Over the years, wrestling has been complimented at times as “a cartoon come to life.” It certainly fits: bigger than life characters, twisting stories, and insane dives/splats/explosions abound in the squared circle. Some wrestlers lean into a more cartoonish approach (Stardust springboards to mind), while others play the straight man alongside. But if wrestling is itself a big cartoon, what happens when the industry leaves the real world and is actually drawn? Not being bound to things like gravity, physical limits, or the normal trappings of matches gives you a world of options. Can you do it and still have something that seems familiar and fun? How much do you nod to the real life source material? Luckily we’ve seen several animated shows and segments delve into wrestling and can see just how successful they’ve been.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: S2 E6 – “The Blind Bandit”
In the Avatar universe you already have members of each nation who can “bend” their namesake element (Earth, Air, Water, Fire) and hurl it at any foe with a wave of their hand. That is crazy enough, so in “The Blind Bandit” the Earth bending tournaments are presented as real underground fighting competitions with a real championship & belt. Even so, there is still plenty of classic wrestling fun on display. Everyone, even the friends of the eponymous Avatar Aang, pop huge for local generic gregarious babyface The Boulder. Voiced by the legendary Mick Foley himself, he has the obligatory giant pythons, gravelly gravitas, and enough constant illeism to make even The Rock proud. He brings easy laughs, then gets dispatched in a way that fits the cartoon world perfectly. Let us all appreciate that no actor had to play this out:
Meanwhile, “Fire Nation Steve” goes full Volkoff in singing the show’s bad guys’ national anthem. That lets us in on the joke too, as we can laugh at the pretend audience still getting so worked up by such an act. Other competitors that don’t get a lot of screen time include a full-on giant, someone sporting a classic luchador getup, and one bearing Muta-worthy facepaint. These lighthearted, familiar touches turn a scene that could have gone totally Fight Club into one that’s perfect for a kid friendly show and a treasure trove for wrestling fans looking for hints of the guys we grew up with!
Futurama: S2 E8 – “Raging Bender”
Futurama, in spite of its fantastical Year 3000 setting, gives a more grounded and amusingly cynical take on wrestling. After being recruited to the Ulitmate Robot Fighting league, Bender quickly learns the fights are scripted. He gets the proverbial rocket ride as an underdog babyface, going over on evil millionaires and foreign menaces alike. Hilariously showing how fickle the business is, Bender then finds out he’s not the guy anymore just because his sandalwood soaps aren’t selling. Haven’t we all fantasized that something like this must be going on in Vince McMahon’s office at one time or another? We then see Bender get buried in real time with a switch to an uncomfortable gender-role switching gimmick, which wrestling history buffs will recognize as a nod to the actual story of Adrian Adonis! From ridiculous sight gags to more subtle references, this one has something for everyone. In the words of the metal man himself, “let’s commence preparations for rumbling!”
Strong Bad Email: #183 – “Yes, Wrestling”
Strong Bad has always been described as a “wrestleman,” but more as species type than occupation. His luchador-style mask is his for-real face, for starters, so he’s seen the ring less than you might think. Like Futurama, this SBemail cartoon is very open about the business side of things. It winks at how some chairs and a plant are somehow supposed to turn the ring into the “darkest corners” of an, ahem, “dungeon.” Wrestlers themselves change gimmicks until something sticks; these ones are just amped up to 11 to keep the laughs coming! Il Cartographer (explorer & mapmaker) is only slightly more ridiculous as a job gimmick than the hog farmers in mid-90’s WWE, while Sir Bolliver Turnbuckle is a great throwback to the era of guys like “Earl” Robert Eaton joining The Blue Bloods in WCW.
We also get to play Spot The Reference as the characters dress up like legends at a brisk pace. LOD! Mr. Fuji! Demolition! There’s even a promo nod to Paul Heyman. Homestar Runner plays a mix of the Mega Powers, but the best part of his interview are little things that only being a long-time devotee will make real (and real funny) to you – noting someone who “needs no introduction” then immediately naming them, or intricately describing how you’ll hold down an opponent “for the 1,2,3 count” when you could just say “win.” Series creators The Brothers Chaps clearly know their grappling history and use it to bring knowing smiles to all of us fans also!
Teen Titans Go! S3 E50 – “Oh Yeah!”
This zany take on DC Comics’ heroes goes a step further than the last few, embracing pro wrestling openly, because of its over the top stories and crazy ranting promos. That’s what makes it fun! Every Titan but Cyborg (who tries to talk up amateur wrestling instead) take on their own personas, finishers, and on-mic styles that poke fun at pro wrestling while also paying homage. Raven’s vaguely undead gimmick allows us to finally see what happens when someone is dragged “straight to hell” down under the ring – a nice cushy bed that will be sure not to hurt anyone! Glad that is finally solved. Meanwhile, The Yeller’s big hair, screaming, and arm tassles make Starfire a perfect Ultimate Warrior spawn. Beast Boy’s character is the more generic “Wildman” but his promo giving out creamer and coupons (for creamer, duh) comes from a familiar place. That is, if you happen to be the kind of wrestling fan who watches cartoons AND scours YouTube for every Macho Man Randy Savage promo you can.
Luckily, that’s me all over! And after watching this it’ll be you too. This episode sums up why we love pro wrestling still today, how fun it is to try on these roles, and how the greatness of the past can get passed down and make us laugh all these years later.
Stone Cold Steve Austin on Celebrity Deathmatch
A hilarious pop-culture touchstone, MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch hit a stroke of brilliance when it took the only actual fast-talkin’ ring general on the show and kept him mostly out of the ring. Aside from the obligatory ass-whipping of Vince McMahon, Stone Cold turned up as a backstage interviewer and commentator rather than a competitor. He provided crazy, laugh-inducing explanations on how giant contraptions would function as actual weapons. He got deep into subjects like the effects of bringing characters out of the past in a time machine that looks like it was the basis for either The New Day’s counterpart or a plain ol’ outhouse. To wit, that helped him explain how Ghengis Khan and Ghandi swapped personalities – Austin let us all know their spinal fluids changed places during time travel and owned up to the fact that “I screwed up.” Wait WHAT?! The mixture of his authoritative voice, confident delivery no matter what he was saying, and the fact that we know Austin is as real as it comes IRL helped ground the show’s insanity. Everything else could be (and was) that much more ridiculous for our enjoyment!
No matter how you slice it (or your claymation opponents), cartoons and wrestling go hand in hand. With AEW already starting to pursue the children’s book market and feds competing for all the eyeballs they can, more animated experiences in the squared circle can’t be far behind. Whether bodies are flung out of the atmosphere, through the canvas into the Earth’s core, or into other dimensions, the only sure thing is that there will be plenty for fans to savor it all!