The Strange History of WWE Comics
Since the early 90's, the top wrestling organizations have tried to spin off their heroes and villains into comic book form. Let's take a look back at everything from Undertaker's sister to the giant demon growing out of Chris Jericho's person. Oh, and get a load of WWF Krozor while you're at it!
A few months ago, it was announced that Papercutz was going to be releasing a new WWE comic as written by 3-time champion and bestselling author Mick Foley. Recently, news of the series popped up again as we finally got some details on what WWE Superstars is all about. The story takes place in a reality where CM Punk and Undertaker are hard-boiled detectives who are trying to prove John Cena's innocence and free him from jail while Randy Orton is a crooked politician out to become the district attourney, the Miz is a reporter, and Daniel Bryan appears to be V from V for Vendetta.
The coolest part of all of this is how the variant covers are based on classic Marvel covers, including Jill Thompson remaking Fantastic Four #51 while replacing the Thing with fellow fan of clobbering, CM Punk.
While I'm excited about seeing Luke Harper in comic form, Papercutz needs to realize that they are not in good company. This isn't the first WWE-related comic series by a longshot. For over 20 years, WWE in its various forms has been published by all sorts of companies and played with by all kinds of name talent. Unfortunately, none of them have truly worked and they all died quiet deaths. One of these comics has a spot as the all-time worst comic book I have ever read...but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's start off in 1991 with Valiant Comics' WWF Battlemania. The series lasted five issues, released bi-monthly. It happens to be the only WWE comic to not be all that bad as it at least had some admittedly cool aspects to it. Half of the stories were drawn by none other than Steve Ditko of all people, so if you've ever wanted to see Spider-Man's co-creator draw the Big Boss Man fighting the Undertaker, do I have the comic for you!
Each issue of Battlemania included two stand-alone stories based on two wrestlers feuding. Maybe it's something like the Legion of Doom accompanying a suburban family on a road trip, only to be attacked by the Natural Disasters. Perhaps the Bushwackers invite the Nasty Boys to a fancy restaurant for tea so they can enjoy a peaceful meal before they battle in the ring. Or you could always read about Sensational Sherri trying to sabotage the Ultimate Warrior and fail like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon. Coincidentally, the series featured absolutely zero mention of Hulk Hogan, who was champion throughout its entire run, give or take a month. I imagine he either had a separate licensing contract with a high asking price or they were trying to keep it legal by not pissing off Marvel for their ownership of the Hulk name.
I had the third issue as a kid, featuring the cover story of Big Boss Man vs. the Mountie. I recalled thinking that the Ultimate Warrior vs. Sergeant Slaughter story was kind of good and upon rereading it years later, I saw that it still holds up. Then I noticed the writer is none other than the late, great Dwayne McDuffie. That explains that.
The most inventive thing to come out of Battlemania was the pair of fold-out posters. Each issue comes with a poster of a face standing on the left side of the ring looking right and a poster of a heel standing on the right side looking left. The more issues you have, the more you can mix and match your posters and put together something like Sid Justice vs. the Warlord or Randy Savage vs. the Undertaker.
Yo, Papercutz! If you're reading this, bring these back! Just make sure to match up the shadows better.
Immediately after Valiant and WWF went their separate ways, Marvel started their own 12-issue run with World Championship Wrestling. Since WCW ended up being roped into the WWE umbrella years later, I might as well talk about it. Written by Mike Lackey with art by Ron Wilson, the comic can most charitably be called a charming mess. The overarching story mostly has to do with Sting dealing with Lex Luger, Cactus Jack, Big Van Vader, Rick Rude, and others while the mysterious and ever-unstoppable masked man named the Ghoul is lurking in the shadows. The Ghoul was never a WCW wrestler, but he appears to be an adaptation of the misfire of a mystery storyline, the Black Scorpion, mixed with a dash of masked wrestler the Halloween Phantom. At least with this version of the story, the Ghoul doesn't end up being Ric Flair, but Sting's old trainer who sold his soul to the Devil to become an awesome wrestler.
During the latter part of the series, the Ghoul is able to brainwash Sting into turning heel. This leads to one of the best moments in the comic where Sting is offered cake by a little boy with cancer and declares his absolute hatred for it before throwing it to the ground and stomping on it.
If I ever meet Steve Borden in my life, I pray he lets me reenact this scene with him.
