Early last year, when the coronavirus was just starting to ravage the world and nationwide lockdowns were beginning across the United States, a lot of companies started giving away free stuff to keep people busy and, perhaps, make new fans.
For me, my favorite batch of “free stuff” was when Marvel gave away 20 free graphic novels on ComiXology, as this finally gave me a chance to read the comic book that daunted me for years: Civil War.
The thing with Civil War is that, while there is a main series of “Civil War” comics, there are also tons of tie-ins and lead-ins and spin-offs. Whenever I saw that whole series collected in one tome in the graphic novel section of Barnes and Noble, I shuddered and stepped away. I’d never be able to parse it all.
And that’s how a lot of people viewed All Elite Wrestling’s storylines in its infancy.
When AEW was announced, a lot of people expected a fresh slate with its wrestlers. If you’ve only watched WWE your whole life, you wouldn’t know who Kenny Omega or the Young Bucks are, and even the guys you would recognize — a la Chris Jericho and Cody née Rhodes — were a lot bigger and blonder than you remembered. But it’s okay that they’re unrecognizable; they’ll explain who they are on Dynamite.
But with there being four whole shows before Dynamite started, you had to pick up storylines through AEW’s YouTube channel, Being The Elite, Road To… shows on Cody’s channel, Twitter posts, etc. It was all spread out, and then a lot of stories seemed to be rooted in places that all fans may not know. Is Kenny Omega supposed to be the best wrestler in the world? Why does he have beef with Chris Jericho already? Is The Elite related to those Bullet Club shirts at Hot Topic?
To this day, a lot of detractors and even some legitimate AEW fans still feel like you have to watch Being The Elite in order to fully understand the storylines on Dynamite. Someone could try something new on Dynamite (e.g. Matt Hardy’s full-on heel turn), and they’ll assume that the main reason they don’t get it is because it’s all happening on BTE (when, in reality, it started when he tried to kill Sammy Guevara at All Out).
And I won’t pretend there’s ZERO truth to the “crucial story beats are on BTE” thing. On this past week’s Dynamite, the entire Matt Hardy/Private Party/Snoop Dogg conversation was carried over from a BTE bit, and that did feel reasonably iffy.
But as a counterpoint, there’s the end of the show.
Just watching exclusively Dynamite, this is the story: Kenny Omega, who recently turned heel and aligned himself with IMPACT Wrestling executive Don Callis, beat Rey Fenix. Then, carrying on from their promo last week about ending Fenix’s career, they had Kingston’s family attack Death Triangle and went to work on Fenix, only for Moxley — who threatened Omega during that night’s show — to attack Omega.
Moxley is then attacked by two men who have never been on AEW TV, but the commentary team acknowledges that their names are Gallows and Anderson, they’re tag team champions in another company, and they have a history with Omega in Japan. They beat down all of the ringside wrestlers, then are helped by the Young Bucks, and the show ends with a new super group working in solidarity.
If you just watched this episode of Dynamite, you got a good match, two debuts, and a brawl. If you’ve watched every Dynamite, you’ve seen shocking turns of character from three mainstays. But if you’ve been following The Elite’s careers for a long while — before and around AEW’s programming — this has all been building up for months, if not years.
It works on multiple levels, and that’s dope.
Now, I’m not just calling AEW “comic books” because it’s a catchy title or a cheeky nod to the rest of the AIPT site. This idea of one solid continuity that is bolstered by the continuities of other stories has been a staple of comic books for decades.
Going back to Civil War, though it can be read from beginning to end all on its own, it’s still a story that is both preceded and followed by decades of the same canon. Iron Man and Captain America are my Cody and Jericho — the guys I know just from general comic knowledge — but who in the world are the New Warriors, these reality TV show kids we’re starting with? That’s the kind of question that scared me off from Marvel’s largest story: there’s just so much that I’m in the dark about.
If I really wanted to know more about them, there was a six-issue miniseries that follows them around beforehand. All I needed to know for this story, though (and this isn’t really a spoiler since it happens in about 10 pages), is that one of them blows up a school and sets off the entire rest of the series.
Would I care more if I knew who the New Warriors were? Probably. There are a lot of heroes in this story who I’m not personally attached to (Goliath instantly comes to mind), but while that does mean that I don’t get that extra nudge, I still really enjoyed Civil War by the time I finished reading it.
AEW works in a pretty similar way with its programming, as almost every story is told completely and competently on the show itself, yet those same stories feel a lot grander if you go out to grab a little more context from around it.
Anna Jay and Brandi Rhodes’s rivalry started when Jay choked Rhodes out on Dynamite after Mr. Brodie Lee destroyed Cody in a TNT title match. If that’s all you knew before their eventual Tuesday Night Dynamite match, you were golden, but if you saw the weeks of build they did on AEW Dark and Jay attacking Rhodes during A Shot of Brandi on AEW’s YouTube channel, there was more of an attachment to an already built storyline.
