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‘Trapped’ Illustrates Joe Stapleton as a Different Kind of Comic

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Joe Stapleton probably didn’t need one more project, and certainly not another one involving poker. The longtime PokerStars livestream color commentator and Poker In The Ears podcaster has earned one of the most successful poker media careers over the past 15 years by simply putting in the work. But recently he’s also been setting his sights on breaking out of that mold. Anyone who follows him knows Stapleton’s been investing plenty of time and creative energy into his burgeoning stand-up comedy career in an effort to take the next step.

But when the opportunity came to blend both his poker and outside interests together, “Stapes” simply couldn’t pass it up. The result is Trapped, the soon-to-be-released comic book co-authored by Stapleton that merges poker, Hollywood ambition, and humor resulting in a semi-fictitious look inside the mind of one of poker’s most enduring personalities.

It’s become a labor of love that took on a life of its own since falling in his lap in 2020. As Stapleton recalled, it was then that former fellow PokerStars employee Kenny Diack was getting into the comic book business and looking for a way to bring poker into the fold.

“So they asked around at PokerStars…a few people just mentioned me,” Stapleton recalled. “So Kenny got in touch and I said, ‘This sounds really fun. I would love to do it.’ And I didn’t actually think I was going to end up writing the comic. I thought maybe I was going to pitch them an idea and they were going to write it.”

Stapleton pitched them a couple of action-packed poker-themed ideas and was quickly pulled into the writing process. But just as he sat down with his co-writer, “Twisted Dark” writer Neil Gibson, he casually mentioned one other possibility.

“I sort of pitched them this idea based on me. A poker commentator who really is kind of resentful of poker because it’s not ‘real show business’, and he kind of looks at the rest of Hollywood with big eyes and he’s kind of resentful of just being ‘poker famous’. He sort of gets wrapped up in these Hollywood home Games trying to schmooze and hobnob with other people,” Stapleton said.

The creative team immediately pivoted.

“They were like – this is the story we should be writing.”

From there Trapped was born. A semi-autobiographical story close to both Stapleton’s heart and actual life. The main character, not coincidentally named “Joe”, portrays a fictionalized, heightened version of Stapleton himself.

Stapleton, not unfamiliar with the intersection of poker and creative writing, having completed both sitcom spec scripts as well as a start in writing for poker found himself waking up at 3 am during the pandemic and putting in hours with his intercontinental counterpart to put the pieces of the comic book together.

Stapleton may have been unfamiliar with the actual craft of writing for comics, he was by no means a comic book novice. An admitted major consumer of pop culture, one of the reasons Stapleton gravitated to this project in the first place was his appreciation for comics early on.

“I did collect comic books and I found the stories contained within to be incredibly compelling and incredibly personal,” Stapleton said. “I felt a deep connection, especially to the X-Men comics, growing up. As an adult, now you realize that oh, that connection’s intentional, that connection of feeling like an outsider and it’s like a metaphor for puberty and the civil rights movement and not fitting in and all this stuff that you don’t really understand as a kid.”

There were a number of setbacks during the process, including a full-on change-up in artists in the middle of the project as well as the constant need to help the artists and his co-writer get up to speed on the core topic of the comic itself.

“I think part of it was really challenging because I write the comic with a guy that knows nothing about poker, and then the artists are trying to draw these poker scenes, but they don’t know anything about poker,” he said.

So just like he was when he was brought onto the set of Paul Schrader’s movie “The Card Counter”, Stapleton was also the core poker consultant for Trapped, constantly giving notes to make sure that the details of the poker in the comic were as perfect as can be.

“So there were a lot of notes. I would just see [the artwork] and go, ‘oh, thanks for the drawing. I can tell it’s happening on the board there’.”’ Stapleton said. “And [the producers] would be like, ‘No, no, no, this is really important. This is for the poker community. We need the poker to be accurate. If there’s something off about this, please send it back. Give us notes!’”

Four years in the making and Trapped is finally at the production phase. A placeholder Kickstarter page has been created where fans and supporters can sign up to be notified when they can jump in and reserve their copy. With that part ready to go, Stapleton can see the finish line up ahead.

“It’s ready to go. It’s been a really long time in the making…and my passion for it has peaked and dropped at various points. There were times when they were like, ‘Joe, can you look at these five poker scenes and tell us what’s wrong with them?’ And I’ve been like, ‘Oh God, all right, here we go again. This is still happening? This is still going on?’

“But I’m excited now…really, really excited. I’m very proud of it. It’s fun, it’s a caper. It’s like ‘Rounders’ meets ‘Deadpool’ meets ‘House of Games ’. My favorite genre of genres of movies is action-comedy and con movies. So this is that. When I say ‘Deadpool’, it’s more like just the attitude of the main character is pretty nonchalant. It’s not a superhero thing, but it is very almost as if the main character knows he’s being watched.”

And if Stapleton has anything to say about it, Deadpool’s self-awareness is not the only thing in common with the hit movie. For years Stapleton has been honing his craft as a stand-up comedian. Just like how he brings his humor to the award-winning PokerStars Livestream, Stapleton said he wouldn’t have done any of this if his brand of comedy wasn’t tied to the comic.

“It had to be funny, and that was obviously essential, especially because I don’t think that my poker experiences are all that interesting considering the people that I hang out with on a daily basis,” he said noting that poker experiences alone wouldn’t be enough to bring people to the book. “But what I am good at and what I can bring to the table most of the time is laughs. So yes, it’s a huge part of the book. It basically the character, I mean, look, the main character in the book, it is, his name is Joe and he responds the way that a younger version of me would have responded to most of these situations.”

Stapleton says he and the producers have made it their mission to “give the poker fans something cool.” and called it “a love letter to poker.” And even though it was four long years to get from inception to production, Stapleton hasn’t nearly ruled out getting back to work and doing it all again.

“I would absolutely do it Again, I’m going to get in a lot of trouble here for comparing this to something I have no experience in, but I would imagine that it was somewhat like childbirth and that it was a very painful experience and that it was a lot of work,” he laughed. “And I’m not looking forward to that amount of work again and trying that hard at something and that amount of effort. But the reward so far has been worth it that I would do it again.”

Stapleton seemed eager, even excited at the possibility of producing another comic book, the idea for which he already has in mind. Should Trapped take off as he hopes, he will be even busier than he is now with all of his projects both inside and outside the world of poker. That includes a summer stand-up tour in which he’ll appear in cities across the U.S. where he plans to jump into the home Games of some of his fans and then perform a stand-up set. It all culminates with a recorded stand-up set in Las Vegas where he puts together the best material from his cross-country poker journey.

“And the cool thing that I didn’t finish about the story,” Stapleton said. “Is that [Joe] in the comic book is resentful and has fallen out of love with poker, but in the end realizes that he was maybe being a little bit of an a-hole about that and realizes that poker has really given him quite a bit…and maybe he should have a little bit of gratitude.”

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