We got author of the upcoming graphic novel release Behind the Curtain: Real Pro Wrestling Stories, Jim Cornette, on the line, and then my phone cut out. I was in panic mode. Ever since I started writing for Pro Wrestling Stories, Corny was the Moby Dick to my Captain Ahab: the one interview I wanted more than anything. Jim Cornette is not only one of the greatest managers in wrestling history, but he’s also one of the most knowledgeable resources about professional wrestling as a whole.
I’m a huge fan of Cornette’s work, both as a wrestling personality and as a podcaster, where he disseminates knowledge and opinion on a twice-weekly basis with his partner in crime, Brian Last. Cornette answers listener questions on Mondays on the Drive-Thru and The Jim Cornette Experience drops on Thursdays. Both should be required listening for any wrestling fan.
But now that the interview was actually about to take place, disaster struck–at least for a moment. Site editor and all-around mensch JP Zarka got me back on the line within two minutes.
“I can’t wait to tell the story on my show about how I did this call with two guys on a soup can and a string,” Cornette said, laughing.
We were there to talk about Cornette’s upcoming graphic novel, Behind the Curtain: Real Pro Wrestling Stories, and to pick his brain about some names not often mentioned in modern wrestling history. The graphic novel, published by IDW, is based on stories researched and told by Jim Cornette, written by award-winning comic book scribe and screenwriter Brandon Easton, and drawn by Denis Medri.
“When I started out announcing the Real Pro Wrestling Stories project–it’s actually a graphic novel–but I started out calling it a comic book because I always wanted a comic book,” Cornette said. “I collected comics before I got into wrestling.”
The project quickly grew. Instead of a simple comic book, a Kickstarter showed just how much fan interest there was in the graphic novel. Backers blew past the original goal of $25,000, and within a short amount of time, it had exceeded every one of its stretch goals, too.
“The response from the Cult of Cornette has been tremendous,” Cornette said. “We blew past the goal for 30 days in 23 hours.” And contributions kept coming in. Nearly 1,200 backers pledged more than $69,000 for the graphic novel.
Jim Cornette’s history as a detail-obsessed fan, photographer, manager, owner, and booker comes into play here. He first started going to wrestling cards at the Louisville Gardens, where he watched Southern legends like Jackie Fargo, Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, and Tojo Yamamoto. The wild action of the Memphis territory informed a lot of Cornette’s views about the wrestling industry. And when Cornette began working as a ringside photographer for the promotion–his way into the business that he loved–he still wasn’t officially “smartened up” to the business.
“Jerry Jarrett (who promoted the Memphis territory) used to say, ‘He may be smart to the business, but he’s not smart to my business,’” Cornette said.
TRIVIA: Real Pro Wrestling Stories author Jim Cornette and Paul Heyman both broke into the wrestling business by first working as ringside photographers. Both had photo credits in a variety of magazines, including the “Apter mags.”
But eventually, Cornette began working in his home territory as a wrestling manager. From there, he went to Mid-South to work for Bill Watts as part of the legendary Midnight Express. That Express train took Cornette to Dallas to work for Fritz Von Erich, and finally to the Carolinas to work for Jim Crockett Promotions. That’s already a world-class resume for any wrestling personality. But Cornette wasn’t done. After WCW was bought by Ted Turner’s organization, Cornette eventually left to form Smoky Mountain Wrestling. A call from Bruce Prichard led to Cornette working as WWE world champion Yokozuna’s “American representative.” He co-owned Ohio Valley Wrestling for a time, as well as booking for TNA (now Impact) and Ring of Honor.
That’s an exhaustive resume, and it shows Jim Cornette’s knowledge–and love–of the wrestling business.
Behind the Curtain: Real Pro Wrestling Stories preserves some of the most interesting and eventful parts of professional wrestling history, like the 1975 plane crash that broke Ric Flair’s back and crippled Johnny Valentine.
“We picked nine stories to tell,” Brandon Easton said when I interviewed him by phone in early October. “We broke it down into three chapters, with three stories in each chapter.”
Easton isn’t just an award-winning writer. Like Cornette, he’s also a longtime fan, and he first remembers watching wrestling in the early 1980s as a boy in his native Maryland.
