Pro wrestling and comic books can be viewed as the ultimate tag team partnership. Both feature larger than life characters and heroic battles for supremacy. This writer can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people describe pro wrestlers as superheroes come to life! It’s no wonder so many writers and illustrators have decided to transpose the world of the squared circle into the pages of a comic book.

After ghostwriting the autobiography of Michael Davis, better known to wrestling fans as The Big O, Beautiful Brutus, The Brute and Buggsy McGraw, author and comic book enthusiast, Ian Douglass felt Davis’ pro wrestling career could also be adapted into this genre. The result is The Incredible Brute, a comic/coloring book out now from Darkstream Press as part of the Bledtime Stories series from Walking on Hot Waffles (WOHW) Publishers.

Ian Douglass.

Some of the previous editions of the Bledtime Stories series have seen pro wrestlers put into fairy tales such as Cactus Jack and the Beanstalk and Sabu vs The Three Little Pigs. Douglass felt “there was no simple fairy tale” that would encompass Davis’ story so he opted to go the comic book route instead.

“The idea was, what if we did a comic book, a superhero themed comic book,” recalled Douglass, who also admitted his all-time favorite comic book character is The Punisher, in a phone interview with “What if we did the Hulk? The Hulk is kind of an anti-hero, an almost heelish sort of superhero during the early part of his career, which is kind of what (Davis) was as well. And how can we make that sort of theme work within a retelling of his early career? Well, he went to work in potentially the only wrestling territory (Detroit) that I can think of that was owned and operated by an active wrestling heel (The Sheik Edward Farhat). I can’t think of another one!”

The book’s plot has Davis driving home to visit friends while at the same time the evil Sheik of Araby (aka Farhat) is launching an evil scheme in his Detroit based lair. The Sheik cackled in the book, “When I unleash my Stevens Ray on the unsuspecting people of Cincinnati, they’ll all become my mindless subjects! I’ll be able to expand my territory from Michigan to Southern Ohio without any resistance at all!” Enter Bobo Brazil who attempts to thwart the Sheik’s plans only to have the ray accidentally hit Davis instead of the intended targets. The ray causes Davis to acquire superhuman strength and thus transform into “the incredible Brute.” Grateful for his new powers, Davis offers to do the bidding of the Sheik which involves destroying all of the babyface wrestlers who ever dared to mock his new master.

With a story in place, and comic books being a very visual medium, Douglass now needed an illustrator. Douglass consulted Pete Bregman, who had previously done the illustrations for the Bledtime Story books. Bregman recommended animator/illustrator M.W Leitzel.

Self illustration by M.W Leitzel.

“He (Leitzel) was great,” shared Douglass. “In fact, from the outset he did four different mockups for (Davis) ranging from cartoony to hyper realistic and asked which I thought would best suit the direction that we were going for. And to me that just spoke to his professionalism that he wanted to match the mood and the style that (Davis) and I were looking for and to communicate the appropriate mood to the reader through the artistic style. And I think he did a tremendous job.”

Leitzel says he has always been interested in illustrating especially as a means of storytelling which he confessed is his passion.  While not familiar with Davis at the start of the project, Leitzel says the world of pro wrestling wasn’t new territory for him having been a fan when he was a kid in the mid ‘90s especially of The Undertaker.

“(Davis) was able to make a career or be a career wrestler while maintaining a certain degree of popularity and status that not a lot of other people are able to make work for themselves,” responded Leitzel when asked about his impressions of Davis while working on the book. “That was my interpretation because when I was looking for references and all sorts of things, I saw all sorts of variations on his gimmicks or his wardrobe and all that sort of thing. So, it took me a while to get each one straight and understand, oh this is this period and this is that period. So, my impression is that he must have been really impressive because he made it work for a variety of gimmicks and for a long time.”

Leitzel, who doesn’t rule out doing more pro wrestling projects in the future, added, “I’ve been researching some of this stuff (pro wrestling) for my own purposes (he’s also been working on another project focusing on American identity) and for this book and it definitely kindled an interest. Not only these larger-than-life figures, but the fact that storytelling is part of it. Wrestling is such a unique storytelling art form. I think there’s a lot that other media, and this may sound crazy to say, could learn from it. As far as audience engagements and this sort of heel versus face drama stuff that is at the same time very simple, but also they put a lot of investment into figuring out what the audience if feeling.”

From the book: One by one, the brainwashed Big O defeated all of the superheroes of the Upper Midwest. The Mighty Igor, The Fabulous Kangaroos, Chief White Owl, Big Bad John, Man Mountain Mike and Terrible Ted all crumbled beneath the indomitable might of The Big O! Illustration by M.W Leitzel.

