Squared Circle: A Brief History of Wrestling and Comics

Generations of fans have devoured the exploits of larger than life heroes performing incredible feats of bravery and daring do, facing down the might of powerful villains time after time. For nearly 80 years this modern mythology has been built around these incredible hulks, wonder women and iron men. They draw us together every week as a family, in tight net communities and internet forums to discuss its ever changing, ever evolving continuity and lament and rage over questionable retcons, unnecessary reboots and the increasing number of events. Comic books are a lot like this too.

At their core professional wrestling and the comic book medium are the same beast. Spectacular entertainment for the masses which at worst can be boiled down to muscular men and women punching each other for hours on end. Yet when embraced and understood in the right way they are both simply a medium to tell complex and intriguing stories. Each reflect the changing culture and society around them, adapting to and in turn influencing popular culture.

In 1962 Amazing Fantasy #15 tells the story of high school student Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider and gifted incredible strength and agility. To test these skills and earn some money, Peter steps in the ring with Crusher Hogan, hoping to last three minutes and earn $100 reward. This moment becomes the impetus for Parker to create a costume, which eventually evolves into the fast quipping, pun heavy Spider-Man. Creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko create this gimmick for their teenage superhero in much the same way a promoter creates a gimmick for a wrestler.

1968 saw the debut of the manga ‘Tiger Mask’ chronicling the tale of an evil Japanese wrestler who is feared across America. Tiger Mask has a change of heart after seeing a young boy from his village eager to become a villain in his footsteps and is inspired to become a hero. New Japan Pro Wrestling licensed the character who has been portrayed by five wrestlers since the 80’s competing around the world. The Tekken character King is an homage to this line of wrestlers and the manga they originate from.

Worlds collided in 1985 on and off the page. As comic book characters from multiple alternate universes met in a brawl for all in one of the most iconic comic book crossover events, DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, WWF was breaking ground with the first ever Wrestlemania. Both mediums took big risks with their mega events. DC Comics “cleaned up” many years of complicated and convoluted plot lines, killing off many fan favourite characters in the process. Meanwhile Vince McMahon gambled his company’s future on the the hopes that mixing wrestling with rock and roll stars such as Cyndi Lauper & Phil Collins and pop culture icons Mr T & Muhammad Ali would get people to tune in. Both bets paid off. Today comic book events are a yearly and very lucrative (albeit divisive) affair, whilst Wrestlemania is now in its 32nd year gearing up to sell out the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium which has a capacity of 105,000 people.

The 1990s also saw many parallels and crossovers between wrestling and comics. A speculator market in the comic book industry caused a great crash which killed many businesses (very nearly including Marvel) and is not dissimilar to the way the wrestling industry was struggling at the time. Ted Turner and Vince McMahon had ailing products whose audience had grown up and moved on. The Monday Night War between WCW’s Nitro and WWF’s Raw reignited interest in pro wrestling becoming perhaps the most popular era due to its edgy and adult content aimed towards teens and young adults. Likewise, Marvel Comics seemed to find salvation in the edgy and adult movie Blade which paved the way for the highly successful X-Men and Spider-Man franchises which continue today. DC took a little longer but eventually popularized the “gritty reboot” in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy.

Today both industries move forward slowly but surely towards a better future, incorporating more diverse characters from previously unrepresented demographics. The WWE have made a concerted effort of late to spotlight and present their female superstars in prominent positions and change the perception of womens wrestling both in and out of the company. Comic book companies are making progress producing books both featuring (Kamala Khan, Miles Morales) and created by (Marguerite Bennett, G. Willow Wilson, Ta-Nehisi Coates) people of all denominations and cultural backgrounds. Both work with charities and foundations, WWE primarily with the Make-a-Wish foundation (John Cena has made over 500 wishes come true) and various Marvel movie stars (Robert Downey Jr, Chris Pratt, Chris Evans and many more) visit many children in need of a hero.

Though those looking in might not see the connections and similarities, the creators and artists definitely notice. With many comic book writers and artists being avid fans (Becky Cloonan, Rob Guillory, Scott Synder, Jason Aaron et al) and WWE superstars writing for and starring in Marvel properties (CM Punk co-writes Drax (2015) with Cullen Bunn & Dave Bautista plays him in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy) the line between these two strange and compelling worlds is closer than ever.

20 something Londoner voraciously consuming any and all media that dares to cross my gaze.

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