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Monthly Archives: October 2016

papa-shango-1Fashionably late to the party as ever – making his way to the ring for Halloween, here’s Papa Shango, who looks remarkably like the terrifying Baron Samedi. With the same voodoo powers and wrestling nous to match – what a terrifying prospect!

Shango arrived in 1992, and, sure enough, he would strike fear and concern into the kiddies at ringside with his smoking skull staff and ominous chants. There were other powers, too – he could blackout the arena, set items ablaze and, in perhaps his most infamous appearance, reduce The Ultimate Warrior, who at that point seemed virtually invulnerable, to a pathetic, vomiting mess.

There really isn’t much more to say about Papa Shango, as that was really all that he did. The gimmick was never able to get off the ground; planned rivalries with Sid Justice and the aforementioned Warrior were put on ice when both of those men left the company, leaving Shango floundering as the writers scrambled for new victims in makeshift plots. He did challenge then champion Bret Hart, but ultimately proved no real threat. With that, the mystique rather ebbed away, and Shango had been cast away completely by early 1993. Charles Wright, the man behind the face paint, would go on to have a successful run in the WWF as Kama and most famously in the late nineties as ‘The Godfather’ – a fun-loving pimp – capping off what certainly was a colourful career.

Though a bit of a flop, Papa Shango isn’t easily forgotten. An acquired taste for definite, and perhaps they could have done without the whole vomiting angle. But I love these bizarre, goofy characters – they’re a big part of what wrestling is all about. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t; this one’s failure probably just makes it all the better a horror story!

Happy Halloween!

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The Big Valbowski is, he says, a lot like the Rubik’s cube. The more you play with him, the harder he gets.

Hmm! I shall warn you now: that’s more or less the level of character we’re dealing with. The WWF has never been the most bashful of organisations, but never has it been so controversial as the days of Val Venis. Think ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude turned up to eleven and tailored to the nineties product. Naturally, he’s a porn star; his debut was hyped on this premise, supplementing a series of risqué vignettes before he’d eventually turn up in the crowd, bearing a sign that read “I have come”. The next week, he’d storm the ring with a skin-coloured SuperSoaker and blast everyone with a curious white fluid.

As an active wrestler, the lewdness would continue in much the same vein. He’d strut his way down to the ring in his towel, treating us to a gyration or two before grabbing a microphone and smothering the crowd with more innuendo than you can, well, shake a stick at:

“I came, I saw… and then I came again!”

“The Big Valbowski may not yet be the greatest Intercontinental Champion of all time, however, he is most definitely the biggest!”

“While Halley’s comet only comes once every seventy-six years, The Big Valbowski comes on command!”

At which point, of course, the crowd would go crazy for him. It was a shamelessly one-dimensional gimmick, at least in terms of what was done with it, but the reaction of the people proved his popularity beyond any doubt. It helped that he was also a solid performer, so once the ‘romance’ was out of the way, there was normally a decent contest to follow. He had several championship reigns, and really was a greatly entertaining ‘mid-card’ wrestler – his feud with Rikishi over the summer of 2000 was one of the highlights of the period, and I assure you, that’s nothing at all do with Val cutting his hair and donning white trunks.

For a gimmick that had run its course within a year or two – some would say much quicker! – it’s incredible to think how much the WWF got out of it. It became a bankable go-to character for Sean Morley. They tried a number of times to repackage him, some personas the very antithesis of Venis, but none were nearly so memorable nor successful. It was inevitable that the towel and cheap pops would be back before long.

The problem was, though, that the industry has changed almost beyond recognition by this point. The WWF of the nineties was all but gone, times had changed – the gimmick simply could not be allowed to play out as it did back then. This resulted in a rather watered down, restricted version of Val Venis which fared less well, even with his mic work and matches as strong as ever. But, on that, The Big Valbowski in his pomp shall ever remain a piece of that ‘Attitude Era’, a time when the WWF was crazy, brash, and, for its faults, totally unpredictable. A time when it was doing the business, probably better than even Venis himself could boast!

savageliz-5cOoooh, yeah! At the request of Dawn, we have none other than ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage up next in this veritable Royal Rumble of wrestling stars.

