NZ artist lands WWE and Marvel - The Rock is next

Dwayne Johnson was once in pro sport's gutter with just $7 in his pocket. That sum's now on the door of his production business  - a door that artist Michel Mulipola is ready to knock

Michel Mulipola is living the dream. Two dreams, really.

The 36-year-old has, in the space of just three weeks, nailed two substantial career goals. They are the payoff after years of pure Polynesian hustle of the sort that propelled a penniless jock named Dwayne from the pits to the penthouse.

Mulipola and I spoke at the counter of Arkham City Comics, a small and lively shop tucked deep inside Auckland’s Royal Oak mall, the day before he flew to the United States for Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic-Con.

“It will have the most Polynesian guests ever,” he said. All of them are wrestlers including Mulipola who, for the last decade, has put down the stylus and picked up the spandex to wrestle for Impact Pro Wrestling as Liger, a beefy feline beast of the sort that must give Gareth Morgan nightmares.

“You’ll have Rikishi, Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa – both of King Haku’s sons, you have Bad Luck Fale, you have me – kindof – but then you'll also have The Rock.”

The Rock, or Dwayne to his mum and to the millions – and millions – of fans who’ve followed him through World Wrestling Entertainment into the world of blockbuster films, has established his own media business, Seven Bucks Productions.

Mulipola’s aim was to get a copy of Samoan Heroes, a book he illustrated, into The Rock’s hands. Dwayne’s mum, Mulipola said, already had a copy – because her son is in it.

The plan didn’t work out, Mulipola told me after the convention, but it won’t stop him from chasing The Rock. It’s time to take the bump, get up again, and hustle harder with the aim of getting the star's production company to support Mulipola's marquee project - an ongoing comic book series called Headlocked.

“We sent a pitch to his agency after an open letter got a lot of traction online, and I think The Rock should support us because of our hustle. We believe in our story and we’ve worked hard over the years.

“Though Headlocked is a story about wrestling, our creative team’s hustle is the true parallel to the wrestling lifestyle and that is one thing The Rock truly understands.”

Headlocked is the vehicle that’s brought Mulipola to the big dance, though the road has been long and winding. A collaboration with writer Michael Kingston and supported by wrestling megastars including Jerry Lawler, Ric Flair, and Mick Foley, the comic has catapulted the former Onehunga High School student into the big time.

Panels from 'Headlocked' - Michel Mulipola's comic book collaboration with writer Michael Kingston. Photo: Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

The involvement of wrestler Samoa Joe provided the pathway for Mulipola to begin working with WWE itself. His work, a story co-written with Kingston by Samoa Joe and featuring a number of WWE’s biggest stars, will appear in Boom Studios’ official WWE comic at the end of January.

He joked that he was the latest New Zealander working for the 'E'. Former IPW Women's Champion Cheree Crowley grew up a few blocks east of Mangere, where Mulipola is from, and is now performing on WWE's popular NXT circuit under the ringname Dakota Kai. Mulipola has done design collaborations with her before, and would enjoy another opportunity.

Mulipola said WWE #13 is expected to be available in virtually every comic book store on the planet.

“I could go anywhere in the world, go into a comic book store, and say ‘Hey, do you have issue 13 of WWE? Do you want me to sign those copies?’ which is kind of crazy, not only working for WWE but knowing my artwork is going worldwide.”

After submitting his work to Boom Studios and WWE for approval, Mulipola had barely drawn a breath before Marvel Comics knocked at his door, and now the kid who grew up drawing superheroes as a dreamer is doing it as a professional.

“I’m currently working on some original sketch cards for Upper Deck and Marvel. They’ve commissoned me to do 40, which is crazy. I get to officially draw Marvel characters. As someone who loves trading cards, it’s incredible to be creating the artwork.

“Hopefully, if I do a good job, it’ll mean more trading card work, but hopefully it’ll mean a foot in the door for other Marvel work, leading to bigger and better things.”

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson with fans at Stan Lee's LA Comic-Con. Photo: Getty Images

Mulipola said his dream was to draw comics – period. It didn’t matter where or for whom, though the major leagues of Marvel and DC were “goals” wrapped inside the dream, and he’s happy with the realities now unfolding.

“Success for me is being able to do what I love as a career, which is very surreal for me because I would be drawing anyway - but now people give me money to draw.

“But I still had those goals within that dream to draw for Marvel or DC and try and be the first Samoan artist to do so.”

All of Mulipola's digital touchpoints, from his website to his social media accounts, even his PlayStation Network and Pokemon GO profiles, carry just the one brand.

Apparently the fellow at Inland Revenue cracked up laughing when Mulipola rang up to register the Bloody Samoan Art Studio for GST.

“Bloody Samoan is a term I heard a lot as a kid, and it always had negative connotations,” Mulipola said.

"I knew they were insulting me, but it never really affected me too much. As I grew older, I felt like I needed to take the power back and turn that negative into a positive.

“It also reflects my own sense of humour. I’m a cheeky bastard. Now when I visit schools, I tell the kids they don’t even have to know my name, just google Bloody Samoan and they’ll find all about me and my art.”

The brand encapsulates the hustle, which has been made easier with social media. Mulipola used to cold-call Pasifika media outlets, saying he was a rising Samoan artist and should be interviewed. Now he’s able to build his own communications network and encourage his audience to spread the word.

Mulipola said he didn’t know how Marvel and Upper Deck found him, but he had a hunch: Instagram.

But the exposure will only get an artist so far, he warned.

“Just be nice to people. Do the work, and don’t be a dick. That’s all you need to get by.”

In addition to the day job at the comic book store, the art job, and the wrestling job, (as well as performing, he serves as a booker - a creative director - for IPW) Mulipola undertakes two heavy road schedules – internationally as an artist, and locally as a reading advocate in schools for the Duffy Books in Homes programme.

He tells aspiring artists that the work is the best promotional tool, over and above any of the attention they could earn.

“When you have potential clients, or fans, or people who want to work with you, it’s your work that they see and judge you on before they know you as a person.

“The more quality work you have, the more likely that they’ll call you and give you a job.”

If his theory about Marvel and Instagram is correct – and he’s made a personal point to check on that – then it’s an affirmation of his own belief.

But what about the other one? For a person who spends his time in the world of superheroes, real and imagined, what exemplifies heroism in his mind?

“Just be nice to people. Do the work, and don’t be a dick. That’s all you need to get by.”

For Michel Mulipola, that belief may be the key to The Rock's door.

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