1987 And All That: Matt Champion #1

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

Matt Champion #1 (Metro) by Robert Loren Fleming, Ernie Colón, Elaine Lee

There’s a lot working against Matt Champion, the comic and its eponymous character. The book itself is the first of what was meant to be a four-issue mini-series, but as far as I can find online, nothing was ever published beyond this debut. I’m not sure if the title was canceled or Metro Comics closed shop or what, but whatever the external circumstances, this comic is trapped forever as an unfinished story. There’s not a lot of payoff or resolution, because the goal of this issue is to make introductions instead. With only the introductions to go on, though, analyzing the book becomes a bit trickier. I’m not entirely confident I know what Matt Champion is about on a thematic level. I understand the plot—anyone could—but I don’t know what it wants to say or why it was created, because this opening chapter does not get that far. But does that make it a failure as a first issue?

Matt Champion, born Matthew Chapin, is a professional wrestler and, at the start of the story, the reigning champion of the league he’s in. But Mr. Zucco, the wicked gangster who runs that league, wants Matt to take a dive and lose his belt to Beast Boolanga. Beast is a heel and Matt one of the most popular wrestlers around, so the match is meant to be a major upset, bringing in the big ratings and money that come with such an event. It could and should be a win for everyone involved, even Matt, because champion or not, he still gets a payday. The thing is, Matt can’t quite come to grips with the rules of the business he’s in, the fact that all of the wrestlers are entertainers following a script and putting on a show together. He understands that’s how it works, but being forced to give up his title still doesn't sit right with him. As entertaining and profitable as it would be for him to lose to Beast, Matt doesn't think he deserves such a fate. In his mind, the championship is something he struggled a long time to earn, and therefore he should be allowed to hang onto it.

All of this is established almost immediately. Matt is told by Mr. Zucco on the first page to take the dive, feebly resists, and is reminded somewhat forcefully that it’s not his decision. Sad as it makes him, Matt has no choice but to agree to hand the championship over, and then the story slides into his childhood and offers a glimpse at how he became the naïve, insanely muscular man he is today. Young Matthew is very much the opposite, skinny and sickly and frail. Though the book never specifies what ailment(s) he suffers from (and I’m not positive he even has a real-world condition), what we do see is Matt’s scientist father trying desperately to cook up a cure. Mr. Chapin is on the verge of losing his home to the bank, and his wife has completely lost touch with reality, but his only concern seems to be fixing his sick child. He and Matt try a series of different injections until, we assume (but don’t actually see), they find the right combination of chemicals to make Matt grow big and strong. These shots continue today, and though the science of it is not explained, Matt’s strength has progressed over time to superhuman levels. However, the other side effect of his continued medical care under his father’s guidance is that Matt is still quite childish in his personality. He has not matured emotionally, even though physically he’s overgrown.

Matt does ultimately let Beast defeat him in the ring, but not without getting some serious shots in, both during and after the match. Beast, whose real name is apparently Alvin, fights with all the dirty tricks and bad attitude he should for someone cast in the bad guy role. He plays the part of heel to a T, and even though that’s the agreed-upon status quo, Matt lets it get under his skin. He doesn't want to get hurt, he’s upset about having to lose at all, and having Beast so enthusiastically beat him bothers Matt tremendously. After letting himself get pinned and giving up his title, Matt has what amounts to a temper tantrum, tossing Beast into the twelfth row of the audience out of pure anger. Furious at the perceived injustice of being forced to sacrifice the belt, Matt breaks the rules and script of the match.

Mr. Zucco is none too pleased with the performance, but because Matt at least officially lost like he was supposed to, all is forgiven for now. Well, first Zucco gives Matt’s dad a solid hit to the face for good measure, but then all is forgiven. Except by Matt, the one character who cannot let it go. He washes up after the fight still feeling depressed and cheated, reminiscing about the days when he thought he’d be a boxer. For whatever reason, boxing holds a certain romantic appeal for Matt. It’s the sport he wishes he was good enough for, but his lack of natural skill led him to wrestling instead, which he now hates. However, determined to make the best of a bad situation, Matt decides to buck up and ask Mr. Zucco for a rematch against Beast. It’s not clear why he expects that to work, but in his childish ignorance of the world, he gives it a shot. It does not go well.

Predictably, Zucco scoffs at the very idea of Matt requesting a second chance at the title. He rants about how making one idiot’s dreams come true is not his job, that he became the rich and powerful crime boss he is today by selfishly screwing people over and/or killing them. He unapologetically lays out his own lack of morality or concern for his wrestlers’ well-being, because the bottom line for Zucco is money and the control it brings. It is this speech that finally pushes Matt over the edge, transforming him from a hurt, disappointed man-child into a nigh unstoppable force of muscles and fury. No longer able to swallow the injustices and indecencies that surround him, Matt finally fights back. It would almost feel like a key moment of growth if he did not carry it out so childishly, acting with indiscriminately destructive anger.

That is about as far as this comic gets. Matt is arrested for his actions, but the police chief very quickly and foolishly gives himself away as being in Zucco’s pocket, so Matt literally breaks out of his cell. This is the cliffhanger that closes the issue, with Matt free and pissed off and only now for the first time realizing the true extent of his physical strength. Certainly an interesting state for the protagonist to be in at the end of the opening chapter, because where he goes from here, what his next move could possibly be, is anyone’s guess. He has already struck back at Zucco with a fair degree of success and effectiveness, but he didn't bring the entire criminal enterprise toppling down or anything. I’m not sure that’s even his goal. What he ultimately wants remains unclear…to ruin Zucco completely? To defeat anyone and everyone in the city who’s corrupt or dishonest? Just to get his championship title back? He never quite says, and we’ll never know.

