Recently I told someone mainstream comics could improve considerably if they’d absorb some storytelling lessons from pro wrestling. At best, this is wishful thinking, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the general dismissal of pro wrestling in the rush to confuse content with form – sounds familiar, huh? – and the perhaps equally familiar eagerness to proclaim anyone who enjoys watching, let alone seriously examines, wrestling a gullible, subliterate idiot who can’t distinguish between real and fake. (The irony is that virtually all wrestling fans are well aware wrestling’s “fake,” a theoretically cooperative dance between “opponents,” and choose to play along with the conceit, and it’s the critics who can’t seem to figure out their blanket characterization is demonstrably false.) Second, ever since the “Monday Night Wars” of the ’90s that pitted America’s two top promotions head-to-head against each other in a ratings war and resulted in ever-increasing fast-draw nonsense that threw story logic and performers alike under a train in the desperation to draw viewers, virtually no widely visible wrestling organization has paid more than vague lip service to storytelling.
The fact is that ratings skyrocketed by the height of the Wars because of the competition and because for once no one really knew who’d win. Once one organization finally collapsed and left the other, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, uncontestably dominant, interest and ratings dissipated. Most of the major stars of the era also quietly went away; injuries brought on by the more demandingly physical style the wars encouraged sidelined the biggest headliner wrestling has ever known, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and his only real competition for popularity, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, opted out in favor of a film career before “ringuries” could leave him equally wrecked. WWE, desperate to rekindle the wars, tried a stage-managed “invasion” by former rivals now capsized and bought out by the McMahons – the boss’ kids ran the invading promotions, according to storyline – but nobody bought into it. The angle was crippled from the start by the ridiculously incestuous setup, and by McMahon’s pathological refusal to portray either reconstituted organization as a serious threat to his own invincible operation. He really just wanted to humiliate them again, even more decisively.
The upshot was that bookers – the key employee of a wrestling organization who determines which wrestlers will be pushed, what the storylines will be, and how the matches will end (for a more comprehensive discussion of the booker’s role, read this) – came out of the Monday Night Wars with one principle fixed in their heads: shock sells, and never mind the storytelling. The swerve – screwing with the audience by unexpectedly veering right when everything you’d set up to that point indicated you were going left, as when a character would suddenly beat up his close friend and jump sides for no apparent reason – became the biggest storytelling tool, the one that destroyed coherent storytelling. In the process, the financial basis of pro wrestling turned upside down. Traditionally promoters made money by selling tickets to live shows. When television came into vogue, promoters used television and the stories and matches set up there (most wrestling TV shows were really infomercials run in timeslots bought by the promoters, a system that lasted well into McMahon’s takeover of cable) to get people into their local venues to see what they’d be told were key matches. That’s where the money was, and the same matches could run in different markets with the same buildup.
The object of TV was to create characters, get viewers invested in them, and build the stories they’d pay to see played out. For this, they needed characters audiences loved, and characters audiences hated, and they had in some way to seem at least equally capable of winning a match, the “face” (hero) through skill and pureness of heart, the “heel” (villain) through brute force and/or trickery. With variations. From the latter evolved the “monster heel,” the heel so dominant and unbeatable that even a favored face didn’t logically seem to have a chance against him. That’s a familiar enough formula, one proven time and again to draw ticket buyers.
The rise of cable TV in the ’80s shifted the dynamic national, largely putting long-running regional promoters out of business in favor of the single promotion – McMahon was the one to capitalize on it – appearing with the same product everywhere. With cable TV quickly came pay per view, further shaking things up; though “house shows” were still a big source of revenue, pay per view was the better investment, amounting to a super house show drawing in the most amount of revenue for the least amount of labor. Pay per view has one big limitation: even the most dogged wrestling fan is only willing to spend so much money in any given period of time. This caps potential earnings from the core audience, as upstart promotions that attempted to run weekly pay per view shows in lieu of house shows learned to their sorrow, making audience expansion, even if for only one show, the only way to draw more money aside from periodic price raises.
