Horror, Pro Wrestling and Batman, Revisited

by Michael D. Stewart

24 January 2013

The Joker, as written by Snyder, is much more of a horror character. His methods and mayhem far more influenced by recent horror movies than his previous pulp villain roots. It’s a trend. A trend that as Batman #16 illustrates, shows a “torture porn” influence that we’ve seen in the Saw movies and other imitators.

As I read Batman #16 I wondered how much pro wrestling Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have watched over the years? Many of the narrative beats they’ve incorporated into their two Batman storyarcs, “Court of Owls” and “Death of the Family,” have parallels to the type of physical storytelling pro wrestling utilizes. While Batman has historically been connected to pulp and adventure story traditions, there is this strong element of this colorful character overcoming insurmountable odds, much as pro wrestler Hulk Hogan did throughout his 1980s heyday. What I see in Batman #16 is closely related, especially connected to some of the current wrestling storytelling techniques. Some of which have come under criticism by pro wrestling journalists, and I think sheds light on some of the problems of “Death of Family.”

Nearly a year ago, in a review of Batman #6 by Snyder and Capullo, I made this same pro wrestling-Batman connection. In that issue, the story movement mimicked the progression of the majority of Hulk Hogan’s matches. Hogan, seemingly defeated by his nemesis, digs deep down to find the strength to overcome the odds against him and win the match. Batman overcomes the Court of Owls’ underground trap in much the same way. Since then, we’ve moved on to Batman’s next threat to his reign as Gotham’s protector – the Joker. And the same technique is still being used.

The Joker, as written by Snyder, is much more of a horror character. His methods and mayhem far more influenced by recent horror movies than his previous pulp villain roots. It’s a trend. A trend that as Batman #16 illustrates, shows a “torture porn” influence that we’ve seen in the Saw movies and other imitators.

This is certainly within current popculture trends. As we can observe, horror is the genre du jour for TV, movies and books. Comics as well, which began embracing a darker tone as early as the late 1980s, have seemingly defaulted to horror influenced material, reflecting a troubling but reasonable trend.

The world right now is scary. War, terrorism, mass killings and economic uncertainty have put fear into our daily lives. How best to escape that fear then through horror entertainment, where at the end we can have our fears shutdown as we put down the book, turn off the TV or leave the movie theater. But that fear isn’t really disappearing as the terrors of tragedy after tragedy mount. It calls to question as to whether the horror of our entertainment is a reaction to or a reflection of our times?

With Batman #16 that horror influence has seemingly become far too dominate, to the point that the excesses of the genre as interpreted now have forced an ever more horrific Dark Knight. Lines are being crossed that probably in hindsight should not have been. What immediately comes to mind is the human tapestry in issue #16, more because it’s completely unnecessary. We know the Joker is a terrible person. We’ve been shown that over and over again. We do not need a tapestry of human bodies, still alive, to tell us he’s psychotic and demented. It forces us to ask: what is the current level of taste for comics and Batman? It’s not a bad story element, in its proper place, but does it belong in Batman?

Related to the Joker as horror character is his effectiveness, his place among the hierarchy of Batman villains and the progression of pro wrestling storylines, if only to highlight an issue that plagues creative teams of both forms of entertainment. Namely: burying the other antagonists.

Make no mistake, pro wrestling is deeply rooted in very traditional storytelling. Iconic wrestling innovator Vince McMahon may have been criticized heavily by wrestling insiders when he began putting forth the idea of “sports entertainment,” but pro wrestling is, and always has been, just that: a form of entertainment incorporating various storytelling techniques and genres into an athletic exhibition. You would never want to call it fake, as legendary wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper once said, “You can’t fake gravity.”

One of the issues that have been a source of problems for comics and pro wrestling is how to build heroes and villains, or faces and heels in wrestling parlance. In each, you have to build your character up to the challenge in front of them. But at what expense?

Often wrestling critics will express their dislike of a current face quickly disposing of other heels in order to seem tough prior to facing their current storyline opponent. This is typically at the expense of former or future antagonists. It’s called being buried and is usually unnecessary, requiring even more work to build them up again so that fans take them seriously as threats to the face later on.

The progression of Batman #16 does this too, to a certain extent. Batman, chasing after the Joker in Arkham Asylum, faces a gauntlet of challenges. He quickly subdues, or buries, Mr. Freeze, Clayface and Scarecrow—three villains who have been challenges in the past and should be challenges in the future. Here they are used to build Batman up as he faces the horror the Joker is unleashing. It is unnecessary. The same effect could have been achieved with different characters. The intent is to give them a cameo of sorts in this storyline, but the result is that it will be difficult to consider these rogues a threat in future stories.

The same can be said for the trio of Penguin, Riddler and Two-Face; three iconic villains within the hierarchy of Batman antagonists, only surmounted by the Joker. All of which are diminished in the face of the Joker, his insanity that much more powerful than their own. The result is similar to before: it will be difficult to take these villains seriously going forward. It is not an unsolvable problem. It will just take a far more serious and hefty amount of work to bring them to a threat level again we can be worried about.

It is essential to have strong villains. As a protagonist, in superhero comics and pro wrestling, is only as strong as his antagonists. Which calls into question, why use them in this storyline at all? While it is possible that the next interactions with these villains will be related to this series of events, is that forward thinking enough?

Much like every form of entertainment, comics and pro wrestling are heavily influenced by larger cultural trends. As the innocent thought of good guys versus bad guys has disappeared from our purview, the reflection of touch of gray characters, deeply flawed heroes who incorporate tendencies once exclusive to villains, is foremost present in these forms. That Batman has seemingly on separate occasions borrowed elements of pro wrestling storytelling (or is it vice versa?) speaks to the deep connections we have across a spectrum of entertainment options. That they also face some of the same challenges should be no surprise.

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