New To You Comics #74: BOOM! Studios’ ‘WWE- The Phenomenal One’

by Brendan M. Allen

Tony and Brendan have very different tastes in comics. Tony loves his capes, super powers, and sci-fi. Brendan tends to stick to horror, noir, and weird indies. Occasionally, their paths cross, but like most readers, they tend to stay in their own lanes.

New To You Comics is here to break up the pattern a little. Tony will throw some of his favorites at Brendan, and Brendan will hit Tony with some of his. Every NTYC title is brand new to one of them. Every once in a while a title will land with both of them. Most of the time they can find some common ground, but even when they don’t, it’s fun to watch them go at it. Brendan fights dirty. Tony kicks like a mule. 

This week, Brendan’s got another rasslin’ book on queue for Tony, BOOM! Studios’ WWE: The Phenomenal One, written by Dennis Hopeless/Hallum and drawn by Serg Acuna (mostly). Here’s what BOOM! says about the book:

‘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. Dennis Hopeless (Cloak & Dagger, All-New X-Men) and illustrator Serg Acuña team up for this tale of overcoming challenges and striving to be the best. Collects WWE issues #21-25.’

Brendan Allen: Another rasslin’ book, Tony. I told you man, you’re going to get an education.

Tony Thornley: Dude, you are just trying to make a convert out of me.

Brendan: Probably. Anyway, when most folks think of today’s professional wrestling scene, they’ll usually think of WWE or AEW. While they get the majority of the mainstream press right now, hardcore marks can tell you that those two organizations are really just the tip of the iceberg. There are wrestling shows happening in high school gyms, armories, and recreation halls every weekend in the US, and then there’s Ring of Honor, Impact!, Major League Wrestling, and believe it or not, the National Wrestling Alliance is still alive and kicking. 

Internationally, there are hundreds of promotions in Canada, Mexico, Japan, the UK…

Most pro wrestling hopefuls spend a lot of time (if not their entire careers) grinding it out on the road, perfecting their craft before making it to one of the bigger promotions. 

Then, if they ever get their ‘big break’ with WWE, it often ends up being ridiculously awkward and can bring a screeching halt to any momentum the performer carried into the move. The WWE brass makes them prove themselves all over again, no matter how many years they’ve been consistently selling out venues around the world. Then they repackage them, rename them, and make them grind it out in WWE’s own developmental system before they *might* get a shot at the main roster. 

AJ Styles is a different case. He was initially passed over by WWE and served a short stint in WCW, before he worked his way up through ROH and then spent decades as the face of Impact! (then TNA), while travelling the globe wrestling spots for NJPW, CMLL, AAA, IWGP, IGF… 

When he got his most recent call from the WWE, he was already so well established in the world of international pro wrestling that the WWE not only let him keep his name and gimmick, he got to bypass NXT altogether, debuting in one of the greatest surprise Royal Rumble moments of all time

Tony: This book was fascinating in seeing that journey. You’ve talked to me enough about wrestling and I’ve read enough of these books that I kind of get the typical journey of the WWE superstar. As a biography, this was an interesting way to see a very atypical journey.

Brendan: One of the challenges of working on WWE stories is that the company is very strict about any mention whatsoever of any company they don’t currently own, or any performers who have jumped ship to other feds. 

Check out this tweet the WWE put out congratulating announcer Renee Young (Renee Paquette) on the birth of her daughter last month:

Notably missing from this gesture is any mention at all of Paquette’s husband, Jon Moxley, formerly known as Dean Ambrose. See, Moxley works for the other guys (AEW) now, so he’s off limits to mention. 

Tony: Yeah, I’m familiar with Mox. He’s a charming guy.

Brendan: Dennis Hopeless always does a great job nodding at the history that he’s not allowed to outright mention, and also tying kayfabe and real life events into a neat little package. 

Even some of the parts that are ‘allowed’ have funny little rules. It looks like there was an issue portraying Styles’ Air Raid tag team partner, Air Paris, but there wasn’t really any point in showing him either. Just seeing AJ in his G-Suit and aviators walking down to the WCW ring is enough to show just how poorly used he was in the Atlanta-based organization. 

Hopeless fills in the TV storyline gaps nicely, fleshing out AJ, The (Bullet) 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.

