Andre the Giant [Critical Reflections on a Graphic Novel, part one]

Works-In-Process, Wrestling Comics, WWE

Research in comics studies has gone a great distance toward defining comics as a medium, not a genre.  Within the American context, comics as a medium was, for decades, conflated with comics as a genre, typically the superhero genre.  In some ways, the scholar of wrestling studies might see such conflation as similar to the period in which wrestling and boxing were operated by the same promoters.  The most significant initial investment was the ring, which could then hold both the sport of boxing and the entertainment of wrestling.  The ring was a medium that could host two genres of performance.

Comics scholars divided medium from genre by two lines of argument.

The first line of argument proceeds by noting that comics have historically hosted many genres: superhero, yes, but also funny animal, teen humor, romance, science fiction, horror, autobiography, memoir, educational, and literary fiction and nonfiction.   One medium, multiple genres.

The second line of argument proceeds from analysis of how comics work as text.  Neil Cohn describes the Visual Language of Comics:  A language requires an interaction between three primary components: meaning, modality, and grammar. First, it combines the mapping of meaning to a modality. Spoken languages express meaning using the modality of phonology (sound), while visual languages use graphic structure (drawn lines). Systematic mappings between a modality and meanings create a stored lexicon. However, meaningful expressions alone—systematic or unsystematic—are not enough to become a language. Rather, those expressions must be ordered using a grammar.  [“Visual Language Theory and the Scientific Study of Comics”]  Comics constitute a system of meaning, modality and grammar, through which many kinds of stories may be told.

So when I learned of Box Brown’s Andre the Giant, Life and Legend, my aca-fan wires crossed in a series of sparks.  The ten year old who loved the larger-than-life heroes of superhero comics as much as he loved the larger-than-life heroes of the Avengers and Justice League shivered;  this is the genre I love, exploring a figure close to my heart.

The scholar in me wanted to see what this language, this deployment of meaning, modality and grammar, would look like — especially, what it could do that no other language could.

Over the course of a few posts, I hope to explore these questions.


The comic opens with a series of panels that use the relationship between the reader and the content to reframe readerly expectations.  Cohn tells us to be aware of the ways that “independent components mutually interact to form the perception of a holistic experience” — in this case, an experience that moves us from focus on Hulk Hogan, arguably the most famous figure in professional wrestling for thirty year, to Andre.  Hogan looms as a giant figure in the early panels, but diminishes in size until he is the same size as Andre, unnamed in the first panel.

Interior Image

Box Brown uses Hogan to tell open Andre’s story, but Andre is still not… quite… visible.  Most poignantly, in a series of panels on page thirteen, Andre exists only at a distance, his back to the audience.  Interior Image

As a result of the framing in this sequence, we know that Hogan can tell us part of Andre’s story, but he, too, doesn’t understand the “big picture.”

Boxer does, and he sets out to tell us, by moving Andre to the center stage, the center of the story…

[more in next post.]

Pro-Wrestling Slash

Works-In-Process

When I first got into professional wrestling — way back in 2014! — my first favorite wrestler was The Miz. I was watching WWE Main Event, which aired Wednesday nights on our Ion TV channel. This was before the WWE Network was launched, and before I had any access to higher level cable channels like the USA Network, so Main Event become my entry into professional wrestling and the WWE. Then we got the Network and cable, bringing to use NXT, Lucha Underground, and more. And I started going to the live events put on by AAW here in Chicagoland. So since in the years since, I have had other favorites to add to my own fangirl roster, with Sami Zayn earning perhaps the biggest place in my heart — for his wrestling and his political activism.

Sami, unfortunately, keeps getting injured, and I no longer have cable, so I cannot follow him on the WWE main roster (which underutilized him anyway). And while I also no longer subscribe to the Network for political reasons (seriously, Crown Jewel was just an idiotic event to do), I still watch NXT through next-day airings on Hulu. And I need to keep doing that, because I need by Ciampa/Gargano fix.

I remember first seeing Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano in the Dusty Rhodes tournament and wondering who they were. Needing to know who they were, I found a video of them wrestling in AAW. And at that time, they were not signed to NXT, so they were still wrestling in AAW. In fact, the first AAW show I went to had Ciampa there, busting open his nose right in front of me.

2015-11-28 19.20.18

Ciampa at AAW Windy City Classic XI in 2015.

Unlike Sami, here I had the opportunity to meet Ciampa and Gargano — and I did! The fangirl in me was so excited to be able to buy their t-shirts directly from them! I got to meet each of the them, and nervously (remember, I’m like a grown adult woman) gush about how much I like their work. Their last match at AAW after being signed to NXT was something I wrote about for a chapter in a book I co-edited. Unlike with Sami, I had actual interactions with them in a physical setting that could help fuel my interest in them. I wasn’t just watching them through television or following them through Twitter. I had met them. I knew how much taller I was than them. I breathed the same air as them. I touched them!

