Pro Wrestling Artists Turn Squared Circle Fandom into Inspiration

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterDecember 3, 2015

Courtesy of Rob Schamberger

Pro wrestling is such an evocative medium that it begets visual art that salutes, celebrates and spoofs it.

When WWE tag team champions, The New Day, gyrate on screen gloating about their latest stolen victory, artists are busy putting their pencils to work. When Shinsuke Nakamura knees a foe in the face wearing red-leather pants and a cockeyed smile, there is sure to be an artist somewhere sketching that strike.

Wrestling is fun, vibrant and bursting with colors. It's no wonder, then, that there is a growing amount of art focusing on what happens in the ring.

In case after case, fans with artistic talents are adapting their passion for the wrestling industry into picture form.

Andre the Giant's outside-the-ring story drew comic book artist Box Brown to the Hall of Famer. Hearing stories of Andre getting in an argument on a bus, catching rides to school from playwright Samuel Beckett and all other tales, tall or otherwise, inspired him to compile them in graphic novel form.

He produced Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, both a tribute to the legendary mammoth grappler and a visual history of his life.

An illustrator who goes by the name punkrockbigmouth draws inspiration from the absurdity of wrestling.

Anything from the recent melodramatic love story centered on Lana and Rusev to Brock Lesnar flinging Seth Rollins in the air has served as her muse. She works with GIFs, black-and-white illustrations and stark, bold art that demands one's attention.

Illustraton of Brock Lesnar and Seth Rollins
Illustraton of Brock Lesnar and Seth RollinsCourtesy of punkrockbigmouth

Jon David Guerra from Austin, Texas, fully embraces wrestling's cartoon elements.

He translates the grappling game to paper and screen with vibrant, zany sketches that would make Tex Avery proud. Big moments, like Rollins breaking John Cena's nose with a flying knee, unfolding on WWE TV inspire him to add to his sketchbook dubbed Monday Night Draw.

In addition, Guerra has created his own wrestling universe, complete with fanged monsters and leviathan sea creatures—his comic book, Nightmare Pro Wrestling

Cover of Nightmare Pro Wrestling No. 1
Cover of Nightmare Pro Wrestling No. 1Courtesy of Jon David Guerra

And expressing fandom through art has landed Rob Schamberger a dream job. The Kansas City native began crafting a "champions collection" where he hoped to paint every world titleholder in wrestling history from Frank Gotch to Masahiro Chono. The energy he managed to infuse into those canvases got him noticed by WWE.

The sports entertainment giant eventually brought him on as an employee, and he now paints Superstars for a living and sees those images end up on T-shirts, in auctions, on the WWE merchandise page and as the subject of WWE's "Canvas to Canvas" videos.

Frank Gibson, a comic book artist and illustrator who specializes in the bizarre and the adorable, is taking his love of all things wrestling a step further.

He is spearheading Muscle Templean in-progress comic anthology that pays homage to wrestling from a variety of angles. Moody comics will accompany more absurdist ones in an eclectic collection that will feature artists like Brown, Madeleine Flores and Zac Gorman.

Putting that project together comes from an adoration for the art of wrestling. 

These cartoonists and creators go beyond cheering for the action. They look to translate it to a new form. As Gibson put it, "We're enthusiastic to the point that we want to make something."

For some, that process begins early, in front of a TV, sitting mesmerized next to a family member.

Hooked for Life

Jake "The Snake" Roberts came on the TV. He carried a python in a sack on his shoulder. He glared at the camera with a serpentine stare.

One of wrestling's best mic workers was calling out his enemy. Miles away, Guerra watched the poet from afar with his grandparents. He remembered that they were always watching wrestling. He remembered Roberts' promo pulling him in.

"I got hooked," he said.

Wrestling fit right next to his affection for Ren and Stimpy, comic books and B-movies. "The spectacle, and the characters and those big moments in a match" drew him in. They still do. 

The Brood
The BroodCourtesy of Jon David Guerra

He loves wrestling. "Even bad wrestling," he explained.

For punkrockbigmouth, her grandfather served as the entry point to the strange spandex-heavy world. Her grandfather frequently had wrestling on; she eventually caught the bug, too.

"It is entirely his fault I am a wrestling fan," she said.

Like with Guerra, it was a verbal master who enticed punkrockbigmouth. Listening to Bobby Heenan on commentary, she said to herself, "This speaks for my soul."

She was just a kid when Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart engaged in their famous rivalry. She was already so enamored with the action that she began to sketch what she saw. 

