During the last couple decades, it has not been unusual to see pro wrestlers look to ventures outside the squared circle. Yet veteran Anthony Ruttgaizer, known to Ontario wrestling fans as Kingdom James, is a special case. During the course of his life, Ruttgaizer has not only had a lengthy career as a wrestler, but also as a stand-up comic and an accomplished artist. He is now about to venture into a brand new career as a comic book writer with his own series and creation: The F1rst Hero.
When SLAM! Wrestling spoke to Ruttgaizer, he indicated that the idea for The F1rst Hero series, to be published by Action Lab Comics, started because he wanted to create a world full of crazy villains and as he described it “give one poor fool the task of fighting them.”
“Jake Roth wasn’t originally the hero of this story. Paul Kirkson was,” said Ruttgaizer, beginning to explain the concept. “In the story, Paul Kirkson is the leader of the U.S. military unit that fights super villains. Now you can tell I’m an indy wrestling promoter because Paul Kirkson is the first comic book character I ever created as a kid and 30 years later I’m still booking him. Ha! Quickly in the development process, though, I realized I needed more conflict for the lead character than Kirkson would have in his position. His character has a simple job: see an extra-human, stop an extra-human. If everyone who’s ever had superpowers goes insane, then having one person who gets powers but doesn’t go crazy makes him doubly unique in that world. Hence Jake Roth was born.”
One of the more intriguing aspects of the premise for The F1rst Hero is that everyone except Roth who gets powers goes insane, which led to asking Ruttgaizer the obvious question of whether or not the series will play with the idea that perhaps the main protagonist isn’t completely sane after all.
“Ah, that would be telling wouldn’t it?” teased Ruttgaizer. “But if you were Jake and you knew that everyone else who had ever had powers had gone insane, wouldn’t you be worried that maybe it was taking longer, but that it would eventually happen to you too?”
As for inspiration, Ruttgaizer stated that it mostly came from decades of reading comics and wanting to write and create his own series; essentially knowing that he had stories to tell and a desire to tell them in his own way because of how much he loved the comic book medium.
Still, a past experience that Ruttgaizer found was very helpful in the development of the series was his many years as a professional wrestler, especially from the time he had spent booking shows and helping others with their promos.
“My writing is very character-driven, very dialogue-driven,” stated Ruttgaizer. “In an odd sense, each issue is a lot like a wrestling show. Its fight scenes cut together with promos and backstage vignettes.”
Ruttgaizer even admitted that the ECW Arena scene in The F1rst Hero was inspired by the shows he did at that very arena when he worked for Xtreme Pro Wrestling (XPW).”As far as characters go, there is one who, as I originally wrote him, was based on a rather notorious figure in the world of wrestling, but I think his design may have been tweaked a bit,” elucidated Ruttgaizer. “I do however have a few villains waiting in the wings for future volumes of the series who are based directly on some close friends in the business.”
In developing the series one thing that Ruttgaizer acknowledged is unlike professional wrestling where audience response is almost immediate, for feedback he has had to rely on his artists, editors, and a few close friends.
“Comic book artist and writer Ty Templeton, who is a long-time friend, and in recent times fantastic mentor, read the first complete draft of the scripts a couple of years ago and loved the concept and the script, but gave me some incredible advice that led me to completely rewrite the first story arc,” recalled Ruttgaizer. “It’s that rewritten story arc that readers will be seeing in print soon. With my artists, it’s like a movie director and a cinematographer working together. I can write anything I want on the page, but my penciler has to make sense of it and turn it into actual visual art. So there are questions and discussions, and I occasionally have to defend the way I’ve written something, and occasionally have to compromise to get to the best finished product.”
In terms of designing characters for the series Ruttgaizer explained that the approach he used usually involved him writing fairly detailed descriptions and giving them to his artist.”I want my artists to be comfortable drawing these characters and be able to do it with consistency, so I give them some wiggle room to interpret my blueprint,” professed Ruttgaizer .
Yet, for his main protagonist, Jake Roth, Ruttgaizer confessed to some similarities with respect to how he is in real life, but that it isn’t by design.