DSCN1300 (2)

Gargano at AAW United We Stand in 2016.

I am such a huge fangirl for them. I have been since their beginning in NXT. So I have followed their storyline with intense interest. I have had actual tears in my eyes watching their Cruiserweight match, or when they finally won the tag-team belts as DIY. I have felt actual shock and fear when Ciampa turned on Gargano. I was shaken by their TakeOver: New Orleans match for how brutal and emotional it was. I was there at TakeOver: Chicago, cheering for Ciampa, when he tore Gargano’s wedding ring off the hand of the man whose wedding he attended. I know every twist and turn of their story, and am legit concerned about the darkness consuming Gargano while also hoping it means he may soon get back with Ciampa.

Gargano Jump

Gargano’s jump on Ciampa, my vantage point at NXT TakeOver: Chicago in 2018.

I have even been writing a slash story in my head to bring them back together.

If you don’t know what slash is, here is a quick primer: it is a fan activity involving taking two characters who in canon (i.e. the original television show, book, movie, etc.) may be friends or enemies and putting them into a homosexual relationship. The classic examples include Kirk/Spock, Harry/Draco, and Sherlock/Watson. Fans may create such slash for a variety of reasons, and the relationships can be anything from angsty and emotional to brutal and hardcore.

When Ciampa came back after his injury as Blackheart and began torturing Gargano’s mind, body, and soul, my mind started to slash them. For me, it was a way to handle how two friends who seemed so close suddenly became such bitter enemies. I wanted them to reconcile and become friends again. I wanted them to kiss and make up.

Up to that point, I didn’t think anyone else was creating slash for these wrestlers (characters? real people?). Slash tends to be created by fangirls, and professional wrestling still tends to be dominated by fanboys. So I didn’t think to go look to see if there was a community out there engaging in this practices for this canon.

I was wrong. I found Ciampa/Gargano slash. Such as at a large fanfiction online site, Archive of Our Own. And then I found more at my old stomping grounds, FanFiction.net.

I found fans using slash and alternate universe (AU) stories to resolve the tensions between the characters/people of Ciampa and Gargano — tensions constructed through the kayfabe transmedia storytelling of their DIY rise and fallout. One author even called their fanfic “therapy” to help them cope with Ciampa’s heel turn.

Here are the ones I have found so far:

  • For example, there is the AU story involving the duo being werewolves where, although they hate each other, they are soulmates, and their interactions bristle with sexual tension.
  • And another where they are sexually active werewolves.
  • And another like that. And another. And another. One author in particular likes this angle. Could the werewolf angle be because of how they change identities between being real people and being performers?
  • This compilation of vignettes includes the suggestion of a polyamorous relationship between Ciampa, Gargano, and LeRae.
  • And the AU story of Ciampa experiencing a brush with death and reliving the night he and Gargano broke up, and using that heartbreak to explain Ciampa’s turning on Gargano.
  • Or this AU story that presents the entire arc of Ciampa/Gargano in NXT, up until Ciampa’s heel turn, as Ciampa struggles with his feelings for Gargano.
  • And this AU, where in a collection of stories, Ciampa recalls a romantic New Years with Gargano. Same with this one.
  • Then there is this AU story, presenting Gargano’s experience being haunted by Ciampa after the heel turn.
  • Although not updated, this planned AU definitely gets down to the kissing.
  • And this AU story finds them attempting a Glorious Bomb, only to have their first kiss.
  • In this AU story, Gargano is once again the tender one taking care of the rough Ciampa.
  • In this AU story, the heel turn never takes breaks up the partnership, which is definitely more than just professional.
  • In this AU, Gargano tracks down Ciampa after the heel turn to confess his love.
  • And another AU reference to Chuck Taylor claiming Ciampa/Gargano were a couple. Did he actually make such a comment?
  • Here Ciampa helps Gargano deal with a trauma from his past.
  • This time Gargano helps Ciampa reveal his true feelings.
  • Then in this AU story, their D&D characters have to fall in love for them to realize their true feelings for each other. And here as well.
  • For this story, their tenderness for each other comes through after a loss for the tag-team titles.
  • And in this story, even before the heel turn, their relationship was more personal than professional.
  • Then in this AU, they are X-Men, and teenagers find their first loves.
  • For this one, another angsty one for Ciampa needing to realize his feelings for Gargano.
  • In these connected stories, multiple wrestlers come together, but again, Ciampa is rough with Gargano: part 1 and part 2.
  • While this one starts out rough, Gargano manages to bring out Ciampa’s tender side (which he does in other stories as well).
  • Like in this one, the younger Gargano manages to save Ciampa from a life of crime.