Drawing Michaels proved embarrassing, though. His wrestling tights featured a heart right over his crotch. 

After art clubs in school and a drawing class in college, she kept drawing, kept crafting goofy renditions of her favorite wrestlers. More recently, The Shield has often been her muse. The black-clad faction's unconventional appearance struck her.

As did their attitude and where they chose to trash-talk.

"They're broadcasting from an undisclosed location that appears to be a janitor's closet. The Hounds of Justice. They really looked like wild dogs when they'd attack some poor soul," she said about the now-defunct trio.

Depiction of The Shield's breakup
Depiction of The Shield's breakupCourtesy of punkrockbigmouth

Wrestling has been in Brown's life since childhood. It's been something he has treasured, the fact that it is a niche interest only adding to the appeal.

To him, it's not just entertainment. "It's how I relate to the world," he explains. When putting together a comic anthology, he approaches it as if he were booking a wrestling card.

A strong opener pulls the crowd in. The main event caps things off. In between, there has to be sufficient time and space to showcase everything else.

He's drawn to the wrestling as much as the real-life stories outside of the ring. Hearing the rumor that Rey Mysterio was dating Jennifer Aniston (a rumor Mysterio denied in his autobiography, Behind the Mask), sparked enough interest in Brown to get out his art supplies. 

Courtesy of Box Brown

Schamberger didn't catch on to wrestling as early as those artists.

He grew up with a single mother and one TV in the house. That meant there were things other than muscle-bound men leaping off of the turnbuckle on the screen each night. "She didn't want to watch wrestling. So we didn't watch wrestling," Schamberger recalled. 

It wasn't until he was 18 and his stepfather landed on Ric Flair ranting with a mic in hand on WCW that wrestling introduced itself to him. The new world didn't take time to endear itself to Schamberger. He said he was "instantly hooked."

When he turned on wrestling the next time, he realized there were two major wrestling companies, WWE and WCW, both competing for the audience's attention every Monday night. Steve Austin, The Rock, Undertaker battled before him on Raw. The painter has been watching ever since.

Painting of Undertaker's evolution.
Painting of Undertaker's evolution.Courtesy of Rob Schamberger

Gibson's wrestling fandom had him wanting to strap on a pair of boots himself.

When he was 16 years old, he attended a training camp in New Zealand. The week he spent in wrestling school ended painfully. On his last day, trying to take a Pedigree, he heard a loud pop in his knee.

"That was the end of my wrestling career at the ripe old age of 16 years old," he recalled.

Years later, when he moved to Los Angeles, his passion re-emerged in a major way. He began to find that neighbors, friends and other folks in the animation industry loved wrestling as much as he did.

Parties to watch Raw or WrestleMania assembled people who were, as Gibson put it, "lapsed wrestling fans or secret wrestling fans." This was the genesis for Muscle Temple, the artist collective that is now working together to produce an anthology of wrestling comics. 

Muscle Temple logo
Muscle Temple logoCourtesy of Frank Gibson

It began with Gibson's friends doodling while watching the show. There was talk of creating "zines" for wrestling fans. When the idea of the book came up, "Everyone was game. Everyone had ideas in their back pocket," Gibson said.

Sam Alden, who has worked on Adventure Time, wrote a comic centered on CM Punk's famous pipebomb promo. Bryan Mann penned one about a wrestler whose hair is the toughest thing about him.

Gibson has found a swarm of artists moved by what happens on the mat. "There is a level of fervor and passion associated with pro wrestling" that you don't see with sports, he explained.

That fascination has led to a plethora of intriguing art. These artists have found a permanent muse, another art form that they have glommed onto. "They latch onto it with their entire lives," Gibson said.

Capturing the Carnival 

Guerra doesn't rely on a reference image of the wrestlers he depicts. He may peek at a photo, but he's not looking to replicate what he sees onscreen; he's looking to amplify it.

His process is to try to capture a wrestler's essence. Guerra takes a standout element of a performer and looks to "push it further," making it weirder, more dynamic. 

He's done that several times over with Finn Balor.

The NXT champion, especially when he dons his "demon" attire for special shows, is a powerful muse for artists. He covers himself in body paint, has dark dreadlocks hanging at the side of his face and walks to the ring under red light.

As Guerra pointed out, "He looks like a comic book character." That begins with the kind of abs one normally sees on an Avenger and ends with his gimmick being a clear homage to Venom.

For Guerra, drawing wrestling shares one major factor with watching it. "The main word is fun," he said.