What separated World Championship Wrestling from WWF Battlemania was that it was an ongoing storyline and not a series of one-shots. That became very, very dangerous and Papercutz is playing with the same fire. You see, putting a comic together takes an awful lot of time and it simply can't keep up with the never-breaking world of professional wrestling. Wrestlers change gimmicks, change alignment and even change companies! Sure, you can get away with Johnny B. Badd suddenly turning face in the comic out of nowhere to match up with his real-life counterpart, but the series gets really muddied up early on when WCW Champion Lex Luger beats up the entire roster, walks away from it all to set up a future story and then they're suddenly no longer allowed to even mention him by name because he's jumped to the WWF. El Gigante and PN News also end up vanishing without a trace due to leaving the company.
Despite its faults, it did give us a couple comic books with Ron Simmons on the cover, so it has that going for it.
1996 was a pretty hilarious year for the World Wrestling Federation and its relationship with sequential art. The Ultimate Warrior came back into the fold and with him came a lot of promotion for his new Warrior comic series that only lasted four issues with an additional Christmas issue. Best described as a Rob Liefeld comic on acid, the series was a long-winded and confusing storyline about the Warrior's origin and how his tassels have a mind of their own. The comic tied into his school Warrior University, which was just as much of a failure, but with considerably less Santa Claus bondage.
You know what? Scratch that last part. I'm not sure exactly how much Santa Claus bondage was going on at Warrior University. It could have been a lot.
You're probably thinking I was talking about Warrior when I said that one of these was the worst comic I've ever read. While that's a good guess, Warrior has nothing on WWF Krozor, which came out in the same year. Sort of. Krozor was the brainchild of Neville M. Meyer and Wayne J. Meyer and was the WWF's attempt to gain some more good will from the young crowd during their most disastrous business era. A preview of Krozor appeared in WWF Magazine with information on how to order to full graphic novel. It never went further than the preview, but Sweet Papi Sanchez, what a preview it was.
The story is this: there's an alternate dimension where native beings have evolved in reverse. The dimension is crumbling and the survivors are making their way to our world in what will eventually lead to WWF guys fighting them. The Undertaker gets visions of what's to come and alerts everyone else by screaming, "THEY'RE COMING!" I promise you, what I described is a dozen times more coherent than how it's shown in the comic.
At least with the Warrior book's art, you can at least fall back on noting that it was the 90's and Rob Liefeld was THE guy to copy. WWF Krozor's art defies description. Stills of wrestlers traced over with color pencils. Drawings of Undertaker and Steve Austin copied and pasted with the occasional change in eye color. More gradients than you can shake a stick at. Vince McMahon shows up with what appears to be a drawn head and CGI hands.
There's even a hype image of Sycho Sid fighting some of the Krozor aliens where all they did was take a TV screenshot and superimpose the creatures in there without even removing the WWF logo in the corner. Someone once told me that he tried ordering WWF Krozor and instead got a bunch of t-shirts and a note saying that Krozor just wasn't going to happen.
Luckily for WWF, their popularity began to skyrocket soon after and with the marketability that came with the Attitude Era, they reached out to Chaos Comics for their next attempt. Chaos mainly ran an Undertaker ongoing that went on for ten issues, plus a Halloween special. The storyline deals with Undertaker being some kind of warden of Hell who has to clean up messes, especially when demons escape and walk around on Earth in the guise of humans. They tend to take the form of professional wrestlers, so he literally murders them in the ring to send them back to Hell. Undertaker deals with enemies in the forms of Kane, Paul Bearer, Mankind and some masked villain called the Embalmer.
Since Undertaker became more villainous to match him having returned as a mega-heel by the time the series came out (they also had to put him and Paul Bearer back together to match up with reality), the comic introduced a new character named Jezebel for the sake of having at least one good guy worth cheering for. Jezebel is the half-sister of Kane and tends to give him direction. Her origin is – and I kid you not – that Paul Bearer had his way with her mother. To drive the point home, here's some naked Paul Bearer.
No means, "OH, YES!"
Chaos didn't stop with just the Undertaker. Mankind and the Rock got their own one-shots with Rock's being sort of okay. Chyna had two one-shots, one of which including art by Mike Deodato Jr. Then there's Steve Austin's 4-issue miniseries which I have a bit of a soft spot for because of how it laughingly turns your usual outsider anti-hero story on its ear. When the villain holds a town hostage to get to Austin, Austin goes against the usual storytelling grain by flipping him off and letting him blow the place to kingdom come. All of the Chaos books rarely mention wrestling, but make it seem like these adventures are what the wrestlers do in their time off.
