In the world of WWE, and more broadly in pro wrestling altogether, everything is extremely comic-booky. Good and evil, light and darkness are always in conflict, and issues are typically solved with no small amount of violence. Characters are over-the-top and exaggerated in personality and with cartoonish physiques and flashy outfits.
It’s surprising, then, that WWE’s most comic-booky character, the Undertaker, and his story haven’t been translated to a graphic novel until now. Everyone’s favourite undead mortician, has been WWE’s most enduring and consistent character in the company’s history, owing largely to the constant evolution and adaptation of his gimmick, while never treating the character with anything but dead-seriousness.
BOOM! Studios’ new graphic novel, Rise of the Deadman, covers the story of The Undertaker from his beginnings in WWE (then WWF) right up to the present. From his debut at the 1990 Survivor Series under the influence of “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, to his alignment with manager and father-figure Paul Bearer, the introduction of his brother Kane, the formation of the Ministry of Darkness, the introduction of iconic WWE match types like the Buried Alive and Hell In A Cell matches, and the all-time classic battles with Shawn Michaels, Mankind, and Brock Lesnar, the novel chronicles all of it in a way that couches everything in the kayfabe version of Taker’s career. At the same time, it deftly smooths over the inevitable storyline inconsistencies that come with telling a story that spans nearly thirty real-life years.
For me, the most interesting part of author Chad Dundas’s (Champion of the World) story is the opening chapter, which details Undertaker’s upbringing and his childhood relationship with his brother, Kane. Since this was only covered briefly on WWF programming, it’s fascinating to see a young Taker trying to steer Kane away from his violent impulses and penchant for burning stuff. Of course, we all know that didn’t exactly work out, since Kane burned down the family home with his and Taker’s parents inside. But the groundwork for both characters is well-laid and there is more than a little sweetness between the two brothers that comes back later, and both the writing and the art in this segment is superb.
From there, Undertaker is adopted by Paul Bearer and put to work in his funeral parlour, but Taker knows he’s destined for bigger things. Bearer, seeing this (and the opportunity to make money on his red-headed stepchild), starts training Taker for the ring. When Ted Dibiase comes knocking with an offer to join his team at Survivor Series, Taker embarks on a 28-year journey with WWE that’s still going, somehow.
The rest of the novel shows Undertaker’s rise through the ranks of WWE, and the on-again, off-again relationships with Bearer and Kane. The novel breezes through perhaps my favourite period with The Ministry of Darkness (a storyline which could have warranted a book on it’s own) but it’s forgivable when there’s so much ground to cover here.
What I find most interesting about Rise of the Deadman aesthetically is the way that illustrators Rodrigo Lorenzo and Wesllei Manoel capture Undertaker’s continued evolution in both character and his look. For the first little bit, I was slightly confused why Undertaker looked completely different (sometimes unrecognizable) from one panel to the next, but I’m choosing to believe that this was an intentional aesthetic choice. Given that, Manoel and Lorenzo very clearly show how Undertaker grows from an almost silent, growling zombie, to an undead goth warrior, to a gnarly biker, to a dark priest, to an amalgam of everything that came before (with MMA gloves), and each incarnation of the Deadman feels truly different.
More curious is that the likenesses of some of the wrestlers don’t look much like the real guys at all. An early depiction of HHH, for example, looks like a withered old man that I thought was supposed to be Jeff Jarrett at first. Other wrestlers that don’t have particularly distinctive ring attire, like Brock Lesnar, are a little vague as well, and even wrestlers who have easily-identifiable looks, like Kurt Angle, aren’t well-represented. Sometimes the art style will completely shift in the middle of a story arc and I found this to be an odd choice. The abrupt changes give the latter few chapters a disjointed feel, like they’re from completely different books. Because of this, I think at least a passing familiarity with WWE’s characters and continuity are necessary to enjoy the book and to follow the action.
For the parts illustrated by Lorenzo – the first few chapters and the end – the art is truly stunning and Taker’s iconic black, blue, grey, and purple scheme come through beautifully, as well as Kane’s fiery reds. I can say with some confidence that some of the depictions of Taker and Kane would be more than suitable for any dorm room wall or airbrushed van.
It’s important to remember that Rise of the Deadman is a WWE production, so you’re not going to find anything covered in this book that WWE doesn’t explicitly approve of. Don’t look too hard for controversial personas non grata like CM Punk and Hulk Hogan here, even though both had very memorable feuds with Taker over the years.
In a company where consistency of character is at a premium and alignment changes can and do happen with little warning or even reason sometimes, it’s a credit to Undertaker’s influence and commitment to his character that he’s been able to endure for as long as he has. In Rise of the Deadman, Chad Dundas have taken a story that was metered out to wrestling fans over 28 years in promos and vignettes, and has tied it all together to further build on the mythology of WWE’s most iconic figure, and the result is the perfect Halloween treat for WWE fans.
Undertaker: Rise of the Deadman will be available from BOOM! Studios, appropriately, on Halloween. That’s Wednesday, October 31, if ya nasty.