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.