“Sometimes as I’m writing I will come up with a dilemma and then wonder ‘how would I get out of this?'” explained Ruttgaizer. “Then I will ask myself ‘is that how Jake would handle it?’ That happens with most every character though; starting with a baseline reaction and then tweaking it to create different people, different personas.”
Even though the series as part of its premise involves being a member of the army, Ruttgaizer admitted he hadn’t done a ton of research into what it was like to be part of the military.
“I have an old wrestling buddy from Pittsburgh who has been deployed overseas to Iraq a few times so I asked him some questions early on,” detailed Ruttgaizer. “The rest of anything I need I research and read online, but the series quickly moves from Marine deployment in Afghanistan to civilian life in Philadelphia so hopefully I haven’t given myself too much room to screw that stuff up.”
For the series, Ruttgaizer chose to write full scripts for each of the issues, which have ended up being approximately 5,000 words between the panel descriptions and the dialogue.
“Although, when the finished art comes back to me, I do a rewrite of the dialogue to better fit the way Phillip Sevy has drawn everything and to make sure it all fits into the panels,” acknowledged Ruttgaizer. “It’s just how I write. Sometimes action drives the dialogue and sometimes it’s the other way around, so I get all of it down on the page for the artist to work with. Pencilers of the world, heed my words: Leave room for the dialogue!!!”
The process of writing for a comic book series does differ quite a bit compared to that of a book, so when Ruttgaizer was still learning he described it as pretty much using an approach of trial and error.
“Over time you get the hang of it; plotting a story, breaking that up into pages and then panels and writing dialogue,” recollected Ruttgaizer. “It’s not hard to do, but it takes some skill to do it well.”
For The F1rst Hero‘s art, Phillip Sevy is handling both penciling and inking, which is quite often split between two different people when producing a comic book. However, as Sevy explained, he had been consistently inking his own work for the better part of a year and a half when Ruttgaizer approached him about the series.
“Inking is a different skill set than penciling and though I won’t/can’t claim to be a good inker, I felt by the time I started on The F1rst Hero I had begun to find a synthesis of penciling and inking for my own work that was finding a cohesive look,” explained Sevy. “Inking myself, I keep my pencils much looser than the average penciler. I found a while ago that I really didn’t enjoy finished pencils. I could never get the solid and finished look from my pencils that I could from inks. Combined with that, inking with a brush — the tool I use for the majority of figures and anything organic — is much faster and easier on my hand and fingers than using a pencil. I enjoy being able to take the art from a concept to a finished black and white image myself.”
The rest of the creative team is made up of cover artist Lee Moder and colourist/letterer Keiren Smith. Since the creative team for The F1rst Hero has come together, Ruttgaizer has found the collaboration process with them to be amazing.
“Lee has been helping me since day one; and Phil has been turning my scripts into some incredible art,” Ruttgaizer said enthusiastically.
“We’ve clashed once or twice over how something should look on the page, but it’s just both of us trying to get to the very best finished product. We come to a compromise and move on. It’s all been very rewarding so far.”
For Sevy, one of the more interesting aspects of the art has been just getting into a comfortable place with the characters and the series.
“After close to 88 pages drawn at this point, you really start to find a nice groove and scenes and settings that were once difficult become second nature,” said Sevy. “One of the difficulties with the series for me has been that although it’s a superhero story, this opening story is very much grounded in the real world. I have no problem drawing real world things; I just feel that some of my strengths lie more in the ‘super’ part of the superhero work. I like the balance of the real and fantastic. It’s been a challenge — albeit a fun one — to find a way to infuse a lot of real world scenes with my sense of dynamism.”
As to how the relationship with publisher Action Lab Comics came about that happened in sort of roundabout way when Ruttgaizer was sending copies of the preview edition — the ashcan — to publishers after last year’s New York Comicon and it seemed as if the book might be falling on deaf ears.”Then I started emailing out PDFs of the ashcan to people that either weren’t at NYCC or whom I hadn’t spoken to there,” Ruttgaizer went on to say. “January 2nd, Dave Dwonch, creative director at Action Lab Comics called me and said he wanted to publish the book.”
