Posted on Thursday, October 3, 2013
by Paul in Wrestling
Paul: We don’t normally look at indie wrestling here, but the current goings on in Chikara are worth a look – both because Chikara has always been the point where comics and wrestling meet, and because the company appears to be currently engaged in one of the strangest storylines ever attempted in wrestling. Genius? Insanity? Commercial folly? Implosion? ARG? Workaround? Nobody seems entirely sure what they’re up to, or how anyone’s going to make money from it at the end of the day.
Naturally, this makes it fascinating.
Al: Paul’s right that Chikara’s current turn of events is fascinating, but we should note that it’s actually interesting enough that someone who’s a complete outsider to wrestling (i.e. me) is utterly gripped (or possibly armbarred) by what’s currently going on in the promotion. We’re going to have a look at the basics of Chikara here, and go into a bit of detail about not only what’s happening at the moment, but also what makes it sufficiently fun in general that even I’m hooked.
Paul: Since this is not primarily a wrestling blog, let’s set the scene and explain what Chikara actually is (or was). Chikara storylines are, shall we say, a bit complicated, so let’s boil this down to the essentials.
Chikara is an indie promotion based in Pennsylvania which was started in 2002 as a spin-off from Mike Quackenbush’s wrestling school, The Wrestle Factory. It was initially formed to give the students somewhere to perform, and started off doing shows in the Wrestle Factory’s building in Allentown, before the local zoning board pointed out they didn’t have permission to do that. (Remember that, it’ll come up again.) After moving out into more conventional venues – for indie wrestling, which largely means community centres and the like – Chikara has managed to stick around for over a decade, establishing a following of fans through DVD sales (and these days, online downloads).
Al: This is kind of essential to note. The majority of big-name wrestling promotions have at least some kind of TV presence, with the biggest naturally being the family of shows under Vince McMahon’s umbrella. Chikara is a much smaller endeavour than anything WWE-related, and because of that it doesn’t have the luxury of several hours of televised exposure every week. As a result, it’s embraced the internet wholeheartedly, partnering with Smart Mark Video for download and DVD (and latterly Blu-Ray) distribution, and sister site SMVOD for streaming video. The majority of its wrestlers and related characters maintain some sort of presence on social media, particularly on Twitter. It’s a promotion that is entirely comfortable living online, and engaging with its fans in that arena. This will also be important later.
Paul: The promotion has always been heavily influenced by both lucha libre and comics, and it also considers its shows all-ages affairs. It’s entirely happy to do storylines involving mystical mind-control artifacts or time travelling marching band leaders. It’s not a comedy promotion but it certainly has a much higher tolerance for comedy than most promotions – it’s difficult to imagine anyone else featuring Dragon Dragon, for example – but that’s not really typical of what they do. Even so, it’s the sort of promotion that brought the world Lancelot, a team comprising time travelling knight Lance Steel and his tag team partner, time travelling knight Lance Steel. Or the Devastation Corporation, a trio who rejoice in the names Max Smashmaster, Blaster McMassive and Flex Rumblecrunch.
Al: When Paul says it’s heavily influenced by comics, he’s not kidding around. It’s completely at ease with treating elements like the aforementioned time travel as completely unremarkable, everyday elements. The lucha tradition of masked combat elides seamlessly with the equivalent comic book tradition, and the wholehearted nature with which everyone involved throws themselves into the conceits of the storylines and characters’ schticks somehow shifts the needle of where baseline “reality” is. The thought that a 1970s basketball player might fight a demonic goblin, or that an intergalactic luchadora would be found headscissoring a man dressed as an ice-cream cone, is completely de rigeur here. Chikara is a world that’s super-saturated with superheroics, as can be seen by the covers of its DVDs, many of which are styled after classic comics covers.
Paul: Chikara structures its shows in seasons, and things started getting a bit darker in season 9 (2010) with the invasion of Die Bruderschaft des Kreuzes, an invading faction who dominate the company for a while. That period ends with Chikara being bought by the mysterious Worldwide Media Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the Titor Conglomerate, who sent in auditor Wink Vavasseur to be the company’s new Director of Fun (its commissioner figure) and restore some order to proceedings. Why would this company want to own an independent wrestling promotion? As we’ll see, the strong hint is that there’s a bigger picture here.
