female wrestling, the Love and Rockets universe Jaime created with his brothers Gilbert and Mario featured wrestling characters Rena Titañon and Vicki Glori. What the L&R fandom likely did not know was that Hernandez has drawn over the decades a mountain of artwork inspired by his love of wrestling and in particular, female pro wrestlers. Now, we're all lucky enough to be able to see that art.
Queen of the Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Hernandez (1980-2020) is a brand-new hardcover release from Fantagraphics that features 125 illustrations by the L&R co-creator that no one outside of a very tight circle of friends has ever seen. It has a coterie of characters he created that populate a fictional old-school world of female professional wrestling. It's a passion project the legendary cartoonist didn't even know he was working on. What I mean by that is, the book contains drawings Hernandez has been doing since before the first Love and Rockets was even published. The pin-ups, the action shots, and the cover images that mimic the classic wrestling magazine covers of the '70s were all simply drawing exercises, according to Hernandez.
"When I'm not doing comics, I draw mostly," he tells SYFY WIRE. "This was just something that I enjoyed on the side and it helped me learn how to draw basically, over the years."
He had no intention of doing anything with the drawings. But as years passed, he began having second thoughts. "At first I always thought, "well, no one's ever gonna see this stuff." So I didn't care what I was drawing," Hernandez says. "And then it started to build up and I started to redo the drawings and start to throw them away and stuff. And I thought, maybe one day I will do a book."
This is where Katie Skelly comes in. Skelly is the artist behind comics such as Maids, My Pretty Vampires, and Nurse Nurse, and Queen of the Ring is her first time editing a book. Why? Well, one big reason is she was part of a very small group of folks who knew about Hernandez's secret side project.
"I was one of the few people to have seen these drawings. I was one of the few people that Jaime showed them to," Skelly says. "And so I looked through them and it's a really great mix in his archive of work that's finished and unfinished. And I just thought that there was so much potential for insight into his studio practice and into his writing practice as well. Because in addition to all of these amazing drawings, there's also a lot of narrative work that went into them. I just didn't want him to throw them away anymore."
Skelly says they sorted through roughly 200 drawings to put together the collection that makes up the book. The duo put together a sampling of art and pitched the book idea to Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics, and quickly earned a green light. It's not hard to see why.
A mountain of fresh-to-market Jaime Hernandez art featuring brand-new characters would seem to be of interest to a significant number of people. But there is also the fact that this is more than just an art book; it's an incredibly intimate look at an artist's creative process. It features accompanying text for many images that come from a conversation between Hernandez and Skelly that sheds light on individual pieces. Some illustrations are paired with text that seems ripped straight from a Ric Flair promo.
Skelly says her favorite piece in the book has one such blurb. "It's a drawing of K.C. White and it's black and white. It says, 'I don't care what the fans think about me!' So shut up. It's an all-time headline. That's my new mantra every day."
There are fake wrestling cover designs that will remind old-school wrestling fans of hype magazines like Inside Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Illustrated. It's a book filled with retro charm. And while characters like Bettie Rey and K.C. Perez all spring from Hernandez's imagination, but it's not hard to see how real-life icons of the ring like the Fabulous Moolah, Mae Young, Leilani Kai, Sue Green, and Judy Martin provided inspiration.
The drawings in Queen of the Ring exist at various stages of completion. Some are fully rendered color pieces; others are rougher pencil drawings. "We have work that goes back to 1980. It was really just a matter of sorting out a lot of the duplicates because Jaime's practice is to go and redraw and revisit these characters," Skelly says. "And so in perfecting the linework, you get a lot of extras in there. So it was a matter of saying, 'which one do we like better?'"
A few drawings even exist on offbeat materials that reveal Hernandez's impulsive creativity. Hernandez points out that one of the drawings in the book is drawn on the back of a concert poster for the New Wave band Public Image, Ltd. "An original poster, which is very cool," he says. The artist says it was common practice for him and his brothers back then to draw on whatever they could get their hands on.
"Well, Public Image came to L.A. to the Olympic on tour and Gilbert's wife who was then just a punk friend, she volunteered to work [the show]," he recalls. "And so she had tons of flyers and she just goes, "Do you want these, we're not using them." Gilbert and I always drew on the backs of posters and flyers so we just took a bunch and drew on the backs of them."
Growing up near Los Angeles, Hernandez got his first taste of wrestling from the TV broadcasts that emanated from the legendary Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A., featuring some of the legendary performers on the West Coast wrestling circuit, like the Destroyer, Bobo Brazil, Pedro Morales, and of course, Freddie Blassie.
One of the all-time great pro wrestling heels (wrestling parlance for the villain), "Classy" Freddie Blassie was as good as any wrestler has ever been at being the bad guy. Fans loved and loathed him at the same time. "He was a villain and the babyface because he would go back and forth," Hernandez explains, "Because the audience started to like it when he bit his opponents and made them bleed. The fans loved that. So they made him a hero."
The artist recalls first trying to draw wrestlers at a young age. "As a kid, I would draw the Destroyer and guys like that. And then we would do a comic called Wrestling Review, except I didn't know how to spell review," he says. "But it would be like the Destroyer versus the Cowboy, and we would just draw a match going on. It wasn't until I got older, that I started creating my own characters."
Once Hernandez began his regular routine of drawing wrestling figures, he wound up doing what he and his brothers did with L&R: Create an entire world of characters spun from his imagination. And now the rest of us are lucky enough to get to meet them.
Queen of the Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Hernandez (1980-2020) is out now.
Want to talk comics and/or pro wrestling? Find me on Twitter/Instagram. Check out past videos and podcasts from Behind the Panel, loaded with my in-depth interviews with some of the best comic book creators in the business.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.