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John Lees Discusses Adapting Macbeth Into His Wrestling Comic Book The Crimson Cage

June 25, 2022 | Posted by Tony Acero
The Crimson Cage Image Credit: AWA Studios

Hey everyone! Comic Book and Wrestling Fans unite!!! Who am I kidding, we did that years ago. Anyway, story time:

My roommate and best friend recently came into my room and tossed a collection of comic books on my bed, telling me I have just “got to read it.” He said it was a wrestling comic and he thought I’d enjoy it. The dude knows me well, because I fell balls deep into an amazing five-part series called Crimson Cage, and immediately hit up the writer for an interview. In doing so, I learned so damned much!

First, that he was Scottish as all hell, and made Drew McIntyre’s accent sound like nothing more than a Southern drawl. Second, that he was a HUGE 411mania fan, and had been reading both myself and Larry for years! It touched my heart, truly.

So I Zoomed the dude and had a nice conversation about his work just in time for a new release of the Collector’s Edition. Below is a transcription of the interview with some edits for time or space. Seriously, I’d post the video, but it’s legit just two dudes across a pond geeking out over wrestling and comics.

Stay after the interview for information on a contest to win a copy of The Crimson Cage: Collector’s Edition!

Without further adieu, I introduce to you….

JOHN LEES and The Crimson Cage:

Image Credit: AWA Studios

Tony: Ok, the first thing I’ve got to ask is the usage of what some would consider “insider terms.” You don’t blatantly use terms like “kayfabe,” “blading,” or “turning heel,” but they are all present. Even the art of “going over” shows up without even attempting to explain what these mean within the confines of the wrestling world. This was a bold move, but obviously intentional. What gave you the confidence to believe that the readers would know exactly what you were talking about?

John Lees: Well you don’t want to underestimate someone’s intelligence. Nowadays, you can simply go online and look up certain terms, but I also feel like for those that do understand the terms, they feel involved and that their knowledge has been rewarded. if they don’t feel that then they get to experience a whole new world, and I love that, personally. I love diving into an unknown world and figuring things out.

Tony: This is for sure an open door to our world. In the first two pages, we see our main character Chuck Frenzy blading, and to those few people that maybe haven’t experienced this or aren’t in the know, it is a hell of an introduction.

John Lees: Yeah, that was something really early on that I wanted to be very specific about, particularly in the art. As a lifelong wrestling fan, I owed it to the product to be authentic. Like the scene when Sharleen gets knocked off the apron, I made the instruction that when you draw her falling, make sure you draw her with her arms falling down on the ground, and make the impact sound effects come from the hands, not the body. Basically, her taking a bump.

Image Credit: AWA Studios

Tony: I noticed this. I also noticed commentary being a large part of the narrative. Or the “lock-up” conversation where the wrestlers call their next moves. Just so many details I think wrestling fans are going to love.

Let me name a few wrestlers that I noticed were either directly copied from, or given sly nods to just in this story alone: Dusty Rhodes, Sensational Sherri, Randy Savage, Elizabeth, Ric Flair, King Kong Bundy, I think I even saw a little bit of Aja Kong in there. Was there anyone you wish you could have represented but didn’t?

John Lees: To be honest, I feel like I covered all of the ground I wanted to cover. The good news is we had a pretty set in stone roadmap with the play, MacBeth. Essentially, everybody I wanted to have in there was covered. I was pretty happy with the way it all worked out.

Tony: Yes, there is even a scene where Sharleen is literally whispering in the ear of Chuck Frenzy, similar to Lady MacBeth doing the same. Noticing the cool little nods brought a smile to my face.

Another cool little tool you used was the “opening promo.” In issues 2 through 5, we have a moment where one of our characters cuts a promo of their own inner monologue, talking directly to the reader. It reminds me of the chorus that Shakespeare would often use in his works to kind of fill in the blanks.

John Lees: Yeah, it’s basically like the soliloquys actors would do on stage, you know, kind of stepping aside on the stage to directly address the audience.

