WWE SummerSlam 2017 Special: A Lush Look at WWE’s HIStory
I love wrestling.
I’m part of a large, vocal, and often underestimated audience of women who love wrestling. I love the options it presents as a storytelling medium! I love the most over the top elements. I love the possibility of stories that explore characters and storylines beyond what is shown on TV. Let’s even say, hypothetically, I had written stories along these lines on my own. Of course this is entirely hypothetical because what kind of weirdo writes wrestling fanfiction, right? Right?
Anyway, given all of this, I was eager to read and give my thoughts on the most recent issue of Boom Studios WWE comic series. It is their very first Summerslam Special issue, focused on the yearly August event which is considered one of the “Big Four” yearly WWE shows. Summerslam is known for big matches and historic moments, several of which are visited in the five stories in this issue.
The first thing I have to praise is that the art styles so well matched to each story. The clash between Dusty Rhodes and The Macho King in 1990 looks like it belongs in a Claremont era-book. A story about the Bushwackers is cartoonish, fitting a team who famously licked their opponents, and includes genuinely adorable versions of The Mouth of the South Jimmy Hart and Ted DiBiase. Rob Guillory’s illustrations of The New Day capture the very theme of the trio, with Taylor Wells brightening the story in the style of the team’s trademark bright colors.
Selina Espiritu manages to draw strong and yet gorgeous versions of Seth Rollins and Finn Balor while also creating a creepy stylized version of The Demon to haunt Seth leading up to their Summerslam 2016 match.
The only art that didn’t quite resonate with me featured in the story of Mankind versus the Undertaker in a “Boiler Room Brawl.” The story was framed by Mankind waiting in the boiler room, ranting to an unseen figure. The darkness and the madness of Mankind were genuinely captured well. My issue is more that the panels and pages featuring action didn’t feel dynamic enough. The clashes between Mankind and The Undertaker were extremely physical and hard hitting, but the art didn’t manage to capture the kind of motion needed for those scenes.
Beyond that, though, my biggest issues were with the content of the book. One involving a certain inclusion, and one involving a very notable exclusion.
As I mentioned above, there is a story that revolves around Dusty Rhodes facing The Macho King in 1990. Titled “I Wined and Dined With Kings and Queens,” it is a strong showing. I praised the art above, and have plenty good to say about the writing. Both Dusty and Macho’s lines scanned in their unique voices, not difficult when parroting documented in-ring promos, but much harder with assumed/implied off-camera dialog.
My issue with this story comes only from the fact that it is the first one in the book, you open the comic to an image of Dusty Rhodes. Rhodes is one of the most revered figures in wrestling history, not just in WWE but before it and beyond it. He helped train an incredible group of young talents now stepping to the forefront in WWE and was much-beloved by all of them.
But there has always been a tension between the Rhodes and the WWE, most specifically the McMahon family who owns the company. This tension even continues today: Dusty’s son, Cody, parted ways with the company in May of 2016, requesting his own release from his contract. He has since struck out on the independent circuit, but WWE has remained firm on one point: he is not allowed to use the last name “Rhodes.”
I am sure the inclusion of Dusty in the comic is a fan’s way of homaging a great man and the influence he had on crowds and supporters. The match itself was a man who reminded people he was a common man, the son of a plumber, versus a man who declared himself a king. As Summerslam stories go, it absolutely deserved to be included. But at the same time, there was a knot in my stomach when I saw Dusty featured front and center in a WWE comic while his own child is not allowed to use the “Rhodes” name, a name that Dusty used long before he was signed to a WWE contract. It’s hard to concentrate purely on the story with that kind of background in mind.
Beyond that is a bigger problem. There are five stories included in the Summerslam issue of the comic. And absolutely none of them revolve around, or even feature, women.