In total so far, 25 stories that in some way put these two into a romantic relationship. Stories that come from early in DIY to after the break-up to the current era of the darkness between them. And all of them fantastic in some way because of how they are either directly relating to an event from the story told by these wrestlers or are referencing the overall arc and angst of the story.

Another aspect of these stories that is fascinating is how many are from Ciampa’s perspective, as if he is tortured with these longings for Gargano and that perhaps those longings, unfulfilled, can explain his heel turn. And there are the stories were Gargano is taking care of Ciampa, putting him in a more feminine position to the gruff Ciampa. So a lot of interesting character interpretation and supposition happening to fill in the gaps created in the story about who these people are and why they have done what they have done to each other.

Finding these stories can help me conduct an analysis of the transformative fandom among pro-wrestling fans not commonly studied: women. And such an analysis could show the overlaps with different fandoms through the common practices of fanfiction, in general, and slash, in particular. Overall, the works show fans seeking for the two men to make up, to become friends again. The emotional work done by the wrestlers to tell their transmedia story is being reflected in how fans use their fics to transform the negative relationship back to a positive one.

I hope to use this example to do more research on my encoding-decoding-recoding model. I think I can argue that the transmedia storytelling serves as encoding kayfabe, that the fans’ decoding consists of emotional reactions to the kayfabe, and their fanfic acts as recoding to deal with those emotional reactions. The fact that so many of the stories directly reference events as depicted in NXT helps to show the relationships between the storytelling (encoding) and how fans reacted to the storytelling (decoding and recoding). Even the timecode stamps on the fanfics can help show what the fans reacted to. Plus there are the comments to the fanfics, which could further help show the decoding through the fan discourses embedded in these fanfics.

So right now, this idea represents a work-in-progress here, but one I am very excited about — and not just because I get to read Ciampa/Gargano fanfic.

Nylons and Midriffs: A Fall from Grace (November 19, 2018)

Nylons and Midriffs

Image credit: express.co.uk

How are you doing, good wrestling fans? I hope you all are staying warm and gearing up for the holidays. I have not yet begun my Christmas shopping, as I’m still in disbelief that we are already knocking on 2019’s door.

With Thanksgiving in a few days, I thought this week we could play around with the idea of thankfulness and how that is often a complicated thing for the marginalized identities of the WWE. The women of WWE do have much to be thankful for this year, but in my opinion, just as many things to rage about. Let’s talk about what they’ve been doing since Evolution, although it hasn’t been much.

The Good
Not much of it, folks. I am flabbergasted, albeit not surprised, that WWE has managed to muck up the women’s division immediately following Evolution. I will relent only about an inch for the fact that Survivor Series was so soon after Evolution, so there was not that much time to build feuds for the traditional Survivor Series elimination and title matches. I digress — we’ll get into the bad bits in the next section.

But I have to, as I have for the last several posts, rave about Becky Lynch. The woman is an absolute badass, an amazing heel, and yes, reminiscent of Stone Cold Steve Austin. She just gets it, both in the ring and in promos, and she makes her new attitude effortlessly believable. Not only that, she’s mastered an art of the 2018 era of WWE — social media storytelling. “The Man,” as she has christened herself after Evolution, has been absolutely roasting the likes of Nia Jax and Ronda Rousey on Twitter.

Her added sass and downright smack talk on Twitter only adds to the intensity that she brings to her rivalries. After her bloodied and almost triumphant beatdown of Ronda and the RAW women’s locker room, I crossed the threshold of becoming a full-blown Becky Lynch mark.

Continuing with things Becky does well, I’d like to discuss the subversiveness of Becky calling herself “The Man.” Yes, this is obviously a tongue-in-cheek reference to her beating a Flair. But, I read it a bit differently.

In Ronda’s promo on RAW last week (and boy howdy, we’ll get to that), she lamented Becky’s new nickname for herself and how it was disrespectful to the women’s evolution. Ronda, having made mildly transphobic comments in the past, perhaps understandably finds it hard to reconcile how a cisgender woman can call herself anything other than. [EDITOR’S NOTE: here is another article that supports this author’s view on the Lynch-Rousey feud.] Yet, many of the traits heel Becky embodies — her relentlessness, her driven attitude, her righteousness — are those commonly associated with men. But for those who think like Ronda, such a nickname isn’t possible. Gender is a construct. It bears no actual meaning outside of the attributes we attach to it. If by definition to many, being a man means xyz, and Becky embodies those things, then she’s a man. It’s just words. You can be whatever you want to be, really.

Although I am sad that we could not see the culmination of her feud with Ronda at Survivor Series, I am very hopeful that she will meet Ronda in the future, perhaps even at WrestleMania as the rumor has it.