That should also sound familiar.
But the Monday Night Wars screwed that up too. There was no point where WWE was making less money than rival WCW (supported mainly by patron Ted Turner’s deep pockets) but ratings, not profits, were the new measure of popularity. So the TV shows became the whole focus; rather than TV being used to promote the house show and pay per view payoffs, the latter became teases for free TV. It’s like if trade paperback collections were used as teases for the monthly books. (Sniping also hit high velocity, as WWE still taped many of its Monday night shows while WCW aired live; in maybe the most famous stunt and backfire, WCW snarkily revealed on-air the results of a pre-taped world title match WWE had counter-programmed for the following hour – and a huge chunk of WCW’s audience jumped to WWE programming to watch it, starting the slide that eventually put WCW out of business.)
As I said, the lessons learned from all this wasn’t that storytelling is still the most effective means to build an audience, but that swerves and short-term shock tactics is what will sucker them in. The latter’s predicated on the notion that, despite myriad wrestling blogs proving otherwise, the wrestling audience can’t keep track of what happened a programming hour earlier, let alone a day or week or month. Paradoxically, a big chunk of swerves are intended to make fools of Internet bloggers while bookers and owners also proclaim that the bloggers are an insignificant fraction of the audience. Which is probably true, making it doubly sad and funny, that the audience segment they so vehemently deride as irrelevant is the one they try the hardest to baffle and/or win over.
I won’t bother beating home parallels to mainstream comics. But another is how, like comics, pro wrestling indulges in a “business cycle” theory to comfort itself and justify “staying the course” during bad times. I never bought it for comics and was interested in the recent comments on the matter by wrestling trainer and retired pro Lance Storm, who has become one of the better critics of that business:
“Everyone always talks about how this business is cyclical. There is a constant ebb and flow to the business of pro-wrestling with times of great highs and inevitably times of great lows. There are a lot of theories for this constant fluctuation in the appeal of pro-wrestling, and while I don’t think any one theory is the total and complete answer the one I put the most stock into is one I heard from Dave Meltzer.
This is far from a direct quote but Dave’s basic theory for the hot and cold nature of our business is the reluctance of top Stars (or the promoters pushing them) to pass the torch to the next generation. When a Star catches fire and gets hot, promoters are all for throwing gas on the fire and reaping the benefits of having this super hot Star. To keep this Star hot they sacrifice others on the roaster to keep them over and they ride the wave into a business boom period. When a Star becomes the main draw of a boom period he gains considerable back stage leverage and becomes able to protect his position. All the eggs get thrown in one basket and he becomes the be all and end all of company business. We’ve seen it with Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and the NWO.
Unfortunately even the brightest Star has a shelf life, so the problem becomes, “When do you start taking eggs out of the Golden Goose’s basket, and build towards your next top Star?” More often than not promoters want to get every last drop of blood out of a stone and will ride a hot act as long as humanly possible. Couple this with a Star’s reluctance to hop off the gravy train and pass the torch, and their ability to use their current drawing power and leverage to avoid doing so, and the next generation is almost never established by the time the top goose stops laying golden eggs. This is what leads to the cyclical down turns in our business; the bloom comes off the rose before anything else is planted in the garden.
You have to establish and get over the next top Star (or Stars) while the golden goose is still hot enough to have people watching the show and caring about the product. You also have to book the new guy to over take the old guard and in essence knock them off their pedestal and take over as the company’s new top draw.“
All these factors – as well as McMahon family obsession with controlling the product down to every word that comes out of almost ever wrestler’s mouth and making almost all voices, and most wrestlers, virtually interchangeable – have destroyed storytelling in wrestling to the point where it’s barely visible. It still exists, but in real terms it’s largely up to individual wrestlers in individual matches.
