The Undertaker has a great WrestleMania unbeaten streak, but he had the Barry Horowitz of comics – Undertaker #1
Spring is in the air, and it’s bringing with it its retinue of co-travellers. The NCAA Tournament. Allergies. And the Undertaker piledriving an opponent into unconsciousness on the greatest stage that the pro wrestling universe has to offer.
For those of you familiar with the oeuvre of the glowering man glimpsed above — and pro wrestling for that matter — please bear with me as I provide a brief and disjointed biography of today’s subject for uninitiates. The Undertaker (real name: Mark Calaway) has been wrestling in the WWF/WWE since the early 1990s, having before that wrestled in WCW under the name “Mean Mark.” A mountain of a man, with long hair and pale, tattooed skin, he’s known as the Deadman, and he has always (except for a brief interlude when he took on more of a renegade biker personality) been portrayed as a dark, forbidding, largely silent and somewhat otherworldly figure. He started out as a heel (villain), but over they years he’s toggled back and forth with being a fan-favorite, though due to his popularity most of his time has been spent as the latter. For a long time he had a manager, Paul Bearer (nyuk) who would carry an urn with him to the ring, an urn that supposedly gave the Undertaker supernatural endurance and powers. (Seriously. Both the Undertaker and his storyline brother, Kane, have at times displayed actual superpowers, like hurling fireballs, which would make an X-Man proud. And it begs the question: Why are they dicking around wrestling and not ruling the world like Golgoth? And on the urn thing, one of my favorite storylines ever had a guy called Kama Mustafa, “The Supreme Fighting Machine,” steal the urn and melt it down into a gold chain for himself. But I digress.)
Because of his size, the Undertaker has never been the most agile of wrestlers, but he’s always been a hell (no pun intended) of an entertainer, with great entrances and number of go to moves, like the chokeslam and his patented rope-walk, that have endeared him to fans. His finishing maneuvers (the ones that put an opponent permanently down for the count), while show-stoppers themselves, have always looked acutely sexual. The Tombstone Piledriver is essentially him 69ing his opponent, at least until he piledrives them into the mat, and the Last Ride has him lifting a guy onto his shoulders crotch-first before slamming him to the ground. BUT HEY, WHATEVER WORKS.
He’s been going for over twenty years now, in a career that’s spanned matches with everybody from deceased stars of yesteryear like Yokozuna, to leading names like Hulk Hogan and the Rock, to the current John Cenas of the world (Captain Lou Albano is a bit before his time, though.) My personal favorite match of his is the legendary Hell in the Cell bout with Mick Foley, which had obscene falls from the roof of an enclosed steel cage that can make anyone with a pulse, even non-wrestling fans, say nothing but WOW:
What makes him most unique is that he’s never lost a match at WrestleMania. Yes, pro wrestling is scripted. But it’s a mark of the respect people in the industry have for him that he’s never been on his back when the bell rings there on pro wrestling’s marquee night. The streak has made his matches at this event special — Will he or won’t he do it again this year? — and despite his advancing age and the fact that he doesn’t wrestle a whole lot anymore, they’re worth the price of admission. He’s back this year to try to push it to 20-0, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s the dumbest of dumb fun, but it’s fun nonetheless.
He had a comic. It was released in the late 1990s, when professional wrestling (thanks in large part to the rivalry between the WCW and WWF promotions) was at its absolute peak. It was on TV every night of the week, the shows drew pretty darn good ratings, and folks like Vince McMahon missed no chance to squeeze every last drop of cash out of a rabid fanbase that just couldn’t get enough. (I went to plently of wrestling shows — RAW, SmackDown, etc. — with buddies, and let me tell you, rabid is an apt adjective. The closest you ever come to The Island of Dr. Moreau is a pro wrestling crowd.) There was always plenty of crap to buy.
And, friends, let me tell you, this comic is crap.
Granted, I only have the first issue in front of me, and there’s of course the slim chance that the series got its footing after the initial growing pains and turned into an incisive critique of the human condition at the turn of the millennia. A comic book Dekalog. Maybe, BUT I DOUBT IT. If I had to describe this book in comic book/pro wrestling terms, it’s like a dumbed down version of Todd McFarlane’s already dumb early run on Spawn, with a dash of the Ultimate Warrior’s comic book thrown in for seasoning. (I’ll one day give my full critique of the Warrior’s sublimely dreadful foray into comics, but to satisfy your current curiosity, feel free to do some Google searching. The special Christmas issue where it was strongly suggested that he sexually assaulted Santa Claus is a MUST READ.) It looks and feels a lot like a junky Spawn fill-in. Giant, sloppy full-page panels. A lot of fire. A dumb plot about a battle for hell with Earth-bound proxies. I think I even saw Malebolgia in there.
Maybe McFarlane can file a belated lawsuit and recoup some of that money he lost in the Neil Gaiman/Angela kerfuffle.
Anyway. You get the picture. And if you don’t get the picture, here’s a small sampling of what could be found in these hallowed (hellowed?) pages. There was a Wizard-released issue #0, and I dare you to read the synopsis below once and then explain what’s going on:
The script within is kindergarten finger-painting with words. It’s sole purpose, and this is silly but I guess understandable, is to sell the fact that the Undertaker is in a war for Stygian/Hell and the squared circle is the chosen medium for the contest. Here we see this preposterous take on single combat first hand, with the Undertaker’s storyline brother, Kane, in a cameo:
You know, it was more believable when Bill and Ted played Battleship, Electric Football and Twister with Death.
Not only do you have to get the wrestling worked into the “plot,” you also have to slap in some recognizable moves. I mentioned the Tombstone Piledriver above, and its slap-you-in-the-face 69 implications. The comic was kind enough to provide a graphic depiction of it during one of the Undertaker’s Stygian pro wrestling battles — complete with flaming ring ropes and demonic turnbuckles, natch — for YOU KNOW WHAT I DON’T REALLY CARE:
GET A ROOM.
Beau Smith wrote, Manny Clark pencilled and Sandu Floria inked this premier issue (which had variant covers — please don’t collect them all). While I can’t say I’m smitten with their efforts, perhaps there was corporate influence from above. WWE chieftain McMahon is known for his low-brow, juvenile tastes, and this may very well have been doctored to meet his perception of what a great comic book should be. If not, it’s still right up his alley.
The ten issues of the series, plus the extra 0 and 1/2 editions, have been partially collected in trade paperbacks released by the WWE. (Chaos Comics, the original publisher, has since declared bankruptcy.) I can think of no reason why anyone would ever want to read the entire run, but if any of you out there have an unquenchable thirst for all things Undertaker, you at least know where to start. And, heaven help us, they’ve gone back to the well for more in the last couple of years. So perhaps the hunger for Undertakery fiction really is insatiable.
We’ll see if the Deadman can push the streak to twenty this Sunday. On the day between the NCAA Tournament semifinals and final, as my allergies drive me to the brink of insanity, I’ll be following closely. REST. IN. PEACE.