It Came From the 1990s: NFL SuperPro #6

Tonight is Super Bowl LIV (that’s 54 for you non-Roman types) between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs… and I’m not watching.  Sorry, but football is not my thing. I’ve never been able to figure out the rules of the game, no matter how often I try to watch it.  Besides, I have always found the Super Bowl a real test of endurance, given that it’s a 60 minute game stretched out to four hours by innumerable commercial breaks and a typically-vapid halftime shop.

NFL Superpro JuskoAlso, I am soooo not a fan of the NFL, who have continually tried their hardest to push aside Colin Kaepernick for protesting racial injustice & police brutality, but who are more than happy to make Michael Vick a Pro Bowl caption, in spite of his conviction for running a dog-fighting ring.  Add to that the whole dealing with pot-smokers more harshly than wife-beaters, and the attempts to sweep traumatic brain injuries under the rug, and I have little use for the NFL.  No wonder the rest of the world plays soccer instead!

And now that I have probably managed to get the entirety of football-loving America violently angry at me, let me welcome everyone to another installment of my occasional feature It Came From the 1990s.  This is where I take a look back at various odd, unusual or noteworthy comic books that were published during that decade.  Since today is Super Bowl Sunday, hey, I might as well cast my glance at NFL SuperPro #6.  Published by Marvel Comics, it inadvertently became one of the most controversial comic books of the 1990s.

What was NFL SuperPro about?  I’m a bit lazy, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia here:

“NFL SuperPro was a short-lived comic book series published by Marvel Comics, centered on Phil Grayfield, an ex National Football League (NFL) player who survives a freak accident and wears a near-indestructible football uniform. Produced in collaboration with the NFL and written by Fabian Nicieza and artist Jose Delbo, the series started publication in 1991 and ended after 12 issues.”

The character made his debut in the NFL SuperPro Super Bowl Edition special released by Marvel in January 1991.  Probably the most noteworthy aspect of this book is the painted cover by the incredible Joe Jusko.  I supposed it’s a toss-up over which was a career highlight for Jusko, painting this cover or the one he did for the Nightcat special.

(Okay, in all seriousness, this is a good reminder that when you are a freelance artist, even one as acclaimed as Jusko, you sometimes need to take on assignment that are a bit, um, unusual, because at the end of the day it’s money in the bank.  Ditto for everyone else who worked on NFL SuperPro, and who were just trying to pay their bills.)NFL SuperPro 6 cover

Several months after the Super Bowl Edition an ongoing NFL SuperPro series was launched which, as indicated above, lasted for a year.  And that brings us to issue #6, cover-dated March 1992.

“The Kachinas Sing of Doom” was written by Buzz Dixon, penciled by Jose Delbo, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Janice Chiang and colored by Evelyn Stein.  The cover was penciled by Rob Tokar & Ron Frenz, with inks by the legendary Joe Sinnott.

Phil Grayfield, in his role as a sports journalist, is doing a story about ice skating champion Laura Eagle when she is attacked by a trio costumed as Hopi kachina figures.  The kachninas, who are armed with such ridiculous weapons as nunchucks and a chainsaw, are ostensibly after Laura because she has turned her back on the Hopi to become an athlete in the “white man’s world.”  However, in a twist straight out of Scooby Doo, the kachinas are actually a group of non-Indians in the employ of corrupt businessman Tyler Gaunt.  Gaunt has his thugs dress up as kachinas in an attempt to discredit a group of Hopi political activists led by Laura’s sister who are opposed to Gaunt opening a casino on their tribal lands.

When this issue was published the real-world Hopi tribe was reportedly very unhappy, and found it offensive.  This almost certainly had to do with the villains dressing as kachinas, which are important figures in the Hopi’s faith.  Even though in this story the kachinas were unmasked as Caucasian villains, it seems likely that, given how frequently Native Americans have been poorly depicted in American popular culture over the decades, the Hopi were just annoyed at elements of their culture & faith being appropriated.  Or perhaps they didn’t like the idea of Laura having traumatic childhood memories of the kachina ceremonies.