Looking at punkrockbigmouth's often whimsical illustrations, it's clear she's out to have fun, too. Humor permeates the majority of her work.

There's an appealing randomness to much of it. 

In one image, Sami Zayn holds up a pink birthday cake as scribbled apparitions sing his praises. In another, she depicts Japanese star Kazuchika Okada enjoying a sparkling scoop of ice cream.

Kazuchika Okada
Kazuchika OkadaCourtesy of punkrockbigmouth

She embraces wrestling's ridiculousness and extends it to her own artwork. "I just have a lot of silly ideas already, and watching wrestling (which is often very silly) just brings it out," she said.

Schamberger shares Brown's philosophy of not wanting a photographic representation of his spandex-clad subjects. His goal each time out is to create a painting that "feels like what it's like to watch them in the ring."

He's looking to convey their personality via the canvas. 

The more over-the-top the wrestler, the more that allows him to experiment. With colorful, outlandish acts like the Ultimate Warrior, Undertaker and Randy Savage, he's allowed to "push it further."

He's painted Savage many times at this point. That's not surprising. A character as vibrant as Macho Man lends himself to an artist's touch.

But in addition to translating a wrestler's aura into a two-dimensional work of art, Schamberger looks to salute these performers. He seeks to show them "in a light that they haven't been much before," to "show the proper appreciation to them."

Just including them as part of the fine-art world is a step toward doing that. Wrestling is often deemed a low art, a soap opera for the beer-guzzling crowd. Schamberger treats it as other painters have the female form or nature—with reverence.

Brown approached his subject in an unconventional manner as well.

With Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Brown sought to not just tell Andre's life story, but to dig into his mind. While so often the narrative of him as a gentle giant bounces around, Brown sought a more truthful angle.

In his graphic novel, he showed both the light and dark sides of the legendary wrestler. He included a spat Andre had with Bad News Brown after the giant made a racist comment to the African-American judoka. He showed Andre drinking alone, surrounded only by blackness.

Brown wanted to make sure that "Andre felt like a human being."

What began with reading about how playwright Beckett used to drive Andre to school grew, and as he put it, "snowballed into a bigger project." The material for that project was everywhere.

Andre's life was fascinating. The tales people tell of him often make him sound like a descendant of Paul Bunyan. And those tales are plentiful.

"Everybody has an Andre story. Every wrestler," Brown said. 

Brown is currently working on a comic for the upcoming Muscle Temple anthology. Gibson, the man who is holding the reins on that project, is out to not just showcase artists like Brown but to bridge the gap between the art and wrestling scenes.

He called them "two misunderstood entities."

As a wrestling fan, he still has people tell him, "You know that stuff's fake, right?" Comics are often dismissed as a legit art form much the way wrestling is, not for being "fake" obviously, but for being lowbrow. And wrestling has long worn that label among others.

The "carnie foundation of pro wrestling paints it with a weird brush," as Gibson said.

But change is happening. Wrestling comics continue to pop up. Books like Brown's are garnering media attention. In a way that's because lately, with the help of cultural mavens like Jon Stewart and increased coverage from ESPN, it feels as if wrestling is becoming a part of pop culture again.

Gibson recognizes that shift. "I want to see that keep on going," he said.

His contribution to Muscle Temple is about an American version of the high schools in Japan where students can learn the ins and outs of pro wrestling in addition to standard studies. It's going to be more cutesy and kid-like than other comics in the book. The varied publication offers readers multiple potential entry points into wrestling.

That's by design. One of Gibson's goals with his wrestling art and publishing others' work is to possibly instill fandom in newcomers to the mat game. "I'd love to introduce people to pro wrestling," he said. 

When the Subjects Become the Fans

The bond between fan and wrestler is often a deep one. Grapplers don't switch to a team a fan may not claim allegiance to. They often extend their careers well into their 40s and later.

Fan art boosts that relationship. Not only do the spectators sketch their favorite stars, but thanks to the connectivity born from the Internet, those stars can see and show appreciation for those bits of artwork.

For Guerra, that has sometimes come in the form of wrestlers sharing and liking his work on Instagram. When that happens, it's hard to stay professional.

"I try not to mark out too much," he said.

Trevor Mann, who wrestles as both Prince Puma and Ricochet, actually reached out to Guerra, telling him he liked a rendition of himself. Guerra lamented not getting the tattoos right. He said that Mann told him, "Nobody ever does."