The terms “storytelling” and “continuity” are used in wrestling as much as in comics. Every match tells its own little story, but the story really begins far earlier, with character. Take Hulk Hogan. Hogan’s easy because he almost only ever had one story in his matches: raised on prayer, exercise and “vitamins” (insert steroid jokes here), Hogan spent the early portions of his matches getting pulverized and apparently beaten to exhaustion by behemoths or connivers, and their partners and managers interfering from outside the ring under the referee’s nose (blindness is a prerequisite for a wrestling referee), and almost succumbing to the behemoth’s finishing move, only to be “revived” by moral support and encouragement from his ocean of fans, “the little Hulksters,” allowing him to mount an amazing “Superman” comeback that would see him revived to such an extent the opponent’s fiercest moves would now bounce off him ineffectively. In response, Hogan would smugly wag a scolding finger in the heel’s face, then launch into the most unimpressive finishing combination ever utilized by a major star. As the opponent tried to take a swing at him, Hogan would catch the arm and fling the heel at the ropes with an “Irish whip.” Bouncing off the ropes, the heel would smash face-first into Hogan’s outstretched foot – “the Big Boot” – and crash to the ground whereupon Hogan jumped in the air and landed a leg across the heel’s chest before scrambling around for the pin.
Hardcore fans hated it. (Not that finishers like Dusty Rhodes’ “bionic elbow” were any better.) But the general audience loved it, because what sold Hogan’s matches was the story, even if it almost never varied. It was the delusion of audience participation carried to the nth degree. What made it difficult was that Hogan himself was a mighty-looking specimen who logically should have (and once did) play a heel, making credible foes hard to come by and encouraging McMahon to bring in bigger and bigger monsters for physical appearance alone, regardless of ability, not that he needed much encouragement.
But the story starts long before the match. Interview/speech segments established characters, and characters carried the seeds of angles; for instance, a face and a heel both claiming to be the world’s strongest man were destined to eventually settle the issue in the ring. Established heels demanding “respect” from newly arrived faces was always good for a feud starter. Steve Austin established his violently anarchic reputation by blasphemously destroying then-Christianized (legit) Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the ring. There are basically three kinds of matches, and they’re all part of the story. The first is the prelim, or jobber, match, where a promoted wrestler takes on a nobody who may or may not be allowed some offense. These tend to be short, used to establish a pushed wrestler’s in-ring technique and persona, and gauge audience response. They were also traditionally filler for TV shows, to use up allotted time and provide exposure without “blowing off” money matches for free. The second is a feud match, establishing or evolving a face-heel feud and upping the stakes to sell the audience on paying to see a final confrontation. The third is the blow-off match, where whatever story they’d been building toward gets told and a decisive climax resolves the matter, at least for the time being.
Even all that’s often a story within a story, with the finale dependent on the long term goal for any character. Though usually the face would defeat the heel, if the idea is to build the heel as a threat to a higher-ranked face, it makes more storyline sense for the heel to win. Or if a booker wanted to freshen a character by “turning” him, or whatever. The point is that individual matches – think of them as character established through action – carry their own storylines and can be appreciated on their own merits, but in order to be properly marketable they have to feed into a broader character-based storyline that extends over a series of matches, whether those matches would seem to fit into a larger storyline or not. And that character-based storyline then becomes a segment in an even broader storyline that ultimately becomes the story of that character’s, maybe even that wrestler’s (they’re not exactly the same thing), career. That continuity is what really establishes careers.
Even within a single match, the overt storyline – say, plucky young kid with determination hangs on desperately until he can turn the tables on vicious veteran – is ideally really a cover for the invisible story, the deliberate manipulation of audience emotions to make them vicarious participants in the battle. To make them feel they have a personal stake in the outcome. The best wrestlers think about this stuff all the time, and no matter what the booker’s input, when it gets to the ring the bulk of the match – the build, the payoff, how the story plays – is up to the wrestlers. Management can only manage things so far.
