(Slave Labor Graphics)
US: Mar 2009
Everything I need to know about Mexican wrestling, I learned from David J. Schow.
In less than two days, I tore through Schow’s novel Gun Work—part of the superlative (though lately, somewhat iffy) “Hard Case Crime” series—when it came out last year. There’s no reason not to rave about this book, but of all its highlights, the sections that stuck out the most deal with lucha libre. As with any ignorance I have of any subject, I am to shoulder most of the blame. But why was this was my first real exposure to lucha libre, especially since the subject is ripe for the comic book medium? Fictional archetypes of good and evil (which are the superhero comic’s meat and potatoes) hold little sway here; these luchadores are real and live their adventures.
Strongman by writer Charles Soule and artist Allen Gladfelter explores a strange and heady brew mixing together the kinetic vivacity of the luchadores with hard-boiled detective fiction. Given the unreasonable expectations, Strongman seemed initially to be a let-down. But on re-reading, the book’s true worth shone through.
Strongman is the story of Tigre, a once great luchador. Along with his faithful cohorts, Conejo and Bujo, Tigre fought a plethora of villains in the ring, on the silver screen, and most importantly, on the streets, keeping the citizens of Mexico safe. But that was thirty years ago. Now, Tigre lives in the slums of New York, a fat, drunken shell of the man he once was. As the story progresses, readers discover through a series of flashbacks how Tigre fell to this lowly state, and how his current mission is as much about confronting his past as it is about the latest, most dire threat to his people. A true hero, even at his life’s lowest ebb, Tigre emerges victorious.
Ever true to the luchador traditions, Tigre never removes his mask in public, nor does the reader ever see his face even during the rare moments when his mask is removed. This is the most vital element of the book and its placement in the world of comics. Power and identity are inseparable concepts in the myth of superheroes. For plot’s sake, the notion of a “secret identity” is often explained as being a safeguard to our hero and his/her loved ones from reprisals by enemies. But I would venture that the more overarching reason is much more significant. For example, when Clark Kent enters that phone booth, he emerges not as a mild-mannered reporter, but as a man capable of moving planets. The secret identity here is not the superhuman, but the “mask” of Clark Kent. This Superman is not an idealized version of the self; it is the self.
Strongman takes this idea to its next logical step. Tigre’s mask does not conceal his identity, but reveals it. And even when Tigre is at his lowest, he never ceases to be the hero—the man—he once was, even if the man he is now needs a shave and smells like beer sweat. This idea of masks and identity is prevalent throughout the story. In the interests of not divulging too much of the plot, it would be enough to say Tigre is not the only character who is actually more of a man when “hidden” by his mask.
With a keen eye for subtext, and a powerful grappling identity Soule’s Strongman does fall a bit short when it comes to simple entertainment value. In short, the book is more than a bit lack-luster. Although it opens itself up to discussions like the above, the book still lacks a certain flair to really engage the reader. Soule’s dialogue is adequate, but far from crackling. As well, Gladfelter’s art is successful, but is never really more than that. Both of these shortcomings are especially noticeable during the flashback sequences. The entire book is in black-and-white, a format I have no problems with, but perhaps color would have been a better choice in order to highlight the distinction between the two eras—for example, muted browns and grays for the present-tense downward spiral of Tigre, and bold, bright colors for the days-of-yore flashbacks. But this effect could still have been achieved in black-and-white. For example, the simplistic macho dialogue of the ‘70s exploitation era works well, but there is not much difference there from how the characters talk and act in the present. Since so much of the story hinges on how much one man has changed yet really hasn’t, a more jarring contrast of the two times would have been far more effective.
That being said, Strongman does, for the most part, attain the goals it sets for itself as a story and, more important, as a comic book. In a medium so overrun by superheroes, it was quite refreshing to read of a different, if not altogether new, brand of ubermensch. And even if I found the book to be lacking in some areas, do yourself a favor and grab up a copy, if only to encourage others to step off the beaten path of American superheroes and into different realms.