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 2

As per both the Recalled Comics website and Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed on Comic Book Resources, Marvel responded to the Hopi’s complaints by pulling the comic from sale.  However, by the time they made the decision the next issue had already shipped to stores, rendering the whole thing a bit meaningless.

The thing I find most surprising about all this was that, if the numbers in the news item seen on Recalled Comics are accurate, NLF SuperPro #6 had a print run of over 70,000 copies.  That’s just insane!  Last year there were issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Batman that sold less copies than that.  Really goes to show just how insanely inflated comic book sales had become in the early 1990s.

By the way, one of the aspects of NFL SuperPro that was often derided by readers was that Phil Grayfield was, to quote Buzz Dixon, “certainly not the sharpest crayon in the box.”  That can certainly be witnessed in this scene from issue #6…

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 13

*Shakes head sadly* Oh, Phil, what are we going to do with you… well, other than bring your comic book to a merciful end in another six issues?

At one point The Chicago Sports Review described NFL SuperPro as “perhaps the worst comic book ever created,” although I don’t think it’s nearly as deserving of such hyperbolic vitriol as some other comics which were more risible or embarrassing.  All these years later I think most comic book fans look back upon it with a shrug of bemusement.

Still, if you were to choose one image to perfectly sum up NFL SuperPro, well, this panel from issue #10 certainly does the trick…

NFL SuperPro head thump

Believe me, Phil, we’re all asking exactly the same thing!

Comic book reviews: X-Men Gold

I’ve very much been looking forward to X-Men Gold, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the series, since it was first announced.  The major attraction for me was the main story, a brand new collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod.  It certainly helped that over the last couple of months McLeod has been posting work-in-progress pieces on Facebook, and they looked absolutely gorgeous.

As I’ve written before, Claremont is one of the key figures involved in revitalizing X-Men in the late 1970s, turning it into a major bestseller.  After several years of X-Men being in reprint limbo, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced a brand new team in the pages of Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975.  Wein plotted the next two issues, X-Men #s 94 & 95, then passed the torch to Claremont, who scripted those stories before going on to become the full writer with #96.  Over the next 17 years, working with Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr, Rick Leonardi, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, Jim Lee, and other talented artists, Claremont crafted numerous amazing stories.  More importantly, he did a superb job writing the X-Men and their supporting cast as very real, three-dimensional individuals, developing their various arcs over an extended period of time.

As for Bob McLeod, he is a fantastic artist, a gifted storyteller with a very polished style to his inking.  He only worked on a handful of X-Men stories (the few times that he inked Cockrum were beautiful) but he co-created the spin-off series New Mutants with Claremont, drawing the team’s first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, and then working on several issues of their ongoing book.  So it was great to see him reunited with Claremont for X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 16

Claremont & McLeod’s story is set between the events of Uncanny X-Men #s 173 and 174.  Still in Japan, recuperating from their conflict with Viper & Silver Samurai, as well as the emotional wounds of Mariko abruptly calling off her marriage to Wolverine (long story, go out and buy Essential X-Men Vol. 4 for all the details) the team discovers there is a mysterious crisis taking place in nearby China.  They head over to investigate, with Xavier, Lilandra, the Starjammers, and Maddie Pryor holding back in reserve in Corsair’s orbiting spaceship.  The X-Men arrive to find that a horde of self-replicating Sentinels have taken over an industrial complex, and are on the verge of spreading out across the globe.

What follows is, of course, a spectacular battle between the X-Men and the mutant-hunting robots.  But, as he has so often done in the past, Claremont skillfully weaves wonderful moments of character interaction and heartfelt dialogue into the action.  Former enemy Rogue, only recently admitted into the team, still feels like an outsider, with the rest of the X-Men understandably cautious around her.  Yet we see first Kitty Pryde and then Nightcrawler offer her the hand of friendship, letting her know that she is welcome.  The father-daughter relationship that has developed between Wolverine and Kitty is explored, and Claremont (as always) gives the two of them wonderful chemistry.  Off in space, Maddie is still trying to wrap her head around all the craziness she has suddenly been plunged into, but she is determined to find a way to deal with it because she loves Cyclops.  Claremont really makes you care for these characters.

