Ask Chris #185: Superheroes Of The Squared Circle
Q: Who is the best wrestler in Marvel or DC? — @Mike_Zeidler
A: I’ll be honest with you, folks: Over the past week, I have pretty much done nothing but watch the new WWE Network for five straight days, so it was a foregone conclusion that this week’s column was going to be about pro wrestling. It was either this, or a lengthy examination of what the tag team tournament from Starrcade ’89: Future Shock had in common with Secret Wars II, and I don’t think any of us want to sit through that.
Now, I’ve written about comics that were about pro wrestling in the past, but if we’re talking about which mainstream superheroes would fare best inside the squared circle, well, there’s certainly an obvious answer.
Canonically speaking, the superhero who’s had the most actual success in wrestling is none other than Benjamin J. Grimm, the Fantastic Four’s ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, who joined up with the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation back in 1985. Unsurprisingly, I genuinely love the idea behind this, which is that there were so many mutants and mad scientists running around giving people superpowers that there were enough of them who decided not to commit crimes or fight for justice, and instead joined up with a wrestling promotion for people who could lift a minimum of ten tons, and this was somehow not the most popular form of entertainment on Earth.
It’s such a weird little quirk of the Marvel Unvierse, but in its own way, it makes perfect sense. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a little genetic tinkering from the Power Broker, are you going to want to be like the Constrictor, a dude who routinely gets his teeth knocked out by the Hulk and once got beaten up by Gambit, or are you going to want long limousines, jet airplaines, and the ten pounds of gold? I think that choice is pretty clear.
As for how the Thing got involved in the King of Sports, well, it was the ’80s, and this is quite possibly the 1980sest story of all time. That whole series is a bizarre little time capsule, but there was a point where Bashful Benjamin was just wandering around from one pop-culture fad to another. In the issues right before he joins up with the UCWF, he’s hanging out with the Thunderriders, a team of dirtbike stuntmen, and leaves them just in time to sign up with UCWF and introduce the world to the superheroic “enhancement talent” that is D-Man. If he’d only teamed up with U.S. 1 to haul an 18-wheeler full of cosmic cubes across the country, it would’ve been the best comic of all time.
Quick aside: Can we talk about the Thunderriders for a second? Because they are amazing. Originally known as Team America, they were another of those obscure early ’80s toy licenses that Marvel picked up and built an entire story around. In this case, the story that a creative team including Jim Shooter, Denny O’Neil, Bill Mantlo, Ed Hannigan and Steven Grant came up with involved a former CIA agent leading a group of five dirtbike stuntmen who performed across the country while secretly fighting crime. Every time they’d get into a tight spot, they’d be rescued by The Maurader, a masked, black-clad biker who turned out to be the psychic manifestation of their x-treme dirtbike skills that would possess a team member’s wife. Their arch-nemesis was a HYDRA’s middle manager, who only joined because HYDRA offers health benefits. Seriously. It is amazing.
Anyway, after spending some time with them, the Thing, who was part of a superhero team that literally saved the world from being eaten by a giant purple man from space on more than one occasion, had a brief stint as their World Champion, and I have to imagine that was the extension of what happened a few years earlier in Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson’s Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7:
For my money, this is one of the all-time greatest Marvel Comic stories, perfectly hitting that balance of simple and completely ridiculous. A cosmic being called The Champion of the Universe shows up and threatens to destroy the world unless Earth’s superheroes go one-on-one in the ring with him in Madison Square Garden, and after everyone else is disqualified, it’s up to the Thing to do the job. The Champion wins, but Ben Grimm refuses to stay down and keeps getting up to keep fighting. It’s kind of the perfect representation of his never-say-die attitude, with the added bonus of getting to see Wonder Man beaten to a bloody pulp and get DQed for running away.
Admittedly, that story was about boxing, but by 1985, when Hulkamania had given wrestling one of its biggest boom periods in pop culture, it was only natural for comics to add in a little more sports entertainment. Thus, Unlimited Class Wrestling and the Thing’s all-too-short run with the title.
