Life is good for Mike Kingston these days.
The lifelong comic nut and professional wrestling fanatic has found a way to blend his two passions with his love for writing, and he’s found a formula for success so far.
Kingston is less than $2,000 from once again raising the funds to produce the latest in his series of Headlocked comics, a coming-of-age story chronicling a college theatre major’s quest to become a professional wrestler. Kingston’s Kickstarter campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/180977151/headlocked-the-last-territory-vol-2) sits just below its $20,000 goal with less than a week to go.
In many ways, this has been a lifelong project for the Syracuse, N.Y., native.
“When I was a kid, I had a bunch of comics that I had just gotten from the grocery store or the drug store, from a spinner rack,” Kingston said when asked about where his love of comics traces to. “I think my mom saw that I liked to read them and was trying to encourage me to read.”
Kingston’s mother took the impressionable youngster to the local comic book store, where Kingston quickly fell in love with the work of legendary comic book guru Chris Claremont, the mind behind some of the comic book world’s greatest characters thanks to his long involvement with Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men.
“I got hooked on the Chris Claremont (Uncanny) X-Men (series),” Kingston said. “That was what really kind of carried me through when I was younger. I read X-Men, I read Spider-Man … but mostly X-Men was my favourite.”
Following a four-year, self-imposed comic book hiatus during his college years, Kingston again returned to his first love.
“When I got out of college, I did resume collecting and filled all the holes in my collection. It’s funny, I stopped reading (Uncanny) X-Men at (number) 210, and I think it’s 212 is the first appearance of Sabretooth, so putting my collection back together was not the easiest thing in the world,” he said, referring to the debut of one of its most important villains.
His love of all things comic would continue to grow.
“I got introduced to other types of comics and that’s what really did it for me,” Kingston said in a telephone interview. “People always (ask) ‘what book made you want to become a writer?’ Kingston said, before answer that oft-asked question: “Concrete: Think Like a Mountain, was, I felt, an amazing book and it totally changed my whole opinion of what comics could be.
“From there, I started reading Preacher and Transmetropolitan and some Vertigo stuff and it totally just (changed my thinking to) ‘Oh, wow, it doesn’t have to just be superheroes.’ ”
Kingston’s other passion as a youngster was another world filled with larger-than-life, colourful characters: professional wrestling. Thinking back, Kingston admits it isn’t difficult to figure out why he blended his passions.
“I remember every wrestling comic that I had ever read was just awful,” he said. “I decided that I wanted to write a wrestling comic that I felt that wrestling fans would like.”
The problem with wrestling-based comics, Kingston said, is there wasn’t a great deal of thought put into them.
“They used to just try to apply the wrestling characters to superhero ideals,” he said. “You’d have The Undertaker fighting demons; Kevin Nash had a book where he was essentially Mad Max; the Ultimate Warrior had a book. When wrestling gets hot, people are just like ‘oh, let’s buy the licence and see if we can make a buck.’ You can tell most of the people who were working on it weren’t fans, weren’t comic book fans, weren’t wrestling fans or weren’t able to translate whatever passion they had for wrestling into a decent story. I feel like if you’re going to read superhero comics, why would read WWF guys being superheroes when you have 70 years of recognizable superheroes that are doing better stories than that? I don’t want to watch Superman wrestle. I’d very much like to watch wrestlers wrestle and comic book people do their thing.”
When Kingston set out to follow his dream, the emphasis was first on the comic side of things.
“Comics is a tricky business,” he said. “I’ve made my share of, I don’t want to say missteps because the business isn’t as intuitive as you would think it would be. I had the idea for the book, so I made myself a pitch and a script and a marketing plan and I laid it all out.”
At almost every step, Kingston said, he was met with resistance.
“I went to comic book conventions and I would talk to editors and I would say ‘this is my idea,’ and they’d say ‘Well where’s your art?’
“And I’m like ‘Why would I have art, I’m a writer.’
“And they’re like ‘Well you’ve gotta have art.’
“And I’m like ‘Well you’re a comic book company, wouldn’t it be easier for you to find an artist than for me to find an artist?’ ”
So Kingston would find an artist, only to be greeted with more resistance.
“You find an artist, (and they’d say) ‘Well, we don’t like this artist, find a different artist.’
“Then rinse, lather and repeat until you find an artist that clicks with somebody. We did have a publisher for our first set of books,” Kingston said. “We came out through Markosia, but the harsh reality of the comic book business is that unless you’re in a top-10 publisher, retailers just arent’ going to order your stuff.”
In the beginning, it truly was a one-man show, Kingston said.
“It was just me. As part of a studio, Visionary Comics, we were all working together and just trying to make it. I took a week off when our first book was in previews and I drove to every comic book store in three states, and I talked to every owner and I gave them a copy of my preview book and I was like ‘If you have wrestling fans that are customers, they’ll like this.’ And every single person knew of multiple people in their stores who were wrestling fans, but at the end of the day, they didn’t order it any way.
“I heard every excuse in the book — ‘wrestling fans don’t read’; ‘wrestling comics don’t sell.’ I mean, I had a guy in my town tell me to my face that no one would buy this book and the kid who was working behind the counter bought one from me right there on the spot, and he still didn’t put it on the shelf.’ ”
Kingston’s big break came in the form of a man known around the world for his work not in comics, but rather in professional wrestling: Jerry (The King) Lawler.
How a struggling comic book writer ended up connecting with a legendary wrestling personality with a penchant for drawing came innocently enough, Kingston said.
“It’s the stupidest thing,” Kingston said. “I emailed him through his website. And I totally forgot I did it after I did it. In my head, I’m like ‘yeah, whatever, I’ll just give it a shot.’ ”
When he set out with his project, Kingston never envisioned needing any help at all, let alone that of a hall of fame wrestler.
