3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life.
When I was a kid, my father and I would watch the World Wrestling Federation together on Monday nights. The bravado and violence was strangely captivating. I cheered and laughed as man and after man strutted down the ramp to a variety of punk rock songs. This was in the late ’90s when The Attitude Era was in full swing. I drooled over the oily, muscled “vampires” in The Brood, but I was most delighted by Mankind, a sweaty-haired man in a muzzled mask and flannel shirt who wore a sock — Mr. Socko — on his hand.
I underwent an existential change when I first saw Jacqueline. Her brown skin glowed despite the harsh lights. Her braids whipped around her as she slid under the ropes and flipped her opponents. I was awestruck, unable to comprehend that there was a Black woman beating up White women for a cheering crowd on my TV! From then on out, I loved Mankind, but I screamed when Jacqueline ran toward the ring. Of course, I then lost my mind again when I saw the “Ninth Wonder Of The World,” a nearly six-foot-tall Chyna flex and smirk as she sauntered down the ramp.
My father’s mantra of “That’s my boy!” quickly became “Whatever! Whatever! Sit down!” when any of the “divas” of wrestling appeared. He was telling me to sit down because I would hoot, holler, then jump on his back in an attempt to throw him in a headlock whenever they came on screen. I couldn’t contain myself. The women wrestlers, whether I liked them or not, proved to me that I could be like them — fully embodying my physical prowess and presence with confidence.
Jaime Hernandez (Love And Rockets) experienced a similar awestruck feeling as I did when he first saw a woman wrestling. In Queen Of The Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Hernandez 1980-2020 (Fantagraphics, August 2021), Hernandez rightfully makes women wrestlers the main event.
“When I was six or seven, the whole neighborhood, the gang, always watched wrestling and talked about it the next day,” Hernandez writes in Queen Of The Ring. “I was just bugged by the women’s wrestling, not knowing why. The matches – in their holds, tossing each other around – the angles were just freaking me out. I didn’t know why, but they were.”
What’s so striking about seeing a bombshell of a woman pummeling the face of another woman is that it shatters the stereotype of womanhood. As little girls, women are taught to nurture, to cook in their fake plastic kitchens, and to change imaginary wet diapers, which then become behaviors adopted in adulthood. The expectation is that women will care and not harm. There isn’t room in the predominant social imagination for little girls to release primal screams and perform backbreakers.
However, Hernandez provides space for them to do so. In Queen Of The Ring, women writhe in agony. They piledrive their enemies. They pry their opponents’ mouths open in scenes reminiscent of horror movies. It’s a gritty, darker realization of wrestling than its bedazzled modern counterpart. Hernandez offers sparse commentary – presented in small cutouts of text – which allows women to be the focus.
The illustrations are an homage to the classic wrestling of the ’60s and ’70s. The wrestlers don modest bullet-bra leotards and lace-up boots. (Although there is the occasional fringed lamé jacket.) Bettie Rey, the undisputed women’s champ, wears a sensible bob. Pamela Brown smiles assuredly, her jacket tossed over her shoulder, her afro reaching out of frame. Las Hermanas Asesinas, two sisters who are las Reinas de Lucha Libre, stand side-by-side in their championship belts. Their hair may be perfectly coiffed and their postures are often in photo-ready positions, but their stern grimaces and clenched fists hint that these women mean business. The pinup drawings are of fictional characters, but much like the WWF (now the WWE), these illustrations offer a vicarious experience for those searching for what could be.
One thing that always bothered me about watching WWF/WWE was that women wrestlers were often relegated to the background. The storylines hinged on many of them being sex-kittens or the most stereotypical of diva personas. This was even more apparent for wrestlers of color.
When I stopped seeing Jacqueline in the ring, I asked my father what happened to her. He just shook his head, eyes glued to the match on the screen. “They didn’t know what to do with her,” he said. “They don’t know what to do with most of ‘em. It’s just the same shit.” That “same shit” was Bra and Panties matches where the women fought each other in lingerie and skimpy two-piece outfits. The screaming, grunting, and sexual innuendo was ratcheted up to an eleven while the crowd, mostly men, went into a near frenzy. These matches were also shorter and often interrupted by commercials — making them a prime slot for me to run to the bathroom. The serious, gritty stuff of steel cages and headlining events was reserved for the male wrestlers.
What’s fascinating about Queen Of The Ring is that the spotlight focuses on the characters’ backstories. The queens command the covers of fictional magazines, such that the few male characters are pushed to the background or are just out of the panel. Their words eat up the space around them in bold, capital letters. Bettie Rey’s declaration, “Men Want Me, Women Want To Be Me!” implies her potential storyline as a villain. Her opponent challenges Bettie Rey’s title legacy on another cover, saying, “I’ll Tear Her Heart Out!” Her words create a vibrant tension, giving energy to the idea that she is an underdog deserving to dethrone Bettie Rey.
The headlines and magazine covers tell us the progression of the characters’ storylines. They become champions; they suffer defeats. They often struggle to maintain their hold on their titles while eager opponents rise around them. Hernandez creates a world where these women thrive from Detroit to California to El Paso, and South Korea to Puerto Rico. The queens of the ring have developed arcs and undergo transformations — something I didn’t often see when I watched wrestling with my father.
The lack of a threading narrative can be disorienting for those expecting cohesive storytelling. However, Queen Of The Ring is more of an exhibition of passionate interest than a traditional graphic novel. Hernandez’s drawings, the ink and color pencil strokes sharply present in the illustrations, connote how deeply personal this collection is to him. We must do the heavy lifting of laying our own narratives on the templates he’s given us. Beyond the novelty of these wrestlers being women is the fertile ground of creative possibilities.
Women in the wrestling ring have trail-blazed new paths for up and comers who once cheered from the sidelines like me. I can only imagine how much more I would’ve been invested in the WWE then and now if the women’s roster was like the characters on these pages. I know that much has changed since then — women are called superstars now instead of divas, for one, and their athleticism is championed over their pretty faces — but a lot has not. For now, I enjoy reminiscing in the nostalgia and feminist messaging that Queen Of The Ring offers.
Queen Of The Ring: Wrestling Drawings by Jaime Hernandez 1980-2020 is out now via Fantagraphics. Get it here.