The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling

The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling

Professional wrestling's relationship to the truth has long been a part of its appeal. Performers play heightened versions of themselves; matches have predetermined outcomes but take legitimate physical tolls; and the pleasure of suspended disbelief accompanies the thrill of an in-ring comeback or betrayal. Documenting the tradition’s history means contending with its layers of artifice—not just the competing accounts of various musclebound egomaniacs but also wrestling's stake in an embellished understanding of itself. So it's perhaps not just for brevity's sake that Aubrey Sitterson and Chris Moreno's new book settles for something short of history in its title. Their Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling recognizes wrestling’s complications but isn’t always a match for them, offering critical insights and fannish boosterism in equal parts.

Sitterson, the book's scripter, locates pro wrestling's origins in carnival athletic shows that crossed the country following the American Civil War, then follows its transformation into a worldwide phenomenon at the turn of the twentieth century. Here and elsewhere, Sitterson has a weakness for excessive bolding ("Catch wrestling allowed holds below the waist, mitigating the Russian Lion's power, but he proved indomitable and was soon recognized as the world champion in England"), and his constructions are often clunky ("Much like in the carnival days, it would seem there was too much money on the table not to start at least partially compromising legitimacy for entertainment."). Even so, he makes these pages count, exploring the shady inheritances of wrestling's carnival pedigree and explaining how the tradition came to optimize its entertainment value.

Any credible understanding of wrestling is an international understanding of wrestling, and here too, the book delivers. Before surveying more recent figures and trends, Sitterson devotes a chapter to Japan's wrestling culture, from its growth after World War II to the divergent histories of storied promotions All Japan Pro Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling. For the curious but uninitiated, Sitterson also clearly defines terms common to Japanese pro wrestling, e.g. "strong style" (a martial-arts-influenced tradition favoring strikes and kicks), and explains Japanese wrestling's less rigid face-heel (good guy-bad guy) binary.

Prior to the chapter on Japan, Sitterson focuses on Latinx wrestling traditions, and not just Mexican lucha libre, as a reader might expect. The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling does include lucha libre's origins and what distinguishes it from US pro wrestling, but the book also outlines the differences between the Mexican lucha tradition and Puerto Rico's bloody innovations. And yet in some respects the book can't touch its subject matter. The abundant visual imagination of lucha libre, for instance, puts into relief the limited visual imagination of Sitterson and Moreno's work.

The scope of The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling contains some inherent challenges for a cartoonist. Moreno is in the position of depicting wrestlers, a wrestling ring, and a surrounding audience on a near-constant basis for close to 200 pages. Rendering each scene in novel manner would be a challenge for the most inspired of artists; maybe this dilemma is to blame for the book’s absent backgrounds. Again and again, wrestlers lock up or strike a pose against sunburst effects courtesy of the book's four-person coloring team.

The page at left exemplifies the issue. Sitterson’s captions follow mid-century pro wrestling's struggle to maintain a credible world championship, with numerous regional promotions identifying their local champ and title as the world's greatest. It's an intriguing predicament, one that captures the blend of artifice, arrogance, and dysfunction that has often defined wrestling behind the scenes. And yet the page can't fully capture the idiosyncrasies of its subject. The book also has a habit of repurposing Moreno's figures after their initial appearances, sometimes to glaring effect. Most audaciously, its closing panel features a likeness of fan-favorite wrestler Daniel Bryan that first appeared only five pages earlier.

Before that closing panel and after the book's chapters on international wrestling traditions, The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling devotes itself to American pro wrestling's past few decades. This includes the WWE (previously the WWF and, before that, the WWWF); its 1990s rival, the now-defunct WCW; and notable smaller promotions. Sitterson rejects some of the dominant narratives about Vince McMahon and the WWE—for instance, that McMahon's tactics throughout the 1980s ruthlessly snuffed out wrestling's smaller regional territories (in some accounts, a purer alternative to the monolith that replaced them). Sitterson suggests that by the eighties, wrestling's territorial system may have been untenable anyway. Nor is Sitterson an apologist for the McMahon family: he describes its role in the WWF steroid scandal of the early 1990s, and later mentions Linda McMahon effectively buying her way into the Trump cabinet.

By comparison, the book is timid in addressing pro wrestling's history of predatory behavior. Take Sitterson's mention of the Fabulous Moolah, a fixture of women's wrestling in the second half of the twentieth century: "Moolah was a wrestler herself, but the NWA stipulated that women were prohibited from competing on a card where the world title was defended . . . even though Moolah, Mildred Burke, and others were top draws." Moolah also allegedly coerced aspiring female wrestlers into sex with her colleagues as a condition of their entry into the business. A reader would not know it from the quote above, which positions her as a plucky trailblazer.

The book is similarly evasive in its treatment of Ric Flair and his cohort: "The [Four] Horsemen were infamous for fully embracing their gimmick outside of the ring. The parties, limousines, expensive clothes, and, of course, women, that the Horsemen enjoyed during this era have become the stuff of legend." Another way to put it: Flair has a history of alleged misconduct spanning decades, including numerous accounts of the Nature Boy exposing himself.

Moments like these raise the question of the book's responsibilities to its readers—a question that emerges again with respect to the physical consequences of pro wrestling. At one point, The Comic Book History of Professional Wrestling turns to wrestling's interconnected crises of painkiller abuse, steroid abuse, and bodily trauma. Sitterson and Moreno give particular attention to wrestler Chris Benoit, who in 2007 committed suicide after murdering his wife and son. Autopsies of Benoit led to a diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of brain damage and the result of repeated blows to the head.

The work of Moreno and the book's colorists strains to match the gravity of the subject matter—the team isn't really equipped for it—but here Sitterson avoids any euphemisms. Even so, the section relates awkwardly to the mention in the Japan chapter of a more recent case of head trauma: "Katsuyori Shibata, a strong style grappler […] returned to wrestling after an MMA stint only to become a victim of his hard-hitting style."

The line refers to a 2017 New Japan match in which Shibata prematurely ended his career, delivering a headbutt to opponent Kazuchika Okada that left Shibata with a subdural hemotoma. The severity of Shibata's injury makes it an outlier, but head trauma is still common in contemporary pro wrestling. And while Sitterson notes at the end of the Benoit passage that concussion testing has become more common, the line about Shibata still risks treating his injury as incidental—framing it as a tidy irony—rather than asking what the persistence of head traumas suggests about the larger pro-wrestling tradition.

A book's responsibilities here are, again, an open question. For that matter, so is the culpability of wrestling’s fans—the implications of their spectatorship, knowing that these problems endure. And whenever the book gestures in this direction, the lack of a genuine reckoning is conspicuous, even if its title says Story and not History. Sitterson and Moreno don’t neglect wrestling’s controversies completely, but they do subordinate them to a narrative that’s bolder, brighter, more colorful. And when they sidestep concerns about the legacies of figures like Flair and Moolah, or about the real casualties of a simulated combat sport, the result is neither a key account of wrestling nor a notable use of comics.