My mom used to tell me: “If you go around looking for a fight, you’ll find one.” That’s great advice, but I grew up in West Virginia, and fights have a way of finding you there, even if you try creative angles to avoid fighting, like getting off the school bus a stop early for 23 days in a row, instead of getting off at your regular stop where a bully may be waiting. I share that hypothetically.
One fateful Saturday I was visiting my grandparents and it was a day to simply be a junior high kid out exploring the “hollers” with my cousins in the coal country of nearby Covel, West Virginia, population 142.
Late that afternoon we lost track of my younger cousin that we lovingly referred to as “Baby Allen,” even though he was a sixth grader at the time. We had already checked down by the creek, which was a popular spot for us, and that meant he must have walked home by the railroad tracks, past the slate dump where we once found the mason jar full of moonshine. But that’s a story for another time.
We thought we heard Baby Allen yelling so we took off toward the voice, knowing it was bad news. As we turned the bend in the tracks we saw him laying on the ground as 5 boys kicked him over and over and over, beating him mercilessly.
I could paint the picture for you of this rough crowd of boys, but one image will sum it up. One of the boys, not the largest but clearly the man in charge, was wearing a cowboy hat and a sheriff’s badge, pinned on his sleeveless t-shirt. But that’s not all. He was also sporting a holster on his side. The good news is that this was the innocent 80’s, so it was just a cap gun in the holster. Still, the message was clear: these boys considered themselves the law in this town.
Being the articulate one, I yelled, “Hey, you jerks! Why don’t you pick on someone your own size!” I had an artificial level of confidence in my verbal demand because Baby Allen’s older brother was with me, who, having just finished 9th grade, could easily dispense swift justice on this band of little rascals. My ace-in-the-hole was that Jackie, our distant cousin (It was West Virginia, we’re all cousins.), was a 10th grader and he had my six.
Well, knowing that this attacking band of ne’re-do-wells all had older brothers, and fearing swift retribution from those same older brothers, every member of my back-up gang took off running. They left me alone to rescue Baby Allen from 5 cap-gun-armed bandits.
Luckily, there was a reasonable one among Baby Allen’s oppressors who remembered my earlier challenge to ‘pick on someone their own size’ and suggested that if I could beat the kid who was closest my size in a fist fight, then we were free to go.
What other choice did I have? I was a young kid, dropped into a situation of trying to do the right and just and fair thing. So I said a prayer to myself and up my dukes.
A split second later I was laying on the ground with five boys repeatedly kicking me.
The next several minutes were an exercise in multi-tasking as I simultaneously sobbed “Stop it!”, while trying to curl up and protect my more tender areas. While none of that ended up working, the boys did finally grow bored and I’m sure very tired from the strenuous workout of beating me mercilessly. So they eventually went on their way, leaving me and Baby Allen moaning next to the railroad tracks.
I learned a lot that day about how the experiences of life are the great dispenser of wisdom, but I also learned another piece of wisdom that day, which is that not everyone appreciates a helping hand. As we were pulling ourselves together, the first words I heard from Baby Allen were “What did you do that for?!!? I can take care of myself!!”
We both limped home to hugs from grandma, much of my body already covered in bruises that turned purple, then yellow and stayed that way for weeks. And although I did have a bloody nose that gushed for 45 minutes before we could get it to stop, I didn’t have a single broken bone. You can’t break a hero.
When I was a kid, I always had that imagery from a fisticuff culture in the back of my mind when I would read comics. This was especially true for comics that featured The Grapplers.
Auntie Freeze was one of the leading female wrestlers back in the day, but after two decades in the ring, Auntie Freeze retired to become a trainer of up-and-coming female wrestlers, who she coined The Grapplers.
The Grapplers became renowned for their colorful personalities and ringside antics, yet despite Auntie Freeze’s tireless promotion of her four proteges, the wrestling federation denied them the opportunity to make the amount of money their male counterparts made.
So, they turned to crime…after being superhumanly augmented by the Roxxon Oil Corporation, who employ them as mercenaries.
The Grapplers are bruisers, all of them. Just check out the lineup:
- Titania – The field leader of The Grapplers, she wielded an energy rod that allowed long-range bursts. Not to be confused with the Titania who was created by Jim Shooter, who took over the mantle when The Grappler’s Titania was killed.
- Poundcakes – The strongest member of The Grapplers, she was given seismic boots by Roxxon when they augmented the wrestlers, giving them powers. The boots enabled her to create shockwaves and tremors by stomping the ground.
- Screaming Mimi – Roxxon operated on Screaming Mimi’s vocal cords, giving her the ability to drive a person to insanity with her screams. She later became a founding member of The Thunderbolts as Songbird.
- Letha – She specialized in acrobatic wrestling and won in ways that didn’t highlight her strength, choosing instead to use specialized leather belts in hand-to-hand combat, while she flirted with enemies.
But despite the tough-guy culture I grew up in, I’m actually a really peaceful guy. So let’s live vicariously through the brawling Grapplers by sharing some of their greatest “hits” from the comics.
The Grapplers’ Violent History
The Grapplers were co-created by Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio and John Byrne, first appearing in Marvel Two-in-One #54. By Marvel Two-in-One #57, they have been imprisoned for their misdeeds.
Their most interesting appearance comes later, in the pages of Dazzler. Dazzler is forced to spend time at Ryker’s Island prison over a misunderstanding. She is singled out by The Grapplers who try to assert their dominance over her, but as good heroes do, she wins the day.
Dazzler #13 is worth a read, as it’s Orange is the New Black decades before that was a thing.
The Grapplers’ next most significant appearance was in the Thing solo series, where their roster was expanded, only to be quickly contracted when Titania was killed at the hands of the villain Scourge.
The Grapplers Find Peace
The remainder of their comics appearances were mainly one-shot appearances as the mercenaries of the month and I could go on all day, simply listing the times that The Grapplers avoided prison only to be beat down, be we all have things to do. But the point is that The Grapplers have had a long run in Marvel Comics, largely serving as the “tough guy” act, only to be shown that they aren’t so tough at all.
We’ve all heard it said that “if you live by the sword, you die by the sword” and The Grapplers are proof that violence only begets more violence (and jail time). Ultimately, one could hope that The Grapplers could leave their violent past behind and find some peace. But that wouldn’t make for very fun comic books, would it?
The best news is that The Grapplers are heavily rumored to appear in the upcoming Falcon and Winter Soldier series on Disney+. That would be amazing if that comes to happen. And if it doesn’t, I’m fighting somebody.