Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Nexus Of Superhero Comics and Pro Wrestling

I'm sure someone, at one time or another, has queried Paul O'Brien's dual critiques of both (primarily superhero) comics and his incisive commentaries on pro wrestling. The implication seems to be that one is more or less valid than the other and the concept that one could like both is, apparently, quite unusual.

Only--and yes, I am aware that anecdotal evidence is poor justification for one's opinions--I know a lot of people who are fans of both wrestling and comics. And when you get right down to it, it's not hard to see why that is.

Superhero comics feature colourful characters, usually with muscled physiques and other quirks, usually solving their problems through violence in stories in which good, inevitably, triumphs over evil in what is, ultimately, a kind of catharsis for the reader.

Pro wrestling is a type of performance art featuring colourful characters with muscled physiques and other strange quirks, solving their problems with violence in pre-planned storylines wherein good inevitably triumphs over evil, and what is ultimately a kind of catharsis for the viewer.

In short--they're not that different. Even moreso when you look at recent trends in both.

To wit: After years of more or less adhering to the basic model with a bit of individual variation here and there and a sort of gradual evolution of the form happening in a slow but steady fashion, a variety of factors converged to alter the basic dynamic. Characters became more complex, the overall tone became darker, and the old black/white good/evil model was largely set aside for characters that worked more in shades of gray. While this worked at first and revitalised the entire genre to a large extent, as time went on, it became the very norm it was a reaction against in the first place and now, as the amount of stories possible under this paradigm cycle lower and lower until a new alternative is needed to refresh things. Unfortunately, none is immediately apparent.

Depending on what you're a fan of, here I'm speaking of either the 1980's in comics (wherein stuff like Watchmen changed the game significantly and became the primary blueprint for the future course of the genre) or I'm speaking about the 1990's in pro wrestling (wherein the rise of ECW broke storytelling out of a very stagnant place and because the primary blueprint for at least the next ten years)

That's not the only thing they have in common. If you'll allow me to use an example I use a lot. In wrestling, a storyline usually breaks down like this: Your good guy (the "babyface" or "face") is chased by, or chases the bad guy the "heel.") The reasons can be anything you like, but ultimately it comes down to good guy vs bad guy--everything else is window dressing.

The key element in crafting a wrestling storyline (and it is a craft, in its way) is knowing how long to draw it out. Too short, and it seems a bit rushed and not as fulfilling as it might be. Too long and you run the risk of losing the audience's attention before the end of the storyline.

It's all about precisely playing on the audience's expectations toward the ultimate catharsis. Too long and too many defeats of your good guy and whatever the result, it's not credible whatever the end result. Too many bad finishes and the whole audience deserts the product and everything collapses in on itself.

Sound familiar?

It's not hard, I think, to see the carryover when you hold both up to the light and compare them. There are finer differences, of course, but there are more similarities I didn't cover in this go-round. Maybe if I have an additional thought on the subject, I'll do a write-up on how the different comics companies' approach mirrors the distinct ideology of the old territory system in wrestling--don't worry if you don't don't get what I'm talking about, I'm not sure I do. However, I thought it was worth writing it up before the thought floated out of my head.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And on a broader, metatextual level, both seem to carry an implicit, almost subconscious acknowledgement that It's All A Show, Folks. Except that pro wrestling, as I understand it, makes loud showmanship very much part of the spectacle, whereas the Big Two would have us separate the online circus from the actual product. (Whether or not that's even possible in an era where writers have to publish online annotations to explain their work is another matter.)

Kazekage said...

One would imagine--I know that Stan Lee, in his public persona, anyways, seemed to have that carrny-ish feel to his rhetoric. That seems to have fallen by the wayside now that we've all decided that Comics Are Serious Bidness, Dammit, that kind of outsized posture is largely gone now.

I think the minute comics relied on the internet to fill in the blanks the comics should have conveyed we doomed ourselves to the twin horrors of crappy comics and lame online discourse.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I miss Lee's circus act just a bit - not enough to subject myself to "Who Wants To Be A Superhero?", mind you, but... just that ability to wink at the reader, play a bit of a joke at Marvel's own expense (really, it says a lot that the current administration could never put out something like "What The-?").

Which is exactly why I avoid Internet annotations of that sort, even when it comes to fan films - the product has to stand on its own legs, and if it doesn't, no amount of online explanation will change that.

Kazekage said...

My Girlfriend loves "Who Wants to Be A Superhero?" I'm still hung up on the idea that Stan thought "Stripperella" had "money" written all over it to give it a chance.

Yeah. I can't decide if the internet killed the rather useful habit of footnoting comics in the comics themselves or is just the ultimate manifestation of it, which, like all hyper-evolved things, is dangerous when allowed to roam unleashed. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Oh, Stan. You may be Tripping The Light Senile, but we love ya anyway. :)

I suppose we should be grateful they don't use hyperlink footnotes... Now that would be truly annoying.

Kazekage said...

He's like the slightly dotty grandad you love despite the very real likelihood he might be dangerously eccentric, isn't he?

Well, they don't use them yet, but in their ever-increasing will to get us to do the heavy lifting the writers should be doing I expect it any day now.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

He really is. :) I always keep an eye out for his cameos in Marvel movies.

There's actually a Marvel Wiki out there. Ugh.

Kazekage said...

Ever since Dave Cockrum told a story of Stan's reaction to Ms. Marvel's new costume, Stan has been a never-ending source of entertainment for me.

Oh lord, that'll just encourage them to be lazier and lazier, I imagine.