In a previous article, “When pro wrestling inspires non-wrestling comic books,” I discussed my growing-yet-incomplete collection of comic books about and/or inspired by professional wrestling. At the end of that article, I requested reader input if I was missing anything from my collection, and the readers did not let me down, so here are a few excellent recommendations for pro wrestling comic books from the Slam Wrestling “universe.”
One of the first suggestions came via Twitter and referred to the character of Doomsday in Death of Superman, one of the highest-selling comic books of all time. Granted, I admittedly never read this comic book, as I’m not much of a Superman fan, so not being sure where exactly in the story the pro wrestling angle took place, I acquired a copy of the full Death of Superman graphic novel from my local public library, began to read, and there in Superman Action Comics issue 684, from 1992, was the page in question. While the unstoppable monster Doomsday, the villain who will ultimately cause the death of Superman, is in the midst of his marathon of destruction, he pauses at a Lex-Mart, where he is drawn to a television airing a commercial for a live pro wrestling event. “Pro-wrestling as you’ve never seen it before! This weekend at Metropolis Arena … Metropolis Arena … Metropolis Arena!! … Now … where are ya gonna go?” asks Major Mayhem, a sort of Hulk Hogan stand-in, and Doomsday growls “MHH-TRR-PLSS?” So, while this one page may be seen as more of a pro wrestling easter egg than a full-blown story, it could be said that Doomsday was compelled towards Metropolis, the location of the eventual death of Superman, by a wrestling advertisement, which makes for a pretty significant element in the story.
The next recommendation came from Hector Acosta (@hexican), author of the novella Hardway, and other pro-wrestling-themed fiction. Since I had referred to Amazing Fantasy 15 in my previous article, Acosta suggested a one-off comic book story from Spider-Man’s Tangled Web, a 22-issue maxi-series that focused primarily on the minor characters and villains from Spider-Man’s long history. Spider-Man’s Tangled Web 14 features a story called “The Last Shoot,” which provides a touching backstory for Crusher Hogan, the wrestler who Spidey defeats in Amazing Fantasy 15, and later in the 2002 Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, as portrayed by Randy Savage as Bonesaw McGraw. Spider-Man’s Tangled Web 14 was truly a nice surprise, and a great addition to my collection, with an excellent cover, styled like a vintage wrestling poster, and an engaging story co-written by Brian Azzarello and Scott Levy, otherwise known as Raven, so bonus points to Acosta for suggesting a wrestling comic book co-written by an actual professional wrestling legend.
The third, and lengthiest, suggestion I received came from Patrick Kramer in the Slam Wrestling comments section. Simply put, Kramer suggested the solo series The Thing, of the Fantastic Four, claiming that it’s “loaded” with pro wrestling, and man he wasn’t lying. The Thing’s solo comic book run began in 1983, but it isn’t until The Thing issue 28, released in June 1985, that readers are introduced to Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation, so not only did Marvel put the Thing in a pro wrestling storyline, they created their own wrestling company, as well (and established a women’s division in issue 33). To summarize this issue, the Thing is living alone, away from the Fantastic Four, and working in a stunt motorcycle group called the Thunderiders (weren’t the 80s grand?), but the Thing is unhappy with his latest occupation, so he quits the Thunderiders, and later on, at a Holiday Inn, he sees a commercial for UCWF (another wrestling commercial!), which is searching for new in-ring talent. What follows is pretty outrageous, considering how much fans know about the Performance Center and other wrestling schools these days, because the audition to become a wrestler in the UCWF basically consists of lifting a one-ton weight, which of course is no problem for the Thing. After the riff-raff and weaklings are eliminated from contention, UCWF owner Ed Garner proudly announces their very first match, with little-to-no additional training, between the Thing and a muscular, mohawked wrestler named Demolition Dunphy. Touching on topics like traumatic brain injuries, intergender wrestling, and illegal strength “augmentation,” this pro wrestling storyline plays out until issue 36, the final issue of the Thing’s first solo series, and while wrestling isn’t the primary focus of all eight of these issues (The Thing 28-36), the UCWF is a consistent presence throughout, and it also introduces readers to the character of Dennis “Demolition” Dunphy, a relatively minor but surprisingly complex Marvel character who made his debut in The Thing 28.
