Every wrestling fan knows that wrestling has an element of homoeroticism, but their responses to that vary. Some ignore it, some joke about it, and some, like comics writer Elizabeth Brie and artist Kira Okamoto, are inspired by it. That’s why they wrote Rubber Match, a project described in its Kickstarter as “a one-shot comic about rivals turned partners turned ??? in the squared circle.”
When making Rubber Match, Okamoto and Brie, who both identify as queer, drew from sports manga, Boys’ Love (aka BL, a subgenre of romantic fiction about relationships between men), and real wrestling storylines and locations. These influences are all entertainment genres that could be called nerdy or niche, but they have audiences whose devotion shouldn’t be underestimated. People were so on-board with the concept of Rubber Match that by the time its fundraising drive ended on April 28, it had raised $10,076 USD, nearly three times its original goal.
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Brie and Okamoto bring both enthusiasm and experience to the project. Brie is an editor at Boom Studies and has written for the anthology Beyond Sunset, as well as some self-published work. Okamoto is the artist of Demon Boy and has done covers for Image and IDW (where they met Brie, then an editor at IDW.) They’re also the creator of the “Bats in the Ring” art series (a Batman/wrestling crossover) that’s circulated the wrestling internet on and off since it was first posted a few years ago.
When I saw the “Bats in the Ring” artist was doing a full wrestling comic, and one with a concept a lot of people would love, I knew I needed to talk to them about it. My conversation with Okamoto and Brie for Fanfyte is below and has been edited for length and clarity.
Fanfyte: What are both of your histories with wrestling?
Elizabeth Brie: For me, I’m a fairly new wrestling fan. I’ve been watching wrestling for maybe the past seven years or so. I watched it a little as a kid because I had older brothers who watched it during the Attitude Era, but I wasn’t interested in it and didn’t really think about being interested in it until I kind of realized “Oh, it’s like superhero comics but they just fight it out in the ring. That’s awesome. That’s really cool.” And now I’m kind of obsessed with it. My first wrestling show was NXT in the early Full Sail days. RIP. And yeah, I just watch it all now. It’s probably too much of my life.
Kira Okamoto: I like how she says she’s a new wrestling fan – for seven years! (laughs) I’ve only been a wrestling fan for like two or three years.
EB: I feel like a new fan.
So what got you into wrestling?
EB: This is annoying – because I think a lot of women say this – but my partner is really into wrestling. On our first date, he said, “I really like professional wrestling” and I laughed in his face. I thought “Why would anybody willingly watch this as an adult?” I did not think I was going to enjoy it. I thought this was just going to be one of those things where it’s like, this is a separate interest that you have that you can enjoy with your friends. Of course, that’s not what happened. (laughs)
He took me to a live show here in San Diego when there was an FCW show. That promotion doesn’t exist anymore, but seeing it live was literally life-changing. Watching it on TV is fun, but there’s something about seeing people do this in real life. I couldn’t imagine anything more fun, I guess. So, now I’m obsessed.
Yeah, that’s like the most dangerous thing, to take people to live wrestling. Because they will like it at least a little bit. Even if they think it’s stupid, they will start respecting wrestling a little.
EB: Like, you can’t pretend that wrestling is fake – obviously, you know, whatever – but you can’t pretend these guys aren’t actually doing this stuff when you see them live, which you can kind of do in a cognitive dissonance way when you’re watching it on TV. But when a guy is spitting blood onto the mat it’s like “Okay, you guys are actually hitting each other. Cool.”
Kira, what’s your history with wrestling?
KO: I got into it because my older sister was really into it. Same thing, older than me by five years, so she was totally into the Attitude Era. As a kid, I had almost no interest in it. I knew who, like, Sting was. But when I was older, she took me to a local wrestling show on Oahu — we’re from Hawaii. It was a local promotion called AZW and I fell in love with this guy named Mr. Athletic, who was Jeff Cobb! Total babyface back then.
So I became kind of interested in it from that live show and then I would just watch clips on YouTube that she would send me, like “Here’s a cool move!” So for a while, my wrestling knowledge was just short clips, not full matches, never really full storylines. I didn’t follow along with any of that, but I knew “That guy’s cool! That looks cool!”
And when I was living in Japan for a year, [my sister] came to visit me, so I took her to a Dragon Gate live show in Osaka, Japan, because she really wanted to see Shingo Takagi live. So that was my first time seeing Shingo.
At the 2016 Dragon Gate show, they were also struck by seeing exotico Yosuke Santa Maria, a kiss she shared with Akira Tozawa, and the reaction that got from the audience of “mostly middle-aged women.”
What wrestling do you mostly watch now? Elizabeth, you said everything, so Kira, what about you?
