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1960s LA Women's Wrestling Comes To Life In ‘Queen Of The Ring’ Art Book

An image of comic book art of two women wresters, one pinning the other in the ring. Words are part of the image, which are the following: Beautiful Bettie Rey with "Men want me, women want to be me!"
A page in the style of old pro wrestling magazines from Queen of the Ring, with interview text with Jaime Hernandez along the side.
(Courtesy of Fantagraphics)
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Pro wrestling can mean something different depending on how old you were when you first discovered it, how important the idea of your sports entertainment being “real” was to you and whether it was part of your culture.

Comic book creator and Oxnard, California native Jaime Hernandez found wrestling early, essentially as long as he can remember. There was something that grabbed him about women wrestlers in particular.

Throughout his four decades in small press comics, he sketched women wrestlers as a hobby — something that wasn’t usually part of the stories he told with his brother in the acclaimed Love & Rockets comics. He did it for his own enjoyment. Eventually, that interest made its way into the spinoff comic Whoa Nellie. Now, he’s releasing those private drawings in a new book, Queen of the Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Hernandez 1980–2020.

Making Private Art Public

The cover to Queen of the Ring.
(Courtesy Fantagraphics)
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Hernandez never thought the public would care about these drawings but between his stature as a renowned artist, interest from those who saw the drawings and an uptick in interest around pro wrestling, he decided the time had come to share them.

“At first, it was weird, because maybe three people in the world had ever seen this stuff, including me,” Hernandez told LAist. “So putting it out there was a little like I was naked. (laughs) Like, oh s--- — this is me naked, guys. I don’t know how you’re going to take this.”

Sharing this art to the public has been challenging for Hernandez.

“That wasn’t the plan — like, ‘No one wants to see this. This is just my little thing,’” Hernandez said. “And then, after a while, I started to get excited. Partly because I always thought, 'I should do something outside of Love and Rockets. I should learn to paint, I should do something on the side.'”

But he hadn’t had any ideas for other stories. Love and Rockets absorbed all his energy for creating comics, or so he thought. Putting these drawings together for the book made him realize that he had been working on a side project all along.

“So I feel like, ‘OK, I did do something. I feel better.’ No matter what people think of it, there it is, man,” Hernandez said.

With decades of Love and Rockets under his belt, Hernandez had built a complicated continuity among stories and relationships. This was an escape from that.

“It’s a lot more freedom. I’m not worried about editors, I’m not worried about readers, I’m not worried about how anybody will accept it or not accept it. I can do whatever I want, and if I fail, too bad. Who cares?” Hernandez said.

The yellow journalism of classic pro wrestling magazines.
(Courtesy Fantagraphics)

A Childhood Love That Has Lasted More Than 50 Years

Hernandez was one of six kids in an Oxnard family, watching wrestling on TV and reading about it in magazines. As a child, he hated the bad guys (“heels” in wrestling parlance) and cheered the heroes (“babyfaces” or “faces”).

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“I really hated the local villains, and I wanted them dead. But the older I got, the heels were funnier than the faces, and they told a better story because they’re just always cheating,” Hernandez said.

He watched the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) from Los Angeles TV, with shows taking place at the Olympic Auditorium. The women wrestlers left an especially large impression on him, starting when he was 6 years old. Many of these drawings go back to what he saw in the mid-1960s, with the women sporting the hairstyles of the time, as if they’re fresh out of rollers from the beauty salon.

“It started, basically, when I learned to draw women, which was 12 or 13. I liked wrestling, and I liked the superhero poses of it,” Hernandez said.

The ‘60s look stuck with him. When he was designing the characters in Love and Rockets, he initially gave Maggie one of those old-school hairstyles.

“Well, that’s not very hip, but it does the trick for me. And then, after a while, she changed and morphed into what she was,” Hernandez said.

Many of his characters share something with Maggie. Hernandez describes her as having his “perfect face,” the one he naturally draws as an artist. Looking at his other female characters, they don't look like the type that the media has traditionally pushed as an ideal. Their faces are full, ranging from friendly to ready to rip their opponents apart.

