WWE: A Four-Color Solution by Jerry Whitworth
In the realm of professional wrestling in the United States, the undisputed king is the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. However, today the company rests in a precarious position. While viewership of its television programming has diminished in recent years, it nonetheless remains strong for the channels that air such programs. But in terms of business, remaining stagnant is not an ideal model. In an effort to take advantage of its expansive library of content and to cut out the middleman in pay-per-view (PPV) programming, the company started an online streaming service called the WWE Network. Not only has the development produced less than desirable results, its created an economic strain on the company that has forced the WWE to cut corners in its budget. Making matters worse, in the last few years, fan satisfaction in the product has diminished to the point that the creative forces behind the company have been in something of a tailspin unable to distinguish how to tell compelling stories, create images that can be heavily merchandised (which has largely been the fuel that has kept the company thriving), and what talent should be placed in the forefront. In a very real way, these issues converged in last month’s 2015 Royal Rumble which saw the crowd turn on the event during its finale and spurred an on-line movement towards a mass exodus of subscribers from the WWE Network (something that trended worldwide in #CancelWWENetwork for almost a full day). As industry insiders and fans alike try to pin down ways in which the bad fortunes of the WWE can be reversed before the future of the company is placed in jeopardy, its salvation may lie in comic books.
While the relationship between comic books and pro wrestling has already been covered previously in detail, the essence is that both come from a similar place. Both are forms of storytelling elemental in nature heralding back to mythology and archetypes imprinted in our species seemingly since the dawn of civilization and beyond. What’s interesting is this bond is not new ground for pro wrestling be it comic book-esque characters like Max Moon, Vader, Undertaker, Kane, Goldust, Stardust, Sting, and the Hurricane (Philadelphia-based promotion Chikara is essentially a live action comic book) or comic books about pro wrestling (such as current series WWE Superstars and its recent “Legends” storyline which borrowed elements of Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths) which have existed for decades. However, what has changed is the execution of such elements in the WWE due in large part to how gimmick-based wrestlers became so rampant in the early 1990s it almost led to the company’s downfall. What would save the WWE would be what’s known today as the Attitude Era, which blurred the lines between reality and performance. The rebound was such that it essentially helped obliterate the competition, a development that has helped lead to the WWE’s current predicament where it alone would have to choose to break new (or revisit old) ground or play it safe and remain essentially unchanged. Remaining more-or-less in the past with the only real change being to defang its adult elements to make the product all ages, the WWE fell into mediocrity and struggles to continue to play in this limited vision. For comic book fans, such conditions sound eerily familiar to those necessitating the end of an age.
For modern wrestling fans, ages have casually referenced certain advents in the sport. When Hulk Hogan came to power in the WWF to create Hulkamania, this period has commonly been called the Golden Age (or the Second Golden Age, the time before either a pre-age or the original Golden Age, sort of like pulp magazines and radio/film serials for comic fans). The Attitude Era, especially in terms of the ascension of Stone Cold Steve Austin, has been viewed as the Silver Age. Regarding the Modern Age, that would likely best be defined by the prominence of John Cena while Austin retired from competition and popular performer the Rock transitioned to a film career. One of the points of contention in the current age of wrestling is the dominance of Cena, often referred by his detractors as Super Cena for his ability to remain at the forefront of the company as an almost cosmic force over virtually all other talent (fueled in large part with his popularity with younger viewers and sales of his merchandise). Interestingly enough, Cena is portrayed as a Superman-esque character in the new video game WWE Immortals (developed by the company that produced Injustice: Gods Among Us). Aligning these ages in comic book terms essentially means Hulkamania being the Golden Age, the dominance of the gimmick wrestler (like Big Daddy Cool Diesel, Razor Ramon, and the Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels) being the Silver Age, the Attitude Era the Dark Age, and what is the Modern Age for both as both industries try to find their footing in a world that both craves nostalgia while wanting something fresh and different. What the WWE needs is a revolution and perhaps what may best facilitate that would be its own version of Marvel’s Civil War.
When Marvel Comics executed its event Civil War, the battle lines between its audience was just as decisive as its characters. Therein, a tragedy leads the US government to seek to turn superheroes into trained agents whose identity would be known to the authorities. While certainly not a new idea, the event came about as several high profile heroes led by Iron Man actually sided with the government creating a rift. The heroes that foresaw what trouble the advent would create were led by Captain America and would ultimately lose do in part to Iron Man enlisting supervillains in a Freedom Force/Suicide Squad-inspired version of the Thunderbolts. The event proved to be very popular and created drama that propelled various continuing titles and spawned new series. However, the fallout would ultimately fall short when it bucked largely the comic book golden rule of maintaining the status quo forcing several unfavorable fixes in the years that followed to return the product largely to what it was prior to the event. Wrestling, on the other hand, tends to fall into its own interesting problem.