One more thing to note about the UCWF: I’m actually a fan of Ben Grimm as a pro wrestler in the comics, because my love of pro wrestling is powerful enough to cross into Marvel Comics continuity. When Cullen Bunn and Tom Fowler brought it back in Deadpool Team-Up #888 a couple years ago, Fowler drew me into the crowd as a spectator during the Thing and Deadpool’s tag team match. I’m the one holding the soda, next to Adam Warrock:
Aside from the Thing, there’s one other major Marvel character with close ties to the world of professioal wrestling, and that, of course, is Spider-Man, whose very first act upon realizing that he has super-powers is to hop into the ring against Crusher Hogan:
Again, I love this — not just because it’s a rare appearance of pro wrestling in comics, but because it’s one of the few Marvel origins that actually makes more sense now than when it was originally published. I mean, look at Peter Parker. He’s this nerdy kid who’s suddenly super strong and super agile, and so he decides to put on a straight up luchador mask to go fight crime. Of course that guy’s into pro wrestling. He even cuts promos on his opponents while he’s fighting them.
That’s a straight up flying headscissor takedown, y’all, and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise.
The thing is, all the crazy smack-talking and acrobatic luchador moves aren’t what you’d get from a kid who really liked pro wrestling in 1963, it’s what you’d get from a kid who grew up with pro wrestling today. It’s one of the reasons that it made perfect sense to keep that part of the origin virtually the same for the first Sam Raimi movie, just updating things from the giant grappler in trunks to the Macho Man Randy Savage. Seriously, there is no way in hell that Spider-Man has not annoyed at least Slyde or the Kangaroo into submission by continually asking them if they smell what he’s cookin’. And really, how prophetic a name was “Crusher Hogan?’
Speaking of ol’ Crusher, he’s reappeared a few times in comics over the years, too. The most notable is probably the aptly titled “Whatever Happened to Crusher Hogan?” from Amazing Spider-Man #271:
It’s a good story — I first read it in the Very Best of Spider-Man paperback that I had as a kid — but I call shenanigans on it based purely on Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz retconning Hogan as a washed-up palooka at a boxing gym rather than tying it into wrestling. Then again, the bad guy in that issue was someone looking to fix the fights, so I suppose pro wrestling might’ve made that a little redundant.
The other major Crusher Hogan appearance comes from a story in Spider-Man: Tangled Web #14, drawn by Guiseppe Camuncoli and co-written by Brian Azzarello and Scott Levy, a professional wrestler that you might know as Raven. It’s a really good comic and adds a very interesting, noirish, crime-story take to the setup of Crusher Hogan and his challenge to take on all comers, but it’s also ultimately really depressing, and casts Spider-Man as the direct cause of a whole lot of suffering. It is, however, that prototype Spider-Man in the webbed mask and the sweatshirt who let his uncle die, not the super-hero who learned his lesson, so it’s actually pretty easy to justify it, but man, it gets dark at the end.
There are a few other superheroes who have tried their hand at the noble art of grappling — Superman got into the ring a few times in the Silver Age, which is every bit as weird as it sounds — but there’s one last one that bears mentioning, if only how bad it was, and that’s the time Batman was a pro wrestler. Not the regular version, you understand, but the alternate version created for Stan Lee and Joe Kubert’s Just Imagine Stan Lee’s Batman.
If you’ve never read Just Imagine…, don’t. Despite the presence of a lot of talented artists and the ultimate stunt of having Stan Lee recreate the major figures of the Distinguished Competition’s roster, the whole thing was pretty abysmal, as evidenced by the fact that it gave us pro wrestling Batman and still wasn’t any good.
The short version is that ex-con Wayne Williams (get it? Because Stan Lee characters have alliterative names?) was trying to find the man who killed his father, “Handz,” so he decided to secretly investigate the crime by becoming a famous pro wrestler named Batman. He literally sews himself a bat costume, walks into a gym, and then is a millionaire three weeks later. I mean, sure, that’s probably about as plausible as a magic ring from space that lets you make giant glowing green chainsaws, but still, you have to draw the line somewhere.
Then again, the regular DC Universe Batman does wear a bright yellow belt that people are always trying to take away from him, and spent a lot of time in the ’90s fighting a dude on steroids who wore a lucha mask and did an actual pro wrestling backbreaker as his signature move. Maybe he’s been a pro wrestler all along?