Tony: Okay, you phrased that in an interesting way. I was curious about exactly that. Do you know if Hopeless sat down with the Superstars he wrote about? Got some biographical information for the organization? Or if this is largely fictional? I mean obviously, even the true stuff is fictionalized at least in part. But it did cross my mind.

Brendan: If I had one issue with the story, it’s actually not even Hopeless’ fault. Chapter three  is largely dedicated to the feud between AJ and Brock Lesnar. The WWE is classically obsessed with putting former MMA stars over. 

Lesnar, Rousey, Baszler, Lashley… Whenever 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. It’s always annoyed me. Getting your top talent smashed by ‘real’ fighters doesn’t make your team look tough. This is what the WWE does, though, so there it is. Accuracy, even in the maddeningly annoying details. 

Tony: Yeah, except for the bonding moment between the two of them, that did stand out across the entire book. It was a little over the top villainous. I mean, look at what I’m talking about, it’s pro wrestling. But it did feel a little too far.

Brendan: Serg Acuna nails the likenesses, ring gear, 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. 

Tony: I did like that. You know I struggle with these WWE conversations you and I have. However, BOOM! did a great job this entire series of making sure that the art wasn’t just top notch, but also that they hit the likenesses every time. It’s one of the best things about reading these books.

Brendan: One of my favorite sequences in the entire book doesn’t even take place in the ring. It involves a group of wrestlers in the back, 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 little  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.

Tony: Making a world feel lived in is definitely important to world-building in general. A lot of artists forget to do that, and Acuna did a really good job all around with it. The entire WWE feels like a circus here, in the sense that there’s always something going on. Having it happen in the background is a big key to that.

Brendan: It IS like a circus. That’s a good point. Pro wrestling may have moved on from the sideshow spectacle it once was, but the lifestyle and relationships are very similar to what you might see in a travelling circus troupe. Never really thought of it that way, but yeah.

Brendan: Kendall Goode filled in on chapter three, which is something that happened pretty frequently throughout this run. Mostly Serg, with a few pages here and there or entire chapters filled in by other artists. 

The difference is noticeable, but not a complete deal breaker. Goode has a way 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 next to AJ, obliquely viewing a television monitor backstage, has to be Daniel Bryan, right? 

One of the funniest visual details about this chapter is the perceived height and size differences between AJ and Brock Lesnar. For reference, Brock stands 6’3” and AJ measures at 5’11”. Four inches is nothing to sneeze at, but the difference is much smaller than it appears here. Brock looks about eight feet tall. 

Even there, though, the WWE has always oversold the height and weight of its super heavyweight stars, so it fits. They billed Andre the Giant at 7’4” for years. No one knows Andre’s actual height, but if you look at pictures of him next to Hulk Hogan, who stands 6’7”, Andre is only actually four or five  inches taller.

Tony: I actually liked that exaggeration. It made Lesnar seem like more of a threat to AJ, especially when Goode is basically depicting him as a perfect physical specimen. It’s sort of like when X-Men books depict the difference between Wolverine and Sabretooth or the Hulk. It helps you cheer for the little guy quite a bit more.

Brendan: I really enjoyed the whole WWE series done by Hopeless and Acuna. The specials are fun, too, but, as with any anthology, there were some collections better than others, and there were always one or two really odd choices in each of those books.

The ongoing was fantastic, though. Hopeless 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. This arc was the very last in the series, and while that fact sucked, it’s a fitting send off. 

What did you think?

Tony: So, I think these are some damn well constructed and technically sound comics. The stories have been solid, and the art is always good. My issue here is largely the same I have with any licensed comic. These are never made to engage a new fan. Now that’s fine. Every comic is someone’s first, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to get its hooks in you for something that you’re unfamiliar with. Honestly, with something like the WWE, if this is your first exposure to the brand, you’re probably going about it all wrong.

But if you’re a fan, I’m certain this is one fun book.

Brendan: You’re saying this book is the gateway drug for wrestling fans to get into comics? That works. I’ll take it. What’s up next week?

Tony: The first big superhero movie since COVID is hitting theatres this week- Marvel’s Black Widow! We’re going to take a look at a relatively recent series starring the character- Black Widow: SHIELD’s Most Wanted from 2016.

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