WWE does not have a great track record when it comes to treatment of their women in the ring. In 2015, the company declared a “Diva’s Revolution” to correct the issue. This later became known as the “Women’s Revolution” when the company stated they would be referring to all WWE in-ring performers as “Superstars,” rather than using the term “Diva” for women. Even since it has been a series of highs and lows.
Let me contextualise. One of the biggest issues facing the Women’s Revolution has been a lack of commitment across the brand. WWE is a large media company, I understand, but it feels like there is no communication across departments. In this case, the people behind the in-ring product declared a “Women’s Revolution,” but there was nothing done to make sure this happened across the rest of the company: their merchandise, their web content, their pre and post-shows, their console and app games and, in this case, their licensed comic.
This was a special Summerslam-centric issue, and I will admit that there is very little women’s wrestling history to draw on for that purpose. I went back through the match cards for every Summerslam and, not surprisingly, there were many years without any women’s matches at all. And even when there were women’s matches, there are potential issues with their storytelling opportunities. They may not have the right to use the likeness of famed women’s grappler Bull Nakano to do a story about her match against Alundra Blayze in 1994, for example. There were years of matches that were rushed and have little about them to inspire a multi-page story. And it is not shocking the company would avoid any story involving former performer AJ Lee, given their treatment of her legacy since her departure (Lee’s now-husband, known in-ring as CM Punk, also has a rocky history with the company and is involved in a lawsuit against a member of their medical staff).
The biggest stumbling block is that while there was a woman who had several Summerslam stories to tell, she is someone who the company has disowned: the late Joanie “Chyna” Laurer. There are contradicting stories about exactly why she is excluded from WWE history, but no matter what she was essentially a persona non grata in the company until her death in early 2017. Even then, while WWE aired an “in memory” video package about her, she was still denied a place in their Hall of Fame class of 2017–something she had even been lobbying for prior to her death.
Before Summerslam in 1999, Chyna made history by becoming the first woman to be named number one contender for the WWE (men’s) Championship. While she did not get to have her title match during the show (she lost her contendership to Mankind prior to the event) this was still a Summerslam story that could have been told in the pages of this comic.
In 2000, Chyna again made history by becoming a two-time Intercontinental Champion–at Summerslam. Again, a story that could have been told, especially as it also included her on-screen relationship with late legend Eddie Guererro.
All right, then, assuming that the company would not sanction inclusion of Chyna for whatever reason? There was a story involving three women, all still employed by the company, with plenty of room for a writer to explore.
In 2014, there was a match between Brie Bella and Stephanie McMahon. The rivalry stemmed out of McMahon threatening to fire Brie if her husband, Daniel Bryan, didn’t surrender his WWE Championship. Brie instead quit in protest, but it was in vain, Bryan was still forced to hand over his title due to injury. Brie eventually got her job back, but along with that also demanded a match against Stephanie at Summerslam.
During the time Brie was gone, her twin sister Nikki was repeatedly humiliated and punished by Stephanie. Nikki was put in a series of unfair and essentially unwinnable matches: having one arm tied behind her back, being blindfolded, facing three opponents by herself. When Brie returned, Nikki was quick to side with her sister against Stephanie.
But at the actual event, while Brie had Stephanie beat, Nikki forearmed her own twin sister and turned against her. I would have loved to see a writer tackle this in some way. A story about when Nikki made the decision. The conversation between Stephanie and Nikki after the match, the official offer for Nikki to join the group known as The Authority. Or a parallel narrative between Brie and Nikki looking at both of them immediately post-match. Stephanie’s exact thoughts when Nikki sided with her. Anything.
I do not want to make it sound as if I disliked the issue. I truly enjoyed reading everything included and absolutely loved the short about Seth and Finn. It is absolutely worth reading as it is, and I think most fans would enjoy the book and feel satisfied.
But I would be untrue to myself if I did not point out the obvious lack of any women in the pages of this book. Women continue to fight in both wrestling and comics, refusing to be silenced or made invisible. So it is only right we should demand to see more of them in a title that combines both.