Advance Review – The Crimson Cage #5 (AWA Studios)

Publisher: AWA Studios – Upstart
Writer: John Lees
Artwork: Alex Cormack
Colours: Ashley Cormack
Letterer: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Release Date: 20th April 2022

“I welcome you to the greatest wrestling spectacular of all time… The Crimson Cage!”

Greensboro, North Carolina. The biggest card of the year. Sharlene Frenzy Vs. Gorilla Gozu and World Champion Chuck Frenzy Vs. “The Outlaw” Emmet Crowe. No holds barred, winner take all, and blood will out.

Well holy shit, this has been one hell of a ride, and for me at least, this is the standout title of the year to date. Unless something pretty spectacular hits the shelves in the second half of the year, I think it’s safe to say that this is going to be right at the top of my best of list for 2022.

Before The Crimson Cage hit my inbox for the first time, if you’d stopped me in the street and asked me if I wanted to read a wrestling comic, I’d have politely turned you down. I haven’t watched wrestling since the ’90s, and as I said in my review of issue one, I never really got professional wrestling. Even with John Lees at the helm I was dubious, until I sat down and read his newsletter which gave people like me who just viewed wrestling as “fake” a fantastic explanation of what professional wrestling is all about, the storytelling and showmanship that goes behind it. Then I got it. Professional wrestling is theatre. Yes, it’s loud and crass, and at times ludicrous, but it’s all about telling a story that makes the fans believe.

The Crimson Cage takes the storytelling and the drama to an extreme that only this creative team could achieve, and it’s easy to forget that, underneath the bright lights, the costumes, the greasepaint, and the over-the-top posturing, that this is a retelling of the Tragedy of Macbeth. John Lees has taken Shakespeare’s masterpiece and very much made it his own, bringing an energy and frenzy (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the story that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other adaptation. We’re also treated to John Lees trademark brand of horror, a very human spiraling descent into madness, haunted by a supernatural/cosmic horror that at times leaves you unsure whether it is real or the product of a diseased and feverish psyche (and oft times, half the joy of reading Lees’ work is that you never truly know which is which).

As a side note, the opening “interview” in each issue has been something that I have really, really enjoyed, it’s the epitome of the theatrical monologue. In this final issue you can almost hear the echo of an empty theatre and the crackle and feedback of the microphone, the hitching and breaking of his voice as Crowe delivers his lines to the half glimpsed “director” in the audience. Just a perfectly pitched, emotionally charged moment that really needs credit for how good it is.

I also particularly enjoyed the interviewer/promoter/Devil’s short monologues in this issue, delivered in shadow behind the glowing embers of a cigar, they’re just perfect little moments of peace amidst the whirlwind.

The artwork, oh boy… if you haven’t already cottoned onto my overly effusive fanboy squeals of delight every time Lees and Cormack put ink to paper then you’re really not paying attention.

I have loved absolutely everything that Alex and Ashley Cormack have done on this series. I can only imagine how difficult it is to take one of John Lees’ scripts and realise on paper something that comes close to doing it justice, but in an almost symbiotic partnership, this is something that Alex and Ashley are more than equal to every time. As I’ve said many times before, where Lees is a master of character development, Alex Cormack is a master of bringing those characters with all their flaws and scars to life on the page.

Another thing I’ve remarked on is Cormack’s ability to do things with eyes that I’ve rarely seen achieved, and not just in his almost Gialo approach (you’ll see what I mean on the penultimate page), but in the expression he can put into eyes that can almost exclude everything else on the page. And, without spoiling the issue for you, there is a panel during Sharlene’s bout with Gorilla Gozu that just stopped me dead.

Alongside the ability to create these incredible characters is his ability to blend the outré and horrific with the everyday and normal world the characters inhabit. The Crimson Cage blends the pageantry and theatre of the ring beautifully with a Dante-esque vision of Hell that has become more prominent throughout the series as Chuck & Sharlene descend further into madness in defence of their crown.

Slightly adjacent to the horror, but while we’re on the subject of the *crown*, Chuck Frenzy’s entrance onto the stage is just magnificent, the robe, the crown, the menace and madness, just perfect!

When it comes to lettering and design it is hard to find anyone as talented or as prolific as Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. He is consistently at the top of his game, working on some of my favourite comics of the last few years, and this is no exception. He captures the pacing, tone and energy of the narrative beautifully, and is just one more reason why this series is so damned good.

I’m a firm believer that comics should be made to be read as comics. There is too often these days a culture of making comics purely to sell the TV/film rights, and I personally think that this is short sighted and damaging to the industry. That being said, if ever there was a comic that could be a really great TV show it’s The Crimson Cage.

The Crimson Cage is, in my humble opinion, the best series I’ve read this year, and it’s also the best series I’ve seen from this creative team. Which, when you consider the fact that they’re my favourite team working in the industry today, is saying an awful lot.

Rating: 5/5.

The writer of this piece was: Mark Scott
Mark Tweets from @macoy_comicgeek ‏

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