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Inside the real lives of pro wrestlers with the Comic Book Encyclopedia of Pro Wrestling

(Image credit: Inverse Press)

You think you know what professional wrestling is like, but what about the people who portray those characters? Part actor, part stuntperson, part superhero (or supervillain), playing a character for years - decades even if they're successful - that may or may not be the real person inside them.

In the upcoming book The Comic Book Encyclopedia of Pro Wrestling, the real lives of several pro wrestlers are profiled - based on actual interviews conducted with the wrestlers themselves, then translated into comic book form.

Writer John Crowther and a host of artists have gathered to document the stories of famous wrestlers like WWE's Bruno Sammartino, AEW's Jack Hager, GLOW's Sunny the California Girl, NWA's Ricky Morton, and more. In addition to that, there's profiles of other notable wrestlers to round out this 280-page package.

For more, Newsarama spoke with Crowther about the experience - and about learning the true lives of pro wrestlers from the men and women themselves.

(Image credit: Inverse Press)

Newsarama: John, writing a Comic Book Encyclopedia of Pro Wrestling seems like an immense task. What led you to take it on in the first place?

John Crowther: The Comic Book Encyclopedia of Pro Wrestling is a culmination of work that began in 2015, with the first of a three-part series I wrote for WWE Hall of Famer Nikolai Volkoff. 

I had been introduced to Nikolai through a mutual friend and we quickly struck up a friendship, initially over our mutual love of comics and pro wrestling. In the course of our discussions, Nikolai mentioned that he had been approached in the past about creating a comic that detailed his life story, but that the project had never come to fruition. Not being one to squander a good tale, I told him I would be happy to take on the task, assuring him that, "If I promise you I'll do it, I'll get it done."  

As work progressed on Nikolai's series, and I became more deeply involved in the project, it dawned on me that we seemed to be telling stories about Nikolai that weren't common knowledge. They were more historically based; and, while we were addressing the wrestling facets of Nikolai's life, we were also telling stories about the person behind the character portrayed on television, in magazines, and in the squared circle. Being a lifelong fan of wrestling and glutton for history, I was chomping at the bit to learn more and tell the background stories of the men and women of professional wrestling that I grew up watching.

(Image credit: Inverse Press)

Nrama: So take us through it, how did you figure out what it would be, what it would include, and what it wouldn't?

Crowther: To get to the core of this question, I have to address how I decided who to include in the individual autobiographical comic book series that would make up the Encyclopedia. 

I wanted to write varied stories. Stories about unique individuals that had to overcome seemingly impossible odds to make it to the pinnacle of their chosen career as wrestlers. If I felt a wrestler's background had that "IT" factor to it; something that readers, beyond just wrestling fans could relate to, that was the story I wanted to tell. In putting the Encyclopedia together, we have taken several of these single issue comics, all of which are loaded with "IT" factor stories, and combined them into a 280+ page omnibus of stories.

Nrama: As you mentioned, you've done many comic books about pro wrestlers, in most cases working directly with the wrestlers themselves co-writing autobiographical comic books. Why is the format of comic books so ideal for telling the story of wrestling?

Crowther: Professional wrestlers are made for comics. And comics are the perfect medium for professional wrestlers. There's not another profession that's a more tailored fit. 

(Image credit: Inverse Press)

Professional wrestlers have these over-sized personalities, bursting from super-sized bodies. They are bigger than life, both in size and personality. They are faster, stronger, and can do amazing feats, such as flying from the top of a steel cage, that the average fan cannot do. And it all comes wrapped in a costume. They are literally living, breathing superhero (and sometimes supervillain) comic book characters.

Nrama: I'm told for this encyclopedia the wrestlers all approved their inclusion. Who has committed to being part of the project, and what does it mean for them?

Crowther: We have contractual relationships with all of the wrestlers, whose individual stories have been included in the Encyclopedia; which, for volume one, includes Nikolai Volkoff, Bruno Sammartino, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Lanny Poffo, B. Brian Blair, Jumping Jim Brunzell, Ricky Morton, Bobby Fulton, Jake Hager, and Sunny the California Girl (Patricia Summerland) from Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (G.L.O.W.). Each wrestler, or their estate, receives a portion of sales from their individual titles.

Nrama: As you've mentioned, this isn't just encyclopedia entries, you also have stories. Can you tell us about one of them?

(Image credit: Inverse Press)

Crowther: With so many fantastic stories, it's difficult to pick a favorite, but one that truly stands out is Bruno Sammartino. 

We all know Bruno as the larger than life Italian strongman, who took the WWWF by storm, holding the WWWF Championship for an unprecedented 11 years. But not as many know the hardships he faced to get to the top, or even to get to the United States from Italy. 

Bruno was born in Pizzoferrato, Italy in 1935, at the eve of World War 2, and remained in the area during the Nazi occupation in the 40s, living as a refugee in a mountain camp on Valla Rocca. At the end of the war, Bruno was so malnourished, he could not pass the physical to come to the United States, but within 9 years he held the world record in the bench press. And within 13 years, he would begin his first reign as WWWF World Heavyweight Champion, a reign that would last for eight years. It is truly an amazing story of how this one man overcame unimaginable adversity. 

(Image credit: Inverse Press)

Nrama: Who are the artists you're working with on this, and how are the collaborations?

Crowther: I have worked with an amazing group of artists on the project that have amassed years of industry experience, including Dell Barras (DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Antarctic Press), Rich Perotta (Marvel Comics), Javier Lugo (IDW), Rando Dixon (Inverse Press), Oscar Pinto (Heavy Metal Magazine), Alan McMillian, Gavin Michelli (Inverse Press) and Amanda Rachels (Inverse Press), as well as an amazing team of colorists and letterers.

My collaborations with these artists have been a fantastic experience for all involved, ranging from creators (like myself and Rando) who grew up on wrestling, to others (such as Dell) who were only peripheral fans, but who have now grown to love the industry and its history.

(Image credit: Inverse Press)

Nrama: What would you say is the biggest misconception about wrestling or these wrestlers you'd like this book to fix?

Crowther: That they are simply "meat heads" or "actors," and the sometimes failure to recognize them for the athletes that they are. To understand that there are amazing individuals behind the masks and personas. Men and women who have overcome war, prejudice, poverty, and more, and who have used the world of professional wrestling to not only entertain, but also to become beacons of light to millions of people.

Nrama: And what's your overall goal for this?

Crowther: My overall goal is to tell their stories in a new medium. To reach younger generations of fans who did not have an opportunity to grow up with and watch these legends perform. To ensure that the wrestling universe not only enjoys the stars of today, but also understands the history of the business and the individuals who set the foundation for the professional wrestling industry.

Chris has covered comic book news for Newsarama since 2003, and has also written for USA Today, Life, Publisher's Weekly, Marvel Entertainment, TOKYOPOP, AdHouse Books, Cartoon Brew, Bleeding Cool, Comic Shop News, and CBR. He is the author of the book Modern: Masters Cliff Chiang, co-authored Art of Spider-Man Classic, and contributed to Dark Horse/Bedside Press' anthology Pros and (Comic) Cons. He has acted as a judge for the  2019 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards and the 2012 Stan Lee Awards. Chris is a member of the American Library Association's Graphic Novel & Comics Round Table.