Aside from jazz music and soap operas, superhero comic books and professional wrestling are the two greatest art forms that America has championed and brought to the world. Filled with colorful costumes, bombastic characters, clearly delineated lines between the good characters and the bad, superhero comics and professional wrestling share a lot of the same creative DNA. Both industries began their lives as things that people enjoyed and still looked down on; a classification that neither industry has truly escaped, regardless how many billion-dollar superhero movies get released, or how many people tune in for WrestleMania.
The confluences of the two businesses are not by coincidence; wrestlers have been reading and referencing comics in their work since the carny days, when the age of pulp magazines was beginning to give way to the Golden Age of comics. In this day and age of cross-promotion and multimedia enterprises, the line begins to blur even more, with comics based on wrestling, and wrestlers wearing ring gear that looks suspiciously like a certain corps of hateful ring-bearers. The number of similarities between the two are literally mind-boggling, so we boiled it down to 15 of the clearest ways that superhero comics and professional wrestling are exactly the same. Check it out!
15. COSTUMES & LOGOS
Wrestling and comics are both businesses that ultimately boil down to money-making machines (as, really all businesses are), and the most effective way to do that is to put characters and wrestlers in shirts that the average fan would want to be seen in. Both industries create immediately recognizable symbols and slap them on T-shirts, hats, bags, and so on, and fans buy them by the bushel.
It’s the genius of graphic design on display in things like the New Day’s cereal (Booty-O’s), or the myriad nWo hats and bandannas and T-shirts with the sleeves ripped off and so on; it’s in every single hoodie with a Punisher skull on it, or Superman shirt at the gym. It’s brilliant marketing, and it’s just good business.
14. PURE HEROES VS. NEFARIOUS VILLAINS
In wrestling, in the parlance of kayfabe, there are two main classes of wrestler: the heroic, beloved “face” wrestler, and the nefarious, reviled “heel.” Within these contexts, they break down even further into dozens of subsets, like the Monster Heel or the Babyface. A babyface is a wrestler who is so purely popular, he can’t be anything but the hero — think John Cena, or the Rock; a monster heel is someone who is so huge and physically intimidating, they usually can’t be anything but a villain — such as Big Show (particularly early in his career), Kane, and Braun Strowman.
There’s sometimes an air of the supernatural about the monster heel, and the babyface usually does a lot of Make-A-Wish work. They are the real-life equivalents (in the scripted world of wrestling) of Superman and Doomsday; Batman and Bane. It’s the clearest possible delineation, black and white in the starkest contrast.
13. SUPERNATURAL INVASIONS
The border between the supernatural and the objectively real is much more porous in the worlds of comics and wrestling than they are in your everyday life. You could be walking down the streets of Marvel’s New York City and get sucked into one of Doctor Strange’s transdimensional portals and end up face-to-face with Mephisto, the literal devil (who still is not the most evil dude in that whole universe, which is bonkers).
If you’re in the WWE’s world, the chances are you may walk past the Demon Kane in the hallways, a man who (according to the WWE) literally controls fire, or his brother that he tried to kill in a house fire as a child, the Undertaker, who literally controls lightning. There is no shortage of demons and angels in four color funnybooks or inside the squared circle.
12. TEAMS & STABLES
Comic books tend to group together characters people like onto teams. Sometimes, there are narratively satisfying reasons to assemble the Avengers or unite the Justice League; sometimes, they just want people to buy more books. Wrestlers will sometimes band together in “stables,” which are a group of wrestlers who have something resembling a manifesto, or a cause, or they all just like the same stuff.
There have been babyface stables like the New Day, and some heel stables that got so over (became so popular, that is), that they became faces, like Hulk Hogan’s nWo in the mid-’90s. Sometimes a stable is a set roster, small enough to compete in a tag match, and other times they metastasize and absorb other wrestlers who need the popularity boost before the collapse under their own weight, which has happened to the Avengers and the Justice League at least a dozen times each.
