Marvel Graphic Novel #8: Super Boxers (1983)
Plot and Pencils by Ron Wilson
Script by John Byrne
Inks by Armando Gil
Colors by Bob Sharen, Steve Oliff, John Tartaglione, Joe D’Esposito & Mark Bright
Published by Marvel Comics
Among some comic reviewers, there’s an understanding that you don’t talk about the cover of the comic that you’re writing about. It’s tied into that old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” and it would be a bit like critiquing a movie based on the movie poster in the theater lobby. One is completely separate from the other.
All of that said, the best thing about Ron Wilson’s 1983 graphic novel Super Boxers is Bill Sienkiewicz’s awesome cover.
The official title of the publication is Marvel® Graphic Novel No. 8: Super Boxers. Marvel’s then still young graphic novel line had already produced a number of now classic stories- The Death of Captain Marvel, The New Mutants, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills and a few nice books that still hold up well like Elric: The Dreaming City, Dreadstar, Killraven and Starslammers. For 1982 and 1983, this was a good run at a prestigious line of comics at a mainstream publisher. It was only going to be a matter of time before there was a clunker in the line and that was doomed to be Ron Wilson’s first and to-date only creator owned title Super Boxers.
Set in a future where big business uses superpowered boxing matches to settle board room shenanigans, plotter and penciller Wilson, scripter John Byrne, and inker Armando Gil are stumbling from the very beginning. Wilson, who had been a Marvel mainstay on Marvel Two-In-One and its successor The Thing, is trying to create something “gritty” and “real” in that late 1970’s/early 1980’s cinematic way. There’s threads of Super Boxers that can be traced to movies to the same narrative origins as Rocky, Blade Runner and The Terminator. A lowly street boxer named Max is used by the powerful elite to fight their battles and win their wars. It’s the age old story of class war set in a Ridley Scott/George Orwellian future.
The great thing about Rocky, a movie about boxing, is that you believe the fights. You believe that Sylvester Stallone is getting the crap beaten out of him. You believe in the fight and you kneel penitently at the altar of the sweet science of boxing. It’s fluid, it’s motion and it’s brutal. But there’s something kind of beautiful about it as well. That drive of spirit and muscle that powers through a match is admirable. If you want to see something in comics that comes close to the real thing, pick up Gilbert Hernandez’s comics about female wrestling. Those comics contain some of the most beautiful images ever set to paper.
And everything that’s great about Rocky, Gilbert Hernandez and those other movies are all missing from Super Boxers. Wilson’s herky-jerky plotting shows how much of the book he was making up as he was going along. Major plot points and character relations are introduced haphazardly and usually about two pages too late. Only towards the end of the book does he even set up a past relationship between two people who are important to our hero Max. That Max’s old and grizzled trainer and his new high society benefactor and love interest knew each other back in the day is supposed to change our views of these characters, but it comes out of nowhere and is slipped in as if it’s an almost forgotten plot point. It’s supposed to be a poignant moment when we realize that these characters have history, but it comes off as ham-handed and laughable.
Over in Marvel Two-In-One and The Thing, Wilson drew a great Ben Grimm. He’s maybe still the third best artist ever to draw the character behind Jack Kirby and John Byrne. But here with his own story, Wilson and inker Gil use every visual cliche from the time to tell the story. None of the fashion actually looks fashionable, and none of the action expresses any true power or weight. These are two things that you need to be good at if you’re drawing the Thing and that Wilson could do. The boxing scenes miss the mark on conveying any real power to these figures. There’s only one splash page near the finale, with Max getting smashed into the side of the boxing ring, that makes you think there’s an actual physical contact happening between any of these characters. Every other image of the boxing shows figures positioned to look like they’re throwing punches but it’s hard to imagine that there’s really any contact being made by these posed mannequins.
And some day, someone needs to ask Byrne exactly what he was doing here. “You see him, don’t you? Sure you do. Even down here he’s hard to miss. Even down here where being tough is the same as being alive, he stands out.” The writing is flowery, heavy handed, and obvious throughout the book. Byrne is working in full huckster storytelling mode, trying to sell this thing as if his whole superstar career depended on it.
As the scripter working over Wilson’s plot, there are a couple of things that are possibly going on. This could possibly be Byrne doing the best he could do, matching the tone and giving Wilson everything he wanted out of the story. Or it could be Byrne trying to fix as much as he can of Wilson’s weak storytelling by having to spell every little thing out for the reader. He doesn’t allow Wilson’s artwork any room to tell the story because there’s no coherent story really being told on the pages. Or maybe Byrne just gave up, realized what a mess this was going to be and turned into it the skid, going along with the accident that was happening no matter what he did. The truth has to be somewhere between trying to salvage the story and trying to turn the whole thing into a joke. But instead of trying to salvage Wilson’s work, Byrne only magnified the lousy story with his smarmy overwriting.
John Byrne was never much more than a hired gun on this comic so he went on to have his superstar career that peaked later on in the 1980s with titles like Fantastic Four and Superman. Ron Wilson went back to drawing Thing comics and never really did much of note beyond that, which is a shame. Wilson was a great superhero artist in the 1980s, cut perfectly out of the Marvel house style built on the solid foundation of Kirby. Super Boxers was ambitious, but poorly thought out. For a book that feels like it was produced in the Marvel style (plot and artwork come before the script,) no one working on this book ever had an idea of what the story was, who the characters were or where any of this should be going. Super Boxers was never thought out any more than beyond the concept of super-powered boxers of the future. And that’s not nearly enough to build a story around.
But how about that Bill Sienkiewicz cover?