I should point out that while these are the standards, in reality few bookers have ever seriously adhered to them. Historically bookers came either from promoters’ families and have traditionally be unable to resist pushing themselves over more qualified wrestlers or from wrestler ranks and have been unable to resist propping themselves in top slots and claiming expediency. Like a lot of people in power, bookers tend to play favorites despite what audiences might prove to like. While ideally storylines are worked out far in advance, it has usually been more of an on-the-fly affair, and injuries, behind-the-scenes personality clashes and other factors have entered into it as well. (Nowadays the only promotion that pays significant attention to longrunning storytelling and storylines anymore is independent Chikara; so far on its new TV show the current major independent, Ring Of Honor, has barely even acknowledged its matches take place in any context, and the only promotion trying to play on WWE’s scale, TNA, is lucky to string a whole sentence together, let alone a storyline.) But as a general rule the most successful wrestling characters have been based not on booker-generated gimmicks but by amplifying some existing element of a wrestler’s real personality. The best feuds come from the same place. Longtime face Bret Hart was turned heel by righteously excoriating American fans for cheering the heel Stone Cold Steve Austin; Austin and Hart were friends, but Hart’s dismay with the shifting attitudes of Americans fans was real enough. Vince McMahon once claimed he could have put anyone in Hulk Hogan’s spot and gotten the same result, but what sold the character was what Hogan, not McMahon, brought to it.
I’m not suggesting this is all there is to storytelling in wrestling; it barely scratches the surface. The elements of individual matches, of long storylines, of characters can be studied and examined endlessly. Nor am I suggesting anyone start watching wrestling; it’s an acquired taste at best. I didn’t acquire it until well into my ’30s, only watched because personal circumstances dictated it, and, after watching several crap matches, got sucked in by a great story: embattled ex-champion Randy Savage is chasing his stolen belt, and to get the match he wants has to first have a match against a teammate of the heel who won it from him. Behind the ref’s back he has to fight not just one man but the whole heel team, which succeeds in breaking Savage’s leg. But Savage comes back to win one-legged. Insanely preposterous yet beautifully timed and executed (it didn’t hurt that Savage, given to hilariously compelling interviews best described as high-octane gibberish that beautifully put forth his wildman image, was then at the top of his game, and matched against who I’d eventually learn was arguably the best ring technicians and storytellers in the business, Bret Hart), it struck me as about as close, storywise, to what I do for a living without being what I do for a living. And it’s not like wrestling and comics have never impinged on each other; when the new Marvel management took over in the late ’90s, Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada cooked up a whole promo style based on wrestling interviews. But lessons about structure, about the interaction of storyline and character, about how individual “chapters” can be made to work not only on multiple levels on their own terms but as coherent portions of an extended storyline are things you can pick up without liking any of it. The main problem, as with comics, is knowing how to look beneath the surface, and finding the examples that are worth learning from. But, as with comics, you can learn as much from what they get wrong as from what they get right.
1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 94-100):
From Pantheon Books:
A.D. NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE by Josh Neufeld ($24.95; trade paperback)
A quasi-fictionalized record of Hurricane Katrina’s decimation of New Orleans and people whose lives it tore apart. I like it in general, and it certainly gets across the tension and uncertainty of that time, it has “TV movie of the week” syndrome: mechanically set up in the “first act,” Neufeld’s characters (that they’re all based on real people changes nothing) aren’t very interesting, aside from living through the storm, flood and subsequent chaos. Meant to put “a human face” on the tragedy, the book puts an actor’s face on it instead. It’s not bad, it’s certainly worth a read, but unless you were living completely under a rock through the Katrina debacle, it doesn’t add much to the discourse.