At any rate, Wink initially seems like a well-meaning but clueless chap, who doesn’t know the first thing about wrestling but at least seems to be running things sensibly. Over time, Wink’s decisions become increasingly erratic – swapping wrestlers into blatantly ridiculous teams because his “Chikarabermetrics” system assures him they’re the best combinations – and ultimately downright malicious. Meanwhile, off to the side, ousted referee Derek Sabato is making noises about how Titor has something to hide. Guards from Titor subsidiary Condor Security have been lurking around Chikara shows looking ominous. A blog called No Private Army sprung up spouting rambling regurgitated conspiracy theories and making further insinuations about Titor and Condor. One show ended with Mike Quackenbush celebrating with fans after winning the main event, and the NPA blogger appearing in the crowd to hand him an envelope. Quackenbush vanished from the Chikara roster webpage the next day. Chikara’s own fan message board started to be heavily moderated to remove any criticism of Titor. And so on.
Season 12, the most recent season, was loosely patterned on Watchmen (which No Private Army likes to quote)… and we all know how Watchmen ends. So a lot of rumours were going round in advance of the June show Aniversario 2: Never Compromise. Especially since that’s a reference to Rorschach’s line “No. Not even in the face of armageddon. Never compromise.”
Al: As time’s gone on, the Watchmen references have continued to percolate through everything that’s happened since Never Compromise (of which more in a moment). Some of the wrestlers have tweeted references to it, there have been quotes from it used on Instagram as part of the unfolding story of what happens next, and one particular wrestler has adopted a line from a Rorschach speech as a personal credo.
Paul: So what actually happens at this show? Most of it proceeds as scheduled. Midway through, Sabato jumps into the ring and announces that he’s posting an incriminating photo on Twitter. (He claims that the photo depicts the Titor board of directors – even though it’s manifestly photoshopped and “Martin” seems to be a woman. The oddness of this photo appears to be a plot point rather than a wonky prop.) This appears to drive Wink over the edge, and so just as the main event is about to end with Icarus winning the Chikara Grand Championship, a bunch of Condor Security guys march out and shut down the show. Literally. They eject the wrestlers, they dismantle the set, they throw out the audience. And that’s how the show ends.
Al: There aren’t a lot of companies that would do something as ballsy as this. No nod or wink (as it were) to the audience, nothing to suggest that there’s anything planned for the future – as far as Chikara was concerned, the whole company was just… gone.
Paul: And they followed up in a way no larger company could. The next day they announced the cancellation of all future shows, and then went radio silent – save for posting the occasional message on their message board to the effect that they were having a liquidation sale on merchandise (which they did), and inviting bids for equipment and for the tag belts. (The tag belts were supposedly sold for $4,800. The Grant Championship belt, we were told, couldn’t be found.)
Al: Eddie Kingston, the Grand Champion of Chikara, has since tweeted a photo of the belt, before deleting the relevant tweet. Given how coordinated everything seems to have been, this was surely not an accident.
Paul: And in a sense, that’s where matters lie. The company hasn’t properly updated its website since 3 June. It has cancelled all future shows and claims to have ceased trading. The end. We’re finished. Go home.
Obviously the end of Aniversario was a storyline – but the delay in any sort of follow-up (combined with some other factors that I’ll come to) had everyone wondering whether there might be more to this. In a sense, after all, Chikara has closed. It isn’t doing anything.
For one thing, the company didn’t quite cease operations. A DVD of Aniversario did emerge, ostensibly because there was an existing contract for it. And although they’re not connected in storyline, everyone knows that Chikara is (at the very least) closely linked to Wrestling is Fun, a promotion which is basically a less storyline-heavy version of Chikara, running with many of the same wrestlers in the same buildings. Wrestling is Fun in turn has connections to a bunch of local promotions linked under the Wrestling Is banner – Wrestling is Cool, Wrestling is Heart, Wrestling is Intense, Wrestling is Awesome, Wrestling is Respect and Wrestling is Art – though many of these appear to have some genuine autonomy. (Respect, for example, used to be Pro Wrestling Respect, while Heart started life as School of Roc.)
Al: As has been pointed out by many others, the seven Wrestling is… promotions carry a not-very-hidden indication that they’re tied to Chikara itself within the continuity of the promotion. When taken in the order set out by Paul above, the initials of what Wrestling apparently is go together to read CHIARA (if you leave out Fun, which doesn’t fit… unless you take the point that much of Wrestling is Fun revolves around their grand trophy – a banana – and potassium, which gives you that element’s symbol, the missing K).
