Here’s what non-devotees need to know about the state of modern professional wrestling.
The current women’s champion in WWE (the company brands it the “divas championship”) isn’t a muscle-bound She-Ra, but rather a pint-sized comic book geek who skips her way to the ring in Target jean shorts and Chuck Taylors. Her male counterpart is an impish, 5-foot-10-inch underdog with a scraggly, chest-length beard who could stand in for a roadie for the indie-folk band Fleet Foxes.
If your last association was Hulk Hogan, your image of pro wrestling still resides in the cliche-ridden early 1990s, all bulging pectorals and menacing growls. But the industry has a funny way of course-correcting, even if it means breaking away from longtime conventions. And right now, professional wrestling leans more nerd than jock.
The 5-foot-10 guy with the chest-length beard has a stage name that lacks a dangerous-sounding adjective, like “Macho,” “Sting” or “Killer”; he calls himself Daniel Bryan.
Bryan captured the WWE championship in the main event of the “Night of Champions” pay-per-view. (The next day his title was stripped away in the storyline, and the championship stands vacated.)
When I spoke with Bryan – ahead of the WWE’s flagship show “Monday Night Raw’s” arrival Monday at the Allstate Arena in Chicago – he discussed growing up not watching television, preferring to lose himself in books. In the small logging town in Washington state where Bryan lived, the only convenient source of books were grocery stores. He could choose mass-market paperbacks or comic books.
“I think what attracted me to wrestling was the same thing that attracted me to comics: The larger-than-life characters,” Bryan said. “There are so many similarities between the two – the spandex, the muscularity, big guys who fight good vs. evil. It’s very present in both comics and wrestling. The two are perfectly compatible.”
Bryan’s stock has rocketed in the last year. Turn on “WWE Monday Night Raw,” and you’ll see 15,000 spectators doing Bryan’s signature catch phrase in unison: screaming “Yes!” repeatedly while spearing the air with two fingers. Yet he doesn’t look like the prototypical main-eventer, at least by pro wrestling standards 20 years ago. Sure, as a technical grappler, Bryan’s work in the ring is sharp, and he plays the underdog role well, but, by measurable standards, he is more Peter Parker than Spider-Man.
And he has a relevant tie to Chicago. His ring gear is designed by Andersonville-based comic book artist Jill Thompson. Comics enthusiasts will immediately recognize her name. She created the “Scary Godmother” and “Beasts of Burden” series and collaborated with Neil Gaiman on “The Sandman.”
Thompson’s office is laid out with sketches of trunks, kick pads on a wrestler’s boots and ring entrance attire. One can track the evolution of Bryan’s onscreen character just by looking left to right.
“He did say he wanted to look like a superhero,” Thompson said.
An earlier, more Steve McQueen persona lended itself to a maroon-and-white leather jacket with flames and racing stripes meant to evoke a 1966 Ford Mustang. Later, when Bryan’s character took on a darker edge – he was a fan of subversive comics like “V for Vendetta” and “Watchmen” – Thompson created a military jacket with dripping blood and a “DB” logo shaped like the anarchist insignia.
Thompson and Bryan found each other three years ago through mutual admiration. Thompson became a wrestling fan in the mid-1990s after discovering many of her favorite performers shared artistic sensibilities.
“It seems every wrestler I’ve ever met has either wanted to draw or write comics,” she said, “and when that didn’t happen, they became a comic book character in real life.”
Reading a blog called Hot Nerds Reading Comics, Thompson came across a photo of Bryan with her “Beasts of Burden.” Geeking out, she reached out to him on Twitter, and eventually Bryan asked if she’d design his ring gear. A dozen of Thompson’s designs have made it to television.
“What wrestlers do,” Thompson said, “is amazing. Some of their feats of athleticism, like jumping off ladders, is superhuman. It’s probably why I like wrestling. People who can stand in their underpants in front of 25,000 people have a flair for the dramatic.”
In the Venn diagram of pop culture, the disparate worlds of pro wrestling and comic books have overlapped more and more.
A few decades ago, admitting you were an obsessive of either, past a certain age, was socially tantamount to flashing your slide ruler in gym class. But both industries began gaining mainstream street cred. WWE became a publicly traded company at the height of its popularity in 1999; in 2002, “Spider-Man” became the first film to earn $100 million in a single weekend. NFL and Major League Baseball players were hoisting championship belts in their locker rooms to flaunt their machismo. Conventions like San Diego Comic-Con International were no longer a gathering of asthma inhalers, but a buzzy rite of passage for Hollywood studios seeking validation.
One could make the case that the point of intersection is Hulk Hogan, arguably popular culture’s first wrestler-as-superhero. No performer registered pain and triumph in his facial expressions with as much cartoonish exaggeration as Hogan.
But it is one particular move of his, known as “Hulking up,” that lives in wrestling lore.