INCOGNITO #1-2 by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips ($3.50@; comic books)
Brubaker & Phillips third major collaboration is something of a con; while Ed’s marketing it as a throwback to pulp magazines, presumably the hardboiled tough guy mags like BLACK MASK, it’s really their answer to WANTED, where a neutered supervillain in witness protection after having sold out his former gang finds the drug blocking his powers likewise neutered and takes to a new secret life as a costumed… well, someone in a costume who gets his kicks beating people up. It isn’t long before both his old life and new come back to haunt him, as feds, former cohorts and current co-workers all start breathing down his neck in different ways. I’m to the point of believing Phillips can do no wrong on art, and Ed shows his usual deft hand with endearing morally bankrupt characters – his Zack Overkill is such a petty character, but damn! Either sell it as the twisted superhero comic it really is – that’s a perfectly good and probably more commercial pitch – or kick the pulp in, man!
From Boom! Studios:
POTTER’S FIELD: STONE COLD #1 by Mark Waid & Paul Azaceta ($3.99; comic book)
A little crime thriller with a premise I haven’t seen before: patrol cops who make natural death victims without heirs into anonymous corpses buried in unmarked graves, and loot the deceased’s estates. Toss in a mystery man whose personal missions is to put names to the nameless dead, plus his pot-stirring policewoman confidante, and wackiness ensues. It’s pretty good as far as it goes, and Azaceta’s really proving his talent for this kind of material, but the space allowed doesn’t give the story time to become much more than breakneck plot. Not bad as far as it goes, but you’re left without much sense of any of the characters. (Two notes: if the policewoman is a detective, why is she always in uniform? And, Mark, please don’t write ethnic.)
From Image Comics:
ELEPHANTMEN #17-18 by Richard Starkings & various ($3.50@; comic books)
More tales of Starkings’ future world where genetically altered animals walk, talk and fight as men do. These are in a run of complete-in-one issues, and while fairly slight on their own – one is an unexpectedly straightforward hunt for a brain-damaged runaway Elephantman that’s obviously intended for Eisneresque Eirony but is so lacking in conflict and surprise that it doesn’t quite work, and the other (which also has the much better artwork, by Marian Churchland – is a vignette about hero Hip Flask’s Asian-American sidekick fantasizing about a relationship with him while dealing with an unwanted pregnancy that’s much better than it has any right to be – together they’re more pieces in the fascinating mosaic Starkings is slowly building. I’d recommend reading the trade paperback collections before leaping into the regular series, though. Despite being standalones, these aren’t particularly friendly entry points.
From Marvel Comics:
FREE COMIC BOOK DAY: THE AVENGERS by Brian Bendis, Jim Cheung & Mark Morales (Free; comic book)
Wow, if it didn’t have Marvel characters in it I’d swear this was a Justice League story. A Norse ice demon appears from nowhere for no particular reason, bats Thor into Spider-Man’s lap for no particular reason, bringing two rival teams of Avengers into action (the bad one and the good one, or the legal one and the illegal one, however you want to look at it; Bendis was smart enough to leave the third Avengers team out) and luckily at least one Avenger knows exactly where to find the only weapon in existence that can deal with the problem, if only they can fight their way to it. (I doubt I’m spoiling anything by mentioning they can.) It has that weirdly random ’70s MARVEL TEAM-UP quality to it, some pretty solid superhero art and gobs of Bendis’ chatty captions and sniping dialogue, but it spells out the current situation on Marvel Earth pretty well for newcomers and curious returnees, so I guess it serves its purpose.
From Dynamite Entertainment:
ZORRO #12 by Matt Wagner & Cezar Razek ($3.50; comic book)
Zorro is a problematic character, on the one hand dripping with tradition and on the other apparently out of sync with modern culture. I know of more than one publisher baffled by Dynamite’s pursuit of the license. Curiously, Wagner’s approach to the character turns out to be the smart move: a flat out unadorned traditional approach. Wagner resists an urge to modernize or embellish the core concepts as he sets up characters and scenario with calm sureness while slowly ratcheting up the tension of a story that would’ve been equally at home in Disney’s ZORRO series in the ’50s but doesn’t feel like a throwback, and while Razek isn’t the strongest artist I’ve seen his clear, open style sets an appropriate visual tone. I’m generally ambivalent about “back to basics” comics, but in this case it works, and kudos to Dynamite for having the guts to go that route.