Paul: For another thing, thirty days after Chikara closed, the Titor moderator on the message board abandoned his post, and a thread sprang up with wrestlers reminiscing about the company (never quite breaking character). That culminated in Icarus showing up to declare that he refused to accept that Chikara was dead, and inviting everyone to attend the venue in Easton PA where the next show was due to be held. He was careful to make clear that this was not going to be a show. It was going to be a meet-up. The diehard fans who actually went to this thing were duly rewarded with a speech about the importance of saving Chikara, received free “I Am Chikara” T-shirts, and were asked to sign a petition in support of Chikara. Icarus has subsequently cropped up at a Dragon Gate show asking people to sign his petition, and appears to have been leaving DVDs lying around at vaguely Chikara-related shows. The DVDs contain this video:
Icarus is a particularly odd choice to put in this role, because although he’s been around from day 1, he’s also a lifelong heel. However, with Quackenbush (mysteriously) nowhere to be found…
Al: (he’s still around, he’s just doing podcasts about parenting and internet trends. Honestly.)
Paul: … he seems to have taken it upon himself to be the voice of the fans. And using him in this role only plays into the idea that everything is hideously wrong. Quite what he wants people to actually do, and why he’s going about things in such a roundabout way, was initially less clear – as was the reason why none of his fellow Chikara wrestlers have joined him. Again, so meticulous is Chikara’s usual plotting that it seems reasonable to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is not a plot hole.
Al: Since Icarus started holding his rallies, of which there have now been three (including one at the Rocky statue in Philadelphia), other elements have started to play out. At the Rocky rally, he handed out what is purported to be the email address of Wink Vavasseur’s father, the head of Titor, Conrad Vavasseur. (It should be noted that Conrad’s full name is W. Conrad Vavasseur and Wink’s is Wink C. Vavasseur, which has led to many speculating that they’re actually time-displaced versions of the same person. Told you it was fun.) At the Rocky rally, he also left behind a banner reading #13Y19T5R9U13P, a code which was quickly broken (it refers to MysteriumP, a series of games and puzzles which was run through the Chikara website a few years ago and which ultimately went unsolved) – having broken the code, though, the assembled Chikara fans on the official Chikara message board were stymied for a few weeks before realising that it wasn’t a Twitter hashtag, but an Instagram one, which led to a series of ominous and presumably significant photos apparently posted by the time-travelling future son of a former Chikara wrestler whose head was a giant eyeball. Naturally.
Paul: Meanwhile, out of nowhere, a website called theashesof.com has shown up, initially promoting this video:
That’s Mike Quackenbush re-enacting the founding of the Wrestle Factory. The website promised something called “Ashes: Man Down”, to premiere on 19 August.
Al: This duly appeared, and turned out to be a short clip following members of the ant-themed team the Colony as they sought out their missing comrade Soldier Ant. Since then there’s been one more clip released, entitled “Garbage” and showing the disheartened Icarus being confronted with some home truths by his former partner Chuck Taylor. At time of writing, the next video is around two weeks away, and its content was anyone’s guess… that is, until just now. I’ve just been emailed the following video, which seems to show Chikara referee Bryce Remsburg leaving the venue following the events of Never Compromise. Intriguing stuff.
Paul: And that’s where we now sit. A wrestling company which holds no matches and promotes no shows, but appears to be running some sort of ARG building to who-the-hell-knows-what. As I said at the outset, it’s either wildly ambitious or downright insane. What kind of company in its right mind does this?
Let’s consider some of the theories that have been voiced about where this might be going.
Theory 1: They’re genuinely closing. It’s a Sopranos ending. Obviously, you heard this one a lot more before they started the teaser stuff with Icarus, though it never really made sense if you stopped to think about it. The story is clearly heading somewhere. And Chikara seemed to be doing pretty well in 2013, running well-attended shows in new cities and drawing one of its largest crowds on Wrestlemania weekend.
Al: Theory 2: They’re dropping the Chikara name and it’s a storyline explanation. It’s been rumoured that there are possible legal reasons why Mike Quackenbush might not be able to use the Chikara name any more. These have been fairly roundly debunked by Quackenbush himself, in a rare instance of him breaking kayfabe to talk about Chikara following Never Compromise. It seems best to take this at face value and respectfully move on.