I couldn’t snapshot my fondest era of Savage without including Miss Elizabeth, who would very quickly be labelled the ‘First Lady’ of professional wrestling. Savage arrived in the WWF in late 1985; as if he weren’t distinctive enough with his talent, uniquely entertaining interviews and loud attires, it was the accompanying Elizabeth, a beautiful, timid soul who would look on worriedly as her man did battle in the ring, that rendered him unforgettable. The fans couldn’t possibly boo her, and so, it really wasn’t too long before the fans started rooting for Savage – even when they weren’t supposed to be – and before long he was Intercontinental Champion and one of the most popular superstars in America.

In fact, the show was seldom stolen by anybody other than Savage. While WrestleMania III in 1987 was sold almost exclusively on the Hulk Hogan/Andre the Giant main event, Randy Savage versus Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat, buried in the under-card, is widely regarded as not the best match on that night, but one of the best WrestleMania matches of all time. He could take ageing giants and the likes of Ultimate Warrior to uncharacteristically passable matches.

Testament to his popularity, he was given the unenviable task of heading the WWF while Hulk Hogan swanned off to make movies. At WrestleMania IV, Savage was awarded the World Championship, besting Ted DiBiase in the final of a mammoth night-long tournament, his fourth performance that evening. Though not the original plan, it’s hard to think of it going any other way, and, even viewing years later, WWF in 1988 feels so much fresher for having Savage as star.

When Hogan returned, he and Savage teamed up as The Mega Powers, but ‘The Macho Man’ became jealous of Hulk and his apparent rapport with Elizabeth. Randy’s volatility got the better of him, attacking Hogan and losing the trust of Elizabeth. He would drop his World title to Hogan at WrestleMania V. Over the next two years, Savage was a fully-fledged villain, and despite having trademark, excellent matches over this period, it just seemed hollow without Elizabeth at ringside. Even the employ of ‘Sensational’ Sherri Martel, a deliciously crazy woman who actually made a great ally for Savage, couldn’t better the unassuming impact of the predecessor.

It was only a matter of time – and sure enough, at WrestleMania VII, the two reunited and wed later that year at SummerSlam (they were legitimately married in 1984, in fact). The reunion was a truly moving moment. Savage would go on to win another World title with Elizabeth by his side, beating Ric Flair.

In real life, however, the pair were to divorce, and Miss Elizabeth vanished from TV sometime in 1992. Competing alone, Savage would remain in the WWF until the end of 1994, before leaving for burgeoning WCW. He worked for five or six years there and notched up multiple title reigns; rumours persisted that a WWF return was imminent as late as 2001, but this sadly never proved true. A shame – I would’ve loved to have seen him meshing with some of the top talent around that time.

‘The Macho Man’ really did have it all – I’m certain he’d have appeared in colour even on a black-and-white set! A fantastic wrestler and an even better talker. Coupled with Elizabeth, it only helped him blaze to the top faster. I cannot hear Pomp and Circumstance without thinking of the two, particularly their WrestleMania IV and VII triumphs, and willing them to burst into view. Then, of course, comes the sadness that both are long gone. But what a catalogue of performances there is, which I’ve no doubt will ensure that the legacy of Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth is never forgotten – oooh yeah!

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Embracing the colder weather in watching the frosty, snow-dusted car-crash circus that is Batman Returns a couple of nights ago, I spotted something I’d never actually noticed before: Bruce Wayne rocks some spectacular glasses. They’re round at the top and octagonal on the bottom. Incredible.

Yes, I am easily impressed.