What intrigued Dave Dwonch about Ruttgaizer’s pitch for The F1rst Hero series was multi-faceted.
“Mainstream superhero comics are a convoluted mess these days,” said Dwonch. “With our ‘Return of the Hero’ lineup, we want to bring superhero comics back to what we loved about them growing up; we want to provide a fun, relevant, quality alternative to the mainstream, and The F1rst Hero does that and more. Anthony and Phillip are really putting their hearts into the book and it shows. The F1rst Hero stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best superhero comics on the rack, and we’re proud to have it in our lineup.”
However, in order to help finance some of the costs associated with the development and publication of The F1rst Hero series, Ruttgaizer has started a fundraising campaign through IndieGoGo to raise $7,500 by October 17th.”The F1rst Hero is happening, 100%, set in stone,” declared Ruttgaizer. “The fundraiser is basically a pre-sale. People who pledge will get this book. This just makes it easier for us to get the book finished and easier for those people to get copies.”
All of the money raised from the campaign will be put towards the colouring, lettering, production, promotion, and legal fees associated with The F1rst Hero; and it will also be used for the printing and shipping of the copies that are pre-sold through the campaign.
There are also several rewards for people who donate to the campaign. For a minimum pledge of $5, supporters will receive a digital copy of the four issue series. Other rewards for various levels of support include t-shirts, original pages of art, an opportunity to appear in the series in a cameo or a speaking role, and convention-style blank sketchbooks.
Comic book stores will be able to start ordering The F1rst Hero series starting with the January 2014 edition of Diamond Comics Distributor’s Previews catalogue. Items ordered through the catalogue typically ship a couple of months later; as a result, the first issue of The F1rst Hero will be available for purchase in stores sometime in March 2014. However, retailers very often will tend to order only what customers have been asking for so anyone interested in the series should let their local store know in advance.
Even at this early date Ruttgaizer has gotten support and feedback from his fellow professional wrestlers regarding The F1rst Hero.
“The boys I’ve spoken to are excited and several of them have made a pledge which has been very gratifying,” articulated Ruttgaizer. “I will resist the urge to drop names, but I can tell you that this comic book has Ethan Page’s official ‘All Ego seal of approval.'”
When asked to elaborate by what he meant, Page said that he had pledged $65 to the project in order to get a t-shirt and a trade paperback of the series.”He’s my friend, but also a fellow artist,” said Page. “I love comic books, but love people chasing their dreams even more! I had to show support; people have been supporting me my whole life. I love the story he’s developing! Plus, he said he’d have me drawn into the next story! Why wouldn’t I want to see it succeed being such a comic book buff?”
As to the future, Ruttgaizer announced that there were plans beyond the initial four issues and that he had in fact already plotted and begun writing the next five-issue story arc.
Ruttgaizer, also, let SLAM! Wrestling know he plans to draw a variant cover for the second issue of the series.”The story shifts from Afghanistan in issue 1 to Philadelphia in issue two and a lot of action in issues two and three take place at the corner of Swanson and Ritner, in and outside of ECW Arena,” said Ruttgaizer. “So yeah, like an indy wrestling promoter who puts himself over for his company’s title, I am going to attempt to draw a cover-worthy image for issue 2.”
However, let there be no doubt that Ruttgaizer’s career as a comic book writer has meant that he is no longer wrestling and promoting. In fact, his promotion, the Union of Independent Professional Wrestlers — www.wrestlersunion.ca — returns on Sunday afternoon on November 3rd with its first of hopefully many shows at their new venue, The Rockpile East — 2787A Eglinton Ave East at Brimley Road in Scarborough, Ontario.
“That event features the first round of our inaugural King Of Toronto tournament; and in the main event, UNION Champion Josh Alexander defends his title against former ECW superstar Colin Delaney,” declared Ruttgaizer. “I, also, wrestle for a couple of Toronto promotions: Victory Commonwealth Wrestling — where I’m one of the VCW Tag Team champions — and Fight! Brand — where I lead a stable called The Guerrilla Army that includes the Fight Champion Brent Banks — and I do commentary now and again for Alpha-1 Wrestling in Hamilton.”