History is written by the victors. – Winston Churchill
To hell with them. When history is written they will be the sons of bitches—not I. – Harry S. Truman
When a villain looks in the mirror what does he see?
What is the greatest paradox of the old school wrestling dressing rooms? The ones marked “Heels” for the bad guys and “Faces” for the good guys. (And no, it is not what happens when a wrestler turns - goes from heel to face or vice-versa – and how he gets his clothes back at the end of the night.)
Why do people cheer for the heels?
Well, taking the last as the first, I can not speak for why others cheer for the bad guys, I can only speak for myself. There are probably deep, troubling psychological reasons that leave me on the side of the villains, but the trigger was Hulk Hogan.
I grew up watching Emil Dupre’s Maritimes wrestling promotion: Atlantic Grand Prix. Even then I leaned towards the heels, the shaggy Cuban Assassin, the weasel “No Class” Bobby Bass, most of all, the take-no-prisoners bad-ass Killer Karl Krupp, but they warred for my affections with my other heroes, the underdog Rudy Kay, the hairy Beast and most of all, the Maritimes’ perennial champion, Leo Burke. (All brothers as it turned out.)
Vince McMahon bought out the Atlantic Grand Prix territory. According to Maritimes’ legend, in 1984, Vince came to Canada to buy out Emil and Stu Hart’s Calgary Stampede. He offered both of them an amount to be paid over five to ten years, Stu being offered more than Emil because the Calgary territory was worth far more than the Maritimes. Stu took the deal, got the agreed amount the first year, half the second year and nothing after that. Vince breaking the deal meant that Stu could restart Calgary Stampede and he did, but the promotion was never the same. Too much momentum; too much good will; too many fans had been lost, not to mention some of the best Calgary workers.
Emil, so the story goes, rejected Vince’s proposal and made him a counter-offer: instead of the amount that Vince wanted to pay him over ten years, Emil suggested that Vince pay him half that amount, but in one lump sum. As a result, Emil got more for shutting down the Atlantic Grand Prix than Stu got for Calgary Stampede, and, according to legend, became one of the few men to shake hands with Vince McMahon and still have eight fingers and two thumbs left afterwards.
The end result for both Calgary wrestling fans and Maritime wrestling fans (and for me) was the same: our local promotion disappeared from TV to be replaced by the WWF.
I can not tell you when I saw my first WWF programming. Someone could probably figure it out though. The first WWF show that I ever saw had as its main event Hulk Hogan against the Genius. I recognized Hulk Hogan as the “Thunderlips” wrestler from Rocky III. As far as the Genius goes, all it took was one couplet of poetry and I knew instantly that the Genius was none other than “Leaping” Lanny Poffo.
Now, you have to understand that for Maritime wrestling fans of my generation, Lanny Poffo was seated on the right hand side of God. Unlike many wrestlers who had the unattainable chiseled physique of a Greek God, Lanny had the slim athletic figure of a gymnast, and while Lanny’s athleticism sometimes seemed impossible, what truly made Lanny stand out was his mind. Lanny Poffo did things in the ring that no one else even imagined doing.
The first match that I saw Lanny, he was fighting, I think Sweet Daddy Siki. I did not have much use for Siki. “No Class” Bobby Bass was sure impressed by him, but I thought he was a bit of a preening sissy. No one should be that obsessed with their hair! On the other hand, he had just finished a yearlong feud with Leo Burke for Leo’s belt and anyone who could push Leo to the limit deserved my grudging respect.
In the match, Lanny was giving Siki fits. He was just too fast, until Siki finally grabbed Lanny by the arm and Irish-Whipped him into the corner. Siki was convinced that he finally had Lanny where he wanted him, until Lanny accelerated into the corner and then stunned Siki and everyone watching, when he ran up the turnbuckles and twisted in mid-air, coming down onto Siki like a thrown spear. The mid-air collision knocked Siki on to his back and when the referee counted three and raised Lanny’s hand in victory, stunned silence fell across the studio and across the Maritimes. Then pandemonium broke out. A star, a hero was born.