When it came time for Leitzel and Douglass to combine their talents for the book, Douglass joked that he “wouldn’t dare say this (book) was done in the classic Marvel comic style where Stan Lee had a loose script and then Jack Kirby had license to more or less draw what he wanted.” Douglass says he came up with a script to start, but Leitzel’s artwork inspired him to make changes to the original text. Since the book is a coloring book, Leitzel didn’t have to color his illustrations or do the lettering so he was able to create the art digitally on an iPad in about a couple of weeks. Leitzel describes his style of illustrating as “cartoony” and “cute.”

“I tried to find a way to make things very appealing to the eye,” remarked Leitzel, who like Douglass is also a fan of comic books in particular characters from Dragon Ball and Wolverine, on his process. “I don’t really like drawing a lot of ugly things or gross characters. So, when drawing this book, there are a lot of characters that I could have depicted as very I don’t know veiny and huge and a bit more realistic or even grotesque if I wanted to go in that direction. But I thought it’d be more fun to have things be simple especially since people would be coloring in the illustrations.”

Now would be a good time for this reader to confess that I am by no means an expert on comic books. My comic book reading experience has revolved around pro wrestling, Wonder Woman, Katy Keene, Archie and the Joe Hill graphic novel series, Locke & Key. I’m also the proud owner of the first issue of the New Kids on the Block comic book! (Sadly, it must be noted, you can find this and other issues of the boy band series in most $1 bins at your local comic book store. Sigh, there goes my retirement plans!) Anyway, even though my comic book knowledge is about as impressive as Brock Lesnar’s shooting star press at WrestleMania XIX, I was still able to detect a definite Japanese manga influence in Letizel’s art and found Douglass’ text to be “comical” (I couldn’t resist this pun!), witty, cheeky, kid friendly and containing just the right amount of sharp pro wrestling trivia nods. Although it should be noted younger readers like my 10-year-old son, most likely won’t get all the wrestling references. But to me, it’s a great gateway to talk to your kids about pro wrestling in Davis’ era and beyond.  And if you are a reader who is not familiar with Davis’ career, reading his autobiography first is beneficial, and as a bonus it’s an enjoyable read to brute, er I mean boot!

All that being said, I decided to consult an expert for this review. My husband, Major Martin Hemmings, has been collecting comic books since he learned how to read, with the majority of them being from the Superman series. He even keeps them all in protective bags and on rare occasions he lets me read some of the ones featuring Wonder Woman, but I have to wash my hands first and I have to be extra gentle when handling them. Sometimes he even turns the pages for me himself! From the book’s cover, Martin says he expected a graphic novel with the story displayed in panels instead of the full-page images throughout. He was surprised to discover the book was a coloring book as that it not mentioned on the cover. Martin, who is not a diehard pro wrestling fan like his awesome wife, further deduced, “The text tells me that a long and complex career has been condensed into a few paragraphs. The illustrations are well done, with enough detail to carry the story without being overwhelming. Overall, the story is clever and has enough detail to allow a lay person to follow along.”

Michael Davis aka The Brute as the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Champion in 1973. Photo courtesy of Davis’ personal collection.

But perhaps the opinion/review most readers are curious to hear is that of Davis himself. Davis, who said he used to collect Conan the Barbarian comics and both Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated magazines, says he never thought he would be in a comic book. In terms of the facial features depicted in Leitzel’s illustrations, Davis said with a laugh, “I don’t know if I actually look that way!” But he felt the physique was accurate because at that time in his life he “was always working out anyway.” For Davis, the story reminded him of Clark Kent changing into Superman and he appreciated Douglass incorporated Farhat into the narrative.

“He’s (Farhat) the one that broke me in,” pointed out Davis, who also admitted he would love to see the book develop into its own series. “This guy was, I mean he was exceptional, just exceptional. What he accomplished and the money he drew. This guy was at the top of the class there, you know?”

Douglass says there are no current plans in place to make the comic/coloring book into a series, but he’s open to the discussion. He also thinks Davis’ life story would make a great sitcom as after retiring from the ring, Davis became a registered nurse who would often wrestle on his time off. For now, Douglass says he is thrilled with this companion piece/continuation of Davis’ story.

“Just from the standpoint of a creator and having worked on multiple books,” offered Douglass. “All the autobiographies I’ve worked on, they either start with a first email or a first phone call to discuss working on the project. And then they start with the first conversation and the first step of recording. And this process can take anywhere from two months to two years. So anytime you have a finished product in hand that was just a concept of an idea months or years prior, it’s a tremendous feeling. And with the coloring book, it was no different.”

Concluded Leitzel, “I would definitely like (readers) to get interested in the wrestlers involved in the story, learning more about pro wrestling and seeing how people tend to forget the bygone eras that are clearly very, very important. I would like this book, given the way it’s presented as being very farcical, but the characters are hopefully memorable and leave an impression. I’d like (readers) to want to go back and read about everyone featured (in the book) and see how wrestling has changed over time. And at the same time, there’s traditions that date back forever ago.”