They might be the best thing about the entire film… well, beside the cats, of course, and the man actually donning these spectacular specs. It’s a shame Keaton’s Batman outings, while enjoyable, weren’t the strongest in terms of story; he was an excellent choice for lead, and brought much to the role beside the rough and tumble. He remains my favourite Batman of all.

I really went all out for drama with this one – naturally, this meant highlights on a black canvas, and seeking to amplify the moonlight as much as possible. You really can’t go wrong with magical moonlight. Or was it light from the Bat Signal all along? I can’t really remember. Oh well, I’m quite chuffed with how it turned out, either way!

kane-2We’re back in the squared circle with not so much a bang as a monstrous fireball, lighting up the darkness and bathing us in ominous red. Kane, “The Big Red Machine”, is on his way to the ring!

Or not so red a machine, as it appears. Kane’s foremost attire from his 1997 debut had the colours you see here transposed. This outfit crept into the mix in 1999, and I just think it looked so damned good; such a simple shift really reinvigorated the character. I’ve spoken before of my attempts – to no avail – to find an action figure as a child. I couldn’t resist. It’s probably my favourite wrestler’s attire of all.

Kane’s early run in the WWF can mostly be defined by his relationship with his brother, The Undertaker. It was apparently Undertaker’s accidental torching of the family home that left Kane disfigured – hence the mask, and presumably the outfit too.

Was he feuding with his sibling, or were they standing together, an unstoppable duo? There were times when it seemed this was shifting back and forth on a weekly basis, but it tallies in with the product’s crazy and complex storylines of the time, and such a rocky, fragmented bond seemed fitting for two tormented characters.

Whether ‘Taker was by his side or not, Kane was the epitome of monster and, within months of his debut, had upset Stone Cold Steve Austin for the WWF Championship. At near seven feet tall, he towered over most opposition and could be seen to lift his bulkiest foes with ease. Just as impressive, though, was his catlike agility. Seeing such a huge man employ such speed, performing dropkicks and dives off the top rope with such aplomb really was a sight to behold. Kane is every bit “Big Red Machine” as “Big Red Flying Machine”!

The mask, and whoever lurked beneath it, was always a pivotal part of Kane’s mystique. They had The Undertaker rip it off at SummerSlam 2000, but Kane was able to escape before the cameras could catch a glimpse. In 2003, however, Kane staked his mask against Triple H’s World Championship in a one-on-one match. Kane lost, albeit under dubious circumstances, and finally had to unmask. (Turned out all that was underneath was a normal chap with some face-paint!) While the storylines that followed allowed Kane to go completely berserk with this, turning evil and reacquainting with that whole monstrous streak, I do think that, after that initial run, it harmed the character. It just didn’t seem like the same Kane – as evil as he was, the bare face lacked something. And he didn’t have the pick of badass outfits anymore.

But, if anyone can make a ropey storyline work, it’s Glenn Jacobs. There have been a few of them. Prior to being gifted Kane, he’d muddled his way through the personas of Fake Diesel – a bewildering parody of the real Diesel, who had recently left the WWF – and Dr. Isaac Yankem, a manic dentist. Kane has tussled and tagged with so many superstars over his near twenty-year stint, from giants like Big Show to cruiserweights such as The Hurricane, and always manages to make the combination seem coherent and exciting. I’m not really sure what’s going on with his character these days, but he’ll make it work, he’s a tremendous performer and very much worthy of recognition. The fire shall rage on!

***

As I look to begin a second series of WWF/E portraits, here’s fun regarding the first: I was most thrilled to have The Brooklyn Brawler sign prints of my portrait at a convention in Pennsylvania over the weekend.

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Having rarely printed my digital drawings, I was a little nervous as to whether the run’s quality will meet expectations, but he looks to have fared well and shifted well – I’m excited for my own copy to arrive so I can inspect it up close. How marvellous, though, to think that my little portrait is now residing among the collections of bona fide wrestling enthusiasts!

