Late last year, a masked wrestler named Soldier Ant stood inside a dank South Philadelphia venue and mulled a moral quandary.
He had previously turned his back on his fellow arthropods – a group known as the Colony – and was now supposed to destroy former friend Fire Ant, though judging by the way his tiny antennae was twitching, he was struggling with the task at hand. The crowd surrounding the ring picked up on his hesitation, begged him to remember his past and break free of the bonds that had caused him to go bad. Fire Ant begged too. But given that this was pro wrestling, reason quickly gave way to brute force: An errant blow to the head ended his amnesia, Soldier Ant embraced his opponent and all was right with the world.
Obviously, this did not happen at a Vince McMahon-sanctioned event. Instead, it went down at Top Banana, the season-capping event of Chikara, a Philadelphia-based wrestling promotion where ants and anthropomorphic ice cream cones share the ring with tough-as-nails princesses and all manner of masked marauders. Part badass B-movie, part sugary Saturday morning cartoon, it's wild, weird and everything WWE isn't. And that's precisely the point.
"We wanted to make something different from what we were seeing. It just felt monotonous. Everyone was making the same flavor of wrestling," Chikara founder (and former indie wrestler) Mike Quackenbush says. "I think we were kind of bored. At the end of the Nineties, during the [WWE's] Attitude Era, there was a thought that all characters needed to be written with shades of gray. But clear heroes and villains appeal to me. At a young age, I didn't watch wrestling, but I did read X-Men, I read the Justice League. I wanted to make something like that."
Originally, Quackenbush intended Chikara to be little more than a showcase for the students he was training at the Wrestle Factory, a school he had started with fellow indie grappler Tom "Reckless Youth" Carter. But after debuting in 2002, the promotion began to take on a life of its own, thanks in no small part to the Factory's focus: teaching a truly international style of pro wrestling, heavy on the tough, traditional techniques of Japan and the theatrical acrobatics of Mexican lucha libre. In short, the matches were awesome – but the characters that began to emerge were just as compelling.
"You have to go on a journey with the characters. It's important they evolve. You definitely see some characters in wrestling that just remain the same; they don't seem to learn anything over ten years," Quackenbush says. "What I loved about comics is the arc of the character – if I read Justice League for so many years, I could see where Blue Beetle learns from each experience. I go on the journey with him. That's the key to what we do."
Like Lucha Underground or Pro Wrestling Guerrilla – two other promotions currently shaking up the formulaic world of pro wrestling – Chikara's storylines often delve into the fantastic (time-travel, mysterious artifacts, mind-control, split personalities, possible possession) and feature outlandish characters. But Quackenbush is careful to make sure they never wander too far off course. No matter how long it takes, there will always be a payoff. Case in point: Soldier Ant's turn against the Colony played out over the course of a year, and when he rejoined his mates at Top Banana, the reaction from fans was palpable. As Chikara referee Bryce Remsburg wrote on Twitter after the show, "When fans are crying because the wrestling ants are hugging, it makes you feel like your weird hobby is pretty cool."
"We're finally at a point where we can be really honest with the audience. We're making performance art. It's not appreciably different from going to the movies to see The Avengers, or reading a Harry Potter novel or watching Game of Thrones," Quackenbush says. "The difference is that it's live. It's a dynamic performance, it's not static. It's not on a screen or a page...everyone totally gets what that is. If you own that, it gives you permission to do what we do. Can I make wrestling where time travel is a thing? Yeah, I can."
Top Banana ended Season 15 of Chikara, which revolved around the "Challenge of the Immortals," a team competition that would culminate with Princess KimberLee becoming the promotion's Grand Champion. Quackenbush called the season a "palette-cleanser" after a heavy era that included the storyline shuttering of the company – Chikara truly took wrestling's "evil authority" trope to the extreme, with a nefarious company purchasing the promotion and eventually closing it – and the introduction of a wrestler who was strong enough to physically kill other competitors (several performers fell to the beast and were never seen again in Chikara). For a promotion that billed itself as a "Fun Filled Super Lucha Show" the programming became extremely dark and gritty; Princess Kimberlee's historic triumph helped shift the focus back to fun, and that continues in Season 16, which began last weekend.
The storyline continues on Saturday, at Chikara's annual National Pro Wrestling Day celebration, a charity event to benefit the Polaris Project. After taking their show to the U.K. for the first time last year, Quackenbush says Chikara will make the trip again in 2016. Beyond that, he's not certain; Chikara has never really been a business for Quackenbush – it was a way for him to tell cool stories and further the art form of pro wrestling. But with the rise of nerd culture, it seems he may have inadvertently stumbled onto something big. And perhaps he truly can change the world of wrestling, one fantastical character at a time.
"It's a great confluence of events that supports what we believe about professional wrestling," Quackenbush says. "Growing up, superhero culture was for nerds. Now superhero culture is pop culture. Our events fit just as well in a comic convention as they would in a wrestling arena."