From DC Comics:
THE FLASH – REBIRTH #1 by Geoff Johns & Ethan Van Sciver ($3.99; comic book)
Errr… okay. Barry Allen’s back, along with father issue revelations about his past to give Hollywood some inane character bit to latch onto. Fine. No reason not to undercut everything done with the character in the last 50 years, I guess; it worked out so well when they made Hal Jordan a drunk driver, after all. But wasn’t there a series not long ago that ended with the Rogues Gallery murdering Impulse/Kid Flash/The Flash? Wasn’t there, in fact, a lengthy weekly series revolving in part about Rogues being mercilessly hunted down for murdering him? And all they have to say about him being back is, “Oh, and he’s back too.”? But that’s what the whole book is, typical of modern superhero comics: one scattershot dangling plot thread after another, all teases and no bloody solid information. Is that what the whole “big ideas” movement has come down to, an endless barrage of coming attractions? Anyone driven to be retro enough to bring back Barry Allen ought to be retro enough to include a comprehensible plot. Or is that too retro?
Notes from under the floorboards:
Online comics discussion got tabled again this week due to way too much to do, but I’ll try to get back to it next week. That’s the only major problem with online comics so far (all other artistic things being equal, anyway) plodding through them page by page at the speed even a decent high-speed setup loads at is just time-consumingly pokey. But I persevere, slowly…
Here’s an interesting bit from Sweden. Friends and foes of internet piracy alike are probably aware the notorious Pirate Bay was taken to trial in Sweden recently and eventually convicted for breaking copyright laws. (For those who like to split hairs, Pirate Bay and most operations like it technically don’t warehouse or feed fileshare materials themselves, they’re mainly directories of available fileshares, so while their existence facilitates media piracy, they don’t pirate material themselves. Which their lawyers unsuccessfully argued in their defense.) Now it turns out the judge in the Pirate Bay case belongs to copyright-protection groups along with the lawyers who represented the entertainment industry in the prosecution. And sits on the board of a related entertainment industry lobbying group. The judge denies this is in any way a conflict of interests; Pirate Bay’s lawyers take a different view. What, nobody noticed this before the trial? (Though it’s notable that the judge also failed to mention it.)
Arlen Specter, Democrat. Whodathunk it? As much political expedience as anything, I’m sure, since a huge chunk of his Pennsylvania constituency jumped Dem last November, and Arlen swears he won’t be blithely rubberstamping Democrat initiatives in deference to party leadership anytime soon, but he’s not the only moderate Republican lately to mention how inhospitable the Republican Party has become toward moderate Republicans…
By the way, you may not be aware of it but the FBI has been quietly planting spyware on unsuspecting computers for a few years now. Naturally, while it has proven an effective law enforcement tool it’s now apparently getting way overused, because that’s what happens to any tool the FBI is given. But wait. Isn’t placing a program on a computer without that owner’s permission that gathers sweeping amounts of information about the computer’s users and feeds it to a third party computer crime. Isn’t computer crime, especially hacking and tampering with others’ computers, now officially categorized as terrorism?
DR. WHO/TORCHWOOD fans really owe it to themselves to catch John “Captain Jack Harkness” Barrowman as the host of the BBC’s new Saturday night variety show TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, where John performs overwrought cabaret numbers, engages in bizarre competitions and ushers embarrassed and unsuspecting audience members to the fulfillment of their most incredible dreams. Just to truly appreciate what ungodly horrors their obsession has wrought. A stunningly, stunningly awful show, though sitting through a full episode should give you some concept of what living over 900 years is like…
Congratulations to Alistair Kennedy, the first to spot last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme was “pipes.” Alistair co-produces the very entertaining House To Astonish podcast on all things comics with Paul O’Brien, and wouldn’t you know it? He wishes to point your attention to pop culture site House To Astonish. I’ve been listening for months; you should to.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column. I know it’s hard to find, but that’s what separates us from the animals. Good luck.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
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