But that’s fine, I think, for what should have been only the first 25% of this narrative. Had the other three issues of Matt Champion ever been published, no doubt Matt’s specific motives and goals would have been more concretely defined. I suspect there would also have been a lot more material about his history, like why his mom was so crazy or how she died. It’s just that without that background information or a definitive conclusion to the story available, the final message or lesson of this series is hard to identify.

It could be a piece on morality. Matt is quite pure-hearted, and still sees good and evil in black-and-white terms, because he has such a childlike outlook. From his point of view, it is wholly unfair and wrong for him to be asked to give up his belt, not to get a rematch, and/or to work for a man like Mr. Zucco. Perhaps that’s true, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. Zucco is definitely a thug and a murderer and out-and-out wicked in other ways, but that doesn't necessarily mean I agree with Matt’s indignation at being told to take a fall. That is, after all, the business of professional wrestling. It is the job he agreed to. I root for Matt when he’s whomping on Zucco’s henchmen because I know they deserve it, big picture. But I don’t entirely empathize with the specifics of what drives him to fight them. Let’s say, though, that Matt Champion is attempting to explore morality. If that’s the case, I think this is an excellent way to start the discussion. You have Matt, who is obviously good, and Zucco, who is unabashedly evil, yet the disagreement that gives birth to their larger, more violent conflict is not so easily defined in those terms. It's an interesting set-up with lots of potential to get into the questions of what makes a person or an action good or bad, if it is the intent or the results that matter, when violence is justified (if ever), and so on.

However, I can see the argument that creators Robert Loren Fleming and Ernie Colón saw Matt as a clear-cut good guy. Just because I personally don’t understand why he’s so deeply bothered by losing to Beast, that doesn't mean Fleming and Colón wanted me to feel that way. The possibility exists that, to their minds, Matt was the obvious hero of this story from the start, that everything done to him was wrong, and that the reader should feel all the outrage the character does. They just don’t make a clear case for either reading.

I can also see this book as being, at its core, about the corruption that comes with growing up. To some degree, Matt represents childhood, because his own development was stunted through his father’s attempts to cure him. And he also represents a strive for fairness, kindness, and good. The adults around him, on the other hand, have all been tainted in one way or another by the world, including the people who are on his side. His mother was insane, his father lost everything to make him a champion, and the only friend of his introduced here is a has-been/never-was boxer who now works as a janitor at the gym. The villains, obviously, are the epitome of corruption, and have no time for attitudes like Matt’s. They see him as a joke, a voice to be ignored because it’s not smart or important enough to have anything to say. That is an unfortunately typical adult-child dynamic, and one that children find themselves frustrated by all the time. They get fed up with being marginalized and, sometimes, it leads to loud and/or destructive outbursts. Which is basically all that happens in Matt Champion, but on an exponentially amplified level.

It could, of course, really be about any number of other things. Family plays a huge role in this first issue, and could have become a central theme had the series continued. A look at the inherent evil of money, a criticism of pro wrestling, or simply an attempt at telling a more street-level, non-traditional superhero story all feel like valid possible descriptions of this book as well, based on the single issue that exists. Fleming and Colón don’t make it explicit yet what they’re aiming for, and that doesn't just extend to the narrative themes. There is a bit of overall tonal ambiguity too, in the art and writing both. Fleming’s script has a few overtly comedic moments, like one of Zucco’s goons trying to side with Matt while he beats them up, or Beast’s mother whacking him with an umbrella after Matt tosses him into the stands. Then there are some considerably darker scenes, like a flashback of a depressed and confused Matt in the shower, literally praying for guidance. Finally, there are one or two bits that lie somewhere in between, like the introduction of Matt’s mother. Is her mental instability meant to be humorous, tragic, or both? In the end I think it leans closer to tragic, but a lot of what she says is so outright goofy that it’s hard to say.

Colón’s art is even more difficult to pin down. Most of the cast are caricatures, comically exaggerated and unrealistic. This adds a lightness to the action scenes and helps solidify everyone’s broad personalities in a short space. But the lines are so heavy and the shading so dark that it almost looks like a classic noir book, and because of the seedy criminal element in the story, it occasionally reads the same way. And the black-and-white coloring also adds to the grittier, more serious visual mood of Colón’s style. This strange and sometimes uneven mix of severity and levity makes Matt Champion that much more complicated to explain or fully understand.

It is a not-uncommon frustration as a comicbook reader to have to live with incompleteness, following series that get canceled too soon or are delayed indefinitely. And I can’t fault Matt Champion #1 simply because it doesn't tell a whole story, since that’s never what it set out to do. But what makes a debut a success? If I can walk away from multiple reads without a solid sense of the book’s premise or goals, has it failed? While I can understand and even make the argument that, yes, this is an unsuccessful issue in that regard, I’m more inclined in this case to go the other way. Because the most important measure of a #1 issue, when you get down to it, is whether or not it makes you want to read #2. And by that standard, Matt Champion #1 is triumphant. I don’t know what I would anticipate seeing in the hypothetical following chapters; I have no definite expectations for the final resolution of this tale. But I’m still intensely curious, maybe even more so than if Fleming and Colón had worn their hearts on their sleeves from the jump. It is annoying to know that I’ll never find out what became of Matt Champion, or what he might have been able to teach me about myself, society, humanity, or whatever. That annoyance can’t be held against the one issue ever published, though, which in and of itself is an unusual and intriguing first beat.

NOTE: An earlier version of this review appeared on The Chemical Box.

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