But all of that is strictly on AEW programming, be it their TV shows or their YouTube channel. The interesting thing about AEW, however, is that unlike WWE for example, they operate less in a self-contained world and more in a “wrestling-wide” canon.
They still work to make sure that their storylines work by themselves (remember, Tony Khan said early on that he didn’t want to acknowledge Mox being the IWGP US Champion or bring in AAA wrestlers because he wanted audiences to get used to AEW programming). But when it benefits AEW to use their wrestlers’ histories, they don’t miss their chance.
And nowhere is this seen better than in Kenny Omega and “Hangman” Adam Page’s story.
In what is widely agreed upon as All Elite Wrestling’s greatest story to date, the AEW TV-version is that Hangman was bummed about his losses and didn’t feel elite enough to hang with The Elite. After losing to Jericho and PAC, he left Omega and the Bucks to work on his own thing. Then, out of nowhere, he kept getting booked in tag matches with Omega, and the worst part is that they kept winning.
When their wins led to them becoming AEW Tag Team Champions, it was on shaky grounds. Yeah, they both had an accolade, but Omega was shooting for singles success and Hangman was still distancing himself from The Elite. After feuding within The Elite and beating the Young Bucks, Hangman and Omega kept splitting apart as the former sought genuine friendship, seeing as the success he initially sought out was only creating more heartbreak.
He found that friendship with FTR, who caused him to betray the Young Bucks, betrayed Hangman himself, and then took his tag team championship. Omega left Hangman to wallow in his booze, then instantly forgot about the whole tag team scene and leaned HARD into how great of a singles star he is. Fast forward, and now he’s the big (villainous) star he always knew he could be and Hangman is still searching for friendship, recently flirting with joining a totally-not-cult.
On its own, that’s an amazing story. In a grander context, it’s so much better.
If you know about Omega’s time in Japan, you know he is formerly a great tag team wrestler with Kota Ibushi, a man who pined for heavyweight greatness and left Omega to succeed in a higher level of competition. Omega turned to Bullet Club — precursor to The Elite — but Ibushi was always his kryptonite, causing doubt in Omega during every run-in.
Both men grew. Omega eventually took over Bullet Club and became the Best Bout Machine, bringing New Japan to prominence. Ibushi toured the world, came back to New Japan, and after dancing around it for a while, reunited with his former Golden Lover. It was fleeting, though, as Omega left, but Ibushi didn’t go with him, still driven to become champion.
Most recently on Dynamite, Omega aligned himself with Callis, who behind the scenes is Kenny’s pseudo-uncle but in New Japan’s world is the biggest Omega fan in the world. Then, in Callis’s IMPACT Wrestling, Omega reunited with the Good Brothers and created problems for their locker room. Rather than file an injunction, Tony Khan invited IMPACT wrestlers to AEW, and it is inevitable that someone would answer his call.
This chunk of Omega’s history has weaved its way into so much of the Omega/Hangman story. Omega’s aspirations to prove that he’s the best in America after conquering Japan. Omega’s bond to the Bucks and Good Brothers, who had his back when others he cherished didn’t. His instant kick-out of the Golden Trigger at AEW Revolution 2020.
Meanwhile, Hangman’s story is mostly homegrown (for example, he’s no longer Cody’s best friend like in ROH). He was the weakest member of the Elite, as the other four (including Cody) were all in big storylines. He was gung-ho about teaming with Omega in interviews while his partner wasn’t. He was a loser, which is exactly the Dark Order’s target demo.
All of that is on AEW TV, but when you read his Twitter press releases or watch his segments on Being the Elite — his inner monologues, his drunken horse nightmare, his promo in the woods, his year of hinting at joining the Dark Order leading to the amazing COWBOY DAY — you get a little something extra. You care more. Yet you also don’t need it.
Hangman turning on the Young Bucks is akin to the Tesseract from Thor being an infinity stone. Omega turning on Hangman is akin to the Red Hood being Jason Todd. “the band getting back together” on last week’s Dynamite is your New Warriors blowing up Stamford, Connecticut (which is such a lovely coincidence).
I think my favorite thing about AEW is that it can satisfy a lot of different types of fans. If you just want to turn your brain off, the spots are fun. If you want a weekly soap opera, it delivers all the stories you need on TV. But if you’re a nerd like me, there’s so much lore you can dive into.
Maybe I only draw this connection between wrestling and comics because I’ve spent the past month watching nothing but Dynamite, Wrestle Kingdom, Marvel movies, and Young Justice. Maybe the wires just got crossed and I’m speaking complete nonsense.
Or maybe AEW has heard the comparisons between John Cena-types and Superman-types and are taking it to heart.
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