‘WWE Superstars’ #1 Is Straight Up Crazo [Review]
I've loved pro wrestling almost as long as I've loved comics, but it takes a lot to get me interested in those two things joining together. Books like Super Pro KO and The Legend of Ricky Thunder are absolutely fantastic, don't get me wrong, but when it comes to making comics that are actually based on the real-life stars of World Wrestling Entertainment, I've been burned pretty much every single time. That said, if there's one thing that could've gotten me excited about WWE Superstars, the latest attempt at bringing pro wrestling to the page, it was the announcement that it was being written by one of my all-time favorites, Mick Foley.
That was more than enough to get me to read it, and I'm glad I did, because this book is ridiculously entertaining -- and part of that comes from the fact that it is also one thousand percent bonkers.
Comics that take on real-life wrestlers tend to go one of three ways. The first is that they just present wrestling as it is, like the old Marvel World Championship Wrestling comic, focusing on the in-ring action and the struggle for championships in the same style that you can see on TV every Monday. It's interesting -- usually because it's weird as all hell -- but it's also ultimately self-defeating, because the comics clearly don't matter in the scheme of things. Throw in the delay that you get from publishing and the shifting alliances and feuds that keep people interested, and they seem pointless and out of date from the word go.
The second option, the one taken by books like the Ultimate Warrior's legendarily unreadable Warrior or the hilariously terrible Nash comic that Image put out in the '90s, is to take the characters from pro wrestling and remove them completely from the ring and put them into some other setting, and again, it just doesn't work. As appealing as those characters might be, they're pretty inextricably tied into the world of pro wrestling. As much as you might like the Warrior, you probably like him for reasons that are not related to talking armbands and the philosophy of Destrucity, and even if you were the biggest nWo fan at the Nitro party, absolutely no one wants to read a comic set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that opens with a drawing of Kevin Nash's sex face.
The third option is to sort of combine the two, like the old Chaos! Comics Undertaker book or the WWE's last attempt at a comic, WWE Heroes. Those books both used the in-ring action as a background for more fantastical stories, like sending renegade demons to hell with the Tombstone Piledriver or whatever the hell was supposed to be happening in WWE Heroes. With a good enough story (or a weird enough one, like Big Apple Takedown, the novel about Batista, Chavo Guerrero and John Cena moonlighting as secret agents between episodes of Smackdown) that might actually work, but since every attempt thus far has been monumentally unreadable, it doesn't have a great track record.
And then there's WWE Superstars.
If I had to put it into one of those categories, I'd probably lump it in with the third option because when you get right down to it, it is this bizarre combination of wrestling and completely non-wrestling-related adventures, but in a way that's unlike any I've seen in the attempt, a way that makes it absolutely hilarious from the first page. See, what Foley, cowriter Shane Riches and artist Alitha Martinez have done with this comic is take the stars of WWE and recast them in this noirish crime setting full of corrupt cops, good men framed for crimes they didn't commit, hard-boiled detectives trying to uncover the truths and vigilante anarchists hell-bent on bringing down an entire city.
They just happen to be crooked cops, vigilantes, and detectives who also do pro wrestling moves on each other in wrestling rings and this is something that is never addressed or explained. It might be my favorite thing that has ever happened in comics.
Seriously: Here's Randy Orton, Titan City's corrupt district attorney with ties to the mob, waging a smiling smear campaign against his chief political rival, Alberto Del Rio:
And here's District Attorney Randy Orton, talking about that election, six pages later:
No one ever remarks about this, and that's not the only time that it happens. The book opens with John Cena, given the noir hook of a cop who's been jailed for a year on trumped up charges because he may or may not know the whereabouts of $10,000,000 that everyone in the book is gunning for, being released. Before he gets out, though, the crooked prison guards Zeb Colter, Antonio Cesaro and Jack Swagger, along with Camacho and Hunico, want to give him one last beating. This is pretty standard fare for any sort of hard-boiled story, but here, there just happens to be a wrestling ring set up in the prison gymnasium, and the fight ends when John Cena does his finishing move on his attackers. Presumably he just walks out of the jail after that, right out into the world where police detectives can suplex hired thugs through the District Attorney's desk with no actual repercussions whatsoever.
It is absolutely charming. I love it, partly because it applies the rules and logic of pro wrestling to a larger world in a way that is hilariously enjoyable, and partly because it provides so many opportunities for the cast. Most wrestling-themed comics focus on one or two characters at a time, but Foley, Riches and Martinez have jammed their book with as many wrestlers as they can, and they've done it in a way that actually manages to make some kind of sense. Any sliver of a gimmick that the wrestlers have is expanded for their role in the city. The Miz, for example, is the host of some pretty awful "Miz TV" talk show segments on Monday Night Raw, so here, he's recast as a crusading journalist trying to bring down Orton's corrupt regime. The Undertaker makes a hilarious cameo appearance as a tattoo artist, presumably because the real-life Undertaker has a lot of tattoos. Bray Wyatt and the Wyatt family are a bizarre trio of bayou cultists on TV, so here, they're... well, they're a bizarre trio of bayou cultists. That one was a pretty easy fit, it seems.
The only negative I have on that part is that no luchadors have shown up yet, leaving me pretty excited to find out whether they just don't bother explaining why some dudes wear masks.
The biggest weak spot is Martinez's art, but to be honest, it's actually a little better than I expected. Papercutz is pretty notoriously dodgy on the art side of things so I went in prepared for the worst, but the biggest problem here is how inconsistent it all is. This is a book that involves a pretty tricky brand of cartooning that combines drawing dynamic action with doing recognizable versions of actual people, and Martinez is all over the map in this book. She'll have pages where everyone looks exactly as they should, with solid (if heavily photo referenced) versions of the characters, right next to pages where everyone looks flat and plastic and has weird doll hands:
Those don't look like panels from the same artist, let alone panels that are in the same book on adjacent pages, and the whole effect is pretty jarring -- especially since they're behind gorgeous variant covers from the likes of Dean Haspiel and Jill Thompson. It's almost enough to derail my enjoyment of the book, and I hope it starts to get more on the side of the panel on the right than the plasticine, nightmare-fuel version of Alberto Del Rio there on the left.
For now, though, there's enough here in sheer concept and execution that I'm in to see where it goes. It turns out that a crime story set in an entire city built to operate on pro wrestling logic is exactly what I have been missing in my life.