Ultimo Dragon Champion

Wrestling historian and illustrator, Matt Charlton (aka ShiningWizardDesigns), recently released his new book titled J-Crowned: An Illustrated Guide to the Champions of Japanese Wrestling. Springing off of his work with Chris Charlton for Eggshells, J-Crowned dives into the history of champions, dating all the way back to the likes of Rikidōzan, and looking at more modern champions like Shinsuke Nakamura and Kenny Omega. In addition to the written word, it is accompanied by Charlton’s detailed and excellent illustrations of each champion.

In an exclusive interview with SteelChair Magazine, Charlton dives into his love of Japanese wrestling and what drove him to start bringing these legendary figures to the page with his illustrations. He discusses how J-Crowned came to be after his work on Eggshells, the greatest compliment he has received for his work from a wrestler, his fondest memories of recently retired legend, Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger, and much more!

You have a wide depth of knowledge that inspires your portraits. So how did you get started with Puroresu?

“As a teenage fan of WCW and ECW, my eyes were certainly opened to the world of Japanese wrestling by the appearance of stars like Muta, Sasuke, Chono, and Masato Tanaka, and I became intrigued by the extra veil of credibility men like Mick Foley and Chris Benoit would attain after winning tournaments in Japan. When I started to delve into collecting VHS tapes, the 1994 Super J Cup was the starting point, and from that, an insatiable thirst for knowledge about ever more shows and promotions sprung forth.”

What was it about Japanese wrestling that perhaps eclipsed WWE and other American promotions for you?

“I’ve always loved all kinds of wrestling, and WWE had a special place in my heart for a very long time. I think, eventually, I got too old for the disposable nature of what they presently produce… they seem to have low opinions of both their audience and their performers… but it’s difficult to talk in terms of American promotions and Japanese promotions when there’s such a broad spectrum of wrestling available in both countries. Generally speaking, wrestling, be it comedy, technical, or ultra-violent, as an art is treated with more respect in Japan, and it’s this respect for wrestling and wrestlers, which reflects my own, that has led me to gravitate more to supporting Japanese promotions.”

Inoki and Baba

Who or what inspired you as an artist?

“That’s a huge question… lots of people… maybe if I had to choose two artists, Chuck Close and Henry Darger, remarkable people who worked with singular vision and determination to produce life-changing work. Then lots of musicians, lots of writers (Laughs), lots of people… never trust anyone who takes it upon themselves to call themselves artists. I’ve made lots of silly life choices, and I’m not good at many things, but I’m decent with a pen, and I really love wrestling.”

You recently worked with Chris Charlton on Eggshells. What was that experience like? And was it almost a catalyst for you to create J-Crowned?

“I loved working on Eggshells. It’s one of the greatest things to be of use to someone you love so much. Him being in Japan and myself here in the Basque Country, we’re guilty of getting lost in our own worlds a fair bit, and I just felt so fortunate to be working closely with my brother again. It was certainly something of a catalyst for J-Crowned, as soon as Eggshells was done, I was brainstorming what the next project could be for him, and I suggested something akin to what would become this project, but by this time he was full time with New Japan and if it was going to get done, I’d have to do it alone.”

What motivated you to undertake a project like J-Crowned? I imagine more than one idea came to you on how to transfer your illustrations to a book.

“What I try to do as much as possible with my daily illustrations on twitter is celebrate lives or moments in matches that might not necessarily be part of the mainstream. Every wrestler who’s ever taken a bump has risked their life for the entertainment of others, and it’s a tragedy that so many pass into or never emerge from obscurity. I wanted to try and redress that in some way. The focus on lineage gave a clear chronological framework for the illustrations to follow, so it seemed the best way to put my drawing to use, especially in a book that I was having to write at the same time.”

J-Crowned Book Cover

I imagine some wrestlers are more difficult to recreate in illustrations than others. Is there one you found to be the most challenging?

“I think I’ve previously answered a similar question with Riki Choshu, but I feel I’ve made my peace with the guy and found a way to approach him… um, I think it depends on the day. Sorry a very unclear answer, sometimes everything’s a challenge and others it all goes fine on the first attempt.”