Image Credit: AWA Studios

Tony: For every Breaking Bad out there, there is at least ten Dexters that, to some fans, overstay their welcome. Crimson Cage is a five-part story. How did you know this was enough to stop, and does this have anything to do with Shakespeare?

John Lees: The very nature of THE CRIMSON CAGE meant that it’s not a story that could run very long, and that it was going to have a very definitive ending. The events Chuck Frenzy sets in motion were always going to come to a grim and bloody conclusion sooner rather than later. The way I looked at it is, MACBETH is a tragedy in Five Acts. That’s how Shakespeare wrote the play. And so, in adapting it, we made a series of 5 issues, roughly structured as one issue per Act.

Tony: Do you feel like you adequately honored MacBeth?

John Lees: I’ve always loved MacBeth but what really set me off was seeing Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, and that kind of got my gears turning. What I loved about Throne is that it followed the structure, but had new characters, and obviously a new setting. I thought if I was going to do a new story about Macbeth, what would mine be, and since I’ve been a lifelong wrestling fan, I started tying those two together. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the story matched up really well with wrestling.

Obviously, MacBeth is one of the most adapted plays in Shakespeare’s canon, and I was intimidated a bit because our first issue came out the same month as a new adaptation with my favorite actor, Denzel Washington of all people! No pressure, right?

Crimson Cage is the story of Chuck Frenzy, who is our version of MacBeth, but the story is definitely recontextualized. We definitely used MacBeth as a roadmap, but we definitely went off some moral tangents when we felt it would better serve the story. For example, Van Emerald is the World Champion and person who is the object of Chuck Frenzy’s ambition. He is the big fish in the small pond that wants more, and the person he must go through is Van Emerald.

In the play, King Duncan is adored by his followers, he’s good and without flaw. I thought it would be interesting if our World Champion wasn’t good and pure, but is actually a scoundrel, and pretty much a jerk. This was an example of us just having fun with the work, doing our own thing while still staying true to the spirit of the original. We also tried our hardest to give our version of Lady MacBeth a bit more substance. You know, she disappears halfway through the play, then goes mad and kills herself. We definitely see more of Sharleen than we do of Lady MacBeth.

Image Credit: AWA Studios

Tony: Who would you say was your favorite character to write for?

John Lees: Chuck Frenzy was my favourite character to write for. It was a fun challenge to get inside his head, work out what is driving him at any one particular moment, whether it be ambition, or envy, or fear. He’s someone who aches to be happy, who thinks if only he has A, B and C, THEN he’ll be content. And he’s ignoring the people around him pointing out to him that the life he already has is pretty great. And as he keeps chasing more and more, he finds that any joy is fleeting, that it’s not really making him any happier because the void within him is still there, getting bigger if anything. And the further along he goes, where it really counts, he’s losing more than he’s gaining. The character is also fun to write because of the layers of artifice that come with performing as a pro wrestler. There are several sequences in the book where I get to play with ambiguity, leave the readers ask themselves if Chuck Frenzy, the TV wrestling personality, is saying these lines in character, or if Chuck Frenzy, the man, is revealing his own actual inner thoughts. Of course, for wrestling fans, this whole “is it a work or is it a shoot?” question drives interest in some of the most buzz-worthy feuds and storylines!

Tony: Let’s move on to the art work, by Alex and Ashley Cormack. In short, it’s amazing.

John Lees: Yes, Alex is the artist, and Ashley is the colorist. Great, great, great team. Great life team, as well. I’ve worked with Alex for years and years. We’ve done Sink together. He’s one of my favorite people, I talk to him practically every day. Also, a shout out to Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou who does the lettering. Honestly, not only was this a dream project, but a dream creative team as well. I had a great time working with these guys, and hopefully we can work on some more things in the future.

Tony: Yes, let’s talk about the covers – at least the ones that I have. We got Issue #1 with Chuck Frenzy in the ring, looking like an 8-bit video game cover, draped in bloody strings, but my favorite Issue #4, with Sharleen covered in blood, laughing and screaming. So visceral. Just awesome.

