Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs: Robot 13 and a Luchador

StrongmanWritten by Charles Soule; Illustrated by Allen GladfelterSLG; $9.95

I said in the weekend’s What Are You Reading that I wasn’t sure what to make of the lucha libre genre. “I can easily embrace the sillier aspects of it,” I said, “but it’s off-putting to me that people in the stories always seem to take the luchadors so seriously. We’re asked to believe that the ridiculous masks are badges of honor that command respect. Strongman plays around with that idea and I appreciate that about it.”

Having finished the book, I’m not sure that “plays around with” is the right verb. What Strongman seems to do is acknowledge the irony of the concept, but ends up defending it. As writer Charles Soule says in the press release for the book, “The real-life luchadors were incredible, larger-than-life figures. They were basically real-world superheroes – many of them never took their masks off in public. These people were big deals. And I thought a story that played with their legend a bit, while remaining respectful could be something special.” Okay, so Soule uses “played with” too. Maybe that is what he’s doing. I’m not the best person to judge.

As an outsider to the lucha libre world, I see movie titles like Mil Máscaras vs. the Aztec Mummy and Santo vs. the Vampire Women and I think, “Awesome!” I’m not however thinking about how much I respect El Santo and Mil Máscaras. I mean, no more than I respect Indiana Jones or Batman.

More plus Robot 13 below the cut.

But here’s where I have to acknowledge that my status as an outsider to this culture plays a huge role. El Santo and Mil Máscaras were real people. And though they may not have fought actual Aztec Mummies and Vampire Women, they were huge cultural icons and inspired a lot of people. I have a hard time dismissing or winking at that, so I can only imagine that someone like Soule – who’s immersed himself much deeper in it than I ever will – wants to treat it with some dignity. And he does.

And, indeed, something special was the result.

Strongman is the story of a former masked wrestler named Tigre. In his prime, he was up there with El Santo and Mil Máscaras. But tragedy struck in the early ‘70s and for the past thirty-five years he’s been living in New York and letting younger, more popular wrestlers beat him up for booze money. That is until a young, Mexican girl finds him and asks him to play the hero again for her by stopping a ring of organ traffickers who prey specifically on her and Tigre’s people.

Through the story, Tigre has to wrestle (sorry) with his current self-image and his memories of the past. Was he ever that heroic? The tragedy of 1973 casts that into doubt. He vividly remembers fighting Martians and bug-men, but those were just movies, weren’t they? How can he strive to regain something that he’s not that sure he ever had in the first place?

That’s the beauty of the story. Soule and artist Allen Gladfelter have created a thoroughly pathetic character, but keep dangling just enough hope in front of him that readers will root for him anyway. Even deciding to help the girl is a huge step for Tigre. If he can do that, maybe he can overcome the numerous other obstacles in his way as well. But just when we start to believe that, something disastrous occurs to send Tigre spiraling down again. This happens more than once, and it’s an emotional thrill to get pulled along with it.

Gladfelter is a great artist for the story. Though Strongman has a ton of heart to it, in essence it’s a mystery-thriller and Gladfelter draws dynamic and exciting action sequences. At the same time though, everything looks very real. This isn’t a superhero story. It couldn’t be. It would be stupid if it tried. Strongman is absolutely grounded in reality and Soule’s description of luchadors as “real-world superheroes” is vitally important to its success.

In thinking about my initial ignorance of lucha libre, I wondered if there might not have been another genre this story could have been told in that would have connected more easily with me. It took some research for me to realize why someone might take luchadors seriously. A lucha libre fan is going to pick that up about Strongman right away, but if you’re like me you might not get it so quickly. Could the same story be told without masked, Mexican wrestlers?

I’ve decided that it can’t. I can’t think of another place where masked heroics and the real-world intersect so perfectly. I can see someone trying to tell this story with superheroes, but I can’t imagine it working. It would be just another of the countless attempts to validate superheroes by making them “realistic.” By choosing the lucha libre genre, Soule and Gladfelter have created something unique and special indeed. I wish that I’d connected to it more quickly, but that’s a minor irritation; not a valid criticism.

The only real complaint I have about the book is that I don’t really buy the ending. The events that have to occur in order to get that last page are either rushed through, completely implausible, or both. However, by the time I got there I had already enjoyed the journey enough that a last couple of faltering steps didn’t bother me so much.

Four out of five masked gatecrashers.

Robot 13 #1Written by Thomas Hall; Illustrated by Daniel BradfordBlacklist; $3.00

You can't help but compare Daniel Bradford's art on Robot 13 to Mike Mignola. The influence is too obvious. And really, if you're going to be obviously influenced by someone, I'd rather it be Mike Mignola than pretty much anyone else. But I hope it's not a surprise or an insult to say that Daniel Bradford is no Mike Mignola. He's very good at imitating the style and the colors, but I think I'll enjoy him more once he finds his own groove. His work already has a sense of humor that breaks the boundaries of his inspiration, so I know it's coming. I'm looking forward to it.

As for the story, it's always tough to tell from one issue, but Robot 13 is off to a great start. It's mostly action as the skull-headed robot is accidentally dragged from the bottom of the sea and has to save a fishing boat from an enormous cephalopod, but there are enough hints at 13's mysterious background and teases about his future to make me want to see what happens next. The action is fun and inventive too, and at only three bucks for 24 pages, it's a bargain to boot.

Four out of five anchors to the eyeball.

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