Paul: Besides which, they’re using the Chikara name in Icarus’ campaign, in the Ashes videos, and on the DVDs which they continue to sell. There’s obviously no issue with the name. The current storyline would make sense as a way of rebranding, but there’s no sign that that’s where they’re heading.
Al: Theory 3: They’re going for a relaunch. At present, this seems the most likely option. Icarus has moved on to directly engaging with the Chikara 101 messageboard, alongside long-time Chikara commentator and former Director of Fun Leonard F. Chikarason (whose podcast The Weekly Longbox, which he presents with Todd Rowker, is a fine substitute for House to Astonish during these lean months). He’s been setting them missions such as tweeting the hashtag #IAmChikara over last weekend and getting it trending during Monday’s RAW. It seems that this was a success, to the extent that anyone who followed enough wrestling-related people or tweeted enough about wrestling to have wrestling-related topics show up in their tailored trends did indeed get to see it trending, though reports suggest it didn’t quite make it to trending across the US in general (not that the achievement was anything to be sniffed at, of course). From a storyline perspective, this also marked a step forward – a large number of the members of the roster tweeted the #IAmChikara hashtag, making this the first time they’ve engaged with Icarus or his quest at all.
His most recent mission was for Chikara fans to go out and write blogs, do podcasts, put up videos, talk about Chikara and generally get it in front of the eyes of people who might not currently be aware of it, but who might be interested in it if they were to be shown it. Which, of course, is what we’re doing now.
Paul: Alongside this, the Wrestling Is micro-promotions, which until now have largely gone about their own business, seem to be getting drawn in at last. The GEKIDO, a group of Chikara villains who hadn’t been seen in ages, announced their intention to destroy Wrestling Is Intense – and did, breaking up the last show and holding a hostage until the guy in charge agreed to close the promotion. Dr Cube, the arch-villain of Kaiju Big Battel, of all things, has made a similar threat against Wrestling Is Awesome, whose next shows are this coming weekend.
Al: Where the promotion goes from here is anyone’s guess, though as we say, some kind of relaunch seems inevitable at this point. If we were betting men (and at least one of us is), we’d be surprised if Chikara returned before National Pro Wrestling Day in February 2014, but stranger things have happened in this ARG so far. If and when it does return, there’s every possibility that they’ll take the opportunity to reboot their continuity – it’s terrific that they’ve got plotlines that date back multiple years and which were seeded in throwaway lines in old event promos, but there’s a reason why the WWE has a three-month rule for referring back to things, and there’s a danger that Chikara could have just continued down its tangled storyline path and ended up the equivalent of mid-’90s X-Men, impenetrable to all but the faithful. If they’re going to start up again, they’d be sensible to take the opportunity to get something of a fresh start, whether that means a New 52-style reboot or something more akin to a Marvel Now-influenced fresh-lick-of-paint relaunch.
Paul: I figure a lot of what we’re seeing at the moment is aimed at the hardcore fans during the lay-off, and that things will get much clearer by the time the promotion starts running again.
Normally at this stage I’d direct you to the Chikara website if you’re interested in following this up, but since it’s effectively closed right now, I’ll have to be a little more creative. Al’s already pointed to SmartMark Video, where you can download their shows; another option, and a pretty attractive one if you don’t mind streaming services, is Shop.WrestlingIs.Com, which offers access to a surprisingly large selection of back catalogue for eight dollars a month. For anyone really wanting to delve into this further, the Chikara101 message board is effectively the central story hub right now.
Al: So why Chikara? What is it about this promotion that makes it so engaging compared to its bigger-budget competitors? Part of it at least is to do with its attitude. So much other wrestling is 1) incredibly po-faced and 2) brutally stupid. Chikara, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to do something that’s silly or preposterous if it will make for an entertaining and memorable show, and if the past few months have shown anything it’s that Chikara certainly values the smarts and investigative spirit of its fans. It’s always got one eye on melodrama and another on comedy, and somehow they manage to pull it off. You might see a match take place with a significant slo-mo section, or one where a baseball match breaks out halfway through, or where someone pulls out an invisible hand grenade, or where a dance-off takes place in the middle of the action, or where there’s just some ridiculous displays of gymnastic skill. It’s fun, funny, good-hearted, brave, and above all, just preposterously entertaining.
We are Chikara. Are you?