Just like I wasn’t previously familiar with the Thing’s solo series or Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation, I had never heard of the character Dennis Dunphy, but I was immediately intrigued once I learned more about his character arc. Dunphy debuted as a relatively generic pro wrestler from “the assembly lines” of Detroit, Michigan, imbuing him with the immediate working class, tough-guy cred, but over the span of his time in Marvel, Dunphy has assumed a number of names and identities and experienced a range of ups and downs, highs and lows. He even briefly lived in a sewer. According to the Marvel Database, Dunphy has made a total of 95 comic book appearances since The Thing 28 in June 1985, but the one specific appearance that caught my eye, after his initial story in The Thing, came in Captain America: Sam Wilson issue 15, released in November 2016.
Marvel’s tagline for Captain America: Sam Wilson issue 15 reeks of sarcasm – “Because you (okay, a very small percentage of you) demanded it — D-Man gets his moment in the sun!” – but the cover appears to treat the story with respect. It features Dunphy, back in his Demolition Dunphy gimmick, in a wrestling ring, with two opponents on the mat, a third catching a big boot, and the fourth caught in a chin lock. No longer is Dunphy the mohawked, steroidal titan illustrated in The Thing 28. This version of Dunphy is trimmer, more realistic, yet still muscular, sporting a beard and a stylish swoop of strawberry blond hair. This Dunphy is the 21st-century version of a professional wrestler, more “black and gold” NXT than 80s WWF.
As for the plot in Captain America: Sam Wilson 15, some of the details may be a little muddy if you’re not familiar with the overall story being told, but thankfully this issue is sort of a sidebar that can be enjoyed on its own. In summary, Sam Wilson, the current Captain America and former Falcon, is taking the night off to enjoy an evening of live professional wrestling with his partner Joaquin Torres, the current Falcon. Being Marvel, the pro wrestling Cap and Falcon are going to see is a UCWF reunion show, but they reference WWE, NJPW, ROH, and even Lucha Underground within the first couple of pages. The main event of the evening is Dennis Dunphy, who we see in his dressing room receiving a pep talk from his boyfriend.
Over forty years after Dunphy’s first appearance in The Thing, in Captain America: Sam Wilson issue 15, Dunphy makes his long-awaited return to a UCWF ring, and also he is revealed to be gay. As one might expect, this issue made some headlines when it was released in 2016, but reading it now, in 2023, it just adds another layer to Dunphy’s complicated life.
Back to the story at hand, Dunphy is in a wrestling match with Battlestar, who I admittedly did not know but thankfully the comic provides some backstory, but while the match is going on, the shady new owner of UCWF, Jim Jay McMayhew, attempts to run off with the charity earnings for that night. Captain America, Falcon, and Rage are about to jump into action, but Dunphy and Battlestar catch wind of the theft and do what they do best, stop bad guys. Wilson/Captain America can’t help but be amused, and inspired, by Dunphy and Battlestar laying the smack down on the heels, and then he experiences a moment of clarity, “Everyone here is doing the same thing, people of all races, different backgrounds, coming together to celebrate something they love.”
It’s a heartwarming comic book about a gay, pro wrestling superhero from Detroit (who’s long overdue for his own standalone series) who I never would have known about if a reader didn’t suggest that I pick up the mid-1980s solo run of Marvel’s The Thing, and I’m very thankful for that.
I’m thankful for all of the reader suggestions received, so far, be it the pro wrestling commercial in Superman Action Comics 684, the one-off backstory of Crusher Hogan, co-written by Raven, in Spider-Man’s Tangled Web 14, or the eight-issue closing arc of The Thing that introduced me to the UCWF and Dennis Dunphy. These are all excellent additions to my pro wrestling comic book collection, and I hope you help me discover even more after this.