Master Of The Obvious: Issue #5

Thu, September 2nd, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I get a flash of déjà vu every time someone says comics are dead. Comics have "died" before, of course, but that's not what I think of. I think of the World Wrestling Federation.

The comics industry can learn a lot from the WWF.

In 1984, with the help of Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Jesse The

Body Ventura, Vince McMahon turned his father's Northeastern promotion, the WWF, into the first national pro

wrestling organization. The pump of popular taste had been primed the year before as Hogan punched out

Sylvester Stallone in ROCKY III, and comedian Andy Kaufman at the height of his success had a highly publicized feud with Jerry "the King"

Lawler in the Memphis territory. With the attention getting help of pop diva Cyndi Lauper and inexplicable Hollywood star Mr. T, McMahon

went media in a big way, seeing his main product as a stepping stone to the big time.

In America, comics and wrestling are fringe subcultures. So are science

fiction, heavy metal, cockfighting and stamp collecting. It can be argued

there's no real uberkultur anymore; when media consisted of three TV

channels and a handful of movie studios, you could speak of a dominant

culture, but now network television's a fading ghost with every interest

getting its own cable show, if not channel, and movies are distributed

through phone wires and anything you can't get on tape you can get over

the Internet. There's just too much out there for any one thing to

dominate anymore, though there are still

plenty of people telling others what to think.

But almost all subcultures harbor the

secret faith that the world is inverted,

and their rightful place is at the top of

the natural order: everyone wants to be

a fashion designer. So the uberkultur

trots out "traditional values," and

ridicules or demonizes subcultures,

because they know those subcultures would become the new uberkultur

if they could. The curious thing is that all subcultures hate their portrayal

by the uberkultur, but they accept on faith the portrayal of all others.

When I started writing for Marvel, I was also deep in the New York

music scene, and was appalled that Marvel employees dismissed punk

and new wave without trying it, based on what they'd read about it in the

New York Times. Now and then, some comics company will decide to

"break through" by launching a line of science fiction comics, and these

always collapse because comics fans get their science fiction sublimated

in superhero comics, and science fiction fans think comic books are

beneath their notice. Science fiction is "serious literature." Comics fans

who aren't also wrestling fans like to buy into the line that wrestling fans

are too dumb to know wrestling's fake.

Subcultures tend to reek of pride and shame.

(Yes, I know there are sf fans who read comics, and comics fans who

follow wrestling. I watch wrestling, I listen to Stockhausen. We're all

schizoid.)

So Vince McMahon's going to conquer the world,

right? It's 1987 and he's got toy deals, a monthly

show on NBC, regular pay per view shows, he's

promoting boxing matches and Evel Knieval

deathjumps. All the wrestlers get cutely identifiable,

marketable gimmicks, usually cribbed from one

media sources or another. He's producing movies.

Hulk Hogan guest hosts Saturday Night Live.

Magazines are running articles, he's making money

hand over fist, every other wrestling promotion in

the country is collapsing around him. Like comics publishers c. 1993,

he thinks these champagne days are the new natural order and they're

never going to end.

And he turns around one day and it's all dried up. Boom. Like that.

Suddenly no one's buying anymore. His syndicated TV shows start

dropping like flies. His market gets smaller, and smaller, and smaller.

Stinks of familiarity, doesn't it?

By 1993, it was pretty safe to say wrestling was dead. Even Hulk

Hogan, doing the same by-the-book routine he'd done every night in

the wow years, couldn't raise a pulse. McMahon's scant consolation

was that arch-rival WCW, owned by Ted Turner, was worse off than

he was.

If McMahon had the brains he was born with, he would have cut bait

right then. He would have cashed out, bought a nice house and lived the

rest of his life in comfortable obscurity. He continued for some time,

barely maintaining a much diminished baseline, replaying all the same

moves he'd made in the wow years, with no success. Finally - finally - it

sank in that times had changed and the gimmicks didn't work anymore.

His product was no longer fresh and contemporary. He'd played it as a

joke, marketing to kids, as if the shows and the matches were cartoons.

By , everyone had gotten the joke and they didn't want to hear it again.

It's 1999. The WWF posted profits of $56 million this year.

MONDAY NIGHT RAW is consistently the hottest thing on cable,

threatening the hegemony of MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL, and

perennial loser network UPN beat CBS with their new WWF

SMACKDOWN show last Thursday night. Monthly pay per views sell

through the roof. Arena shows sell out everywhere, and merchandise

sales average $18 per ticket holder. The company's about to go public.

WWF superstars like Steve Austin are in constant demand on TV

shows. Comics may be dead, but wrestling sure isn't.

So how did McMahon do it?

  1. He threw away the past. Long before the collapse, taste in wrestling was already changing. In Japan and Mexico, where wrestling is mainstream entertainment, a rougher, more realistic style was in play, and in the USA, new regional promotions like ECW and Smoky Mountain Wrestling capitalized on the style. It flew completely in the face of McMahon's lust for social acceptability, but, with nothing else working, he didn't resist when wrestlers brought the style to the WWF.

  2. He dropped the gimmicks and trusted his talent. As the style changed, McMahon built the promotion around Bret Hart, a down-to-earth wrestler with great skills on the microphone and in the ring, which gave the WWF tons of credibility. With his straightforward manner, he redefined what on air interviews and wrestling characters were supposed to be. Stone Cold Steve Austin, who supplanted Hart as company focus, suffered through several failed McMahon gimmicks before suggesting the Stone Cold angle; McMahon, at a loss for what to do with him, went with it and never expected it to catch on. Austin as rabidly antiauthoritarian redneck was wildfire. Other top draws like Mankind and The Rock also made up their own characters as they went along, to great success.

  3. He altered the type of story to fit the new characters he was working with. No more recycling old Hulk Hogan angles to create the new Hogan. With constant pressure from WCW, particularly when a number of WWF players defected to launch a highly successful "invasion of WCW" angle, McMahon got inventive, building story logic off the characters and pushing the unexpected, keeping fans on their toes and coming back for more.

  4. He stopped telling the audience what they wanted, and started paying attention to who they were cheering for. When audiences rooted for the heel Austin, McMahon changed the rules, allowing Austin to keep his rulebreaker persona while becoming the "heroic" focus for the company. It was a risk rarely done in the cut and dried good guy-bad guy world of American pro wrestling, but it paid off because McMahon elected to ignore his critics and go with the times.

The specifics are different for comics, but the general principles apply.

When the past stops working, jettison it. Trust your talent, and work

with them instead of getting in their way. Do stories appropriate to the

characters, and keep the stories unexpected. Take risks. Trying

something new is better than dying.

If there's one other lesson Vince McMahon teaches us, it's love the

business you're in.

These days, as comics companies whisper about being on the Titanic

and look to Hollywood to bail them out as if the movie and TV

industries weren't dens of disappointment and lost opportunities, that's a

lesson we could stand to be reminded of.

For readers in the Pacific Northwest, I'll be signing at the Seattle

Comic-Card Con at the Rainier Room of the Seattle Center on Sunday,

September 20, from 11:00-3:30. The doors open at 10 AM. Lots of

other pros will be there too. Again, I want to thank everyone for all the

e-mail, and regret I can't possibly answer all of it. But a lot of your

questions are answered at my website:

http://www.access1.net/sdgrant

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