KO: Elizabeth got me super into Lucha Underground. I had never seen it before, but when she mentioned it to me I ended up watching everything of it I could find. That and I keep up with AEW as much as I can, but I often miss a lot.
Here’s the most obvious question: what inspired you to do this comic?
EB: Okay, this is very specific. This is the most specific thing I can probably say. I was inspired to do this comic after Evil beat Sanada in the 2019 G1. Because in 2017, Sanada beat Evil in that G1 and this was like, if any wrestling promotion wasn’t totally cowardly, this would just be a love story. I was like “This is it. This is a story. What if this tag team were boyfriends, or on their way to being boyfriends, and then something happened to tear them apart? And how do they handle that?”
So I started kind of playing with some Boys’ Love tropes [and] some of those enemies-to-lovers fanfic tropes. My favorite wrestling storylines are the ones where guys used to be friends and something happened and now they’re not friends and they have to fight about it. What if we just took it a step further and the guys were boyfriends, and now they have to fight about it? And we got a little bit of that with the Golden Lovers, but what if we did it for real? So I got kind of obsessed with it. The story might have been a little different if I had written it after Evil and Sanada’s actual rubber match, but, yeah.
KO: At the time, I had no interest whatsoever in doing comics interiors. I was like, “I’m not fast enough. I’m not good enough. I’m just going to stick to covers.” But then Elizabeth showed up in my email inbox being like, “I saw you did some wrestling illustrations, and do you want to do a BL wrestling comic with me?” And just being a fan of manga and having kind of been raised in the BL tropes, her script was everything I could have wanted from a sports manga that has a gay romance in it, so I was immediately like, okay, I’m signing on to this. (laughs)
EB: That was the other thing too. In all the sports manga and sports anime, everyone has their ships but they never pull the trigger on them, with the exception of, like, Yuri On Ice. I kind of wanted to do a sports manga that was actually going to do the thing that everyone watches them for, which is guys having feelings about their sport and also about each other.
KO: Yeah, I think sports manga and wrestling really, they have that subtext because the relationships between characters… they’ve got great chemistry, but it’s just under the surface. It’s never obliquely there. And we’re doing no subtext, it’s just right there.
Sports manga does have that same thing as wrestling that people kind of make fun of — well, there’s a spectrum to how people approach it — of having two people who feel very intensely about each other stand with their faces really close together.
EB: When we do actually get the kiss there too, which doesn’t happen very often, it’s always a joke. This was like no, have this be for real. Give me a for-real in-ring kiss.
I think between wrestling being such fertile ground for that kind of storytelling and then there are actual comics coming out of wrestling — you’ve got your WWE comics, but you also have the New Japan comic [New Japan Academy], which is just a manga, just a shonen manga.
Yeah, it’s wild how much that is just a manga.
EB: They just went for it. Or Cutie and the Beast, which is just a romance manga about a wrestler, and that wrestler happens to be based on Evil. So yeah, [Rubber Match] just seemed fun to do, and it was fun to do.
You guys have kind of answered this already, but Elizabeth, your pinned tweet says, “I like to write about girls and relationships and girls in relationships.” So I’m wondering what was the reasoning behind doing this story with two men rather than two women or any other combination of genders of people, if that doesn’t sound too awkward.
EB: That’s a great question. I think it’s a question that we’ve talked about a lot too as we’ve been making this. Neither of us are gay men, so we didn’t want to, like … there is, of course, in fandom spaces a tendency for gay men to get fetishized. But I think what spoke to me about the idea of doing this with two men was that space that Kira mentioned in how intense these relationships get in wrestling on-screen.
It’s this really interesting juxtaposition between these men who are the most masculine you can be, super buff, covered in tattoos, pretending to beat each other up for a living, and how intense the emotions are. Even if that emotion is usually anger, the passion there is hard to ignore, especially in the kinds of wrestling storylines I really love, which are all about friends not being friends anymore for whatever reason and how that feeling of betrayal plays out on-screen. So I think the gender dynamics, the gender norms, the gender presentation there is what was really interesting to me. I wanted to tell a story about big muscle-y men who are kind of soft.
We see the guys in the ring in this. That’s part of what I wanted to do with this. I didn’t want this to be a wrestling comic that was about wrestlers, but you never see the wrestling, so there’s a lot of wrestling in it, but there’s also a lot of moments where the characters are sitting around in sweatpants just being affectionate with each other for no reason. There’s nowhere to go there except to just enjoy that we can do both, that we can have men who are big and strong and men who are quiet and drink wine and (Kira laughs) that’s like my favorite scene that Kira drew is them drinking wine while wearing their lucha masks. Yeah, I really wanted to explore that they can be both things.
Kira, how did you approach the character design of this comic?