This year, I am thankful for Becky Lynch. This will certainly go down as her year.

The Bad

Image credit: WWE’s YouTube

As I began to detail above, I’m very disappointed in how transparently WWE discarded the women’s division after they had finished making money off of their pay-per-view. The Smackdown women’s Survivor Series team was announced in a 10-minute segment in the aftermath of Evolution, with no build or pomp and circumstance. In the same episode they announced the women’s team, they spent the rest of the episode building and hyping who would be on the men’s Survivor Series team. I could not believe the sexism was that blatant.

On the RAW side, the women’s team was announced the mere week before Survivor Series. Many people have forgotten this detail because the hullabaloo about the RAW team was overshadowed by Becky Lynch’s brilliant work after it. And yes, while all of the women were the main event of the show, in my eyes, it does not make up for the obvious lack of effort put into building to the traditional Survivor Series bouts, even within the teams themselves. Everything outside of the title picture for the women’s division continues to be thrown together without long-term booking in mind, and it is frustrating to no end.

As a woman watching the product week on week, I sometimes find myself in a tough spot. I’m thankful for how far the women’s division has come. But when does thankfulness become complacency? When does counting your blessings become patronizing? The progression of a few does not translate to the liberation of the many. We’ll talk about this more in the last section.

Although this doesn’t necessarily fit with the above, I have to talk about Ronda’s “Millennial Man” promo here.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpRVCVeW_UA&w=560&h=315]

Outside of it sounding superficial and scripted, the content of the promo was also bad. Ronda, a person who after only four months and four matches in WWE became champion, dared to call Becky an entitled Millennial (the irony being that Ronda herself, born in 1987, is unequivocally a Millennial). It was clear that Ronda was simply a mouthpiece for the bitter, older, conservative white men in power behind the scenes, dropping lines about being “offended” and it not correlating to being right.

With Ronda’s position of privilege within the company and the agenda-pushing men likely behind the writer’s desk, it isn’t surprising how tone-deaf Ronda sounded. And at the heart of it, I think that’s what irks me most about Ronda. It seems that although WWE tries to paint her as this badass babyface, often she just comes off as an arrogant outsider — someone that is there to represent what WWE thinks feminism is, rather than what it actually is.

Not only that, but I didn’t think it wise of WWE to play the “snowflake” Millennial card. If WWE thought they were going to get Ronda over using the tired Entitled Millennial card — when a sizable majority of their diehard fanbase are Millennials that grew up on the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression eras — they were sadly mistaken. We’re keeping the fandom of your product alive, Vince. Best not to bite the hand that feeds you.

The Thorny
Considering the idea of thankfulness as a woman can be a double-edged sword. If you don’t seem thankful enough for what you have, you’re seen as a miserable, power-hungry bitch. If you’re too thankful or passive about what you’ve been given in life, you can create unhealthy power dynamics with people, allowing them to walk all over you. For the women of WWE, I ache for them trying to walk this line in management’s eyes.

I talk a lot here about what true evolution could look like for the women. I don’t think the idea of “equality” can be met as long as all the women are is thankful.

Image credit: Forbes.com

Thankful for getting more segments on weekly TV, but ones that are shorter and still fewer than the men. Thankful for finally being able to wrestle the same amount of stipulation matches as the men. Thankful to now have their own pay-per-view.

Why can’t they ask for more? Or rather, why can’t they demand it? Do all of the new developments of the women’s division mean anything if the division is vapid? Why should the entire division be thankful for these strides toward “equality” when only a few of them will reap the benefits of those advancements?

I’m not sure why Asuka or Ember Moon or Tamina Snuka or Naomi would be excited about women being able to wrestle Last Woman Standing matches now if they know they’ll likely never be written into feuds with enough build to warrant such a stipulation. Or if they do, it will be long after the inception of such matches for the (white) women.

It is upsetting that WWE has myopic vision for female stories. Only two at a time, the rest of you can wait your turn. It is not too much to ask that WWE find headspace to care about women (most often women of color) not in contention for a women’s title. It is not being ungrateful to point out that there is still more WWE can do on a weekly basis to develop female characters.

I say it time and time again. It isn’t progress until everyone can have a seat at the table. I love the work that Becky Lynch is doing. But similar to her counterpart Ronda, she is not the whole division. Give the rest of the women something to be thankful for besides participation trophies.

***

I bet you’re wondering why I didn’t talk about Survivor Series in this post. Quite simply, I don’t have enough thoughts about the show to warrant a discussion of it in this post. It was there, it happened, and it’s too early to tell where things are going in its wake. (And admittedly, much of the booking on the men’s side tainted my perception of the women’s segments.)

Onward to the end of the year.

Stay legit bossy,
AC