The cover of Strongman, the lucha-centric graphic novella by Charles Soule and Allen Gladfelter, is deceptively simple. The front cover shows a bleary-eyed luchador with a cig dangling from his mouth. The smoke rises to make a tiger's face, the eye's are fierce, but the mouth is strangely pursed, giving the impression of tired old age. Something once awesome, now grown feeble. In the background: a tattered movie poster. Open the book up, so you can see both covers at the same time, and the spine acts like a flashback swipe. On the back cover, one sees the same mask. The eye of this luchador is lively, almost playful. He smiles. Behind him, a movie poster shows him taking on a gang of bat-eared, be-clawed luchadores. You can't fully make out the title, but you get enough to know that the luchador's name is El Tigre and the baddies he's about to apply some heavy manners to are demons, possibly from outer space. Above the poster's title, there's an abstract, harshly angular logo of a tiger's face.
These two images basically tell the entire story of the comic, but the real treat is in the color of the mask. On the back cover, the lucha's mask is a pristine white – a testament, no doubt, to his good living and an homage, I suspect, to Santo: patron saint of luchadores, hero of the multitudes. On the front cover, it's a sickly yellow. Stained from years of smoking. Little details like that sell the thing.
The plot of the slim volume fuses a last-shot-at-redemption tale (a staple of gringo comics since Watchmen and Dark Knight) with elements of the late career Santo actioner Border of Terror. The book opens with El Tigre, a second tier lucha legend from the late 1960s, living in NYC. Instead of fighting villains and acting as the champion of the oppressed, he mostly spends his time drinking, smoking, and conducting a sustained low-intensity full-spectrum campaign of self-destruction. He makes his cheddar playing dozens of semi-individuated "villains" on the sub-sub-sub-pro wrasslin' circuit. His job is to show up, put on a new mask, get smashed about by the main attraction, gather a Grant, and then beat it. Occasionally, something reminds him of the good old days, when he and his partners – brilliantly inventive Brujo and the hot-headed archer Conejo – used to cruise the streets of Mexico City, righting wrongs, winning matches, and filming the occasional cinematic blockbuster. But, mostly, he just wastes away.
Then, of course, the shot at redemption. Because this is a lucha tale, you know it's going to come in the form of either a small child woefully lacking in father figures or a lovely woman in jeopardy. Strongman opts for the latter: a sexy and perhaps too innocent plot device named Maria. This beautiful and mysterious woman pulls El Tigre into a slightly gonzo noir-tinged conspiracy involving government corruption, drugs, sex slavery, organ trafficking, cannibalism, and the nearly 30-year-old betrayal that marked the end of El Tigre's golden age.
The story is well handled, combining a mean and efficient hardboiled plot with the highly stylized, over the top muscle melodrama of lucha flicks. The lucha noir a combo has attracted other American lucha-lovers – see Hoodtown by Christa Faust – and can be surprisingly effective. The characterization El Tigre stands out both for its sincere love of the lucha hero as an icon of justice and for the smart awareness of their surreal and almost Quixotic place in the world. Also, while there have been enjoyable spoofs of the genre – the bombast of lucha tradition almost begs for it – it is nice to see somebody get mileage out of playing it straight.
The art is fine with bursts of awesome. I have a suspicion that the smaller format of the book (8 1/2 by 5 1/2) took some of the petrol out of Gladfelter. Several scenes are inventive, energetic, and bursting with smart details. Gladfelter has a cinematic vision and a taste for the well-made pop allusion. But often, his work feels constrained by the limitations of the format. Should El Tigre ever be revisited, I hope Gladfelter's given more of a chance to explore the space they've created and flesh out his ideas.
Why does lucha work? Curt, of Groovy fame – come on now, don't play like you don't know him – once wondered how I could dig on lucha flicks, many of which are admittedly awful enough to actually qualify as slanders against the concept of cinema, and yet I was unable to wrap my head around the appeal of, say, the painfully inadequate filmmaking of Spanish horror icon (they've got to have one, I guess) Paul Naschy. In trying to explain Naschy's appeal, Curt described a sort of genre fandom "double vision." Nobody is blind to the cheesy make-up, occasionally awkward acting, or often heavy-handed "stylishness" of these films. But, for the fans, you see through - not past - these things to the mental world they suggest. In the works of Naschy, it's a darkly seductive alternative universe driven by the erotic and forbidden impulses we confine and suppress in the real world.
I suspect my love of lucha works on almost the exact same principle, only the end result is different. I don't really buy the whole "dark and forbidden thing." When I look around me, I see a world that happily caters to our basest whims. Short of homicide on demand, is there anything we can't pull up on the Internet? Certainly there are self-appointed guardians of morality out there – folks who'd like to scrub clean our minds and return to a (utterly fictional) prelapsarian past – but their efforts have been considerably less effective at squashing free expression than, say, computer glitches in the search algorithms of amorally-capitalistic monopolistic cultural gatekeepers. Instead, what I see is a world sadly lacking in nobility.
Most luchadores, taken at face value, are not all that noble. Beefy, sweaty entertainers that slap one another around for a few pesos; it's bread and circuses, certainly. But when I see Santo putting the beat down of some hoods or sending a vampire (and what's a vampire but a metaphor of exploitation in fancy evening wear?) back to the infernal pit that spawned it, I think I catch glimpses of a slightly better world: a place where the poor and those in need have ready and capable champions, where the corrupt and vile do not prosper. They remind me of the image of Christ chasing the moneylenders out of the temple with a lash – violent, righteous, simple but confusing, inspiring but profoundly impossible. But, I suspect, you either see it or you don't.
Strongman's got that a healthy share of that charm, the pathos and nobility of the better world we don't have. I recommend it for lucha fans.