The Crystal Maze makes a return to television this Sunday as part of Channel 4’s Stand Up to Cancer season.

This alone, I confess, has been hard to get too excited about; filmed at the Live Experience inside an office block, I’m naturally expecting an episode somewhat less spectacular than its namesake is noted for. The appointment of Stephen Merchant as host doesn’t fill me with much optimism, either, but we’ll have to see how he does. (It didn’t really help that the press broke the story promising David Tennant – how marvellous he’d have been.)

What is intriguing me, though, is that a new, much larger maze has conveniently started going up in Manchester. Hmm! Do they know something we don’t? I remain somewhat apprehensive of a full-scale TV revival – it’s difficult to wonder how any update or format tweak could make The Crystal Maze a better product. Perhaps offering some brand new zones – Arctic, anyone? –  would give it distinction and dilute the inevitable comparisons, but I’d think that doubtful, as you’d risk upsetting a load of the audience from the beginning. They will need to know what they’re doing, paying due respect to the original without confining itself to its shadow.

Still, enough fretting before the event. The news has inspired me to make some more Maze graphics. Off the back of all my 3D works, I’ve long been toying with the idea of recreating the zones in full. Well, I sort of did that; here’s a recreation of the diagram that flashes up in the journey between zones, as Richard and the team navigate the various tunnels, stairways and rivers en route to the next location. This map was enjoyable to me as a child because it confirmed that The Crystal Maze really was the vast, interlocked world it appeared to be. It was even greater to find later on that the diagram came from messing around with the maze’s floor-plan, and the set, the largest in Europe at the time, actually was linked together as shown. Magical!

To be a bit different, I toyed with added details emblematic of each zone and items in the game cells, but have since come to the conclusion that this is little more than superfluous clutter. It looks stronger without.

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To Sunday, then. Browsing the TV schedules and spotting The Crystal Maze is sweet, and something I didn’t think ever likely to happen unless I won the lottery. It’s unlikely to put on the same show, but let’s hope the special – and any developments that may follow – can capture at least a measure of the spirit and fun we remember so very fondly.

confused1-00It seems a lifetime ago now that I was wandering around Norwich as student of art – Graphic Communications, to be precise, at NUCA. It’s a little scary to think it’s been six years since my first semester. While not a period I look back on with tremendous fondness – regrettably, much of that is my own fault – I met some unforgettable personalities and had great fun making stuff with them.

I delved quite heavily into typography and font design in my second year, when we were given much more freedom in our practice. I believe it was also around this time that my mother picked up her first smartphone. Besides the frightful interface, she was most perplexed by the ‘mispellings’ and the ‘weird little faces’ that were now peppering her friends’ correspondence. Granted, there was mischief to be had in deliberately sending messages loaded with as many ‘txt’ words and emoticons as possible, but I shared her pain, not so much with emoticons but the over-egged text speak. I’m fine with a casual LOL or OMG, and can make allowances for platforms with character limits, obviously. But when u c ppl rly strt pushin it 2 xtrmes it cn bcum a bt of-putn, ye? We’ve all been there. My entire brief was written around this; exploring text speak, its usage and impact – if any – on general parlance, and how, for the uninitiated, it can slash a romantic sentence into an ugly code puzzle. By this, I essentially mean I spent the research phase sourcing beautiful quotes and playing word games. Not bad!

confused1-01The entire face, naturally, spiralled from the ubiquitous :S emoticon. It was a purposely minimal, cold and trying construction. Application mainly came in jumbling words up, or taking quotes and cutting characters wherever possible.

confused0002These chaps was going to play a big part of my degree show – optical illusions and Jenga-esque towers of text speak dystopia were in discussion. In having to drop out of university, these frightening characters sadly never broke out of the screen. With Cinema 4D at my disposal, however, I had a quick punt and created some 3D impressions of that landscape.

confused-3_0003I’m reminded again how much I enjoy working with type. I should really make an effort to do more.