This past summer, one of the biggest stories in the world of pro wrestling revolved around two wrestlers featured on WWE's "NXT" show: Sasha Banks and Bayley. As the story unfolded over the course of months, fans watched as the two went back and forth in a series of incredible matches, with the feud culminating when the opportunistic Banks was ultimately defeated by the heroic Bayley. It's a simple, timeless story, which the pair told brilliantly, and while it was told in live action rather than through words and drawings on a page, there's a lesson in the narrative which Marvel and DC Comics could learn from.
Aside from the fact that Bayley and Banks are both tremendously talented, charismatic wrestlers, the story worked for two reasons. First, we got to see a hero fight a villain, and secondly, the narrative and motivations were presented clearly and to the point. This rivalry, built up from years of history between the two, gave the audience a very simple narrative follow: Banks is a bully, and Bayley was the underdog. We had someone to root for, and someone to root against, and over the course of three months, we watched as Bayley gave everything she had to emerge victorious over an opportunistic, conniving, vicious opponent. At the end of the day, fans saw the inspirational hero holding the championship, having conquered the odds.
Which is exactly where comics have been missing the mark for the last decade or so. Since the end of "Final Crisis," there seems to have been a determined effort within superhero comics to withhold decisive victories from their heroes. Whereas there used to be the idea that a villain would be seeded into a comic early on in the run, and after a period of time emerge into a giant event that culminated the story, we're now firmly in a period of "middle." Marvel and DC's biggest comics no longer reach a climax, because each story is now just a ramp to pass over in order to arrive at the next story. As big as it was, "Flashpoint" led to the New 52 without a big climax, and Marvel's current "Secret Wars" is arguably a (better told) version of the same concept.
It's not that it's bad to have "middle" stories -- it's just that after a certain point, you want to get at least one climactic moment. One victory for the heroes, to affirm themselves as inspirational, aspirational and iconic. Bayley winning two matches against Sasha Banks -- one where she won the title, and a second where she retained it -- has helped cement the character as a new icon for young wrestling fans. The WWE have been quick to champion the fact Bayley's fanbase is largely made up of young girls, even incorporating a particular "superfan," Izzy, into the second of the two matches between Bayley and Banks. People want to see someone represent them, and young fans like Izzy are bolstered when they get to finally see their heroes win.
And that's another reason why the Bayley/Banks storyline has been so acclaimed: In an industry that has shifted more and more to a roster filled with "shades of gray" characters, this was a tale featuring a clear hero against a classic villain. A similar shift has happened in comics, at Marvel and DC in particular. The last few crossover "event" storylines have tended to avoid a simple hero-vs-villain battle, instead offering variations on heroes battling heroes, or villains and heroes merging into somewhat generic alliances with which readers aren't really able to empathize. Marvel's last event featuring heroes vs villains was arguably "Siege," back in 2010, with subsequent stories like "Avengers vs. X-Men," "Schism," "AXIS" and even "Secret Wars" all focusing instead on murky conflicts stemming from within the heroic roster. When heroes do come up against villains, such as in "Second Coming" or "Fear Itself," they tend to win a small victory, but lose overall. There's no catharsis for fans.
And that's what we need. You can sense in comics a feeling of hopelessness, a feeling that comics are just going round in circles, as endless variants on the same few marketing concepts are presented to the audience. For years, comics have been hyped up on the idea of being darker and edgier, to a point where even Captain Carrot has been reimagined as a vicious, nasty piece of work. We're in a world where the X-Men aren't enough for Marvel -- the Inhumans have to be a hated and feared minority group as well. Everything is edge, and there's no point to proceedings as fans have become cynical to the idea that we'll ever see any of the hated and feared characters win the respect they clearly deserve.
Darker and edgier stories seem to be the standard for comics nowadays, with everybody crushed beneath unbeatable odds. The Avengers were defeated ahead of "Secret Wars" and failed to save the world. The Justice League had to bring in murderers to stop "Forever Evil." In the big, heavily marketed storylines, you simply don't get to see the heroes save the day. That's why more and more fans are turning to "Batgirl," to "The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl," to "Rocket Girl." That's where we actually get to see heroes that inspire respect. That's where we finally get something to cheer. Given a choice between grim "event" storylines where we know the heroes won't get to win, and a book like "Ms. Marvel" where Kamala Khan is allowed to prevail -- is it any surprise that "Ms. Marvel" dominates the headlines?
Having someone to admire and respect is really, really good fun, simply put. And you can see it working for Bayley. She has a great image and inspirational story, but without that victory over Sasha, she wouldn't be half as important to the WWE. She may not be on the main show ["WWE Raw"], but she's winning headlines through hard work and a simple, admirable story. By triumphing decisively against the sneering heel, Bayley created a connection for young fans, brought them in, and provides them something to cling to, like Batgirl has done for DC, and Kamala Khan at Marvel.
As a comics fan, it's frustrating to see companies push a morally dubious universe filled with double-crossing and misery. I come to superheroes because I want to see inspiration, aspiration, hard work and justice. Traditionally, wrestling and comics have a huge amount of crossover appeal, both being soap operas mixed with theatricality and melodrama. Where wrestling has the advantage is that even in periods and storylines where the writing is poor, there's a basic understanding that we can't live in a fictionalized world filled solely with misery and defeat. Even if the villains spend most of their time on top, cheating their way to victory and then bullying those beneath them, we're still given moments where the hero triumphs. Where Bayley, after 30 minutes of wrestling against Sasha Banks, finally stands up and claims her victory.
So, the question is simple: When are comics going to give us our cathartic victory? When are we going to return to huge, complex universes which are based around one foundation, one bedrock -- superheroes we can cheer for?
Because that's something we could all use a little more of.