“No Holds Barred” – Josh Hicks Talks Queen of the Ring and Making Comics With Katie Skelly

I am a huge fan of Katie Skelly’s work and was very excited to learn that she was editing Queen of the Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Hernandez – a book that sits very firmly in my weird Venn diagram of interests. I then used this as an excuse to speak to Katie for a bit about comics. Enjoy!

Hello Katie! Thanks for kindly taking the time to talk to me over the internet. You edited Jaime Hernandez’s new artbook, Queen of the Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Hernandez (Aug 3rd, Fantagraphics). It looks great. Could you give us a quick rundown of what the book is about?

Thank you! Queen of the Ring is a collection of drawings of women wrestlers done by Jaime between 1980 – 2020. The drawings were inspired by real-life wrestlers, but for the most part, they’re all Jaime’s inventions. There’s an interview I did with him about the subject placed throughout the book that gives further context as to how this kind of work fits into his larger practice that I think is really interesting.

Most (if not all?) of the pieces in the book are private drawings never meant for public consumption. What was the process of convincing Jaime to do this, compiling the work and presenting it in a way that would serve it best?

Correct, they were all private. When Jaime showed the drawings to me I thought they were so gorgeous and unusual, because some were half completed pencil and ink sketches and some were entirely realized and colored with colored pencils. It’s rare to see finished work from him that’s hand-colored! Even the unfinished drawings were so compelling. And he told me a lot of the times when he finished one of these drawings, he would just throw them away

I thought there was huge potential to shed light on his studio practices in sharing these, and there would likely be a public interest. I told Jaime I thought the world should see them and proposed doing a book. Maybe he’d say differently but, after I brought it up, he really just convinced himself. A true Libra.

To me the most important thing in the selection process was covering as much of the range as possible – the 1980s drawings start out as very detailed, almost photographic representations of a full stadium experience with crowds and referees, and, as time goes on, the drawings focus on individual characters and snapshots of their moments in the ring. Thankfully, Jaime still had a few key drawings from each decade in his archive, so those all made it in.

The more we talked and the more I understood his history with the subject, it seemed like his main practice point was to simulate the photographs in wrestling magazines, which still hold this special place in his heart. So I wanted to make the presentation of the work a synthesis of a wrestling magazine and an art book. I removed all my text from our interview, so it reads as Jaime telling his own history, and I’m really thrilled with this detail Fantagraphics did, which was to make all his text look as if it was cut and pasted from a different paper stock. The book has this perfect tension between the real and the imagined in this way. It’s actually quite dreamy.

With Whoa Nellie! and the Queen Rena and Vicki Glori Love & Rockets stories, Jaime is regarded by myself and many others as the king of wrestling comics, a fact I am reminded of whenever anybody talks to me about my own wrestling book. Obviously, he is a legend in the general comics sense, but were you aware of his stature in this particular sliver of comics, and did that affect your process around editing the book at all?

What’s interesting is that even though the drawings were only really for him, he still gave the women entire histories. They have enormous personalities and story arcs, they’re babyfaces and veterans and heels, they change their names and their costumes, they travel the U.S. and beyond, and just like in L&R, they age. And that’s communicated only in a series of drawings and simulated headlines here. 

In my experience, it’s rare to be both so enthusiastic about something and not be burdened by your knowledge of it. There’s just enough of a detachment from the subject that there’s room for playfulness – I think striking that balance is what puts him at the top of the pile every time. I work off the assumption that whatever subject Jaime works on he’ll be insanely great at. The stature is well earned.

I love the approach to genre in your comics. In my mind each of your books sits in an established, hyper-specific genre — ones that I would classify as having their roots in some kind of exploitation (60s sci-fi, giallo, European erotic horror, biker movies, true crime) — and approaches them in a way that honours their original intent but gives them a new point of view and a kind of fresh dignity. This is me trying to be smart. In that sense, Queen of the Ring does seem kind of in keeping with your own comics oeuvre (again, smart). In what way, if at all, did that factor into you being drawn toward the project and your approach to editing it?

That’s very kind, thank you. I love stories about women. And I think working in genre has tremendous potential because it’s so straightforward and the expectations are so understood that, once you start to bend the bars a little bit, you can really set yourself up to do something wild. So that’s the formula I’ve found that keeps me going. Queen of the Ring slots into that for sure – approaching the genre of wrestling, which is a facade in and of itself, and deconstructing it for your own personal enjoyment… but moreover, those drawings! The range of emotions and the physicality! The violence! What isn’t to love?