Lanny run roughshod through all of the Atlantic Grand Prix heels until he ran into the ultimate badass, Killer Karl Krupp. I should have known that the fix was in. The match was for Krupp’s European title and Karl had a death-grip on that belt. He might lose a title match by count-out or, much more likely, by disqualification, but he was never going to lose the belt. When Krupp threw Lanny into the corner he planted his big German boots and caught Lanny like a fireman catching a child falling out of a tree. Once caught by the big man, the ending was quick, final, and for Lanny highly unpleasant. That was the last that we saw of Leaping Lanny in the Maritimes.
Finding Lanny on WWF TV was like running into an old friend after a long absence. I was not an idiot. I understood that I was supposed to be cheering for Hulk Hogan and booing the Genius. But look at my choices: on one side you had my hero Lanny Poffo: smart, small, creative, poetic. If there was any wrestler in the universe that I could identify with, that I could aspire to become, it was Lanny Poffo. On the other side, was this thuggish, overly tanned, muscle-bound freak. Is it any wonder that I ended up rooting for Lanny Poffo and against Hulk Hogan?
And if you were against Hulk Hogan that meant that Bobby Heenan was your friend. I was already predisposed to liking Bobby Heenan, because he reminded me of another old friend from the Maritimes: “No Class” Bobby Bass. Both Bobbys were fast-talking weasels who wrestled, managed other wrestlers and did colour commentary. Heenan is rightly credited for being one of the great managers in wrestling history, but he may have been the single greatest heel colour commentator of all time. Only JBL recently has come close to Heenan’s ability in this area.
Heenan’s particular, peculiar genius was to articulate the grievances of the heels and he was so persuasive in the process, that even if you were not already cheering for the heels as I was, you could find yourself seduced by Bobby Heenan’s arguments. After all, as Bobby Heenan pointed out for more than a decade, why was it that when Hogan cheated he was cheered and when Heenan’s cronies did exactly the same thing they were booed?
Heenan’s greatest moment, his crowning achievement, came in WCW. The great success of Eric Bischoff’s WCW, and perhaps its tragic flaw, was that it took WWF stories and carried them through to the logical conclusion that the WWF was unable or afraid to do. When Hulk Hogan joined Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to become the third man in the NWO, it was the heel turn of Hulk Hogan that wrestling fans had always secretly wondered about, perhaps even longed for. At ringside, Bobby Heenan had the satisfaction of finally, after years of wandering in the wilderness preaching against Hogan, of finally being right and being seen to be right. In an instant, Bobby Heenan went from Weasel to Prophet.
Sometimes, it takes years, the judgement of history, to go from being a villain to a hero. Of course it helps if you are the one to write the history books.
I recently read Peter David’s Captain Marvel series in which Marvel Comics’ perpetual sidekick Rick Jones finds himself trying to guide Genis, Captain Marvel’s kid and heir. Rick Jones, the man who is to blame for the Hulk and was chosen by Captain America to become the new Bucky, was Marvel’s eternal teenager. As a teen, he became linked to Captain Marvel pere, who was trapped in Marvel’s realm of anti-matter, the Negative Zone. When Rick Jones clapped his special wristbands together, the Nega-Bands, he and Captain Marvel switched places. During their adventures, Captain Marvel was exposed to cancer causing chemicals while saving a town, a sacrifice that eventually killed him.
In Peter David’s series, Rick Jones is once again linked to a new Captain Marvel, only this time rather than being marooned in the Negative Zone, the one not in the regular dimension was exiled to the micro-verse, home of the Micronauts. Rick finds himself forced to be Genis’ mentor, advisor, and conscience, a role that he is not sure that he has the maturity for. Genis, grappling with trying to replace his legendary and beloved father, finds the cosmic power that he has received, too quickly and too easily, is a corrupting influence.
It is an interesting and frequently very funny meditation on growing up, what it means to be a hero and the corrupting influence of power.
