I get a flash of déjà vu every time someone says comics are dead. Comics have “died” before, of course, but that’s not what I think of. I think of the World Wrestling Federation.
The comics industry can learn a lot from the WWF.
In 1984, with the help of Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Jesse The
Body Ventura, Vince McMahon turned his father’s Northeastern promotion, the WWF, into the first national pro
wrestling organization. The pump of popular taste had been primed the year before as Hogan punched out
Sylvester Stallone in ROCKY III, and comedian Andy Kaufman at the height of his success had a highly publicized feud with Jerry “the King”
Lawler in the Memphis territory. With the attention getting help of pop diva Cyndi Lauper and inexplicable Hollywood star Mr. T, McMahon
went media in a big way, seeing his main product as a stepping stone to the big time.
In America, comics and wrestling are fringe subcultures. So are science
fiction, heavy metal, cockfighting and stamp collecting. It can be argued
there’s no real uberkultur anymore; when media consisted of three TV
channels and a handful of movie studios, you could speak of a dominant
culture, but now network television’s a fading ghost with every interest
getting its own cable show, if not channel, and movies are distributed
through phone wires and anything you can’t get on tape you can get over
the Internet. There’s just too much out there for any one thing to
dominate anymore, though there are still
plenty of people telling others what to think.
But almost all subcultures harbor the
secret faith that the world is inverted,
and their rightful place is at the top of
the natural order: everyone wants to be
a fashion designer. So the uberkultur
trots out “traditional values,” and
ridicules or demonizes subcultures,
because they know those subcultures would become the new uberkultur
if they could. The curious thing is that all subcultures hate their portrayal
by the uberkultur, but they accept on faith the portrayal of all others.
When I started writing for Marvel, I was also deep in the New York
music scene, and was appalled that Marvel employees dismissed punk
and new wave without trying it, based on what they’d read about it in the
New York Times. Now and then, some comics company will decide to
“break through” by launching a line of science fiction comics, and these
always collapse because comics fans get their science fiction sublimated
in superhero comics, and science fiction fans think comic books are
beneath their notice. Science fiction is “serious literature.” Comics fans
who aren’t also wrestling fans like to buy into the line that wrestling fans
are too dumb to know wrestling’s fake.
Subcultures tend to reek of pride and shame.
(Yes, I know there are sf fans who read comics, and comics fans who
follow wrestling. I watch wrestling, I listen to Stockhausen. We’re all
So Vince McMahon’s going to conquer the world,
right? It’s 1987 and he’s got toy deals, a monthly
show on NBC, regular pay per view shows, he’s
promoting boxing matches and Evel Knieval
deathjumps. All the wrestlers get cutely identifiable,
marketable gimmicks, usually cribbed from one
media sources or another. He’s producing movies.
Hulk Hogan guest hosts Saturday Night Live.
Magazines are running articles, he’s making money
hand over fist, every other wrestling promotion in
the country is collapsing around him. Like comics publishers c. 1993,
he thinks these champagne days are the new natural order and they’re
never going to end.
And he turns around one day and it’s all dried up. Boom. Like that.
Suddenly no one’s buying anymore. His syndicated TV shows start
dropping like flies. His market gets smaller, and smaller, and smaller.
Stinks of familiarity, doesn’t it?
By 1993, it was pretty safe to say wrestling was dead. Even Hulk
Hogan, doing the same by-the-book routine he’d done every night in
the wow years, couldn’t raise a pulse. McMahon’s scant consolation
was that arch-rival WCW, owned by Ted Turner, was worse off than
If McMahon had the brains he was born with, he would have cut bait
right then. He would have cashed out, bought a nice house and lived the
rest of his life in comfortable obscurity. He continued for some time,
barely maintaining a much diminished baseline, replaying all the same
moves he’d made in the wow years, with no success. Finally – finally – it
sank in that times had changed and the gimmicks didn’t work anymore.
His product was no longer fresh and contemporary. He’d played it as a
joke, marketing to kids, as if the shows and the matches were cartoons.
By , everyone had gotten the joke and they didn’t want to hear it again.
It’s 1999. The WWF posted profits of $56 million this year.
MONDAY NIGHT RAW is consistently the hottest thing on cable,
threatening the hegemony of MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL, and
perennial loser network UPN beat CBS with their new WWF
SMACKDOWN show last Thursday night. Monthly pay per views sell
through the roof. Arena shows sell out everywhere, and merchandise
sales average $18 per ticket holder. The company’s about to go public.
WWF superstars like Steve Austin are in constant demand on TV
shows. Comics may be dead, but wrestling sure isn’t.
So how did McMahon do it?
- He threw away the past. Long before the collapse, taste in wrestling was already changing. In Japan and Mexico, where wrestling is mainstream entertainment, a rougher, more realistic style was in play, and in the USA, new regional promotions like ECW and Smoky Mountain Wrestling capitalized on the style. It flew completely in the face of McMahon’s lust for social acceptability, but, with nothing else working, he didn’t resist when wrestlers brought the style to the WWF.
- He dropped the gimmicks and trusted his talent. As the style changed, McMahon built the promotion around Bret Hart, a down-to-earth wrestler with great skills on the microphone and in the ring, which gave the WWF tons of credibility. With his straightforward manner, he redefined what on air interviews and wrestling characters were supposed to be. Stone Cold Steve Austin, who supplanted Hart as company focus, suffered through several failed McMahon gimmicks before suggesting the Stone Cold angle; McMahon, at a loss for what to do with him, went with it and never expected it to catch on. Austin as rabidly antiauthoritarian redneck was wildfire. Other top draws like Mankind and The Rock also made up their own characters as they went along, to great success.
- He altered the type of story to fit the new characters he was working with. No more recycling old Hulk Hogan angles to create the new Hogan. With constant pressure from WCW, particularly when a number of WWF players defected to launch a highly successful “invasion of WCW” angle, McMahon got inventive, building story logic off the characters and pushing the unexpected, keeping fans on their toes and coming back for more.
- He stopped telling the audience what they wanted, and started paying attention to who they were cheering for. When audiences rooted for the heel Austin, McMahon changed the rules, allowing Austin to keep his rulebreaker persona while becoming the “heroic” focus for the company. It was a risk rarely done in the cut and dried good guy-bad guy world of American pro wrestling, but it paid off because McMahon elected to ignore his critics and go with the times.
The specifics are different for comics, but the general principles apply.
When the past stops working, jettison it. Trust your talent, and work
with them instead of getting in their way. Do stories appropriate to the
characters, and keep the stories unexpected. Take risks. Trying
something new is better than dying.
If there’s one other lesson Vince McMahon teaches us, it’s love the
business you’re in.
These days, as comics companies whisper about being on the Titanic
and look to Hollywood to bail them out as if the movie and TV
industries weren’t dens of disappointment and lost opportunities, that’s a
lesson we could stand to be reminded of.
For readers in the Pacific Northwest, I’ll be signing at the Seattle
Comic-Card Con at the Rainier Room of the Seattle Center on Sunday,
September 20, from 11:00-3:30. The doors open at 10 AM. Lots of
other pros will be there too. Again, I want to thank everyone for all the
e-mail, and regret I can’t possibly answer all of it. But a lot of your
questions are answered at my website:
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