The real travesty is that Evan Dorkin of all people pitched a concept for the Mankind comic and they went with someone else. God, how awesome that could have been.
While not officially affiliated with any major wrestling organization at the time, both Kevin Nash and Rena Mero (Sable) got their own comics. Nash I can almost understand, but Mero? Really?
Speaking of Kevin Nash, WCW and Marvel once again teamed up in 2000 for a new series called S.L.A.M. Force (Secret Legion Against Monsters). Written by Ruben Diaz and Bill Rosemann with art by Michael Ryan, the only thing released was a 7-page teaser comic to go along with WCW's newest set of superhero wrestler action figures. As the story goes, Bret Hart, Bill Goldberg, Chris Benoit, Kevin Nash, and Sting are given sweet weapons to go fight monsters and the evil Dr. Von Ghoul. Wait, the villain is again called "Ghoul?" I wonder if this is canon with the other Marvel WCW comic.
S.L.A.M. Force was meant to get its own ongoing as there's even an ad for subscribing for the first 12 issues, but nothing came of it. I'm sure the fact that it's 2000 and Chris Benoit left the company for WWF in January of that year had some kind of role in it. They were better off without him, anyway. He totally would have gone all Parallax on the team.
I should also mention that when fighting some demons, Goldberg yells, "I got my hands full, and these jobbers won't quit!" At least he didn't call them curtain jerkers.
In the mid-00's, WWE would deal with Titan Comics, the most fitting of company names, to release WWE Heroes, written by Keith Champagne and drawn by Andy Smith. WWE Heroes isn't very good, but I read it religiously when it came out because it's pure, uncut insanity. It deals with the Shadow King, a being looking very much like Triple H in Two-Face makeup, who has his own evil cult and unkillable, loyal priest Josiah. He and his brother, the Firstborn, have been killing each other through many generations and he wants to find out where he's hiding in the present. Josiah figures out the Firstborn is in the WWE and tries to narrow it down. Could it be John Cena? Batista? Triple H? Considering Shadow King looks just like Triple H, it isn't the greatest mystery.
As it turns out, Triple H/Firstborn is literally Cain from the bible, only we discover that Cain killed Abel to spare the world of his evil. Josiah and the other followers take Wrestlemania hostage and proceed to punk out every wrestler to keep them in line. Because when I read a WWE comic, I want to see all the wrestlers look completely worthless compared to some skinny, second-rate lackey. Things get completely ridiculous once Chris Jericho is dragged off and killed, only to come back and reveal that he, Edge, and Shawn Michaels are all part of the Shadow King's cult and have giant demons growing out of them. Thing is, Michaels turns on them because Triple H has taught him the meaning of friendship.
The art isn't so bad at first glance, but it's wildly incompetent. Presumably, a lot of it had to be changed due to fluctuating rosters. For instance, Umaga appears in the background a couple times despite having been fired about a year before the comic came out. Mickie James' hair and tights change color from panel to panel. The Summerslam banner appears at a show specifically explained as being Wrestlemania. John Cena is shown competing at Wrestlemania 24 in a baseball cap for some reason. Certain wrestlers don't even have tattoos, making a Batista vs. Orton fight look extra confusing because you can't tell who is who.
The six-issue story ends with John Cena, Chris Jericho, and Edge traveling back in time while Triple H and the Shadow King simply vanish in their final battle. This leads to the next storyline, called WWE Heroes: Timequake. The first two issues are about the Undertaker and Rey Mysterio teaming up to face the Shadow King's undead bride while fighting zombies and cheetah men. At one point, we see that Cena, Jericho and Edge have gone back to Ancient Rome and are fighting as gladiators. Once Undertaker's story ends, we see a teaser for John Cena: Gladiator, but it never materializes, likely due to low sales. Plus Jericho was no longer with the company by that time and I can see that as being a bit of a hurdle.
When WWE started releasing a magazine strictly for kids, they were going to have John Byrne do a series of one-page comics about the outer-space adventures of the Hardy Boyz. It never saw print, but he's since released two inked pages from it.
And here we are again with WWE Superstars. Will it succeed? Will it be competent? Will it have to deal with Randy Orton being released from the company for one too many wellness violations despite being a major player in the comic? Can a WWE comic actually work for once?