Scenario: After being beaten by the villain to within an inch of submission, Hogan suddenly jumped to his feet, seemingly powered by a burst of reserve nitro energy. He shook violently, blond locks flailing, impervious to the bad guy’s punches. Finally, Hogan pointed at the opponent, wagging his finger as if he committed a grievous error, and proceeded to beat him with a boot to the face and a leg drop. It was the ultimate in superhuman comebacks and cheesiness, but the crowds ate it up.
“Hogan was the ultimate good guy, always battling against evil,” said WWE wrestler Rob Van Dam, who authored a graphic novel, “Twisted Perception,” and used to own a comic book store in Southern California. “But I was drawn to the wrestlers who’d do the acrobatic moves and that had to do with the fight scenes in comic books. It’s like they were able to jump from building to building.”
It was around the height of Hogan’s popularity in the early 1990s that the two largest pro wrestling companies released comic books based on their characters. Valiant Comics published a five-issue run called “WWF Battlemania” (The WWF changed its name to WWE in 2002 after losing a trademark dispute with the World Wildlife Fund), and World Championship Wrestling – owned by Ted Turner – partnered with Marvel Comics for a 12-issue series.
I first met Ryan Penagos, executive editorial director of Marvel Digital Media Group, in April at the C2E2 comic convention at McCormick Place. We got together because of a mutual love of taco joints (though not exclusively about food, his blog is called “Agent M Loves Tacos”). But our conversations picked up when I found out he was a fellow wrestling geek.
“The first hour of the workday on Tuesday, we’re usually talking about what happened on ‘Monday Night Raw,’” Penagos said. “Even on our podcast, ‘This Week in Marvel,’ listeners are always asking us wrestling questions, and we’ll just go off on these long tangents. It happens almost every podcast. The crossover is definitely at its apex now.”
Penagos confirms WWE recently invested in a project called “The Marvel Experience.” Details are vague, but it’ll be a traveling show feautring Marvel superheroes (though likely not wrestlers), with “motion ride(s) and original 3-D animated features, allowing fans to be part of the action.” The tour is slated for 2014. In addition, WWE has an open agreement with Wizard World, which operates a branded series of conventions across the country, to have its wrestlers make appearances.
One former WWE wrestler parlayed his comic book obsession – 18,000 in his collection – to the greatest run of his career. Before WWE, Shane Helms had previously been cast in gimmicks that didn’t gain much traction, most famously a villainous boy band trio called 3 Count in WCW. After he joined the WWE in 2001, Helms was struggling to find a new persona when he started giving improvised, in-character interviews on live television. Off the cuff, he brought up a subject he knew intimately: The Green Lantern, and soon he dressed in a cape and mask and dubbed himself “The Hurricane.”
“That character was supposed to last a couple months at most, and that was 12 years ago,” said Helms, who left WWE in 2010 but still wrestles as The Hurricane on the indie circuit. “As popular as mixed martial arts is, [it’ll] never have the larger-than-life characters that pro wrestling does.”
Like Helms, WWE diva AJ Lee toiled in lower-level storylines and struggled to get TV time before her current run as Divas champion.
“For three to four years, I was begging to get on any Comic Con or [Electronic Entertainment Expo] panel, but I never got to go,” Lee said, implying that before her breakthrough this past year she wasn’t a big enough name to represent WWE.
The 26-year-old looks unlike any female wrestler before her – a 5-foot-2, 110-pound tomboy who drew inspiration for her character from the DC Comics villainess Harley Quinn. Lee grew up writing her own comics and playing video games. When it came to pro wrestling, she rooted against the popular female wrestlers because they were too “blond and perfect, and I didn’t want to cheer for them.” Lee thought she didn’t have the bombshell look expected of a ladies pro wrestler but could perhaps enter the business as a writer.
Eventually, Lee was signed by WWE and in 2010 made its minor league farm team, a reality competition show called “NXT,” where one wrestler is voted off the show each week by viewers.
Before her first episode, Lee dressed the way she felt comfortable – wallet chains, sneakers, loose dress. But one of the producers suggested Lee change her look to be more diva-like, and maybe stand a better chance at winning.
“They told me to change, so I had to go through the luggage of all the other divas to find ring gear,” she said.
The next week, Lee ignored the producer and dressed as herself again, in sneakers and chains, and the audience responded favorably. She would make it through to “NXT’s” next-to-final episode.
“Sometimes it’s hard. You have every single voice telling you you were wrong, so this makes me excited for our future,” Lee said. “I’m happy to get to be me.”
• Kevin Pang writes for the Chiacgo Tribune.
Story distributed by MCT Information Services.
• Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton battle for the WWE title in the main event of the WWE Battleground pay-per-view on Sunday, Oct. 6 from the First Niagara Center in Buffalo.
AJ Lee defends the WWE divas title against Brie Bella.
Rob Van Dam with Ricardo Rodriguez challenges Alberto Del Rio for the World title in a hardcore match and more.
Bell time is 8 p.m. EST.