John Lees: Yes! I actually think I showed some reference points for that cover. I showed him the picture of a blood-covered Britt Baker. Alex definitely puts a lot of thought into meaning behind the images. If you go back to look at the wrestling sections of the book, any time you have the POV of the audience, you are seeing the story that is being told by the wrestlers, but when you zoom in with the wrestlers locked up and they are calling the moves, we are in on the story and submersed into it.

Image Credit: AWA Studios

Tony: OK, I got some quickfire questions for you before we close out the interview.

Favorite Current Wrestler: Bryan Danielson
Favorite Wrestler of All Time: Bryan Danielson
Favorite Storyline 2022 so far: CM Punk v MJF feud
Upcoming Match Most Looking Forward To: In terms of what has actually been set, I’m intrigued with the Moxley vs Tanahashi match, and pretty much whenever Eddie Kingston gets a shot at the big belt.
Favorite wrestling news site:

Tony: Ah shucks!

John Lees: Ya know, I’m not someone who often jumps into GoFundMes and stuff like that, because it can get overhelming, but one I had to just to donate to was Larry’s when he passed. All the years of entertainment he gave me every week. Just immeasurable. For me, I’m talking years, there was a point when I didn’t even follow the product and still read Larry. His reviews were insightful, well-written, he had knowledge, and just an all-around pleasure. Better than Meltzer, at least. Haha. Just a huge fan. I was heartbroken when I heard the news. Not a knock to other writers on the site on anywhere online, really. I did try and read other reviews, but it just was not the same.

Having said that, of all the reviewers, I think I like you the most. They remind me of Larry big time. The star rating, the time, the summary at the end. It reminds me of him. You’re definitely a successor.

Tony: That’s incredibly humbling. But the Larry nods, that is a 100% tribute to Larry. I despise timing matches, but it was a Csonka thing. Even the color of the blurb at the end there is what I call Csonka Green. It is completely impossible to even try to fit his shoes, so I just do my part, keep him alive in each review, and try and show even a fraction of consistency that he had. I truly think Larry’s only mistake in life was hiring me.

I greatly appreciate the words, and I have to include them in the interview, even if to just show Larry that he’s still bringing fans together.

Thank you . So besides the Collector’s Edition, what else are you working on? What should we be on the lookout for?

John Lees: I have more SINK coming up. SINK is a pulp crime/horror series set in a nightmarish district of Glasgow, Scotland, which I work on with Alex Cormack, artist of THE CRIMSON CAGE. We’ve done two volumes so far, with more on the way, but first up we have an original graphic novel called DIG, telling the backstory of fan favourite character Mr. Dig, coming out very soon. And, just announced, I have a horror comedy comic called THE NASTY coming out from Vault Comics later this year, with art from George Kambadais. It’s a coming of age story set in 1990s Scotland, against the backdrop of the “video nasties” moral panic, where the Government – backed by right wing media – were banning horror movies and prosecuting those who sold them on video. It follows a group of friends who acquire a black market copy of one particularly notorious video nasty, and the bizarre chain of events that unfold when the screening of the film goes wrong. I’m really excited about this comic, as horror is the one subject matter that may be as close to my heart as pro wrestling, so this, much like THE CRIMSON CAGE, is a passion project!


There you have it, folks! Catch The Crimson Cage in comic book stores everywhere, or!

Image Credit: AWA Studios

As for the contest rules, it’s simple:

1) Follow @johnlees927, @411mania, and @tonyacero411 on Twitter
2) TWEET “WE WANT CHUCK FRENZY” to all three using hashtag #THECRIMSONCAGE before 7/15/22
3) If you do not have Twitter, E-Mail: acero[email protected] with the subject line: “WE WANT CHUCK FRENZY”

The winner will be chosen at random and announced on the July 20th Edition of AEW Dynamite and notified by Twitter.

The winner will receive an autographed copy of The Crimson Cage: Collector’s Edition!

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Barbie, Box Office, Oppenheimer, Tony Acero