KO: Elizabeth had some kind of basic ideas for what she wanted the gears to look like. Ty, one of our main characters, is totally inspired by Sanada, so I was like, “He’s an Asian guy with monolids,” which I identify with because I have monolids. And then Scorpion Butch, our other main character, when I read his description I was like, “I know that guy. I went to high school with that guy. That’s a Polynesian guy!” And we were talking about how we love all the Samoan wrestlers, so it was cool to kind of base these people off people we were familiar with.
I noticed the Scorpion Butch character has a tribal tattoo. What did you reference for his tattoo?
KO: Among the Polynesian cultures, tattooing is really important, but each culture does it a little bit differently, so using similar symbols but maybe in a different style. So I did some research into it and I wanted to make it like a specifically Samoan tattoo, so I just kind of based it off an information book on Polynesian tattooing.
Looking at your tweets, I saw that you talked to the wrestler Razerwyng about the action scenes. How did that go?
KO: That was great, because in the script Elizabeth just had, like, “Wrestling happens here!”
EB: I did a really bad job at writing the matches.
KO: So me being such a new wrestling fan, I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m knowledgeable enough to make these matches in the comic as cool as they could be with just my knowledge.” But at the time, I had become friends with ex-Chikara wrestler Razerwyng, so I was like, “Would you be willing to help us kind of plot out the beats for these matches?” and he was super on board.
He read the characters, thought about the kinds of moves these characters would do. Ty is more of a high-flyer and a hard striker, while Butch is more power moves. [Razerwyng] said he went into his basement and acted out all of the matches and would take notes and then compile those notes, and he gave them to us to use for what we wanted the comic to look like. There wasn’t enough page space to do Razerwyng’s whole vision, but it was such a good starting point.
EB: Yeah, this started out as a 40-age book when I wrote it, but I think we ended up with 64 pages. Kira absolutely went to town on the matches and they look amazing, and Razerwyng really saved the day by actually choreographing and booking the matches.
Looking at the pages you sent over, it seems like the comic is set in America. Was there any specific area or promotion that the setting of the comic is based on, or any combination of places?
EB: In my brain — I don’t think this is ever actually on the page — but it’s set in the South. I wanted to do a Southern wrestling kind of feel. But this is a bigger promotion; this is a televised promotion… It’s a kayfabe world, so there’s that. The story is a kayfabe story, so the characters are actually having to fight for whatever, for their feelings.
I’m in Southern California too so all of the shows I’ve been to, all the smaller promotions around here [influenced the comic]. Lucha Underground played a big role in this from a kayfabe perspective. We’ve got weird snake ladies as characters and they’re actual snakes who eat eggs whole and are really silly and they’re the best. Honestly, every place I’ve ever seen wrestling live played some kind of role in this, everywhere from WWE to our local promotion Ground Zero down here in San Diego, and that kind of icky, old school Southern wrestling promotion vibe, where everybody’s sort of scummy and also all the wrestling is really good.
KO: I feel like it’s definitely an amalgamation of those big over-the-top wrestling arenas, but definitely inspired by the local promotions we’ve both seen.
Okay, we’re down to the last questions. What comics or manga would you both recommend, if you could recommend a romance or an action comic or a sports manga to people?
KO: I think I already know my answer for romance: Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa. While working on this comic, Elizabeth and I discovered that it’s a shared love, and some of the emotional beats in [Rubber Match] we got that from Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss. And for sports, Haikyu!!, the volleyball manga. I feel like the sports vibes that we do here are kind of inspired by that.
EB: Kira stole my answer with Ai Yazawa. We knew we both liked Ai Yazawa comics, but we recently found out we both like Ai Yazawa comics.
KO: We both have Ai Yazawa tattoos!
EB: If I can’t say Paradise Kiss, I’ll go with Neighborhood Story, which is in the same universe as Paradise Kiss. They’re hyper-focused stories that take place in the very specific world of a fashion school and there’s a romance that happens with that. For a sports manga, I think you can’t go wrong with the New Japan manga. (Laughs.) For a Western one, this is probably silly, but I really love this comic Dodge City by Josh Trujillo. It’s about dodgeball and it’s a romance comic and a sports comic and it’s really, really good.
Last question: could you each also recommend one or two wrestling matches to people? This is the hardest question.
KO: I might steal this one from Elizabeth before she gets it. In Lucha Underground, there is a match in which Pentagon Jr. fights a bunch of joshi wrestlers, and I love it so much.
EB: I think I’m not alone in this, but my favorite one to recommend to people who have never watched wrestling is the DDT match where Kota Ibushi fights a blowup doll. Because you can’t not be a fan of professional wrestling after watching that match. But otherwise, the DIY vs. The Revival match when DIY won the tag belts from them [at NXT TakeOver: Toronto] is one of my favorite wrestling matches of all time.