The world of professional wrestling is about to collide with Shakespeare in Crimson Cage, a brand new comic book blending the high-flying action of the business with the madness and mysticism of MacBeth. And believe it or not, the result is too good for fans of either to pass up.
The new series from AWA Studios might sound too unexpected, or too perfect to be believed: a reimagining of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s tragic tale of fierce fortune and ambition, set against the backdrop of the territory wrestling scene of 1980s Louisiana–and told by voices whose familiarity with pro wrestling history is evident from the first panel. With inspiration drawn from the likes of Ricky Steamboat, Brutus Beefcake, Ric Flair and more, this new story of the ambitious ‘Chuck Frenzy’ boasts a reunion of the Sink team of John Lees (Hotell) and Alex Cormack (Sea of Sorrows). The headliner of a local wrestling promotion is thrust into greatness, when a chance encounter with three mysterious witches in the Louisiana swamp leads to the greatest opportunity of his life. But to claim it, he will need to change the course of fate… by doing the unthinkable.
The oversized chapter arrives this December, and Screen Rant is proud to offer fans of wrestling, comic books, and Shakespeare a first preview. Readers can find our full interview with writer John Lees, artist Alex Cormack, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou below.
Screen Rant: It will be clear to readers almost immediately that the minds behind Crimson Cage know the wrestling business, from the crimson mask in the very first match to the unapologetically inside talk throughout. So let’s start there: how much familiarity or affection did you have when beginning this?
John Lees: I’m a lifelong wrestling fan. I started watching in 1991, at around 5 years old. The 1992 Royal Rumble was the first “new” PPV I watched, and it blew me away. I watched that Royal Rumble match over and over until the VHS started breaking down! And funnily enough, that match and Flair’s performance in it is still one of my all-time favorites. In the 30 years since, I’ve seen a lot of changes, a lot of highs and lows, and there have been points where my interest has ebbed and flowed. But it’s never fully gone away. Telling a wrestling story has been an ambition of mine for about as long as I’ve been making comics. And talking to the rest of the creative team, they all have memories of childhood wrestling fandom. I believe, at every stage in the process, a lot of love for pro wrestling has gone into the making of this comic.
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou: When John first approached me about working on The Crimson Cage, the pitch just hooked me immediately. Wrestling is already fantastic, but this Shakespearean adaptation as told through the territories just immediately clicked in a “Why hasn’t this been done before?” kind of way. Then I got super excited realizing that we could be the ones to do it! It’s been a blast, and Alex and Ashley’s art is just phenomenal.
I really want to emphasize just how authentic this feels, affording a real dignity to the cast of characters. How much research and planning went into treating these people and scenes with that legitimacy?
John Lees: A lot of work has gone into making this feel as authentic as possible. I really wanted to capture the vibe of ‘80s territory wrestling as much as I could. This involved watching A LOT of old wrestling broadcasts. I watched an extended run of 1983/1984 Mid-South. I watched the first ever Starrcade, which occurred within the timeline of this story. I revisited the Ric Flair/Ricky Steamboat series from 1989, with their 2 out of 3 Falls match in the Superdome taking place in the same venue as the Chuck Frenzy VS Van Emerald encounter in our first issue. Artist Alex Cormack and I even put a lot of thought and discussion into little details.
For example, we had some back-and-forth over Chuck’s tights, and whether or not a wrestler would have such intricately designed ring gear back in 1984. I looked into it, and while it was uncommon, you had Brutus Beefcake doing it in the first WrestleMania, and you had Adrian Street in the NWA, so there was precedent! But while we’ve worked as hard as we can to insert this all in a real historical context, we’ve also given ourselves the out of using analogues and making it clear that this is a fictionalized alternate history, which should hopefully afford us some artistic license, too.
Obviously I have to ask, because wrestling fans will spend half their time doing the same, if you can speak to some of the wrestling greats or gimmicks that you had in mind when crafting Chuck, Rubie, Van Emerald, and all these other instantly-recognizable characters?
John Lees: Oh, thinking up real-world analogues for these characters was definitely a fun part of the process! With Chuck Frenzy, there were a few notable inspirations. “Macho Man” Randy Savage was a big one, with Frenzy’s name even being something of a play on Savage’s, and with him having his own Elizabeth in the form of his wife/valet Sharlene… so I’d say Sharlene Frenzy is more of a Sensational Sherri! There’s a good bit of Rick Rude and Magnum TA that’s gone into his design and appearance.
I’d also like to say there’s some Ricky Steamboat spliced in there, since Steamboat is one of my all-time favorites and wrestling heroes, and Chuck has that quality of being the wrestler’s wrestler and the beloved Everyman, but perhaps being perceived as more of a foil to the champion than fully getting his due. Van Emerald is Ric Flair, through and through, with Rubie Rough and the Diamond Brothers playing as parallels to the rest of the Four Horsemen. And with The Abominable Grudd, I was drawing inspiration from Vader, and particularly from stories of how, despite being this vicious, hard-hitting beast in the ring, out of the ring he was a gentle, sensitive soul, known for crying with remorse backstage if he hurt someone.