What’s the general feedback you get from the wrestlers on your work? And is there perhaps a piece of feedback you got that particularly stands out?

“I will never cease to be amazed or indebted to the kindness shown my work by some of the people featured in it… with specific relevance to this project, both Eddie Edwards and Jay White are men who’ve given me great private support and that means the world to me. But a while back, former IWGP Champion Tadao Yasuda reached out and simply said, “I am Tadao Yasuda. You are good at drawing” (Laughs) I still smile about that, I don’t really need anything more.”

The book is, of course, titled Volume 1. Can we expect a follow-up, perhaps focusing on other promotions or championships?

“Yes. Volume 2 is finished and with the editors. It was decided by the publishing team to divide a lot of finished content up and have this introductory volume focus on the big three titles. The focus on NJPW, NOAH, and AJPW continues in Volume 2 with different championships, but there is also considerable focus placed on the achievements of women, with three of the (subject to change) six chapters looking at some of the biggest stars of Joshi. Going on, I feel it’s a series that can run and run, provided there’s interest, of course, I certainly want to document as much as I possibly can.”

Nakamura vs. Ibushi

I asked Chris Charlton this, and because you worked on the book as well, I’d be interested to know what your all-time favourite Tokyo Dome match is? Chris said one of his favourites is the 1999 Misawa vs. Vader match.

“I think I’m going to have to go with a match that I know to be another of his favourites, something a bit more recent, Shinsuke Nakamura and Ibushi in 2015. There was something so perfect to see two men whose career paths I’d been following for over a decade, who share so many qualities, get in the ring, and tear the house down in such an emotional roller-coaster…”

Jushin Thunder Liger recently retired, and he received an incredible amount of adulation from the wrestling community. What’s your favourite moment or match of Liger?

“That’s another really tricky question to answer. Liger is such a huge figure in the industry and such a foundation stone to my own personal fandom. It’d be a disservice to pick a single moment. In-ring, every meeting with The Great Sasuke stands out as special, going back to the event I mentioned at the start, for example, their classic in the semi-finals of the Super J Cup ’94. The very advent of the Super J Cup being down to Liger wishing to provide a platform for the best wrestlers in the world to reach an NJPW audience… so giving to the business and to his colleagues, in addition to dominating the junior division for a decade, it’s impossible not to love Liger. You can go through his accomplishments for a long time and not even scratch the surface, and once you do scratch the surface, you get down to Kishin Liger, and that’s a whole new reason to love the man. I thought 2019’s yearlong celebration of his career was quite wonderful (laughs), the world has been pretty terrible since he retired, hasn’t it?”

NJPW obviously had a big shift with The Elite departing. How has that affected the company, or has it do you think? Because they’re clearly still doing great work, and even produced a spectacular show when they came to London, UK with Royal Quest.

“In their loss of Omega, NJPW lost a remarkable talent, someone they really could have built on as champion. His championship reign was very badly handled by the company, and I think it’s a rare case of New Japan leaving money on the table. Beyond Kenny, the Bucks are a tremendous team, and the rest of the Being the Elite crew are fine hands, but none of them are New Japan wrestlers in the way that Juice Robinson or Jay White are. I feel that The Elite were always just passing through, the business was on an upswing before any of them got there on a full-time basis, and it has continued to grow both internationally and domestically since their departure. New Japan is approaching its 50th anniversary and has always presented a vibrant mix of top international stars alongside home-grown talent. Personally, I feel that The Elite represent a moment in time, but had very little bearing on the fortunes of the company.”

J-Crowned: An Illustrated Guide to the Champions of Japanese Wrestling is now available to order here, and you can also read our review of J-Crowned here.

Keep up to date with Matt Charlton’s incredible illustrations and his projects on Twitter and Instagram.

By Humza Hussain

Humza Hussain is SteelChair Magazine's Interviews editor. He has been a lifelong professional wrestling fan and has conducted interviews with names such as DDP, Aleister Black, and Bayley. He also writes film news, reviews, and interviews!

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