In the series, during a story line called “Odyssey”, Genis and Rick find themselves tossed into the far future. The Earth is a desert planet and a group of alien archaeologists are in the process of restoring the Earth to its former glory using as their template the writings of Earth’s greatest hero, Victor. Captain Marvel, to his amusement, finds that Victor listed him as a “minor villain”, while Rick, to his horror, finds that history has completely forgotten him. Better to be known as a screw-up than not to be remembered at all!
Rick and Genis discover that Victor is actually Viktor, as in Viktor Van Doom, as in Doctor Doom. History is written by the Viktors indeed! Part of the irony of the only record of the Marvel civilization being the biased self-promoting history of Doctor Doom is that Viktor has a reason to feel slighted by other biographers. Reed Richards experiments on his own family, turning them into monsters and circus freaks; Viktor tries to save his own mother from (literally) Hell and is permanently scarred. Reed Richards uses his scientific genius to his own profit; Viktor uses his to benefit his people and his country of Latveria.
Granted that Viktor is not exactly a democrat, Doom’s idea of “One Man, One Vote” is that Latveria has one man whose vote counts, him. On the other hand, time and time again, when the Earth is in danger, it is Doom to whom the heroes turn to as a last resort. Viktor has a code of honour to which he clings no matter how much difficulty this creates for him. While Viktor’s greatest rival is Reed Richards, his greatest enemy is no less than Mephisto, the Devil himself.
If you could see the world through Viktor Von Doom’s mask would you see yourself as a villain or as the world’s greatest hero?
What if you could see the world through the mask that seems influenced in its design by the mask of Doctor Doom, the mask of Hannibal Lecter?
Lecter is a serial killer and a cannibal, but he is so persuasive a character that he manages to convince his own creator of the justice in his arguments. Consider the trajectory of Lecter as a literary and film character.
In Red Dragon, filmed originally as Manhunter, Lecter is a supporting monster. He is responsible for the retirement of William Petersen’s Will Graham and for Graham’s scars both mental and physical. Graham goes to confront Lecter, or as the movie would have it “Lektor”, in the insane asylum to reacquire the “scent” of the serial killer to help him catch the Red Dragon. Lecter knows what he is up to and is not impressed, dismissively telling him, “You want the scent? Smell yourself!”
Even in a minor part, Lecter is seductive and persuasive, giving his raison-d’être, his reason for being a serial killer, a monster, in an exchange with Will Graham.
Lecter: Did you really feel depressed after you shot Mr. Garrett Jacob Hobbes to death? l think you probably did. But it wasn't the act that got to you. Didn't you feel so bad, because killing him felt so good? And why shouldn't it feel good? lt must feel good to God. He does it all the time. God's terrific! He dropped a church roof on 34 of his worshippers in Texas last Wednesday night, just as they were groveling through a hymn to his majesty. Don't you think that felt good? Graham: Why does it feel good, Dr. Lecktor? Lecter: lt feels good because God has power. lf one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is. God's a champ. He always stays ahead. He got 140 Phillipinos in one plane crash last year. Remember that earthquake in ltaly last spring?
The key to Lecter’s personal philosophy is the phrase, “lf one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.”
In Silence of the Lambs, Lecter moves into the position of male lead, acting as a demonic combination of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud, becoming Clarice Starling’s detective mentor and therapist. His therapy may be cruel, but there is no denying that in a perverse way he helps Clarice deal with long buried, painful memories. At the same time, his detective prowess is a bit of a parlour trick, Lecter knows all along who the killer is, he’s met him, but it amuses him to force Clarice to figure out how to catch him on her own.
Hannibal perversely thrusts Lecter into the role of romantic lead as he and Clarice continue their odd courtship. Each protects and defends the other and the story begins to resemble a nightmarish Beauty and the Beast. The novel is distinctly different from the movie in that the novel ends with Lecter and Clarice together as a couple. In a sense, you could say that Lecter seduces his own creator, novellist Thomas Harris, into allowing him to seduce Clarice.
