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.