Drawing of Prince Puma
Drawing of Prince PumaCourtesy of Jon David Guerra

Gibson has found it hard to tap into the world of wrestling fans, to get the word out on his and others' wrestling comics. It's been the wrestlers who have often been most into it.

Sheamus and Becky Lynch are among those who have tweeted about art from the Muscle Temple collective. Xavier Woods of the WWE tag team champions, The New Day, caught wind of some of the group's drawings of him.

He wrote the artists, saying how much he liked what they were doing. An exchange of hospitality occurred. The New Day visited Dreamworks; the artists received an invitation to a WWE house show.

Gibson said that "once you get a stamp from guys like that," you get approval from the wrestling community that you wouldn't get otherwise. 

Cartoon of The New Day
Cartoon of The New DayCourtesy of Frank Gibson

Muscle Temple has allowed Gibson entry into the wrestling business, becoming a part of the show in a way. To raise money for the anthology's kick-starter, Gibson offered a unique prize. The winner would get to have The Young Bucks superkick them at a Pro Wrestling Guerrilla show.

The popular tag team agreed, provided the fan signed a waiver. 

The Young Bucks have also supported punkrockbigmouth's art. She says that the team members bought her coloring books for their daughters. It's one of many interactions she's had with the wrestlers she draws. 

Dean Ambrose signed one of her drawings of him and sent it back to her. She got to share a reproduction of her Rollins art with Rollins himself:

"Many others have retweeted, or faved or given words of encouragement," she said.

Creating the Andre the Giant graphic novel has led to Brown meeting several folks in the industry. Blue Meanie has been supportive of his work. He met famed wrestling journalist Bill Apter and sat down to talk with him about the book on Apter's show.

It's led to his having the opportunity to craft posters for Hall of Famer Jim Ross' live shows.

Poster for Jim Ross' one-man show.
Poster for Jim Ross' one-man show.Courtesy of Box Brown

The success of the Andre book has changed the expectations of his audience as well. "Once you start drawing wrestling, people want you to draw wrestling," he said. 

And Brown has done just that. Wrestling has even shown up in his other work. As part of his artwork for Adventure Time, he had the main character put a monster in the Sharpshooter. Of the squared circle's influence on his art, he said, "It just shows up."

For Schamberger, choosing wrestling as a subject has changed his life in a major way.

He went from having a day job to being a contracted artist for WWE. After the company saw some of the work he was doing, it brought him aboard, asking him to produce paintings to sell at its WrestleMania auction.

Schamberger's prints are for sale on WWE's website as are T-shirts with his art. The True Giants DVD will feature his renditions of WWE's Goliaths.

Beyond that, he's since become part of the show. Before the Battleground pay-per-view, Schamberger was set to do a live painting session in front of the arena. Soon his painting of Cena became a means to show off just the cold-hearted nature of Kevin Owens, Cena's opponent that night.

The heel destroyed the picture as the cameras rolled. Schamberger kept the fragments of it as a reminder.

He has since also appeared on Raw with Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, has been backstage several times a year and painted the jacket the Ultimate Warrior wore on his final WWE appearance. As fun as all of that is, it's been more the heart-tugging moments that have stuck out the most.

At an event honoring Larry "The Axe" Hennig, Schamberger painted a portrait of Larry's late son, Curt, aka Mr. Perfect.

In the middle of painting the Hall of Famer mat technician, he heard someone crying behind him. Turning around, he realized it was Curt's sister and mother overcome by tears.

"This thing isn't going home with me," he said to himself.

He gave the painting to the family. Curt's son, WWE wrestler Curtis Axel, now has it in his home.

Schamberger also once did a painting of Connor Michalek, a young WWE fan who died at eight years old. The artist sent the piece to Connor's father, Steve.

Greatly appreciative, Steve Michalek told Schamberger that the art "allowed him to look at his son without seeing him as being sick." He added that, "Now Jackson always has something to remember his brother by."

"I'm realizing what I'm doing is more than just a piece of pop culture," Schamberger said.

His art has become a means to maintain connection to those who have passed. It is a tribute to those no longer here, a powerful remembrance.  

Painting wrestling champions has led Schamberger here. His life is now folded into the world of wrestling, one he used to watch from a TV screen alongside his stepfather.

That kind of a life-changing partnership with the industry is rare, though. More often, artists are just drawing on the passion they have for wrestling to inspire them, tipping their hats to the athletes bounding between the ropes. They go beyond cheering. They create.

And as Gibson said, wrestling art is a "fun, little love letter to the sport." 

All quotes obtained firsthand. All images belong to the artists credited.

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