The prequel to the Lecter series, Hannibal Rising finds Thomas Harris having gone right off the rails as he provides Hannibal with a justification for his evil deeds. Lecter’s family was killed and eaten during the Second World War, so Lecter’s criminal ways begin with appropriate revenge. It reduces Lecter to a canniballistic Paul Kersey. Again the creation seems to have taken over his creator, but then that was what Lecter always warned that he would do: become the creator by imitating his creator.
Mind you, sometimes evil does begin with a single reasonable reaction to an unreasonable situation. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Consider the most successful villain in wrestling history in terms of drawing power. More people paid to see Stone Cold Steve Austin kick Vince McMahon’s ass than paid to see any other wrestling heel get their come-uppance. It takes a great villain to make a great hero and by those standards, Vince McMahon is arguably the greatest heel ever.
But it started with a simple decision: stripping Bret Hart of his WWF title in Montreal, a decision so reasonable that even Bret Hart accepts it, saving his scorn and venom for the workers who collaborated with McMahon. For Vince, it was about saving his belt and saving his company. He had already seen his Woman’s champion, Madusa, appear on WCW and drop her WWF title in the garbage. Was it so unreasonable to think that the same could not happen with Bret Hart and the WWF title?
The answer to that, of course, is that it was never in the character of Bret hart to do what Madusa did. Part of the insult of the Montreal Screw-Job was the implication that Vince McMahon could not trust Bret Hart to be Bret Hart, to do the right thing. But then that is probably because Vince McMahon was not judging Bret Hart based on Bret’s standards of behaviour, but based on Vince McMahon’s standards. Vince knew that Bret would betray him, because it was what Vince would have done in Bret’s place. After all, it was exactly what he had done to WCW when Ric Flair joined the WWF in 1992 with the WCW belt in tow.
It is one of the enduring mysteries of WCW that they could not take advantage of Bret Hart’s betrayal. They had all the ingredients to proclaim that Bret was the REAL World’s Champion. All they had to do was re-run the WWF storyline from 1992 with Bret taking Ric Flair’s role. They even had Bobby Heenan on hand to fill the same role that he had with Flair.
Before Montreal, people knew intellectually that Vince McMahon was the owner of the WWF, but his on-screen role, when he was on-screen, did not reflect his true role in the company. When an unpopular decision had to be made, any number of surrogates would announce them, whether their name was Gorilla Monsoon or Jack Tunney or Sergeant Slaughter. After Montreal, we not only knew intellectually that Vince McMahon was the owner of the WWF, we knew it in our guts; we knew it emotionally, and we blamed him for everything that we disliked about the WWF. He made himself, quite deliberately, a lightning rod for the fans’ unhappiness. The McMahon/Austin feud was an echo of what happened in Montreal, giving a fans a chance to voice their displeasure by watching Austin punish the man they blamed for Bret’s betrayal.
But putting aside Vince’s underestimating and insulting Bret’s character for the moment, were Vince’s actions evil, or just unpopular? When Hulk Hogan cheated, the sheep cheered, when Heenan’s cronies did it, they booed. Were their actions so different? Or did we judge Hogan to a different standard because we liked him?
In the International Wrestling Syndicate, our most consistent heel for the past three years has been the owner PCP Crazy F’N Manny. Prior to 2004, the fans knew that Manny owned the company, but his role in the ring was as a fan favourite drug addled underdog. The unpopular decisions were made by a series of surrogates, mostly by Commissioner Joseph FitzMorris.
In the fall of 2004, the IWS was riding a surge of interest and popularity in the United States. Mike Burns of Smart Mark Video contacted us and offered to drive up from Philadelphia for each show, tape the show, drive back to Philadelphia and edit the show for release on his web-site within a week to two weeks. Even if we never sold one DVD on the Smart Mark Video web-site, the arrangement would be of huge benefit for us, because for the first time, we would have our DVDs edited and released for sale at our shows in a timely manner.