11. HEROES BECOME VILLAINS, VILLAINS GET REDEEMED
Wrestling has a long tradition of the “turn;” the moment where a wrestler’s alignment switches, from bad to good, good to bad, or turning against both sides. When a bad guy turns good, he is taking a “face” turn; when it’s the other way around, it’s a “heel” turn. Usually the heel turn involves a friend or brother turning on their teammate, oftentimes for reasons that have never been addressed before — otherwise, where’s the shock value?
Comics recently had to endure the heel turn of Captain America, but he’s certainly not the first comic book hero to sacrifice his own morals and code. Likewise, Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight is certainly not the first time the villain has been giving the chance to become a hero. You either retire a face, or you live long enough to see yourself become the heel.
10. FINISHING MOVES & SUPERPOWERS
It’s the inevitable climax of many an X-Men story — there’s a bad guy far away from the team, so Colossus picks up Wolverine and throws him straight at the bad guy, claws out. It’s the famous Fastball Special, and just the two words invoke a sense of wonder in fans. All professional wrestlers have staked their claim on the same caliber of move, their signature moves and finishers. John Cena has the Attitude Adjustment (formerly the FU, but the name changed to reflect Cena’s more “respectable” character), Brock Lesnar has the F5 and CM Punk has the Go To Sleep.
9. EVENTS & CROSSOVERS VS. PAY-PER-VIEWS
Every six months or so, your favorite comics all put their storylines on hold to take part in some massive company crossover — it’s a tradition that hearkens back to the bad old days of Secret Wars. While there were “event” comics previously, like Contest of Champions, it’s only in the last thirty years that company-wide crossovers have really taken hold, with the event’s branding spreading over all the titles in the line like a vampire squid.
Much the same way, the WWE builds all its storylines to several major pay-per-view events, like SummerSlam, WrestleMania, Royal Rumble, and Survivor Series. Especially now that WWE has split its wrestlers into “brands,” with a draft placing them in either RAW or SmackDown, it makes the pay-per-views the only times that some wrestlers interact with each other.
8. DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION
With the rise of piracy and the decline of print media, alongside the amount of cord-cutters who choose to live with their own personal mishmash of video apps, industries have had to change. Comics have undergone a seismic shift since the launch of comiXology and Marvel Unlimited — you can now track down issues that have been out of print for decades with the touch of your phone screen.
Digital readership is constantly on the rise, while comic book stores are struggling to find their space in the current environment. Meanwhile, pay-per-views are becoming mostly a thing of the past, aside from UFC, the WWE counteracted this by introducing their own network, available for about ten bucks a month, that allows people to watch any current or past PPV they like, as well as keep current on all the WWE brands, from RAW and SmackDown to 205 Live and NXT.
7. THE RISE OF WOMEN
Wrestling has done a lot of soul-searching about the role of women within the company recently. For as long as there has been wrestling, there have been women in wrestling, but the history of wrestling often sidelines them (with notable exceptions like The Fabulous Moolah). While men worked lumberjack matches, women were relegated to “bra and panties” matches; female managers were treated as objects by both the wrestlers they managed, and their competitors.
There has been a women’s revolution in WWE — some of their best workers are female, like Alexa Bliss and Asuka, and they nixed the “Divas” division (with a pink butterfly championship belt) and replaced it with a Women’s division. Comics have struggled with this same issue, and seeing movies like Wonder Woman demolish the box office while we all get hype for Captain Marvel has renewed hope in a lot of fans.
6. DISTINCT ERAS
Wrestling came to be in the days of the carny circuits, traveling sideshows where a strongman would offer to wrestle anyone in the audience for an insane amount of prize money. It also gave birth to kayfabe and the scripting of results, as any newcomer who looked like they would beat the champ would get “accidentally” hit with a blackjack. Over the decades, territories were established across the US and Canada, which eventually consolidated under (mostly) the WWWF, the precursor to WWF and WWE in the WrestleMania era.
This striation of history mirrors the way that comics history is divided, with regards to Golden and Silver ages. Comics is less easy to make fit, as there’s a nebulous “Bronze/Copper” Age, but both comics and wrestling are currently in what they’re calling the “Modern” era — who knows what history will call it.
