Thursday, July 10, 2014

Wrestling and Comic Books, Part One - Serialization

These two were locked in a serialized battle for almost two years
Photo Credit:

Professional wrestling and comic books are similar in many ways. This is the first in the series illustrating and comparing the two. I start with serialization, the largest thread connecting them.

A serial is a series of stories that connect to tell a long overarching plot, released in installments or episodes. It is a somewhat modern invention, at least in the grand scheme of history. The advent of printing press, and the ability to mass produce and print paper cheaply allowed for it to flourish in the 19th Century. Written serialized fiction gave birth to pulp magazines, which went on to influence the origins of comic books. With the birth of radio came the creation of the soap opera, radio dramas with ongoing stories and characters, named that because soap companies were often the sponsors. They were written largely for women because they were the target demographic for buying soap. These were the first serialized drama in this new medium, and several of them transitioned to television, with some running over fifty years. This serialized nature is often why professional wrestling is called a “male soap opera”.

Television has seen trends of serialized programs come and go. There were a wave of programs in the 80's dubbed “night-time soaps” such as Dallas and Dynasty that were tremendously popular. We are seeing a revitalization of that trend now, with Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead. Each of those shows is deeply rooted in continuity. As how many television shows there are, the most successful ones are self-contained, each episode telling a singular story that requires almost no foreknowledge, allowing a viewer to jump in and out. Many television executives lament the recent rise of serialization as they believe it keeps new viewers out, strictly limiting a show's audience.

Serialized stories, by their very nature, are steeped in continuity. Comic books are famous (or infamous), for this. Many of the stories rely on knowledge of the characters, their origins, histories, and how they intertwine. Wrestling is no different. The recent rebirth of Evolution is a prescient example. The new group itself wasn't that fascinating in and of itself, but the difference in the roles of HHH and Randy Orton certainly were. Seeing Wolverine and Cyclops clash now over their ideological differences means more when you know that they have switched archetypes. Wolverine, the once wild animal, embodied the peaceful Professor Xavier, while the staid leader Cyclops took over the role of the revolutionary Magneto. Knowing their characters' histories makes the story that much interesting. Both modern comics and wrestling try to shortcut this knowledge to the audience with devices like recap pages in comics and video packages in wrestling. Even with those, there is a certain level of implied understood knowledge in both the comics and wrestling audience.

The most difficult part of serialization is keeping the audiences attention. RAW generally ends on something big, something attempting impactful, wanting the audience to tune in again next week. Comic books do the same thing, with writers generally scripting the stories so that the big, dramatic beats of a story end an issue, leaving the reader wanting more. The best writers script each issue the same way, on a minor scale, with the bigger beats within that issue placed before page flips. An episode of RAW is much the same (ideally), with commercial breaks in the place of page turns. This is one of the reasons the swerve became such a prevalent trope in modern (post 1996) wrestling.

The best wrestling storylines use both of these facts to enhance the story. The Summer of Punk II used both the histories of CM Punk and John Cena to color its story and allow the dramatic beats to propel the action from episode to episode. The same can be said for most comic stories. Civil War, as an example, used the history of Captain America brilliantly as he was now fighting the government instead of fighting for it. However, the ending of both illustrate a problem, probably the biggest problem with both comics and wrestling, namely that serialized dramas are bad at endings. The ongoing nature of the story requires a next chapter, which most often is just a return to the status quo. Cena is champion again, and Cap is fighting for America again.

Endings, however, can come in a lot of different forms. The most easily implemented in wrestling is the big blow-off match, with one character triumphant and one defeated, each of them going their separate ways. However, it doesn't have to be that simple, and the WWE can look at the best comic books, and the best of their own stories, to see how simply allowing a character to change, learn, and/or evolve can be enough of an ending on its own. Giving a character a small arc of growth over a span of a year is often enough to satisfy that need. Comic companies are often forced to keep characters going simply because of their popularity, and this is no different in wrestling. Sometimes the biggest opponent of good storytelling in both comics and wrestling isn't lack of imagination, but the almighty dollar. Death in comic books and retirement in wrestling are both impermanent, as long as a return of a favored character can also bring enough money. Balancing the audience's need for change and catharsis versus the demand for persistent, popular characters is the most difficult creative challenge for both wrestling and comics.

Serialized storytelling is a unique format, one that is coming back into vogue. Wrestling and comics are two of the longest practitioners in it, and when executed ideally, it creates an interesting ongoing story that allows for us to follow beloved characters over a long period of time, watching their growth and evolution. When done badly, it creates stagnation, redundancy, and storytelling steeped in marketing and profit, instead of in entertainment.