SR: I am curious about the timing of this series. Today there are a lot of iconic wrestlers sharing insights into ‘the early days,’ while the rise of AEW also has them (and fans) discussing more of the storytelling, not just the marketing side of the business. So I guess that’s two questions: why is now the right time for this book to be released, and why the decision to set this story back in 1984?
John Lees: The time setting of 1984 is very significant, as it’s a time of momentous change in wrestling history, just one year removed from the first WrestleMania. I’ve long had a fascination with that period of wrestling, and the personalities that operated within it. And more generally, setting the story in the ‘80s allowed me to tap a little into the wider pop culture context of the time, riffing on the distinctive aesthetic of neon-drenched horror like A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Keep. As for the timing of the book’s release, I don’t think it could have worked out better. The December 2021 release date was set a while back, and even back then none of us could have imagined how fortuitous the timing of announcing a new wrestling comic in September of this year would be. I’ve been following AEW since its beginning, but right now – with the return of CM Punk, the possible signing of Bryan Danielson, and all the other big moves they’re making – it feels like there’s more of a buzz around pro wrestling than there’s been in a long time. And if that leads to an increased interest in wrestling-related stories, I feel that we’re poised to fill that niche.
SR: While this is definitely a somewhat universal story of a small town underdog waiting for his title shot, the supernatural, or mystical side of New Orleans and Louisiana are also a major part. Wrestling and swamp magic might seem like two great tastes that might not work together, so what sparked this combination, and was it what you expected when it came to executing on those ideas?
John Lees: In addition to my love of pro wrestling, the other major factor in the development of this story is my obsession with William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I’m a fan of Shakespeare in general, but Macbeth is a story I’ve devoured in numerous incarnations. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is one of my all-time favorite films. I’ve wanted to do my own spin on Macbeth for almost as long as I’ve wanted to do a wrestling story, and it was a mighty flash of inspiration to dovetail the two together! As a result, Macbeth is a major touchstone for that vibe of the sinister supernatural encroaching on the very human themes of desire and ambition.
SR: The script and artwork work beautifully in conveying the mood, and the energy of both Chuck’s work life in the ring and backstage, and also the darker and quieter periods of his life outside the ring. From the fight commentary to the page layouts… it is so dynamic, and so energetic, but also planned, and never confusing. Was that a desire to almost match ‘the form’ to ‘the feel’?
John Lees: This feels like a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the stellar work done by the rest of the creative team on this book. Alex Cormack and I go way back. He’s the artist and co-creator of Sink, one of my best-known comics. By now, we just have such an easy rapport and a smooth working relationship, I’m at the point where whenever I think of any of my ideas as a comic, the default is to imagine Alex drawing them! And it’s because of these qualities you mention, that energy and personality he injects into his figures, paired with a sense of clarity and precision in how scenes are staged. And his wife, Ashley Cormack, has proven to be his ideal partner on colors, bringing all those details to the fore and enrichening the narrative with a vibrant palette. Credit should also be given to letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, whose efforts add a lot of atmosphere to the story. Take, for example, how the “FRENZY!” chants hover in the air all around Chuck during his matches, capturing that aura of building fan excitement and investment in a match.
Alex Cormack: I remember back in early 2018, John and I had just wrapped the first five issues of our crime horror book, Sink, and we were talking about what would be next. He mentioned a passion project of his called The Crimson Cage, which would be Shakespeare meets Wrestling. But the pre Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man, and Hulkamania wrestling, just a few years earlier, the wrestling that I would see in the black and white magazines that my older brother would have lying around. So, when I read the script, it was a dropkick of nostalgia. I was so excited about it I told my wife the story and in return she was so excited she asked if she could tackle the coloring! The same day I started character designs and we’ve been working on it one way or another since. I can’t wait for this book to get out into the public, and I am so happy that AWA Upshot is the one putting it out.
SR: Having read more fight scenes in comic books than I could ever remember, I think a lot of readers will be surprised by it. Was that an assumption you thought about, or worked to avoid while making this book?
John Lees: This is an assumption I’ve definitely considered. You’ll sometimes find even in pro wrestling itself, some fans have the assumption that the story is told in the promos and interviews, then it stops while the matches happen. But when it’s done well, the storytelling is done in the ring, the wrestling being an extension of the character arcs and opponent dynamics we’ve seen playing out in the storyline leading to the match. And so, in this comic, it was important to me that we use the matches not just as surface dressing, but as integral beats in the story’s development and in the advancement of the characters.
It’s also a fun challenge to write a fight that’s not a fight, convey the complex dynamics of two characters who are cooperating and putting on the performance of a fight, but also who perhaps on some occasions are at odds with one another, so there is still real conflict playing out on another level. Alex Cormack had discussions with me about playing with this dynamic, about framing things so that when we’re looking at the action from outside the ring, we’re seeing the fight play out as the fans see it, but then when we draw closer inside the ring, we’re watching the real character drama.
SR: If one thing is clear from the first issue, it’s that Crimson Cage can go absolutely anywhere. So without spoiling a thing, can you give a tease to the soon-to-be readers and fans about what they’re in for as this story progresses?
John Lees: To quote a line from a recent promo from Eddie Kingston, one of pro wrestling’s great orators: “Take my hand, we’re going to walk through Hell together.”
Crimson Cage #1 will arrive on physical and digital comic book shops everywhere this December, from AWA Studios.