Depending on whether or not you’re a fan of professional wrestling and comic books, you probably find this article title to be either ironic or fairly obvious. If you are not a fan of pro wrestling, but enjoy my articles on comic books, I encourage you to at least give this article a read so you can understand why one genre influenced me to love the other.
Unfortunately, the name of the title is a bit misleading. While this originally started as a blog dedicated to comic books springing forth from daily posts on Facebook, I write about other things too. I’m a film critic and an absolute nut for the wacky world of professional wrestling. In fact, wrestling was my first love. When I was barely even old enough to remember things, I was introduced to the genre by my brother and it’s just kind of stuck with me ever since.
Wrestling influenced my interest in comic books. And if you don’t understand why, let me explain it. Wrestling, like comic books, is a morality play featuring an idealized heroic figure against a hated villain in over-the-top, exciting combat with a pre-determined outcome. Some characters are dark and gritty, some characters are bright and colorful, but it all boils down to this core idea of a hero of the people overcoming some horrible villain so that viewers can live vicariously through that experience.
Wrestling is not a sport, and any fan knows that by now, so let’s please skip that line of conversation. Professional wrestling is more appropriately described as “episodic action drama where everyone does their own stunts in front of a live audience.” Once you accept professional wrestling for what it is instead of focusing on what it isn’t, you can learn to appreciate it for what it is. And maybe you’ll realize why being a comic book nerd and a wrestling nerd are actually pretty similar.
I posted the picture about Superman battling Lex Luthor for a reason. If you strip away the fact that Superman is a solar-powered alien with a grab-bag of abilities no mortal man is capable of and Lex is a mad scientist, you are left with the two characters at their essential, archetypal core. We have the hero of the people, defender of the innocent underdog and virtuous champion of all that is right in Superman. Lex Luthor is the rich, privileged and manipulative jerk that shoves his superiority in your face; physically weaker but smarter and with more resources. It’s a classic trope; Superman and Lex Luthor are polar opposites of each other by design. It’s why the rivalry will always be iconic and successful.
Now let me show you where I first discovered this trope as a kid.
If you’re over the age of twenty-five or so I’m sure you know the guy with a bald spot and mustache is Hulk Hogan. Other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson no other professional wrestler has been able to break into the public conscience the way Hulk Hogan did in the 1980’s. He was the face of the World Wrestling Federation during their first boom period, taking it from a regional territory in the Northeast to a national entertainment juggernaut. Consequently, he’s usually the first name the average person thinks of when they hear the phrase “pro wrestling”. Not unlike Superman for a lot of people who never really got into comic books but have some idea of what a superhero is from media.
Like Superman, the character of Hulk Hogan was a larger than life pillar of physical and moral strength. He would ramble on about the importance of “training, saying your prayers and taking your vitamins” while showing off his twenty-four inch biceps. In the ring, he would overcome the physical strengths of powerhouses like King Kong Bundy and Andre the Giant or bulldoze through smaller, smarter and slimier competitors like “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase or “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. And much like Superman, Hogan was a defender of “The American Way” in the middle of the Cold War and faced off against “evil” foreign wrestlers like Nikolai Volkoff from Russia or The Iron Sheik from Iran.
So yeah, he was about as close to living, breathing comic book superhero as one could get. When I got into wrestling in the middle of the 1990’s, Hogan was already a legend and his image was pretty secure. He wasn’t working in the World Wrestling federation anymore, but had gone over to their rival promotion World Championship Wrestling, which is what my brother grew up on. And my first clear memory of wrestling is seeing Hulk Hogan against WCW’s most prolific villain, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
And no, to this day I still don’t have any idea what a “Nature Boy” is, except possibly the single greatest professional wrestler that ever lived. For over thirty years Ric Flair crafted his name by giving fans exciting and athletic matches (often going an hour), delivering memorable one liners in his interviews and by establishing himself as an object of sexual desire for women. The character was rich and famous and reveled in this, bragging about his expensive clothes and cars, making everyone around him feel inferior. He had a gang of friends called The Four Horsemen who would help him beat down the heroes of the promotion and earn the ire of every fan. But he was so entertaining doing it that many people found they had to respect the man whether they liked him or not.
The first match I can recall watching was Hulk Hogan challenging Ric Flair for the WCW World Championship at Bash at the Beach 1994. Now, for those of you who may not be overly familiar with wrestling, the genre uses tropes of combat sports to tell their stories. Nobody truly wins championships in wrestling since the results are predetermined, but being a champion still matters in wrestling. It’s a vote of supreme confidence that an individual is everything that a promotion wants to represent their company; somebody who is the best at what they do. It is like a lifetime achievement award and means the promotion is fully behind you. So in the context of professional wrestling, Hogan beating Flair is the equivalent of Superman saving the world from Lex Luthor and proving that good is stronger than evil.
While the WWF’s business model in the 1980’s was to have Hulk Hogan as their dominant heroic champion overcoming all of the odds against villains, WCW believed there was more money in having their top villain keep a vice grip on the top prize. So while Hogan was the dominant champion of one promotion, Flair was the dominant champion of another. So this match was basically designed to settle the issue over who was the better champion once and who really was the biggest star in wrestling. Hogan won that match, proved that the good guys always won, and it was a happy ending.
I can look back now as an adult and be a bit cynical about all of this. Hogan was definitely the biggest crossover star in wrestling; he made the business grow in unprecedented ways and attracted millions of fans who never would have given the genre a chance. Nobody can take that away from him. But as a dedicated fan of the art of professional wrestling, I know that Flair was the harder worker, the more gifted athlete and the better interview. Hogan may have been the star that pulled people into reading the narrative, but Flair was the guy telling the story.
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The whole experience of Flair vs. Hogan was thrilling to me and captivated my imagination. It influenced my interests tremendously and I can safely say that I would not have the same obsession with wrestling or comic books if I didn’t get hooked into the drama at such an early age.
So whether you came to this blog for comic books, professional wrestling or movies, just know they all matter to me and the reasons are all intertwined. I can’t celebrate my love for one without the other two.
They all have a place on my shelf.