“Being in Maryland, we got a lot of crossovers. We saw the WWF, Crockett, Mid-South,” he said. “You could watch wrestling shows from six different territories in a weekend. I always enjoyed the NWA wrestling. There was a grittiness to Southern wrestling that you didn’t see (in WWE).”
Easton remembers a particular scene that showcased exactly how vicious the Southern style of wrestling could get. In 1985, Tully Blanchard and Magnum TA were in a hot feud for the NWA United States championship, which culminated in an “I Quit” match inside a steel cage at Starrcade. When Blanchard’s valet, Baby Doll, threw a wooden chair into the ring, Magnum eventually got his hands on a broken piece of the chair and threatened to gouge Blanchard’s eye out with it, resulting in the future Horseman quitting the match and the title.
“It was brutal,” Easton said. “I was like ‘Holy shit!’ I’d never seen anything like that before.”
Easton has written about wrestling before, working with artist Denis Medri on a graphic novel about the life of Andre the Giant, titled Closer to Heaven. That kind of work led to this collaboration with Jim Cornette.
“The folks at IDW did that great Andre the Giant graphic novel a couple of years ago, which was kind of his biography,” Cornette said. “The same team of writer and artist, Brandon Easton and Denis Medri, are doing this piece of work. They’re my stories, but I tend to go into a lot of detail, and it’s a lot different when you’re writing scripts for a graphic novel. The great thing is that the guys at IDW and Brandon especially, they’re all wrestling fans. They like and respect the sport of professional wrestling, and not only the current stuff but the history of things.”
Easton is responsible for translating Cornette’s verbose storytelling to the page, and even though the writer is a longtime fan, he still learned new things from Cornette’s stories.
“I think my favorite story is the Sputnik Monroe story about desegregating the arenas in the Memphis territory,” Easton said. “Most of the stories in the book I already knew, but I had never heard that one, and it’s the most illuminating, for me. It shows that wrestling can affect a positive change in the world.”
While we were talking, I looked at some of Medri’s art. What struck me was that one of the stories depicted the Fabulous Freebirds in the ring, complete with their Confederate battle flag ring gear during a feud with the Junkyard Dog from the early 1980s. I asked Easton, who is black, if that type of overt racist symbolism bothered him while he was writing the book.
“Growing up as an African-American fan, you had to develop a thick skin,” Easton said. “You had to reconcile what you saw on TV with your own life and experiences. But when it came to wrestling, I loved JYD, and growing up in Maryland, there were Confederate flags everywhere, so the flag didn’t bother me. You straight-up gotta have a thick skin to be a wrestling fan and be black.”
But Easton’s race certainly played a part in the way he consumed and reacted to wrestling. He’s still angry about the feud between Triple H and Booker T for the WWE world title–specifically about the promo where Triple H told Booker, “People like you don’t win against people like me.” And then Triple H, a heel at the time, retained the title against Booker at WrestleMania 19. That’s been 15 years, and it’s a slight that still burns because Triple H retaining violated everything about good wrestling storytelling.
“That’s the kind of thing I’m offended by,” Real Pro Wrestling Stories writer Brandon Easton said. “That, and that neither JYD nor Bad News Brown (Allen Coage) never won a title in WWE, or something like Vince McMahon using the N-word. That wasn’t even for an angle or reason, just him being stupid.”
Other stories covered in the volume include the feud between Jerry Lawler and comedian Andy Kaufman and the original Montreal Screwjob involving Ed “Strangler” Lewis, as well as other tales.
Jim Cornette can’t hide his enthusiasm for the graphic novel.
“It’s a great project, and it’s all real old wrestling stories,” Cornette said, putting emphasis on the word real. “It’s the stuff you would think would be made up, except it’s legitimate. And it’s the stuff from these wilder and larger-than-life people that used to dominate the business.”
Even if the book wasn’t already a financial success–and it is, thanks to the backers on Kickstarter–a project like this is a labor of love for Cornette, who has a passion for sharing the history of professional wrestling with an audience that’s always eager to hear more.
Jim Cornette Presents Behind the Curtain: Real Pro Wrestling Stories is slated for publication this fall.