In celebration of WWE’s SummerSlam event, ComicBook.com published the first part of a list yesterday (here) that takes a look at what professional wrestling and the comic book industry share in common. Here’s the remaining entries of that list.
5. Evil Foreigners
Need to find a gimmick for a wrestler that will give him instant heel heat? Just give him a flag from some non-American country, have him say a couple of derogatory things about U.S. foreign policy or our collective penchant for cheeseburgers and high fructose corn syrup, and you got yourself the next big threat.
Such characterization is even effective for former American heroes. When the WWE was looking for a main event to Wrestlemania VII, the promotion utilized the outpouring of American patriotism brought on by the Persian Gulf crisis in the Middle East and turned former red, white and blue flag-waver Sgt. Slaughter into an evil Iraqi sympathizer. For that extra dose of heel-ness, at SummerSlam 1991, Slaughter teamed with General Adnan and Colonel Mustafa (from Iraq, ‘natch) against Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior.
In comics, some of its greatest villains are anti-American foreigners – guys like Baron Von Strucker, Johann Schmidt (Red Skull) and Victor Von Doom. Strucker and the Red Skull of course were introduced as Nazi sympathizers, whereas Doom actually rules his own country, Latveria, making him not only a threat to the Fantastic Four, but a potential fly in the ointment to the better efforts of NATO.
4. Epic Heel and Face Turns
One of the most successful eras in professional wrestling was kicked off at WCW’s Bash at the Beach in 1996, when lifelong good guy, Hulk Hogan unveiled himself as the mysterious “third man,” joining up with a pair of “Outsiders” from the WWE in Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, who (in storyline terms) came to the WCW in order to destroy it from the inside. Hogan completed the epic heel turn when he jumped on the mic and told the booing fans to shove it, ushering it the New World Order, aka, the NWO.
Less than a year later, Steve Austin, who, a few years earlier had joined the WWE as the “Ringmaster,” an evil, if not boring protégé for the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, wrestled babyface Bret Hart at Wrestlemania XIII. Hart locked Austin in his patented sharpshooter submission hold, but rather than submit, Stone Cold passed out, drawing adoration and cheers from the fans. After the match, Austin turned face (and Hart went heel), giving rise to one of WWE’s most successful “good guys” of all time.
Heel/face turns are the bread and butter of professional wrestling, and when done right (like the two aforementioned instances), they can lead to some of the most successful angles ever. With that mind, comic books have produced some epic heel/face turns over the years, leading to some of the best comic book stories ever. Like the time Jean Grey, an original member of the X-Men, became possessed by the cosmic Phoenix force, killed an entire planet of people, and produced the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” On the flipside, Hawkeye, Black Widow and Emma Frost all started out as heels and generated a ton of commercial success as babyfaces.
Extra credit to all those heel/face turns that were accompanied with an epic double cross. Like when the Four Horsemen kicked Sting out of the group ("Sting, you never were a horseman"), or when Terra sold out the entire Teen Titans team to Deathstroke during the "Judas Contract."
3. Characters We Can’t Decide Are Heels or Faces
Unfortunately, not every heel/face turn in comics or wrestling is well executed and consistently maintained. Both mediums have their share of personalities whose characterization seemingly sway based on who is writing them at the moment. Kane might be a corporate stooge right now, but over the span of his career he’s been a psychotic monster, a loveable freak, an ally of his brother, an enemy of his brother, an ally of his brother, an enemy of his bro … you get the picture. And don’t forget, when the Big Show’s music hits, you can never be so sure who’s he’s going to chokeslam on the way to ring. Does he even know up until that moment he picks someone up?
Sometimes heel/face confusion arises because a promotion has turned a wrestler face despite the fact that he’s such a wonderful heel. Did anyone really buy Lex Luger as a patriotic good guy when he walked around the ring looking cocky and apathetic?
Most comic book fans probably need an appendix at the end of an issue that has Venom or Lobo in it. Are those two fighting on the side of good or evil these days? Maybe it depends on whether or not they’re carrying their own solo series, or showing up in someone else’s. How about that time where Thanos was aligned with Warlock and the Infinity Watch during the 1990s? Because when somebody thinks of nihilistic “Mad Titan” who courts death, he thinks of a potential hero.
2. Evil Authority Figures
In the late 1990s, WWE chairman Vince McMahon revolutionized the industry when he stepped out from behind the announce table and made himself a central character in the promotion’s ongoing drama between good and evil ("Bret screwed Bret"). McMahon embraced the role of being a nasty, conniving, authority figure who would make life miserable for the WWE’s most popular stars, before eventually getting his comeuppance. Ever since the peak of the McMahon vs. Steve Austin feud, various wrestling promotions have used this trope ad infinitum. In fact, the current main event of SummerSlam, John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar, is based on the Triple H-led “Authority’s” desire to get the belt off Cena and back onto a sanctioned member. It’s what’s “best for business” after all.
Perhaps what makes this trope so successful (if not a bit overused), is that as a whole, nobody really likes authority figures. As such, we’ve seen this idea implemented quite a bit in comics. In Frank Miller’s iconic Dark Knight Returns, Superman was depicted as a villain because he had become a tool for the U.S. government in its war against Batman. Was anyone here actually pulling for Supes when Batman proved that guile and technological ingenuity trumps the “Man of Steel?” During Marvel’s Civil War in the mid-2000s, Tony Stark became one of the biggest villains going when he represented the pro-government Superhuman Registration Act.
Even a guy like Nick Fury, who is often depicted as a hero, is not necessarily the world’s most liked good guy since he’s in charge of a secret government agency in S.H.I.E.L.D. that may, or may not be doing things that benefit the established good guys.
1. Everybody Loves the Antihero
John Cena might have his supporters, but there’s a reason why at least half the fans in attendance will be booing him during his SummerSlam match against Brock Lesnar. Over the past few years, Cena has been depicted as being too clean-cut and virtuous, without any kind of edge whatsoever. Meanwhile, CM Punk, who anointed himself the “voice of the voiceless,” is beloved for his antihero mentality (despite unexpectedly retiring earlier this year).
Of course, wrestling’s ultimate antiheroes were Stone Cold and the Rock, who were on top of the WWE during the industry’s most lucrative period ever. A case could be made that even WCW’s NWO became such a phenomenon because of their anti-authority mentality. The New World Order might have done some evil things along the way, but what high schooler with a chip on his shoulder about “the man” didn’t own one of those black and white NWO shirts in the 90s?
Like him or love him, Wolverine is one of the most popular comic book characters in history, in large part because of his anti-authority, antihero behavior that makes him far more emotionally complex than some of his peers. Or even Batman, who does operate by a moral code, but is viewed by Gotham’s authority figures as a potential threat and a vigilante.
As readers, we tend to gravitate towards these antihero characters because they are a far better representation of what it is to human instead of someone who is just consistently “good” all the time. And in wrestling, we generally support these characters because it means they probably get to kick Vince McMahon in the groin at some point.