Dennis Hopeless, Tini Howard (writers), Serg Acuña (artist), Dan Mora (cover artist)
February 21, 2018
There is something fascinating about WWE #14. The first issue of the arc chronicling the Women’s Revolution in the company is some kind of genius in how metatextual the storytelling is. Because, exactly like the real life Women’s Revolution, this issue gets so close to actually showing us what it promised, but then immediately switches back to just coasting and hoping nobody will notice.
I’d apologize for the sarcasm there, but I’d be lying. Because in an ideal world, reading this issue—a comic book about wrestling, recognizing an incredible group of women characters—should have left me with a feeling of elation. It would be a point at the exact center of the Venn Diagram of my interests in comics, wrestling, and feminism. Yes, this was getting my hopes too high, but remember, this is my ideal world. The pessimist in me figured, hey, if it sucks at least it’ll be a dumpster fire you can rant about, making the review that much easier to write. Instead, we got something as underwhelming as any of the 9,765,123,532 six-woman tag matches Smackdown Live has put on in the past five months.
Part of the problem is that the method of storytelling is the same one we’ve seen in every other issue. For the first three arcs this wasn’t as notable, since they each concentrated on a single member of WWE’s faction The Shield after their emotional break-up. The consistency made sense and could be read as purposeful. Here, though, we see the exact same formula: single character POV, most of the text being internal monologue from that character. It makes me wonder if this is a decided-upon house style or if it is simply the only way Dennis Hopeless can tell a wrestling story.
It’s a problem because this story isn’t about a split, it’s about four different women coming together to change everything. It could and should be told as the origin story of a group of heroes. The closest comparison I can come up with is a shojo manga: four girls who might not get along outside of this situation being united for something greater and becoming close along the way. There’s hints of that—the scene where Bayley first arrives at the Performance Center shows her meeting the other three women in the parking lot and gives an idea of their personalities from the start (Charlotte Flair being uncomfortable with her father dropping her off in a limo; Becky Lynch immediately offering Bayley a helping hand; Sasha Banks demanding people get the hell out of her way).
But from there we jump immediately to all four women as friends, training having already brought them together. I don’t want or need the clips show here. I want to see that happening, I want to see these four women learning to like and respect one another and work together, even in a situation where they are often placed directly against each other in combat. That is more interesting than a “this is your life” highlight reel. And it could still focus largely on Bayley—again I’m thinking of something akin to Sailor Moon, but with wrestling.
Frankly, I think part of the problem is that it is a man trying to tell a women’s story. If you are focused on really giving us a Women’s Revolution, then we should see signs of it everywhere. But this is the problem with both wrestling and comics: you outwardly empower women for the mainstream headlines and pats on the back, but you don’t make the more meaningful backstage changes. Perfect example: the creators working on the main story here? Are all men. BOOM’s WWE comics are cheering and celebrating women in a man’s world, but they won’t hire women to do it. There are plenty of women creators out there, some that unguardedly enjoy and follow professional wrestling. And while I can see not having the budget for someone like Becky Cloonan or Jill Thompson, there are numerous lesser known or undiscovered talents who could have been tapped for this. BOOM!, you’ve used some of them in your previous specials! Do you want a short list of fan artists and fanfic writers who could have tackled this story? Because I can give you a few, and I’ll even leave my own name off for the sake of fairness.
That’s not to say the art here is bad; it’s run-of-the-mill Serg Acuna. While I’m not always in love with how he draws faces and expressions, I will give him credit for not feeling the need to always make the women “pretty.” They’re allowed to show genuine anger and frustration, the focus isn’t on always making them seem pleasant. Muscles are emphasized, muscles exist! And any sexualization is limited to what their real life ring gear provides. In some cases it even feels downplayed, such as when we see the Bella Twins in their gear for their cancelled Wrestlemania match. Though one of those illustrations shows backstage interviewer Renee Young wearing shoes, which by her own admission would be inaccurate. If she doesn’t need to show her feet on camera, she’s generally barefoot. Details, boys.
The other major complaint I have is again in the writing—specifically the characterization of Bayley. Bayley has always been shown to be an underdog, someone who beyond everything believes you can be nice but also be competitive, that you don’t have to be cruel or backstabbing to succeed. Her original character in NXT began a socially awkward fangirl and evolved into an experienced competitor who shouldn’t be underestimated. Bayley was an incredibly nuanced character; she appealed to the crowd and especially to young girls who related to her as the cool older sister or aunt. She was someone who was living her childhood dream of being a WWE Superstar, and she did it without having to compromise who she is.
