Announced at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, BOOM! Studios will steward the next phase of wrestling institution WWE’s comics, starting with the release of one-shot table setter, WWE: Then. Now. Forever. in November. So continues the awkward on-again, off-again relationship between professional wrestling and comic books—two industries whose meet cute occurred way back when mogul Vince McMahon, to the chagrin of Marvel’s lawyers, tried promoting a new star attraction as “The Incredible” Hulk Hogan. This explains the Hulkster’s absence from WWF: Battlemania, the first comic to star McMahon’s burly employees, partially and somewhat reluctantly crafted by down-on-their luck legends Jim Shooter and Spider-Man creator Steve Ditko in the early ‘90s.
But at SDCC, BOOM! revealed plans to distance their comic version of WWE from its previous inky incarnations. As opposed to transposing current WWE cast members into the realms of sci-fi, fantasy or horror, BOOM! figures wrestling is already ridiculous enough without the bells and whistles to make it more “comic booky.” So for the first time since Ditko lowered himself to drawing The Bushwhackers for a quick buck, we’re getting a comic about events that could conceivably occur within WWE’s kayfabe, in-character timeline.
WWE/BOOM! Promotional Art by Rob Guillory
At present, the pretend-fighting monolith touts a “new era,” epitomized by relatable fresh faces including new Women’s Champion Sasha Banks and scrappy everymen underdogs Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. But the New Era remains a PG era; let’s not expect BOOM!’s WWE to explore the nasty unintended consequences of the industry, in the manner of Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber’s Image comic, Ringside. And should The Undertaker appear, he probably won’t do as much murderin’ as he did while headlining his own Chaos! Comics series in 1999.
“There was a rock ’n’ roll vibe with WWF [renamed WWE in ‘02] in those days,” recalls former Chaos! President Brian Pulido, of the bloody, boozy, hard PG-13 “Attitude Era” of roughly 1997 to 2002. “As opposed to, let’s say, the work we did with Universal Studios for their Mummy franchise, where there was a 50-page document with restrictions and all this other stuff, WWF was a little more freewheeling.”
Storylines of the time—like average joe “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s one-man war against his power-mad boss and The Undertaker’s transformation into a satanic cult leader—wowed Pulido’s entire organization. It was their enthusiasm, he says, that convinced WWF’s licensing firm to pass on a much more lucrative deal with Marvel, and tap Chaos! to produce sequential sagas for “Stone Cold,” Undertaker, The Rock, Mankind and Chyna.
WWE/BOOM! Promotional Art by Jamal Campbell
“It was implicit that we weren’t going to take The Undertaker and make him a tennis player,” Pulido notes. Chaos!’s WWF shared sensibilities with the often gaudy Rob Liefeld/Todd McFarlane phase of Image Comics, which may have alienated more sophisticated readers. But sales kicked ass, regardless. Pulido reports that reorders for WWF issues often doubled their initial print runs, and his only regret about the property is his company’s failure to produce more than one Mankind solo story. (This writer also regrets that. The Mankind special was aces.)
About a decade later, WWE once again tried their hand at inky story mags, this time enlisting Titan Publishing to handle the particulars. Titan tapped veteran DC writer Keith Champagne to script what became WWE Heroes—a series involving an arcane, everlasting war between immortal incarnations of good and evil. One cover depicts a vampiric Rey Mysterio; on another, Chris Jericho morphs into a giant hellbeast.
How does any of this relate to Monday Night Raw’s weekly goings-on? Not even Champagne can say for sure. “My original direction for the first series was, more or less, Die Hard in an arena with a small group of the WWE superstars in the Bruce Willis role, fighting armed terrorists,” explains Champagne (who recently suffered a debilitating and expensive broken leg, if any readers would care to visit his GoFundMe).
“Titan felt it needed more ‘zing,’ more over-the-top comic book-ness, and asked to pull it into a more mystical direction. That kind of stuff happens all the time with licensed comics. There are always a lot of different chefs in the kitchen.”
WWE Heroes went down as a commercial and critical disappointment, but Champagne hardly sounds bitter. “I’m not sure if there’s a way to do a wrestling comic book that really captures the experience and magic of the WWE, but I had fun trying,” he says.
Triple H—the de facto face of the WWE at the time—had to be the primary protagonist in Champagne’s sword and sorcery yarn, which indicates a fundamental problem with WWE Heroes that had nothing to do with any creator. The Attitude Era provided loads of raw material seemingly custom-made for transposition into other media. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson constituted such a terrific action star in the WWE that he wound up getting the same job in Hollywood. And before Mick Foley retired and adopted a huggable, literal and figurative Santa Claus-like persona, he molded dementia, hyper-violence and fourth-wall aversion into a wrestler, Mankind, who was basically Deadpool before Deadpool was a thing.
But in the subsequent 15 years, WWE has failed to produce many transcendent characters, even when their performers were plenty capable of being perceived as more than pretend fighters. From a historical bird’s eyeview, Triple H’s kayfabe career has been downright Shakespearean, but remove him from the context of WWE, and he’s just a huge, mean guy in spandex underwear, lacking any metaphor or vicarious wish-fulfillment fantasy to offer the masses. Same goes for plenty of other more recent big names like Randy Orton, Batista, Brock Lesnar and Sheamus.
WWE/BOOM! Promotional Art by Dan Mora
A best-selling memoirist, Foley ran into a similar conundrum with his WWE Superstars comics three years ago. In Titan City—imagine Gotham City with no capes and tons of wrestlers—CM Punk is a curmudgeonly detective, while Triple H and Randy Orton are both corrupt politicians. Trips’ alleged backstage shenanigans notwithstanding, these occupations don’t connect directly with the roles any of these three play on WWE TV. In attempting to put together a compelling comic featuring the WWE locker room, Foley robbed its denizens of their first fictional identities.
Which is well and fine. We’re not going to sit here and tell Mick Foley what he should or shouldn’t have done. But the Chaos! WWF series sold well and succeeded creatively to the extent that it needed to because, thanks to the wrestling zeitgeist of the time, creators faced little difficulty staying true to the spirit of their charges. The Undertaker—especially the ‘90s Undertaker—can descend to Hades for a friendly chess match with Lucifer without erecting any character red flags. By the standards of the day, and in terms of rendering the characters in a way that felt authentic, those comics are relatively grounded.
When BOOM! managing editor Bryce Carlson tells us to anticipate a WWE book placed in the “actual world of wrestling,” the pessimist in me prepares to read 22 pages about Seth Rollins rehabbing his injured knee, or worse yet, Total Divas: The Comic Book. But if we take a pragmatic look at what has and hasn’t worked in the history of WWE comics, an agenda of “realism” bodes well for our favorite sports entertainers’ futures as literally two-dimensional, full-blown fictional characters.