Monday, May 11, 2009

Spandex Without Superheroes


Rival Angels has been calling to me over Project Wonderful. Everywhere I go online, it seems I am followed by pictures of pretty girl wrestlers staring out from their ad boxes, saying, Oh, come on Lauren, just click us.

So I did.

The comic snob in me rather expected to dislike Alan Evans' comic. The art didn't initially appeal to me, the narration and dialogue are a bit clunky (especially towards the beginning), and it's an utterly unironic soap opera about, well, professional wrestling. But I managed to come down off my high horse long enough to realize that, while it's about as deep as a puddle of sweat in the middle of the ring, Rival Angels also has the same simple, straightforward appeal as an evening spent watching the WWE.

Rival Angels operates on a very simple premise: What if professional wrestling were real? What if matches weren't choreographed? What if winners and losers were not predetermined? What if hitting people with chairs (while technically illegal) was still acceptable and really fucking hurt? What if all those backstage melodramas and onstage rivalries were real and unscripted? Oh, and what if all the wrestlers were (mostly gorgeous) women?

That is the world of the Rival Angels wrestling league and "Ultragirl" Sabrina Mancini. Sabrina longs to be a professional wrestler, and after a mere ten weeks in the Rival Angels developmental league, it looks like her dream is coming true. She's been called up to Chicago to be a full-fledged member of the Rival Angels family, wrestling each week to a packed stadium and on national television. But she's about to find out that getting the dream job is just the start of her worries.

Now that she's in the big league, Sabrina has to prove herself in ways that go way beyond her athletic ability. She has to deal with her fellow rookies and roommates, some of whom resent Sabrina's possibly premature success, the Hell's Belles, a trio of sadistic rulebreakers, and Rival Angels Commissioner Gabrielle Reni, who loves to keep her wrestlers on their toes almost as much as she loves increasing tshirt sales. Now, Sabrina has to navigate personalities, manage her offstage life, win her matches, and not get killed in the process.

From an aesthetic standpoint, professional wrestlers have a lot in common with superheroes. They're muscular, they wear colorful outfits, and they get involved in action-packed, multidirectional battles. Fortunately, Evans recognizes this and illustrates Rival Angels in a stripped-down superhero style. Outside the ring, it's not his strong suit; expressions are a bit off, bodies are overly posed, and backgrounds too spartan. But inside the ring, he really shines. To be honest, I thought I'd probably end up skimming over the wrestling panels, but to my surprise, they proved the most exciting and engaging parts of the whole comic. Either Evans obsessively studies wrestlers, or he has some extremely game life models, because the actions are clean and energetic, and when paired with the cheesy color commentary, easy for even this non-wrestling fan to understand. And though it still has a ways to go, the rest of the art is slowly but gradually improving as well.

Rival Angels is, at its heart, a melodrama, and it uses a more than healthy dose of soap opera conventions. Sabrina is our typical heroine with a heart of gold -- innately talented and hardworking, fiercely loyal, woefully naive, and possibly virginal. Sabrina meets her opposite and main rival in roommate Brooke Lennox. Where Sabrina is driven by athleticism and a love of the sport, Brooke seeks only fame and adulation, and she will happily connive and sleep her way to the top. Thus far, much of the action of Rival Angels has involved Brooke's attempts to undermine Sabrina and her cringe-inducing attempts to promote herself (think absurdly skimpy outfits).

The main plotline of Sabrina vs. Brooke (or Sabrina vs. any of her morally unworthy rivals) is actually the weakest point of Rival Angels. Although Sabrina's occasional temper and the sense that she's as capable of losing a match as anyone else leaves her shy of playing the Mary Sue, Brooke is too transparently villainous, and not a match for Sabrina in any department, save guile. There's no cat-and-mouse here, just a bitchy chick and the superior, undeserving victim of her wrath. And when Brooke starts up an affair with one of the Rival Angels higher ups to advance her career, it feels far too obvious and far too familiar. Plus, the Madonna/whore thing is plain tired; it would be peachy to see some nice girls who are sexually empowered or bad girls who are demure.

The peripheral characters are far more fascinating. Sun Wong, a third roommate, is pure kick-ass -- essentially friendly, but tough and not above bending the rules to win. Krystin Moline rounds out the rookie cast as a dedicated athlete with an aptitude for enforcement and a keen vulnerability to people in power. And the veteran wrestlers aren't all buxom beauties; there's a potbellied Samoan, a horror movie luchadore, and a gal known only as "Zombie Luna." Best of all is Commissioner Gabrielle, whose deceptively upfront motive of cold, hard capitalism may be leading to some unexpected places.

As with the art, the strongest characters and storylines are the ones found in and around the ring, but Evans' recent sidetrips into Sun and Krystin's pasts have shown him flexing a wider range of creative muscles. And if he keeps pushing his storytelling chops and fleshes out the burgeoning supporting cast, Rival Angels could prove a fun and fluffy soap opera that borrows from pro wrestling mythology even as it enriches it. Rival Angels isn't great yet and it may never be as admittedly hip as most of the comics populating my RSS reader, but it's fast-paced fun -- and who knows, it might even convince me to give televised wrestling another look.

[Rival Angels]

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