Publisher: AWA Studios – Upstart
Writer: John Lees
Artwork: Alex Cormack
Colours: Ashley Cormack
Letterer: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Release Date: 8th December 2021
Chuck Frenzy is the main attraction of the Louisiana pro wrestling circuit. Chuck wants more though, and a chance encounter with three strange and terrifying creatures in the Bayou offers him all the titles, fame and fortune that he desires… but at a terrible price.
The Crimson Cage is John Lees’ interpretation of Macbeth told on the stage of Southern Pro-Wrestling, and I can honestly say that I have never, ever been excited about reading a comic about wrestling before until today. John is, as you’re probably aware, one of my favourite writers, and has produced some of my favourite thriller/horror comics of all time. When you combine that pedigree with the artistic talents of Alex and Ashley Cormack (two of my favourite artists) and the design/lettering skills of Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (one of my favourite letterers), you have a team that absolutely cannot fail to produce a masterpiece.
Now in all honesty I could write what I know about pro wrestling on the back of a postage stamp. I remember the likes of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks from the British scene when I was a kid but the WWF (as it was when I first remember it) never made that much of an impression on me at the time. The reasoning in my mind when I was a kid was “it’s all fake” and that is where I completely and utterly failed to get the point of the pro-wrestling scene.
I have never given wrestling much of a thought outside of recognising names and faces who have gone on to star in movies, with Rowdy Roddy Piper being my favourite example in They Live, or Andre The Giant in The Princess Bride. That is until this series was announced and I finally took the time to actually listen to someone talking about wrestling with a passion, and explain what the whole thing is really about. Wrestling is a story, a drama, played out on a stage not that dissimilar to any theatre you’ve ever been to. When I stopped and looked at it in those terms then wrestling actually became quite fascinating, and I started to appreciate the skill and effort that goes into putting on a match.
The first thing that I have to say about this particular issue is that if there is ever a soundtrack for this series then “Princes of the Universe” by Queen had better be the song linked to the first few pages. I found myself right in that scene from the beginning of Highlander with the Fabulous Freebirds when I saw the first fight between Chuck Frenzy and The Abominable Grudd.
Actually, when you think about it, and with the 20/20 hindsight vision I now have about what wrestling is really about, this really is a superb backdrop for a retelling of Macbeth. It has all the drama, the mystery and intrigue and the betrayals that you could possibly wish for. To that end, this first issue is an absolute rollercoaster, and there is just so much happening that I was practically dizzy by the end of it. The character development is superb, the pacing and narrative are superb, tense, and explosive and shocking and just an absolute bloody joy to read. This is a story from the pen of John Lees so there are also some suitably disturbing and horrifying moments, which I really wasn’t expecting.
If you’ve read any of John Lees’ other works, particularly SINK, then you will know that he’s incredibly gifted at character development and world building. He provides a level of detail he brings to the table that simply puts everything he does head and shoulders above a lot of writers. So as we would expect, these are fully-realised, well fleshed out characters that have clearly been developed over a long time (and it’s clear that this is a project that John has been thinking about for a long time now). The world they inhabit is also amazingly well defined, and even in this early in the series you can practically smell the ringside and the bayou, feel the humidity and the heat, and within the first page you’re practically there in Louisiana, screaming along with the rest of the fans.
Alex and Ashley Cormack’s artwork is perfect, and I’m talking about that “Michael Fassbender chef kiss meme” kind of perfection. As with John Lees, I have been an enormous fan of Alex’s work for a long time now, and he is easily in my top three comic book artists of all time. I have honestly never read anything he’s been involved with where I think he’s put a single foot wrong. When it comes to realising gritty, realistic characters that are unique, flawed, and above all else interesting, then Alex Cormack is the first person I would think of. Alex is also one of the first artists I would think of if you want to really explore the grotesque, the outré, and the downright horrifying. He’s responsible for some of the most visceral “oh shit” moments in my 40+ year fascination with horror comics, and I think he currently holds the award for the biggest jump scare in a comic (Sea of Sorrows), which was previously held by Junji Ito for the story Jack In The Box from Uzumaki.
So yes, we’ve entered completely new territory for me. I think that only John Lees could possibly have got me excited about a wrestling comic, but this first issue has me completely hooked. It’s thrilling, it’s tense, it’s horrific, and I genuinely couldn’t have asked for more. I am going to have to do a lot of soul searching over the next couple of weeks as this has seriously shifted what I was going to put in my Best of 2021 list this year.
[PREVIEW ARTWORK – CLICK TO ENLARGE]
The writer of this piece was: Mark Scott
Mark Tweets from @macoy_comicgeek