Ask Chris #97: The Best and Worst of Wrestling Comics
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Q: What's the worst wrestling comic you've read? What's the best? -- @chudleycannons
A: I thought about saving this question for a few weeks until this year's WrestleMania rolled around, but today is 3/16, and Ask Chris logo artist Rusty Shackles has declared it to be Stone Cold Steve Austin Appreciation Day. So let's step into the squared circle of wrestling comics, and rest assured that we'll be seeing the Texas Rattlesnake before it's all over -- but probably not in the comic you'd expect.Up until recently, "The Last Shoot" from Spider-Man's Tangled Web #14 would've taken the top spot more or less by default. Don't get me wrong, it's a great comic, with a script by Brian Azzarello and Scott Levy (better known to wrestling fans as Raven) that tells the other side of Peter Parker's encounter with Crusher Hogan in his very first outing as Spider-Man. If you've never read it, it's the story that explains why Crusher Hogan was offering a cash prize for anyone who could last three minutes in the ring with him, and while that sounds like exactly the sort of thing that wouldn't require an explanation at all, it's done amazingly well. There's this great aspect to it about how the world changes when super-heroes come along, and whether you need a guy who knows how to grapple when anyone who wanders into a science exhibition can walk out with the proportionate strength of a spider.
It's actually my favorite thing Azzarello's ever done, a short, taut thriller that somehow manages to make a last-minute twist out of something that's been part of comics for fifty years.
But for a while, it was also one of the only comics about pro wrestling that was actually any good at all. Fortunately, that's no longer the case. The last few years have seen a sudden crop of really excellent wrestling comics.
The most prominent, of course, is Jarrett Williams' Super Pro K.O.!:
I love this comic. Williams has this incredible style that's like Osamu Tezuka and Bryan Lee O'Malley had a baby, and then raised it on a steady diet of early '90s WWF. It's expressive and exaggerated and kinetic, and the fight choreography is unbelievably good. He even builds the lettering, captions and sound effects into the pages, so that it all creates a single, beautifully crafted whole.
But it's more than that, too. SPKO has an energy to it that Williams puts into every page, with a knack for character and this pure, unironic love of wrestling that's contagious. Wrestling in SPKO is a world full of athletes and brawlers, tough veterans and eager rookies, heroes and villains. It's what you thought pro wrestling was when you were a kid, but better. And with slightly more DragonBall Z haircuts.
There's also the great La Mano Del Destino, by J. Gonzo:
When I first saw this one last year, I called it "thrilling luchador mysticism," and that's about the best three-word summary I can come up with. At the center of the story, there's this idea that there's a long Meso-American history of masked warriors who battle each other on grand stages of good and evil that has culminated in lucha libre. Around that, Gonzo has this story done up with this great retro-'60s aesthetic that's equal parts super-hero epic, wrestling action and kung fu movie, particularly when it's revealed that the main character has to defeat an entire army of rudos in order to weaken the diabolical mastermind that holds his promotion in a Satanic stranglehold:
You can even read the first issue for free online, and it's something I highly recommend.
If I had to pick an absolute favorite though -- and believe me, it's a tough choice -- I'd probably end up going with The Legend of Ricky Thunder, by Kyle Starks.
This is another one that you can read for free -- Starks has the entire story available as a webcomic at his site, and it is amazing. As you might expect from the title, it tells the story of Ricky Thunder, a small-time superstar with a mullet that qualifies as "genetically perfect wrestling hair" whose world gets shattered when he learns that the results of his matches have been predetermined.
And then the aliens show up, and it turns into a match to save the world from complete annihilation. Things end up looking pretty grim for Ricky, but fortunately, the ghost of Benjamin Franklin shows up to help him through the rough times:
And those are just the absolute highest of the highlight reel that is this comic. Starks takes the standard beats of a wrestling match, from Ric Flair's knife edge chops to Hulking Up, and then throws in some of the funniest dialogue I've ever read for good measure. When Ricky tells his alien opponent that "the weiner dog is in the dang snake hole," for instance, it is somehow hilarious and undeniably badass, and Starks even managed to make a Chuck Norris joke that was actually funny in the year 2011. It's like the Danny McBride movie that somehow never happened.
As for what would be the worst, well... there's certainly a lot of competition.
The obvious choices would probably be the WWF comics from the '90s that were produced by Chaos!, the company best known for Lady Death. The centerpiece of their line was a comic starring the Undertaker that operated on the premise that whenever he wrestled, he was actually fighting demons that only he could see, sending them back to Hell with his signature Tombstone piledriver. If you want to be charitable, you could call that interesting, but it was also completely unreadable, and so were the comics based on Mankind, Chyna, the Rock, and of course, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
But the thing about those comics is that of course they were awful. They were published by Chaos!, and putting out a comic that was actually good would've broken their eight-year streak of pure, uncompromising awfulness.
Those aren't the only contenders, though. There was Nash, the mercifully short-lived comic from Image that was extremely loosely based on Kevin Nash but set in a post-apocalyptic future. Then there was the Ultimate Warrior's Warrior, a perennial favorite of Worst Comic of All Time lists and a fascinatingly awful depiction of narcissism and complete lunacy, in which the fact that the title character/writer's arm tassles talk to him isn't even close to being the craziest thing. Honestly, though, they don't come a lot worse than 2010's WWE Heroes, a book that just flat-out refused to make sense on any level.
Still, there's one awful wrestling comic that will always have a special place in my heart: World Championship Wrestling, a twelve-issue epic published by Marvel in 1993:
In what is quite possibly the single most Southern thing I have ever done in my life, I picked up most of the issues of the WCW comic at a bait shop when I was ten years old. I ended up reading them over and over, and as much as I loved pro wrestling, it wasn't because I thought they were any good. It was more along the lines of being a kid who really liked comics who somehow find himself on a fishing trip, which meant I pretty much read the only thing I had handy.
But even then, I knew they were terrible. #11 has what still reigns as the gold standard of an artist just not giving a f***, when Ron Wilson drew a man looking at himself in the mirror and decided to go with a completely different facial expression for his reflection:
To its credit, WCW was actually a pretty accurate comic book translation of what wrestling fans saw on the screen, lousy art aside. The characters were the characters, good guys and bad guys who were in full ring attire at all times, and the story focused on Sting, WCW's top babyface, as he tried to gain the World Heavyweight Championship despite the machinations of bad guys like "Stunning" Steve Austin and his long, flowing blonde hair.
Or at least, that's what it was for the most part. Occasionally, it would veer into straight up Marvel Super-Heroes territory, like that time Mick Foley tried to blow up a cruise ship with a bundle of dynamite.
The driving conflict of the book was even weirder. It focused on a mysterious wrestler called the Ghoul, who tormented Sting through a series of increasingly complex machinations that, at one point, even involved bashing him in the head with a shovel in order to give him amnesia, so that he could dye his hair black, turn evil, and stomp on a sick child's birthday cake. Originally, the Ghoul was revealed to be "Ravishing" Rick Rude, but in true wrestling and comic book fashion, it turned out that was just a fake-out.
The Ghoul was actually Crusher Craig -- or was he?! -- a creation of the comic who was said to be Sting's trainer, whose legs were broken when he was teaching Sting the secrets of his finishing move, the Scorpion Death Lock, and who had entered into a Faustian bargain with the Devil in order to get his revenge.
It's not that it's crazy that makes that part so bad, it's that they're totally stealing the Undertaker's gimmick.
So yeah. It is not very good, even if it does have the truly mystifying element of having fictional jobbers specifically created for the comics so that it could introduce wrestlers in squash matches. And also, there's this:
That's all we have for this week, but if you've got a question you'd like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!