Of course, this means when she was handed off to the writers on WWE Raw, she was turned into a pathetic loser who was afraid to be aggressive in a match (she lost her Women’s Championship because she refused to use a legal weapon against her opponent) and who had supposedly never kissed a boy. The underdog who triumphed in a brutal thirty-minute Iron Man match against Sasha Banks in NXT was suddenly “a virgin who can’t drive.”
WWE #14 seems like it wasn’t meant to follow the NXT model. It wants to follow that arc. Some of it seems earned: Bayley tumbling off a bus out of excitement for her arrival and being caught off guard when another wrestler cheats in a practice match, for example. But then there’s Bayley being embarrassingly starstruck over Ric Flair to the point of missing Charlotte’s existence and discomfort with the situation. Bayley, the nice one, at no point says anything to Charlotte, not even a tone-deaf “I can’t believe I’m training with Ric Flair’s daughter!”
There’s a conversation between Bayley and Triple H, who runs the NXT territory in real life, where he tells her she’s not being called up because Raw and Smackdown essentially aren’t ready for her attitude and style: “I’d hate to send you there and have you eaten alive.” If this were written years ago, during the actual events, it would have seemed ridiculous. But now it seems to be a prophecy fulfilled, none of it actually Bayley’s fault.
The back-up story is about Asuka, a superstar who as of this writing is undefeated in the WWE. She was NXT women’s champion for 510 days, only losing the title when she voluntarily surrendered it upon being called up to Raw. But it’s not just that streak that makes her special: she is one of the best performers in the world, male or female, and one of the toughest as well. Her strikes are so scary that people wince when just seeing them on television. And she is incredibly talented not only with her own offense, but at making her opponent look strong and capable. Asuka will win, but Asuka will give the crowd a hell of a match, first.
The upside to the writing of this story is that it is in the hands of Tini Howard, the only woman to work on the issue. The downside, though, is that it’s just not believable. I know, complaining about believability in professional wrestling is pretty ridiculous. But in this case it’s an issue with documented fact. In the second panel of the story, during a discussion about Asuka’s name, Alexa Bliss claims it means “demon.” Except it doesn’t. Her name means “future.” This has been mentioned repeatedly in reference to Asuka. It is in her theme song. Now, maybe it’s possible this was meant to show how little Alexa Bliss knew, but without showing some kind of correction somewhere it makes it feel like the mistake is on the part of the writer and editors, not on the character.
The entire story is focused on Asuka “hiding in plain sight.” Mentions of how she doesn’t look scary, everyone talking about how she can’t be as threatening as she sounds. There’s a couple of problems. First of all, Asuka has some of the brightest and most noticeable hair of any woman in WWE. The idea that she could easily fade into the background based simply on that is laughable. But secondly, and most importantly, is that it’s just inaccurate given how events actually happened.
The women backstage only realize who Asuka is when she reveals her ring gear and her entrance theme begins. This is great for dramatic effect. But the problem is that Asuka was introduced very publicly to NXT long before she put on her gear. Her public “contract signing” was shown on NXT on September 23, 2015, where she was announced as “the hottest free agent” in wrestling. She made her way to the ring not in her gear, but in a business suit. And the signing was interrupted by Dana Brooke and her mentor, Emma.
So even within the wrestling rule of “it’s only what happens on screen that counts,” the story doesn’t work. I’m not sure if this is Tini Howard taking artistic license or if that’s the way WWE wanted the story told, but no matter what . . . it just doesn’t work.
The art in this story, however, is the highlight of the issue. Hyeonjin Kim draws every single woman so incredibly. I had seen a preview of the art for this issue before it was colored and I was floored then, and the finished product is even better. A shot of the NXT women warming up emphasizes each body type, each looking strong in her own way, the power in Nia Jax evident in just one profile shot. And the final payoff, the first full shot we see of Asuka’s face, captures her trademark smile perfectly, the image of “when she’s smiling is when you’re probably about to die.”
I’m well aware that both professional wrestling and mainstream comics are not well known for their commitment to feminism. So, true, maybe I came into this with higher expectations than I should have. I’m sure there are people who will say I should just be happy to see the women getting any kind of recognition, that I’m looking in the wrong places for what I want. But you know, when someone promises me a revolution, I’m going to hold them to that. And if they don’t deliver, well. I’ve got just two words for them.