In the WWE, the status quo either tends to change at a breakneck speed or drags on unnecessarily for months on end. For the former, a popular concept is a “turn” where a hero (face) turns into a villain (heel) or vice versa. What ends up happening is enemies become allies and back over the turn of weeks or months creating a huge mess of continuity (there’s a running joke about performer the Big Show who has turned over twenty times in the past fifteen years). In the latter, the same performers will face each other repeatedly almost week-in/week-out for months, often finally coming to an end at one of the handful of big PPVs throughout the year. Both of these issues tie directly into the idea that the fans of the WWE are casual viewers and diehards who will never abandon the product. The inherent problem with this is that it doesn’t generally attract new viewers, instead relying on current fans to more-or-less raise families that will maintain the company (a shaky prospect to say the least). However, this means Civil Wars’ shortfalls can be WWE’s strength.
The Attitude Era in WWE largely developed from a storyline from competitor WCW. The rival company managed to secure some of WWE’s top talent resulting in a storyline where it seemed the WWE was invading the promotion (inspired by a storyline in Japan involving the UWF and NJPW). This group, later adopting the name the New World Order (nWo), managed to decimate WCW’s biggest stars and essentially held the company hostage for several years. It was due to this story that for once in its existence, WCW managed to consistently secure higher ratings than its competition igniting what’s known today as the Monday Night Wars. In response, WWE integrated more realistic content that was generally violent and sexual in nature (arguably borrowing elements from smaller promotion ECW) which would trump what WCW was producing. Eventually, WCW and ECW would close their doors leaving WWE the undisputed leader in American pro wrestling. WWE would buy out its competitors and establish its own invasion, bringing in WCW and ECW talent into WWE under the idea they were coming to conquer it only for the storyline to flop because so much of the top WCW talent refused to come to WWE at that point as those that arrived were largely treated as enhancement talent (aka “jobbers”) demonstrating the in-ring dominance of WWE performers. Another invasion would be attempted later with WWE’s developmental program NXT which seemingly fizzled as well. Elsewhere, in NJPW (arguably Japan and perhaps the world’s greatest wrestling promotion), an invasion storyline would help reinvigorate the industry when the generally gaijin (foreign) stable known as Bullet Club invaded its company (while in Chikara, every latest season seems to involve an invading force be it the BDK, Gekido, or the Flood). What all of this means is that perhaps thus far in terms of story, the WWE has been thinking too small. It requires a threat that would make the storyline compelling, help create or strengthen heel and face characters, and force its largely apathetic audience to become invested.
John Cena has acted as the stalwart face of WWE over the past ten-plus years where the company is now trying to force a new talent on fans named Roman Reigns which has met with resistance considering Reigns’ limited experience and current level of talent. In the middle is likely the undisputed favorite of fans in the WWE roster in Daniel Bryan, someone who defies the appearance of what management observes as a defining face for the company. Regarding heels, likely the hottest antagonist in recent years is the manipulative Bray Wyatt who is the performer fans love to hate but seemingly the creative forces of the company can’t figure out what to do with anymore. For comic fans, it wouldn’t be hard to see how these characters could in some manner intermingle with elements the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Norman Osborn as they were in Civil War and its aftermath. As for a threat demanding such a storyline, likely combining elements of reality with an invasion angle could bear fruit (as the Modern Age so often borrows from the past but with a fresh spin). In other words, the economic crisis facing the WWE exasperated by a hungry corporate shark that smells blood in the water (someone like a Donald Trump or Mark Cuban). And then there’s adding definition to its roster which has been referenced as having a problem of “anonymous white guys in trunks.”
To expound on the point, a large chunk of the WWE roster is composed of muscular Caucasian performers in trunks with a somewhat realistic name which bucks an idea the company had some years ago of offering a variety of talent. The roster should expand, incorporating more performers with different body types, skin colors, and wrestling backgrounds (Mexican lucha libre, Japanese puroresu, British wrestling, etc) as it had in the past when the product was significantly more appealing. Further, the idea of a gimmick should not be such a dirty word. Consider, brothers Dustin and Cody Rhodes were both remarkable in-ring talents but seemed to lack a flair that distinguished them (especially in the shadow of their world famous father “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes). Transitioning into the unique personas of Goldust and Stardust respectively transformed them into instantly recognizable entities. And then there is, of course, the Undertaker. Known as “Mean” Mark Callous in WCW, Mark Calaway would have a fateful encounter with Hulk Hogan during the filming of one of the superstar’s films that saw Calaway come to the WWE as the Phenom, the Deadman, the Undertaker. For a quarter of a century, the Undertaker would be a force of nature in the WWE that helped develop such talent in story as Kane, Mankind, Edge and Christian, and the Acolytes. In recent years, the Undertaker’s age has caught up with him which at present will see some of the last remaining gimmick wrestlers in WWE come to an end. While certainly the days of Duke “The Dumpster” Droese, Doink the Clown, The Goon, Phantasio, The Mountie, Gobbledy Gooker, and Mantaur should be a cautionary tale, they shouldn’t be a moratorium on gimmicks in general.