“In my head, when I first started this, I (thought) ‘wrestling fans are going to love this.’ I know how many comic book fans there are and I know, as a wrestling fan, this is the type of book that I’ve been waiting for, so (I thought) ‘they’re going to find it and they’re going to love it.’ I put it through previews and our first issue I think sold 600 copies and I was pretty crushed at that point. Some indy books at that time were getting 4,000 or 5,000 copies or whatever and I was (thinking) ‘We’re going to knock this outta the park’ and I sold 600. That was really kind of a crushing blow.”
Refusing to give up on his dream, Kingston knew he had to do something to stand out.
“I’m (thought) ‘I know Jerry Lawler does art.’ So I sent him an email and I forgot about it. Then one day I got a response and he sent me an address to send him some books. I sent him some books and he called me up and said he’d do it. He did the cover for me.”
Trying to make it in comics is a lot like trying to make it in wrestling: there is a lot of sacrificing to be made, hard work to be done and adversity to be overcome. For every success story, there are countless failures. While Kingston doesn’t yet view his story as a complete success story, he never once entertained the thought of quitting.
“I love doing this,” he said. “I mean it gets frustrating at times, but (now) I’m friends with guys (who) I grew up admiring. Jerry Lawler is my friend and Hurricane (Shane Helms) is my friend. The fun times I’ve had and whatnot totally outweigh any of the frustrations.”
The project has never been about making money, Kingston said.
“At the end of the day, it’s a passion project. I don’t make any money off of this book, and I’m really OK with that. I have a job, I pay my bills. Most of the money we raise goes to pay the artists (and) to pay the printers. Then I just reinvest it back in the book so I can do more shows, so I can see more people and whatever. There’s the thing you do to keep your lights on, and there’s the thing you do that you love and I think the people that get frustrated in life, it’s because they don’t have that thing that drives them.”
Kingston is eternally grateful for the boost that Lawler’s involvement has given his dream.
“He’s so unbelievably generous,” Kingston said. “Not just for what he’s done for me, but I know him now and I see … he almost never says no to anybody. He’s a super, super nice guy. They always tell you not to meet your heroes, but I’ve gotten to meet a lot of my heroes and a lot of my heroes are pretty awesome.”
The Kickstarter project is packed full of goodies for both the comic book and wrestling fan, including digital copies, original Lawler artwork, autographed work and even a cameo in the next book, entitled Headlocked: The Last Territory Vol. 2.
Lawler was but the first from the realm of pro wrestling to lend his support to Kingston and his project. Others involved with the project at various points include the aforementioned Helms as well as Christopher Daniels, Ken Anderson, Rob Van Dam, Sinn Bodhi and Frankie Kazarian, to name some. Kingston couldn’t be more grateful for the support.
“I feel like I have so many people helping me, and that’s been super, super gratifying.”
The support Kingston has been receiving with his Kickstarter campaigns (the last Kickstarter campaign raised $27,000 US) is overwhelming, he said.
“Obviously, as a creator, it’s gratifying that people find value in what you’re doing. It’s super gratifying when somebody that you respect respects something that you’re doing. I’ve had different people in the comic book business and the wrestling business tell me how much they like it, and that’s unbelievable.”
Given the resistance the project was met with early on, Kingston feels a sense of vindication.
“I’ve been doing this for a while and you know, when I started, everybody told me ‘No, it’s not going to sell.’ I gave my pitch to a fairly prominent comic book publisher and the third word out of my mouth was wrestling and he said ‘Nope, not interested.’ (I) didn’t even get beyond the world wrestling, at three words in, and he just went ‘ahh, wrestling … not interested.’
“In the comic book industry, people have been pretty close-minded on the publishers side of it. So on some level, I feel like we ran a Kickstarter for our first volume and we raised $27,000 and I feel like that’s vindication to me that we were right and there is an audience for this book.”
Where Kingston’s Headlocked project goes from here remains to be seen. For now, Kingston said, he just wants to keep raising its profile.
“I just want to keep selling it. That’s my ultimate goal. I want to be able to keep funding the books. When I started, I would have done anything for a publisher, but now, I’m comfortable enough that we could probably run a Kickstarter once a year and get a book funded. And that’s really what I want to do; direct my audience to Kickstarters. I know that that’s sort of a distribution model for us. If I can hook up with a publisher, absolutely, but I’m not going to take a deal that I’m not happy with.”
The road from being laughed out of stores to being within $2,000 of a second successful fundraising campaign has been a long and interesting one, Kingston said, filled with many gratifying moments.
“When I first launched it, I expected to have a lot more success in the comic book world,” he said. “I don’t think I foresaw any of this stuff on the wrestling side. I can’t even tell you the insane stories from doing these shows with these guys. Obviously, it’s not on-the-road wrestling road stories, but we’ve got some crazy comic book road stories.
“On some level, I expected it to be more received by the comic book industry, but on the other hand, I didn’t really expect the wrestling industry to step up like they have. It’s been amazing.”
While Headlocked remains a passion project for its creator, if the walls came crashing in tomorrow, Kingston could walk away with his head held high, and filled with fond memories.
“I’ve had a million experiences,” he said. “Generally, if I’m in a room with people, normal people, I’ve got better stories than all of them. I’ve got to travel. I grew up poor. I live in upstate New York. The first time I went to New York City was when I was 31 to see Samoa Joe and Kenta Kobashi at Ring of Honor. That was what got me to New York City. I never had money to travel. Now I’ve been all over the country, different comic book shows, I’ve got to hang out with so many different wrestlers and celebrities. I got into a Hollywood party that Joss Whedon couldn’t get into. The experiences alone have been insane. The last five, six years of my life have been the best years of my life.”