Longmont-based comic artist Matt Strackbein has long found lucha libre — Mexican professional wrestling — fascinating, and he also loves the comic books that spring from the rowdy sport that pits técnicos (good guys) against rudos (bad guys).
The sport, according to Lonely Planet, has roots in 19th century Mexico and Greco-Roman wrestling. It took off in the 1930s and is wildly popular in its home country where it is eclipsed only by soccer. Lucha libre translates literally to “free fight” and, in Mexico, has inspired movies and, yes, comic books.
“They’re the most exciting comics,” Strackbein says. “They tend to run the gamut between direct adaptations of wrestling matches and the wrestling industry on TV, but they’ll also end up fighting vampires and aliens and zombies.”
Strackbein, who produces comics and art under the moniker The Letterhack, says he had the idea for a homeless luchador as far back as 2004 but the concept didn’t come to fruition until recently. A 70-page comic, “Milagro,” is now in the works. The full-color book is essentially a three-issue comic bound together in one volume.
The basic story of “Milagro” involves the titular character, a disgraced luchador who killed his mentor in the ring and now roams the streets of Mexico City. That’s a big deal, Louisville-based writer Guillermo Xegarra says, because sports like wrestling, boxing and mixed martial arts have a storied history of mentors taking young fighters under their wing. Think Mike Tyson and Constantine “Cus” D’Amato, The Shamrock brothers Ken and Frank and their adopted dad Bob Shamrock. For that matter, think Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi, even if they aren’t real.
Milagro is bitter, and would like nothing more than to just fade away. Suicide is not an option for him, because it would be too quick. He is content to live with his shame and failures. The former wrestler mostly wants to be left alone and refuses to speak to anyone. Being a hero, however, he often finds himself compelled to help others. It’s his nature, after all. Even if it’s somewhat begrudging.
“It’s kind of the origin story for a street hero or street fighter,” says Strackbein, who does the coloring work on “Milagro.” “He’s already got the costume on, but he has no desire to do anything heroic. It’s accidental. So when he has the chance to defend the innocent, he falls back on the one thing he knows how to do, which is fighting.”
Strackbein says the story, although it draws from the fantastical world of lucha libre, is grounded in reality.
“He’s in the real world,” Strackbein says. “He may have been at the peak of his sport in that industry at one time, but for this story, he’s hit rock bottom. He’s working his way up. There’s no aliens or anything like that.”
Xegarra says Strackbein basically gave him a blank slate, aside from the beginning and end of one chapter, and they filled in the characters and story as they went along. A good deal of mystery surrounds the character. He doesn’t talk, for example, but that aspect of his personality is left unexplained, at least for the time being. Even the artists didn’t know why their hero didn’t talk, at the beginning.
“We decided to not make him talk,” Xegarra says. “We didn’t have a reason why initially, and then we figured it out as we went along.”
Xegarra says that he looks to character studies like those found on shows like “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad” when writing “Milagro.” Those shows feature deep dives into the characters. They can be good, bad and can fascinate and annoy the viewer, all at once sometimes. Not everything that motivates the characters is spoon-fed to the viewer either.
“I wanted to have that grounded in reality, that kind of maddening going back and forth between doing the right thing and then completely falling on your face and giving in to your demons,” Xegarra says. “Great character studies, like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ do that. The characters frustrate you at times. They redeem themselves at times.”
Xegarra adds that he wanted to create a character that was representative of Latinos and respectful to that culture. Latinos lack a great deal of representation in the comics world. He says that it’s fairly easy to name comic characters who represent different groups. But ask someone to name a Latino comic book hero, and you might draw a blank look. “Milagro” honors, among other cultural traits, the resiliency of a lot of Latinos, particularly those in Mexico and what they’ve been through with challenges like drug cartels and the violence that accompanies them.
“Those are the things we wanted to honor,” Xegarra says. “We don’t want to have just like your typical stereotype of like Latino criminal or bad guy. We want to honor those things that Latinos know and experience first-hand.”
Ross Radke, who draws the scenes, says he is conscious of representation, because it would be boring to only tell stories about characters exactly like himself. He used to spend hours drawing people he found in National Geographic Magazine so he could practice drawing people from other cultures in his own cartoony style.
“There’s a fine line when cartooning characters of other ethnicities, so I try to stay as close to photo references as possible without it feeling out of place with my natural drawing style,” he says. “This applies to the environments as well, everything from the style of furniture to the graffiti in the alleyway.”
The Oregon resident adds that he doesn’t want to be disingenuous and pretend he knows what growing up orphaned in Mexico City would feel like, so he’s taken notes on how to treat the subject matter with the respect it deserves.
“Guillermo has been good at providing photo references, videos and articles along with the scripts,” Radke says. “I’m absorbing as much of that as I can and I hope that some of it comes out on the page.”
Radke adds that he’s been listening to Mexican metal bands while drawing to channel some of that energy.
“I’m trusting my collaborators, peers and mentors to point out if anything I do comes across as a lazy stereotype,” he says. “That’s one of the advantages of collaborating with a creative team.”
The trio has also recruited Strackbein’s friend in Mexico City to make sure the Spanish in the comic is accurate — and not Spanish-class-Spanish — and they plan on translating the entire 70-page book into a Spanish-language digital version.
“He is going to coach us on that to make sure the dialect is appropriate for the region and that all the usage is appropriate,” Strackbein says. “You know, you can insult somebody in another language a few different ways depending on how bitter a rivalry it may be, or if you are just passing someone on the street. We want all that to be as authentic as possible.”
The three artists researched Mexico City to lend the street scenes an air of authenticity and consulted with a professional wrestling coach — Xegarra is also involved in the mixed martial arts community — to make sure the moves depicted in the story are accurate. (Strackbein jokes that to say Xegarra does “extensive research” is underselling how much research his partner pursues in his work.)
“If something happens in the comic and someone thinks, ‘Oh, that’s fake, that would never happen,’ rest assured, it could happen,” Strackbein says. “We have a legit wrestling coach giving us consultations.”
They say fight nerds will not be disappointed in the accuracy of the fight scenes.
“Milagro” is definitely authentic on multiple levels. They even address the common criticism that professional wrestling is fake early on in the book with the counterargument that the matches are scripted, but gravity is real.
The artists and writer are quick to point out that “Milagro,” while it’s about a wrestler, is not a wrestling comic per se.
“When you think about ‘Fight Club,’ ‘Fight Club’ isn’t really a fight movie,” Xegarra says. “There’s fighting in it, but it’s really more about consumerism, how it can literally drive someone crazy, make someone go mad and develop these different personalities, and fighting is just a part of it.”
“Milagro” tells a complete story in three acts, but the creative team is writing in a way that allows for future stories about the title character and even the side characters. The story alludes to economic and social issues which might be expounded upon later, but Xegarra says he wanted to avoid coming across as didactic or preachy when telling Milagro’s story.
“We love having questions just kind of out there that we didn’t directly ask but brought up in the story somehow to be answered at a later date,” Strackbein says. “It builds interest in more stories.”
Strackbein says fight fans will enjoy the book as will comic fans, but he says the story possesses broad appeal.
“People who are looking for a good story, some good fiction that just happens to be grounded in the real world will appreciate it,” he says. “The hope is that it appeals to a variety of people while at the same time introducing people to parts of the world they might not know about and aspects of wrestling.”
The creative team working on Milagro is launching a kickstarter campaign on July 5 to raise $7,000 to help pay for the cost of publication of the book. People who donate can be eligible for extras like art prints, digital portraits by The Letterhack and sticker sheets. Check out @comicmilagro on Twitter for updates and more information.