Before he became The Face That Runs The Place, AJ Styles spent nearly twenty years traveling the world, making sacrifices, all with one goal: proving himself as the best in-ring performer, bar none. Now, for the first time ever, see how the Phenomenal One’s quest led him to WWE, and how he took the biggest stage in sports entertainment and made it his own.
There’s an odd dynamic that happens whenever WWE brings in a well-known, insanely accomplished performer from the independent scene. What many people would consider a “big break” often ends up being ridiculously awkward and can bring a screeching halt to any momentum the performer carried into the move. It’s almost like they need to prove themselves all over again, no matter how many years they’ve been consistently selling out venues around the world.
WWE: The Phenomenal One SC sees AJ Styles’ transition from basically being able to write his own ticket in any organization between here and Japan to toeing the WWE company line. Dennis Hallum fills in the TV storyline gaps nicely, fleshing out AJ, The Club, Samoa Joe, and Shinsuke Nakumura in ways we never saw on WWE programming. In Hopeless’ version of events, AJ was floundering a bit behind the scenes before he was able to get it together with a little help from old friends and older enemies.
If I had one issue with the story, it’s actually not even Hallum’s fault. Chapter 3 is largely dedicated to the feud between AJ and Brock Lesnar. For some reason, the WWE is pretty obsessed right now with putting former MMA stars over. Lesnar, Rousey, Baszler, Lashley… Well, maybe not Lashley, but when a cage fighter comes to WWE, they’re generally treated as untouchable monsters. It’s supposed to lend credibility to the product. I don’t see it, but this is the state of WWE right now, and since we’re exploring a fairly recent storyline, there it is.
Serg Acuna nails the likenesses and action sequences, as usual. Shinsuke Nakamura is an especially difficult character to hit, with his seemingly boneless contortion, odd posture, disjointed ambulation, and wide range of facial expression. Acuna kills it.
One of my favorite sequences in entire book doesn’t even take place in the ring. It involves a group of wrestlers in the back, stood near a television monitor, not actually looking AT the monitor, just stood near it, at an angle that wouldn’t actually allow viewing the events on screen. This is a scene that has become all too familiar to WWE viewers. It’s a device that’s kind of necessary on the “live” shows to establish timelines and advance multiple facets of a storyline that are supposedly happening simultaneously. It’s an odd piece of kayfabe that we accept. It’s absolute nonsense, but it would feel so bizarrely forced if Acuna corrected the angles for realism. Well played, sir.
Kendall Goode filled in on chapter three, and the difference is noticeable, but not a complete deal breaker. Goode has a slightly more caricatured style than Acuna, but it works for the larger-than-life spectacle that is sports entertainment. Likenesses are pretty good, and even when they miss, there’s plenty of context. Short bearded fellow stood sideways next to AJ, obliquely viewing a television monitor backstage, has to be Daniel Bryan, right?
Hallum displays a rare understanding of the relationships and interactions between professional wrestlers, bookers, management, and fans, expertly riding that line between kayfabe and reality. Acuna takes everything crammed into Hopeless’ script and brings it to life with ridiculously authentic visuals. BOOM! Studios’ WWE ongoing was one of the best things to hit professional wrestling in a long time, and this final arc is a fitting send-off.
WWE: The Phenomenal One SC, collects WWE #21-25, BOOM! Studios, released 31 July 2019. Written by Dennis “Hopeless” Hallum, illustrated by Serg Acuna and Kendall Goode (chapter 3), color by Doug Garbark, letters by Jim Campbell, cover by Marco D’Alfonso.