Seth Rollins was the one who betrayed the Shield back in 2014, but why did he do it? The answer comes in the first issue of WWE: Now. Then. Forever, published by BOOM! Studios.
If you’ll allow me to be serious for a moment.
Boom’s ongoing WWE Series is a surprisingly strong-looking piece of work, starting off in its first issue by returning to one of the biggest successes of the last few years – the rise of The Shield – before moving on in subsequent issues to focus on the three very different men who made it what it was.
Comics and wrestling share a lot of DNA, and certainly a lot of fans. Both focus on heavily serialised storytelling, where each week familiar characters reestablish themselves for the audience – occasionally turning their personalities right around to keep the audience surprised. The three members of the Shield have in particular had a lot of unexpected turns in their recent careers, to the extent where even this comic looking at their 2014 personalities has by now become dated.
But that’s not a bad thing at all, because another thing wrestling shares with comics is the belief that everything was better yesterday. Despite the characters of Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins all still appearing every week on television – and elevated to particularly high positions within the company itself – most fans think the trio were better in yesteryear, and have developed a glowing warm memory of that specific lineup as a result. It’s smart for the comic to play into that, and revisit three hugely popular wrestlers at a time when they were all potential, no reality, and the first chapter of their careers was about to end.
The first issue focuses on Seth Rollins in particular, who became famous for being the man who eventually broke up the team by turning on his allies and siding with “The Authority”, a group of people who represented the corporate interests of WWE. In essence the character gave up on his independence in order to cash into the best deal going, and the move made him hated by fans – even as they continued to admire his ability as a wrestler and performer. Writer Dennis Hopeless concentrates carefully on that, even as he takes the opportunity to layer in some nonsense and off-camera development which bolsters the characters we see for fifteen minutes once a week on the screen.
In this instance, development and silliness go hand in hand, as the issue reveals that the trio spend their off-time sunbathing and eating steak. As we only ever get to see the characters in WWE when they’re in the ring and preparing to fight, bringing in real-world bonding is really our only chance to give them non-reactive personality: wrestlers are always responding to something, but comics offer the opportunity for them to have an internal narrative. Without a thought process, all you get is empty fighting – which is enough for the show, sometimes, but not enough for a comic book.
The surprise of Rollins turning on his teammates was a huge moment for the WWE, and the sheer shock of it made it a memorable moment. But that same out-of-nowhere twist also means that any story looking back at the turnaround has to explore why it happened and how it developed. This issue shows some of that process going round in the character’s mind, as he starts talking to The Authority, attending their social events, and getting to know the lay of the land. If wrestling is a series of final-page twists, then this series is the leadup to each and every one of those moments.
Frankly, it’s also interesting to just see the interplay between the characters. We typically see the characters in a limited number of situations: in a match, backstage before a match, backstage after a match, etc. Here we see them hanging out, arguing, and resolving their tensions. Telling jokes, and then explaining them. We get to see their general personality traits expanded out into full characters, and that context is fascinating. Roman is the faintly simple but loyal rock standing in the centre of the team, whilst Rollins and Ambrose frequently disagree and fight between each other, in a brotherly fashion. The comic lays out a dynamic between the three which is only hinted at on TV.
There’s a cleanness to the story as a result, a clarity. Any unpredictability that comes from handing over a storyline in front of a live, very active and stubborn crowd is replaced with a simplicity – we hear inside Seth Rollins’ head as he sets his plan in motion, and there’s a huge satisfaction in watching it unroll. Comics and wrestling are often compared to one another, but it’s one of the more maligned aspects of comics – the internal monologue – which gives it that edge over its real-world contemporary. Not that they’re competing, of course. Not everything has to be a fight.
What’s really promising about a WWE comic is that it can rework a live, serialised story and refine it into the core essence of what was intended from the writers room. Nothing crystallizes this more than the structure of the comic itself, which does something no wrestling show could ever match: it has a bookend. We watch Rollins prepare for his betrayal, then the comic rewinds to show a little bit of his process in reaching this stage, before then forwarding back to the character concluding his plan. It’s a really neat way of returning to an intriguing story and finding a way to retell and expand it through a new medium.
There are a million ideas thrown into every wrestling show, and comics can slow down and explore them one at a time, and perhaps develop out the half-formed plans into full-fledged personalities and storylines. A serialisation of a serialisation, but with fights about potato salad and monster trucks ploughing through a yacht club. It’s out-wrestling wrestling.
WWE Then. Now. Forever. #1
Written by Dennis Hopeless
Illustrated by Dan Mora
Coloured by Doug Garbark
Lettered by Jim Campbell