Buried in the pages of Jon Morris's 2015 book The League of Regrettable Heroes: Half-Baked Heroes From Comic Book History, down among bizarre creations like Doctor Hormone, Fatman the Human Flying Saucer, and Kangaroo Man, is a superhero born out of a licensing deal between Marvel Comics and the National Football League. His name is NFL SuperPro, and if you've never heard of him, then, well, the NFL is probably pretty happy about that, to be honest. Twenty-five years after its misbegotten birth, the NFL/Marvel alliance remains a lesson in how not to turn a licensed product into a sustainable comic book franchise.
In 1991, Fabian Nicieza, a writer and editor at Marvel, was tasked with bringing SuperPro to life. "The editor responsible for the project, Bob Budiansky, came to me and asked for some help," Nicieza recalled in an e-mail conversation last month. "They were having a hard time developing the SuperPro character to the satisfaction of the NFL and wanted a more acclaimed writer on the project."
Nicieza, who today is known for his work on X-Men, Deadpool, and Thunderbolts, was skeptical about being able to contribute much to a licensed character. But he was a company man, and when the company asked him to step up, he did. He had also grown up a New York Jets fan after his family moved to New York from Argentina when he was four; Joe Namath was his favorite player.
And so, with a fortitude in the face of a crappy situation that any Jets fan would recognize, Nicieza took the notes the NFL had sent and committed to writing the first four issues of the SuperPro series.
SuperPro follows Phil Grayfield, a former NFL player who retires after blowing out his knee and becomes a reporter for a program called Sports Inside. His first assignment—an interview with a sports collector—is interrupted by some thieves, who tie Grayfield up and leave him in a room full of football memorabilia. The film reels there somehow create a chemical reaction that gives him superhuman strength, speed, and endurance—the basic prerequisites for turning a regular Joe into a man capable of saving the day.
Nicieza doesn't remember the character very fondly. "He was never cool enough to attract teens or older readers," he said. Each issue of SuperPro plays out as standard superhero fare. Grayfield goes on a job assignment, encounters a villain, puts on his football-inspired Captain America costume, and resolves the story by the end of the issue. Critically, the comic was not well received. Nicieza remembers the feedback being negative, but he contends it was less about the content on the page, and more about how blatant the NFL's tie-in attempts were.
The bar, not to belabor the obvious, is pretty low here, but the football references in the book are actually a highlight of the reading experience. The villains introduced by Nicieza in the first four issues include Quick Kick, a former field goal kicker and teammate of Grayfield's at Notre Dame reborn as an evil ninja, and Instant Replay, an assassin who can time-travel. Lawrence Taylor makes a cameo, but any overstatement on that character's part is pretty true to life. The dialogue in the comic rarely passes up an opportunity to cram in a reference to football. In one issue, after successfully landing on a car during battle, Grayfield screams, "Touchdown!" In another, a character remarks, "I hope coach ain't upset cause we're late, delay of game is a serious penalty about here."
This is stilted enough on its own, and would have been so in 1991, but it scans even more strangely now given the increased public awareness surrounding the NFL and brain damage. In one issue, a crime boss named Sanction fends off the police by shooting concussion mortars at them. In another storyline, a group of villains dig holes on the field and kidnap players during NFL games. The group was named the Head Hunters. It's a good bet that these ideas would not make it to print today. Twenty-five years ago, though, they were fair game.
Nicieza recalled his working relationship with the league fondly, describing an easygoing NFL that bears little resemblance to the one currently bestriding the sports landscape. After four issues, he left the project, and other writers picked up the series. When SuperPro finally made the news, it was for all the wrong reasons. In issue No. 6, writer Buzz Dixon scripted a story depicting members of the Hopi Tribe, a sovereign nation in Arizona, as a group of ruthless villains. The real-life Hopi were understandably upset, and asked Marvel to take the issue off newsstands. Today, it's easy to find online and can be yours for $1.35, if for some reason you want that.
Football-heavy storylines dominated the first four issues of SuperPro, but that changed after Nicieza's departure. One later storyline features Grayfield at a soccer game between Brazil and Argentina,and centered on the battle to preserve the rainforest in Amapa, Brazil. In issue No. 11, the comic opens with a full-page spread of SuperPro, in full costume, completing a 720-degree dunk on the basketball court. He later investigates a crooked sports agent who is shaking down his clients in exchange for fixing their grades. The lesson: education is just as important as playing sports.
SuperPro ended in 1992 after a 12-issue run. The comic has made no lasting impact in the two decades since, although it does make the occasional appearance on listicles celebrating the worst comic books of all time. Despite that, fans at comic book conventions still approach Nicieza and ask him to sign old SuperPro issues. "It's usually a fan who thinks they're going to get me riled up," Nicieza said. "It never works. I'm not necessarily proud of the work within the comic itself, but I always took pride in the reason I took the assignment."
According to Nicieza, the first issue actually sold well enough to earn a "very, very nice royalty check." There was another perk to writing the comic: Nicieza received tickets to a Jets game. "They got blown out," he said. His editor and other Marvel executives also parlayed the licensing deal into a trip to the 1994 Super Bowl in Atlanta.
Reading NFL SuperPro, it's not hard to see why it didn't work out, but in some ways its failure is still difficult to understand. Sports and comic books feel like they should be a natural fit. The best athletes have some obvious heroic and superhuman aspects; to call them superheroes is just a matter of exaggerating traits that are already in evidence. The connection is still being made today. Most recently, Marvel and ESPN teamed up for the second straight year to illustrate 25 female athletes on comic book covers. Tamika Catchings, Simone Biles, and Simone Manuel were among those who received their own Marvel portraits.
So what went wrong with SuperPro? As Nicieza diplomatically put it, it was "a professional assignment done for professional reasons. One clearly lacking in the passion necessary to make it emotionally resonate with readers." That may be true enough, but it also may be a best-case scenario. Today, leagues are more image-conscious than ever, and it's unlikely that any future licensing deals would give comic-book scribes more creative freedom than Nicieza and his colleagues had. We will probably never be blessed with a baseball superhero who inadvertently unlocks his power after receiving an accidental dose of human growth hormone. And so, baffling as it seems, NFL SuperPro is as good a sports comic book as we're likely to get.
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