5. SHADOWY BEHIND-THE-SCENES MASTERMINDS
Comic books often feature plotlines that were set in motion by the machinations of behind-the-scenes villains that creative teams will tease out for months before a big reveal. Famously, Apocalypse began his life as a behind-the-scenes mastermind in X-Factor (who was originally intended to be The Owl), before his big reveal. See also Sebastian Shaw and his use of his mind-control abilities to manipulate the X-Men and the Hellfire Club for years.
Wrestling is often manipulated by the people playing authority figures in the company; in the early years of the company, the role was often filled by heel managers. However, one of the biggest upheavals in the company came when previously face commentator Vince McMahon (whose father owned the company, and who himself owned it by this point) turned heel after the infamous Montreal Screwjob, and became “Mr. McMahon,” the storyline owner as well as real owner.
4. PROMOS WHERE THE VILLAIN LAYS OUT THEIR PLAN
During the tail end of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman: Zero Year, the Riddler takes over Gotham and begins broadcasting his wicked intentions over the massive televisions in downtown Gotham on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. He leaves nothing to the imagination but his riddles; he expects Batman to fear him and be stumped by him. In wrestling, one of the crucial factors to whether or not a wrestler gets a push from management is their ability on the mic, to speak to the camera and make the audience feel like they are talking to them, as well as their opponent.
There’s no difference between the Riddler’s promos and Bray Wyatt appearing on a Titantron screen to taunt Finn Bálor from a distance — the heels and the supervillains are all cowards, hiding from the fight, and broadcasting their every intention (wrapped in riddles and mystery) to the world at large.
3. MAJOR COMPANIES VS. SCRAPPY INDIES
There’s a clear divide in comics, particularly when you look at the sales figures: there are a handful of dominant companies like DC, Marvel, and Image, who take up a disproportionate slice of the sales charts every month, and then there are smaller companies like Boom!, Alterna, and Vault. This imbalance mirrors the power of the WWE in the world of wrestling: the McMahon wrestling empire has become the dominant force in the industry, with more name recognition for the company itself and for its wrestlers, but hot on its heels are indie promotions like Evolve, Ring of Honor, PWG, and Lucha Underground.
There are even micro-promotions that are almost confined to a single city, like the extremely comic book-y Chikara, or Kaiju Big Battel in New York City, which is about half wrestling and half dudes in kaiju costumes destroying cardboard cities. There’s something for everyone at every level.
2. SERIALIZED STORYTELLING
Comics and wrestling both play out in an ongoing serialized format — where major television shows have season finales, and a sense of an ending, comics and wrestling rely on the soap opera model. Come hell or high water, there’s gotta be a new issue, or a new episode. Wrestling has gone on in the face of wrestlers dying in the ring; freelancers sacrifice their health to get comics onto the shelf.
Every week, you can tune in for a new episode of wrestling, and depending on the comic, you can get a new issue every month, sometimes even every week. The crossover and pay-per-views serve the same functions, to shake up rosters and realign key players to let people feel like they’re getting in on the beginning of the story, which allows them to ignore all the previous permutations (remember when John Cena was a white rapper from Boston?)
1. CONTENT CROSSOVER
At its most basic, the crossover between comics and wrestling is explicit in the fact that a lot of comic book characters wrestle and a lot of wrestlers have become comic book characters. The most famous examples of comic wrestlers are probably Spider-Man, who famously used his spider-powers to achieve wealth and fame through wrestling before the murder of his Uncle Ben, and The Thing, who was the only blockhead too dumb to stay down when he fought the Champion, and who wrestled in Marvel’s Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation for years.
On the flip side, WWE has branched into comics several times; their most recent foray into the funnybooks is a Boom! Studios licensed comic, but they just wrapped up several arcs of the wrestlers cross-pollinated into an L.A. Noire-type storyline. Even indie wrestlers like Lucha Underground’s Joey Ryan have comics about them (Joey Ryan: Big in Japan!)
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