With Queen of the Ring, you’ve added another comics feather to your cap. You are now a cartoonist, illustrator, journalist, podcaster, and editor. Are there any other areas of comics you’d like to try your hand at? Can we expect a Katie Skelly publishing house soon?

I’d like to publish. I just need to figure out what need I’d be fulfilling. That’s generally how I try to take on projects, creative and otherwise – what am I bringing out that isn’t out there for me now? I don’t usually make moves until I figure that out, and the comics landscape is so different from when I started. I wouldn’t want to operate off whatever my perception was in like, 2008, so I need time to really get my head around it. So maybe not for another few years or so, if it’s in the cards.

I’d like to edit more books. I really want to put a Jucika book together, but I’m having a difficult time making headway. I’m obsessed with her.

But right now I’m most satisfied being a cartoonist because that feels the most like making something out of thin air. It’s my truest form of expression.

You’ve just moved to LA — congratulations! Are there ways in which the change of environment has been impactful to your work, or is it exactly the same as working from New York except brighter?

Thank you! Los Angeles has given me more freedom. You get a little more mental real estate when you’re not on the subway everyday getting stepped on. Even if the amount of work hasn’t changed, I don’t feel as frantic. 

You’ve been posting snippets and live inking videos of a new comic, HEAVEN, on Instagram. Can you tell us anything about the book or is it too early to divulge anything?

It’s about a haunted strip club but that’s all I’ll say for now. I’m superstitious!

I’ve long held you up in my mind as a golden example of a cartoonist who has been prolific while holding a day job – sort of as a reminder that it is possible. I know from experience that this can be mentally and physically difficult, with various pitfalls – I recently gave up and went full-time freelance, which is both exciting and scary. What is your current work/life/comics balance and what steps have you taken to try to maintain a situation that works for you?

That’s so nice, thank you. I don’t know that I really have a balance figured out, even after 15 years of working this way. It’s hard all the time. It helped me to just accept that.

I used to have some idea that things would “pay off.” I don’t see things that way anymore, not because giant things didn’t happen, but because now I don’t really care if they do. All I want is a place where I don’t have to have a boss, where I can exist in a world I run myself. That anyone in the universe would read the things I create there and want more, that they would want to stay in it is incredible. That keeps me going now. 

Back to genre: I tend to begin stories by just getting obsessed with a genre and starting from there. I don’t know if any writing teachers would say that’s a good idea. Is that how it works for you? Are there any genres you are dying to do that you haven’t gotten around to yet?

Sounds like a fine place to get started to me. I always look for a genre that’s touching on a specific sensation that’s going to be the right vessel for whatever way I’m feeling. I felt alienated and adrift after I graduated college – what genre fits those emotions? To me, science fiction, so I made Nurse Nurse. When I started settling into some kind of life I wanted to break out of and wanted more freedom – biker movie, Operation Margarine. Seeing your own complicity in exploitation and perversion? I moved into horror and did My Pretty Vampire. Neverending grind of late capitalism, seeing yourself being made subject? Maids. It’s all just a way of translating experience, but it’s camouflaged in these preexisting structures. I get to just be a little parasite.

I really want to do a Western! I just need some hook into it. I need to feel more desperate and isolated before I can truly be ready. I’m working on it.

Finally: let us enter the realm of the imagination. What would your wrestling gimmick be? What entrance music? I’ve fantasized about having a cartoonist persona, where I’d cheat and spit a fine mist of India ink into my opponent’s eyes, but then I remembered that I do all my work on a Wacom. My entrance theme would be Shimmy Shimmy Ya, so you can’t have that. Sorry.

Damn, that’s good. Maybe a nun who comes into “Judas” by Lady Gaga. I’d strangle people with a rosary when the ref turns around.

Thank you, Katie! In true wrestling fashion, can you now rate these interview questions out of 6 stars?

Six out of six, would chat again! Thanks, Josh!

Katie Skelly is, among other things, a cartoonist, comics journalist, editor and podcaster based out of Los Angeles. Her latest book as a cartoonist, Maids, was released through Fantagraphics in 2020. Queen of the Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Herndandez is out from Fantagraphics on August 3rd and is available to pre-order now!

SOLRAD is made possible by the generous donations of readers like you. Support our Patreon campaign, or make a tax-deductible donation to our publisher, Fieldmouse Press, today.

Josh Hicks is a cartoonist from Wales. His debut feature-length graphic novel, Glorious Wrestling Alliance: Ultimate Championship Edition is out from Graphic Universe on October 5th. 2021.

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