Superhero Comic Books 'n' Wrestling Connection: Then, Now...Forever?

Page from "Spidey #1"
Credit: Nick Bradshaw (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

CM Punk is writing comic books for Marvel and DC. Stephen Amell, star of the CW's Arrow, recently participated in (and won) a match against two trained wrestlers in WWE’s second biggest event of the year. You might be asking yourself “why are superhero comic books and professional wrestling overlapping?” The answer is this: they always have.

Good vs. evil. Brightly-colored costumes. Considered juvenile entertainment for outsiders, but loved by all ages. Sound familiar? It’s superhero comic books, right? Yes, but it’s also professional wrestling. You have your supermen, your warrior women, your mysterious shadowy figures lurking in rafters, as well as the goofball characters that are just there to have some fun. For every Superman you have your John Cena; for every Deadpool you have your Dean Ambrose. Digging deeper, for every Stan Lee you have your Vince McMahon.

I think it runs a lot more deeply than the obvious, ‘adolescent power fantasy morality tale’ comparisons that everyone likes to make,” said Aubrey Sitterson, former Marvel editor and WWE writer. “There are just a ton of similarities. You can start with when they rose to prominence - in their current form at least. Yes, there was wrestling and comics prior to the middle of the 20th century, but that's really when they took hold. There are practical reasons for this like the rise of television and the various economic factors that increased comic book distribution, but I also think that it speaks to the specific role that these mediums often serve for their audiences.”

Credit: The CW / WWE

In the 1930s, the dramatic costumes of circus strongmen and pulp heroes inspired both the looks of superheroes and professional wrestlers. Superman might be mocked for his red underwear on the outside, but in professional wrestling that’s still the norm.

Credit: WWE

“Visually, the way the characters and wrestlers look. The physicality of it, the costuming, the promos...all portrayed in a wrestling ring, which is kinda like a comic panel if you think about it,” cartoonist Jill Thompson told Newsarama. Thompson is best known in comic books for her work on Beasts of Burden and Scary Godmother, but she’s also found her way into wrestling circles. She designed the wrestling gear of WWE’s Daniel Bryan, and has illustrated children’s books for another WWE Hall of Famer, Mick Foley. Her husband, Brian Azzarello, even co-wrote a Spider-Man story with a professional wrestler – but we’ll get to that later.

It’s not just comic creators who have a love for wrestling – it’s reciprocal. In locker rooms around the United States, Mexico, Japan and elsewhere, comic books, graphic novels and manga are being read. One of Japan’s most popular wrestlers, Jushin “Thunder” Liger is based on a manga/anime series by Go Nagai. In the 1990s, WCW created an unlicensed rip-off of Spider-Man called – get this – Arachnaman. Another wrestler, Raven, become known for wearing Sandman shirts and quoting from comic books in his time in WWE, WCW and ECW. Former WWE and ECW champion Rob Van Dam owned a comic book store while he as a wrestler called RVD’s 5 Star Comics. For many, their interest in professional wrestling grew in tandem with that of comic books.

Credit: WWE

One of WWE's most prominent rising stars Finn Balor bases his look on Marvel's Venom and Carnage. Balor has even dressed as Bane and the Joker in his ring entrances when he was competing in the independent circuit.

“Comic books were my first love. I've been reading comics since I was about 4 or 5 years old as my dad loved them and he introduced them to me at a very young age,” said Leon St. Giovanni, an independent wrestler who's worked for the major independent promotion Ring of Honor. “When I became a fan of professional wrestling, I saw people that were literally larger than life. They were bigger, faster, stronger, could fly, wore cool costumes. To me, wrestlers are real life superheroes. It doesn't surprise me that the two worlds collide so often these days. I love that it has become more acceptable to merge the two. I distinctly remember going crazy for Rey Mysterio's Wrestlemania outfits.”

Some older fans might remember different runs of wrestling-based comic books: from Marvel’s short-lived WCW title to Chaos! Comics horror-tinged WWE (then WWF) books. Would it surprise you to learn that some wrestlers financed and wrote comic books about themselves in the third person? Wrestler-turned-actor Kevin Nash did it – for Image, no less – with 1999’s Nash series, and the Ultimate Warrior did it several years before.

And wrestling as subject matter is again on the rise in comic books. From the long-running independent series Headlocked to the upcoming Image series Ringside by Joe Keatinge and Nick Barber. Marvel is re-kindling the Thing’s long-lost ties as with the fictional Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation in an upcoming Guardians of Infinity backup story by Jason Latour and Jim Cheung. And then there’s the aforementioned CM Punk, who has long quoted the Thing’s “It’s clobbering time!” when wrestling, and is now co-writing the Drax series for Marvel with Cullen Bunn.

One of the most potent examples of connection between wrestling and comic books is Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #14. It was written by Scott “Raven” Levy and Brian Azzarello, and follows one of the major character's in Spider-Man's origin story: Crusher Hogan. Coincidentally, Crusher had an analogue in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie played by WWE Hall of Famer, Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

Credit: Marvel Comics

“Having the experience and expertise allows you to write the character accurately,” said St. Giovanni. “Raven knows what a wrestler sounds like, talks like, and that's extremely important. I wouldn't want to read a comic about a wrestler that was inaccurate.”

Savage would not the be last wrestler to cross over in the superhero world. In 2014, WWE alumnus Dave Bautista was Drax in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson might be the most successful wrestler-to-actor transition story and will be seen as Black Adam in DC’s Shazam! feature film. Current WWE star Sheamus beat out CM Punk for the role of Rocksteady in the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2.

CM Punk recently wrote a story in DC/Vertigo's anthology series Strange Sports Stories, and the project was one that had several ties to professional wrestling.

“Editor Molly Mahan reached out to me because she knew that I had the comics and wrestling connection, and as a fellow wrestling aficionado, she realized that the book absolutely had to have a wrestling story," said Sitterson, who also contributed a story to the recent anthology.

Lastly, the biggest correlation between comics and wrestling by far is the idea of a secret identity or “ring name” as it’s called in wrestling jargon. People wearing masks and capes fighting for their cause and it’s this simple concept of going under another name that separates them from their character. While some wrestlers such as John Cena and Brock Lesnar go by their real names, an overwhelming majority of wrestlers use a stagename to seperate their real life from their fictional personas.

Credit: Leon St. Giovanni

Leon St. Giovanni's name and wardrobe was inspired by one of Spider-Man's villains, Kraven the Hunter.

“It started out when I discovered Inter Species Wrestling. Most of the wrestlers who worked for the promotion had characters inspired by animals. I wanted to wrestle there so I started playing with ideas for a character that could really stand out. I already had a fur vest that I wore to the ring (for no apparent reason). I decided to actually give it meaning.”

He bought a whip, made a necklace out of teeth, and sent ISW a picture of himself in a Kraven the Hunter-esque getup and created a character that would hunt down all of the creatures in ISW.

Credit: Papercutz

“He's the anti ISW wrestler and I believed it would be successful. Fortunately, it has been so far.”

St. Giovanni dubbed his character “King of the Kill”, but the inspiration for his looks didn’t stop there.

“That was just the start. I recently started wearing gear inspired by Nova. I'm looking forward to having more superhero gear this year. I'm currently designing Black Bolt inspired tights as well as designs based on Namor and Colossus.”

When asked about having a secret identity to use when wrestling, St. Giovanni compares it to one of comic book's most famous ones.

“I sometimes feel a parallel to Clark Kent. Clean cut with glasses during the day and tights at night. I feel like a superhero in a sense, so having a secret identity seems fitting," said the wrestler. "Giving yourself a ring name is no different than giving yourself a super hero name.”

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