Taking a Note, Taking a Dive

The general public has a short memory. Many are under the impression that a substantial number of professional wrestling fans still believe the artform to represent genuine competition, rather than being an entertainment medium consisting of matches with predetermined outcomes. This isn’t the case – aside from small children who might believe in Roman Reigns the way they believe in Father Christmas, fans generally accept that the matches are worked, and derive a whole secondary level of enjoyment from analysing and debating the storytelling decisions behind match outcomes and the backstage gossip that might have fed into them.

Even among wrestling fans, there’s something of a myth that kayfabe – the pretence that it’s a real contest – was rigorously maintained until the early 1990s, when Vince McMahon famously said that WWF was in the “sport entertainment” business and promotions like ECW or WCW ran angles based largely on breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging kayfabe (usually as an attempt to persuade the viewer that things had gone “off-script” and were therefore real). In fact, major breaches of kayfabe and exposes of the business go way back, with one of the most famous such examples being Marcus Griffin’s 1937 book Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce.

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Grappling With History

Written by Aubrey Sitterson, host of the Straight Shoot podcast, and illustrated by Chris Moreno, The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling is an almost 200 page history of what the book calls the One True Sport. This is a title Sitterson bestows because of, not despite, the fakery intrinsic to the format, which he makes a case for being a strength of the form rather than a liability. Clueless non-fans love to point out to wrestling fans that it’s fake, as though any wrestling fan didn’t know that. (Despite fan myth suggesting that “kayfabe” – the pretence of reality – died in the 1990s, the history notes that actually the lid was blown off the business by a renegade promoter airing his grievances in the press back in the 1930s.) What they don’t get is that the fakery liberates wrestling from any consideration aside from providing an entertaining spectacle and emotionally engaging stories to the audience. Football teams, athletes, and so on are supposed to be concentrating on winning first and foremost, entertainment second; Vince McMahon’s infamous “sports entertainment” phrase really sums up how wrestling inverts that, since it’s an entertainment which uses the trappings of sport as its aesthetic and premise.

To my eye the length of the book is just about right; it’s short enough to provide a good introduction to the field that isn’t off-putting in its length but long enough to be meaty and go into sufficient detail that it can also teach fans a thing or two. Sitterson has a knack for condensing his text down to a point where he’s delivering a lot of information in a short amount of text without becoming so terse that he fails to adequately explain crucial concepts; Moreno’s artwork not only fits the superheroic world of wrestling neatly but also works well to support and convey Sitterson’s points.

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Clotheslining the 1%

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

John Nada (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) is drifting from town to town across the States after losing his job in Denver, Colorado, in the midst of a massive economic downturn. (He drops a reference to 14 banks closing in a week.) Arriving in Los Angeles, he is eventually able to find work on a construction site, and finds something resembling a community in a favela of the sort that we aren’t supposed to believe exists in North America, occupied by members of the growing underclass John finds himself a part of, and a friend in the form of Frank Armitage (Keith David), who’s full of criticism of the capitalist system as it stands and is beginning to think that violent action may be the only solution – though John still just about believes in America and isn’t ready to go that far.

As it turns out, there’s a few people around who are out to make a difference. The community manager of the favela, a street preacher John sees hassled by cops earlier in the day, a strange professor whose pirate TV transmissions are trying to get the truth out – these form the leadership of the local cell of a resistance movement founded by a small group of scientists who, through a purely accidental scientific discovery, have discovered the terrible truth – that Earth has been colonised, occupied, and completely controlled by aliens who masquerade as human beings and hide their commands to us in plain sight, with mind control transmissions keeping is in a hypnotic state that keeps us unable to perceive this.

By chance, John happens to spot the connection between the pirate TV broadcasts and the church across the street from the settlement. Investigating, he discovers a strange laboratory in a back room of the church – but before he can take his investigations much further, a massive police raid on the shanty town takes place, a violent purge which sees the church taken out with it. After the carnage of the raid, John is able to retrieve from the ruined church a box of very special pairs of sunglasses – glasses fitted with “Hoffmann lenses”, developed by the resistance. These sunglasses are effectively an instant political awakening in plastic form: wearing them, not only do you look damn cool, but you also break through the aliens’ illusions and get to see the world as it really is. The sight is so shocking to John that he realises that his nonviolent, stick-to-the-rules ways can only play into the hands of the aliens. It’s time for John to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and he’s all out of bubblegum.

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Clotheslines and Cautionary Tales

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Professional wrestling isn’t a sport; Vince McMahon, overlord of WWE and therefore the most powerful person in the industry, calls it “sports entertainment”, and the kindest and most accurate way to describe it is as a performance art in which masquerading as a sport is part of the performance.

Part of the magic of “kayfabe” – the illusion of spontaneity and competition surrounding pro wrestling – is that when you are little your wrestling heroes are just as cool and superhuman to you as Father Christmas is, whilst when you see through the illusion it becomes possible to appreciate the form on a whole new level. Kayfabe jargon refers to “smarks” or “smart marks” – fans who know that the whole deal is fake, but enjoy and pay for wrestling products and shows because they appreciate the combination of athleticism and sleight-of-hand necessary to pull off complex stunts in the ring, or because they like to follow along wrestling storylines even though they know it’s a story.

Smarks and the Internet are a match made in heaven. The very subjects that smarks are interested in or get worked up about – which old acts still have it and who needs to retire from the ring before they embarrass themselves or destroy their health entirely, which new acts are the most exciting, what scripting (or “booking”) decisions have captured people’s imaginations and which have fallen flat, and so on – are precisely the sort of fodder which drives internet conversations and flamewars in any fandom. Booking and other backstage matters are a matter of particular interest to clued-in wrestling fans, and it’s natural that that should be the case: after all, the bookers plan out the matches based on behind-the-scenes business decisions made concerning which wrestlers need to be promoted as the major faces of a promotion and which wrestlers are out there mostly to make the major players look good.

It’s also natural that smarks should believe that they can do a better job than the professional writers. Part of this is just the sort of smug armchair quarterbacking endemic to fandom; part of this comes down to even major promotions making a range of incredibly foolish, self-defeating, and damaging booking decisions over the years. Bryan Alvarez’s Figure 4 website is a well-established online “dirtsheet” (a zine produced to give the inside behind-the-kayfabe news about pro wrestling), and RD Reynolds’ WrestleCrap was one of the first to dedicate itself to covering the worst in wrestling. In The Death of WCW, Reynolds and Alvarez form a journalistic tag team to take a well-researched and bitingly sarcastic look at the destruction of the only wrestling promotion to remotely approach the size of WWF/WWE during the 1990s.

Continue reading “Clotheslines and Cautionary Tales”