Our video editor at the time was Derek Arsenault aka the Arsenal. When he found out that he was going to be replaced by Smart Mark Video, Derek flipped out at the implied insult. He posted on the czwfans message board that the reason that IWS DVDs had never been edited and released in a timely fashion in the past was because he had never been properly supported by Manny and the rest of IWS management.
There was some truth in what Derek wrote. Manny still went berserk, less because he disagreed with Derek, but more because Derek was breaking kayfabe and dragging back-stage dirty laundry in front of the fans. Manny immediately decided to fire Derek, if for no other reason than that Derek’s recklessness was threatening our new relationship with Mike Burns and Smart Mark Video.
The only problem was that Derek had cut a hi-lite reel to play before our next show, but had yet to turn it in. Manny decided to wait to fire Derek until he came to the show and turned in the hi-lite reel.
Manny knew that firing the Arsenal, especially the way that he did it, would leak out amongst the fans, and he knew that that would mean that inevitably he would become the villain of the piece. He did not hesitate. His concern was the survival of his company, not his popularity.
For his entire career, the Arsenal had been a heel. Once he was gone, the fans found that they missed him, and suddenly without having to do a thing, the absent Arsenal was the most popular baby-face in the company.
The irony of the entire scenario is that the gossip took longer to spread than Manny feared. The fans knew that the Arsenal was gone, but they did not know exactly why he was gone. The Arsenal was fired on September 25th, 2004, before Freedom to Fight 2004, but the rumours did not spread fully until December. By the time that Manny publicly acknowledged the rumours at Season’s Beatings 2004 on December 18th, 2004, he had already privately re-hired a chastened Arsenal.
Naturally a feud between the “fired” Arsenal and Manny developed, leading to a Fans Bring the Weapons Match at Un F’N Sanctioned 2005, March 26th, 2005 where Manny got his ass kicked by the numbers, most memorably when a TV set was dropped on his head.
The feud with the Arsenal completed, Manny turned his attention to Beef Wellington, the popular clown prince of the IWS. The problem with Beef from Manny's point of view is that like many clowns, left to his own devices, Beef gets moody and sheds the tears of a clown. A motivated Beef is a sight to see, but he needs goals to guide him, whether it is the quest to fight the man whose bony ass broke his hand, or the quest to be able to fight a bear. Manny decided to become Beef’s motivation, even if he had to make Beef’s life hell in the process. Beef had the best feud of his life culminating in the Fans Bring Weapons Match at Un F’N Sanctioned 2006, June 3rd, 2006 where, once again, Manny got his ass handed to him.
Of late, Manny has been butting heads with the IWS champion, Viking, a feud that saw Manny voted the most hated man in Quebec wrestling for 2006. Amongst other insults, Viking is the first IWS champion to have no belt. The former champion EXesS claims that his belt was stolen backstage during Breakout 2006, July 8th, 2006, when Viking won the title from EXesS. Manny refuses to spend his money paying to provide a belt for a “brawling beer soaked drug addict.”
The irony is that before 2004, Manny was a brawling beer soaked drug addict. When Manny looks at Viking, he sees a French speaking portrait of himself as a younger man. This is perhaps the problem. When the IWS was more of a successful hobby, Manny could afford to indulge the fans’ whims, to be their poster boy of excess. Now that the IWS is a successful company, Canada’s most consistent promotion, Manny must manage the company like a company, make the unpopular decisions that will keep the company on track. Viking is a reminder of Manny’s past that he can no longer afford to indulge in.
Is there something heroic in making hard decisions even though you know that those decisions will be unpopular? Certainly. Especially if you listen to Manny tell his verison of the story, there is heroism. But, then, we are all heroes of our own personal narratives, whether our name is Lanny Poffo or Hulk Hogan or Bobby Heenan or Viktor Van Doom or Hannibal Lecter or Vince McMahon or Manny Elefthriou or - insert your name here - .
The paradox of the old school dressing room is: who would go into the dressing room marked “Heel”? Doesn’t everyone consider himself or herself to be a hero, to be a baby face?
When a villain looks in the mirror he sees a hero looking back.