“Every artist draws their one person, and if they want something different, they have to concentrate and get away from what they naturally draw. What my hand naturally puts down is basically, if I’m drawing a face without thinking outside the box, it becomes a Maggie face,” Hernandez said.

He wanted his characters to be different so he had to work to make sure he didn't draw Maggie's face on everyone. But in these personal drawings, he wasn’t quite so strict with himself. His love for drawing women’s wrestlers has also worked its way into Love and Rockets at various points, beyond just the Whoa, Nellie stories.

“But I thought people just wouldn’t get it, or wouldn’t buy it — that they would think, ‘I’m not into wrestling. Why is this a thing?’ And I tried to keep it out, but it’s all part of the fun part of entertainment in my world,” Hernandez said.

As he draws these characters, Hernandez aims to tell unique stories about them, imagining the way they live their lives both in and out of wrestling.

“In the ring, you’re a whole different person. And then at home, you’re a whole different person,” Hernandez said. “I just like that — it makes a whole story for me, and I kind of know who this person is. I’m making my characters perform, just like the wrestlers do in real life.”

A page from Queen of the Ring.
(Courtesy Fantagraphics)

Turning Pro Wrestling Magazine Stories Into Comics

Hernandez loved the way that wrestling magazines would kick the drama up to another level, diving into the stories and adding their own imagined details about the motivations behind these fictional conflicts.

“It told more of a story than actually watching it on TV,” Hernandez said.

Many of the drawings in Queen of the Ring use the style of those old wrestling magazines, with bold headlines describing the grappling soap opera. While taking a break after the first 50 issues of Love and Rockets, he had originally imagined doing a bigger project that looked like one of those wrestling magazines.

“I thought, ‘Well, I don’t have as many ideas as [his brother/Love and Rockets collaborator] Gilbert.’ He had other projects ready to go. I was like, ‘I guess I’m just going to do my characters with another title,’” Hernandez said.

That project was supposed to be from a wrestling magazine point of view. Then, he realized he’d have to write actual articles about the characters to make that happen, which wasn’t what he wanted to do. So he ended up creating more of a straight comic book with Whoa, Nellie.

Los Hermanas Asesinas, creations of Jaime Hernandez in the pages of Queen of the Ring.
(Courtesy Fantagraphics)

Waiting For The Public’s Cheers (Or Boos?)

With these more personal drawings finally being released, Hernandez is curious who his fans will be.

“And who aren’t the fans as well,” Hernandez said, laughing. “I just hope that they have this one little book that’s never going to be like any other book, and they’re going to go, ‘I kind of like this little weird art book. I’ve never seen anything like it elsewhere.’”

He’s also still keeping at it with Love and Rockets. Like the Sparks Brothers (seen in the recent Edgar Wright documentary), the Hernandez Brothers continue to create, highly respected works while remaining somewhat under the radar. Unlike traditional superheroes, Maggie and Hopey of Love and Rockets get the chance to go through life, aging and entering new phases.

“The characters keep growing. Even if some of them are growing very boringly — they’re old, now — I’m still learning from them. And the ones I’m not learning from, I put on the side for a while. The ones that give me a story stay. Maggie, for one, is one that she always has something going on, because I know her so well. As much as I love the characters, sometimes they just don’t give me a story. I can’t wait for someone to give me a story, so I just do whoever is the strongest right now,” Hernandez said.

All these years later, he also still loves wrestling. He’s particularly fascinated with small organizations, searching out videos on YouTube with performers wrestling in parking lots or small venues. But his drawings always go back to the wrestling of his childhood.

“I put just as much love in it as I do in my comics,” Hernandez said. “I’ve always been proud of the drawings, but now that they’re in public, I’m like, ‘Hey, see what else I do.’”

Jaime Hernandez’s Queen of the Ring is available this week from all major booksellers.

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