It would be too perfect to assume that the week WWE Superstar AJ Styles reached his 365th consecutive day as WWE Champion would be the one where he is featured in WWE #22. The level of serendipity here is astonishing. The level of storytelling is just, well, phenomenal.
The Phenomenal One heads into 2018’s Survivor Series and a rematch with current Universal Champion Brock Lesnar just as the wonderfully kayfabe story of his feud with the legendary John Cena hits the 4-color pages. Not even WWE itself could write this. In fact, like most of the issues of WWE, they can’t. And that’s part of the best and worst thing about WWE comics and the writing work that Dennis Hopeless has been doing. The depth his comics add to the stories told on WWE television and are what is often missing in WWE’s hectic storylines. Now, Hopeless has the benefit of time, art rather than actors, and hindsight, but his version of the events that unfolded in 2016 just give so much more to the feud. Seeing AJ out with The Good Brothers, tearing it up and furious that Cena got the press and attention he longed for made the lead up much more satisfying. Now, Styles has a reason to want to, as they say, “beat up John Cena.”
Watching on TV, “smartened up” as we are, we miss the context behind wrestlers’ actions. When, in the comic, Cena takes Styles’ spot at the start of SmackDown and Gallows and Anderson tell him to go take it back, we can see the motivation behind what Styles does, not the obviously planned interruption that happened on TV. We know that the chaos on screen isn’t real life and we are, frankly, worse off for it sometimes. Seeing Cena confront Styles in an empty grocery store parking lot, questioning his need for back-up and calling him out in the quiet, serious Cena voice, makes the decision to leave Gallows and Anderson backstage at SummerSlam 2016 make a great deal of sense, rather than the rash decision of a panicked man.
As much as I love Serg Acuña’s art throughout the story, my favorite panel is the one of Gallows, Anderson, and Styles standing up watching the monitor. This is one of those weird, unexplainable wrestling things that happens every week and makes no sense. Who watches TV standing up and at a slightly open angle? It’s ludicrous, but we love it. Acuña’s characterizations of the famous athletes captures everything we need to know about them while simultaneously being free enough to not simply be photocopies. The wrestlers live and breathe on the page under his pen. The more he works on this book, the better it will be in the long run.
WWE #22 is a continuation of the excellent work done by Dennis Hopeless to make the unrealistic characters of WWE feel real. If it can’t always be done on TV, at least we have the comics. Oooh, I’ve always wanted to know how someone like The Boogeyman collects a paycheck. Can we do that one for the next mini one-shot?