As for the art, McLeod does superb work.  He choreographs the battle perfectly.  Drawing a team superhero book is much different than a solo title, because the penciler really needs to give serious consideration to the placement of the numerous characters on each page, and how they interact with one another.  McLeod succeeds at this admirably, very effectively “directing” both the dramatic action sequences and the more quite character moments.

I’m unfamiliar with the colorist on this story, Israel Silva, but he does an excellent job.  His coloring really complements McLeod’s artwork.  And it was so great that letterer Tom Orzechowski was on this book.  He is one of the best letterers in the biz (it is such an underrated talent) and he has a long-time association with Uncanny X-Men, having lettered nearly every issue of the series published between 1979 and 1992.

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There are several back-up stories in X-Men Gold.  “The Sorrow Beneath The Sport” is plotted by Louise Simonson, penciled by Walter Simonson, and inked by Bob Wiacek, the creative team that so successfully chronicled the reunited original five X-Men’s adventures in the mid-1980s in the pages of X-Factor.  Supplying the script is none other than Stan Lee, who co-created the original incarnation of the team with Jack Kirby half a century ago.  It’s a nice little five page piece which both captures the playful wackiness of those early Silver Age stories, as well as observing that there was also a somber undercurrent, the notion that possessing super powers could be more of a curse than a gift.  By today’s standards, Lee’s scripting may not be particularly subtle.  But it definitely was significant in paving the way for the later, more nuanced work that other writers did in exploring the fallibilities & doubts of superheroes.  In any case, the artwork by Simonson & Wiacek is top-notch.

Roy Thomas, the second writer to helm X-Men in the 1960s (among his numerous other credits) teams up with penciler Pat Olliffe of Spider-Girl fame to chronicle the very first meeting between Banshee and Sunfire, set shortly before Giant-Size X-Men #1.  Turns out these two very different mutants happen to share a love of Elvis Presley.  It was cool to see Banshee’s fondness for folk, country, and bluegrass referenced for probably the first time since the 1970s.  I thought it was an interesting tale with some nice character moments.  It was my favorite of the back-up stories in X-Men Gold.

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Len Wein writes “Options,” which is set during the events of Giant-Size X-Men.  It delves into Wolverine’s thoughts, examining his reactions to his new teammates.  At first I was pretty taken aback by Wein’s story, but then I quickly recalled that early on Logan was written as a psycho with a hair trigger, and that it took quite a while for him to mellow out and not want to gut people at literally the drop of a hat.  Jorge Molina does a good, if gruesome, job drawing this one.

The last story is “Dreams Brighten,” written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Salvador Larroca.  It’s an examination of what was taking place in Magneto’s consciousness when Xavier was forced to telepathically shut down his adversary’s mind in X-Men volume 2 #25.  This one didn’t quite work for me.  I see what Nicieza was trying to do, but I think he needed more than five pages to achieve it.  Plus, if you are not familiar with the “Fatal Attractions” crossover and the events that occurred a few years later as an inadvertent result of Xavier’s actions, this probably will not make much sense to you.

Despite a certain variable quality to some of the back-up material, X-Men Gold is definitely worth picking up for the fantastic lead story by Claremont & McLeod.  They are both extremely talented creators, and I wish we could see more of their work nowadays.  Marvel really should give them an ongoing title, or at least a miniseries.  I really miss stories like this!

X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)
X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)

By the way, if you are interested in the creative process, please check out Bob McLeod’s Facebook page.  For several weeks, he has been posting preliminary art, uninked pencils, and finished inked artwork for X-Men Gold.  (A big “thank you” to McLeod for giving me permission to use the above image.)  It’s fascinating to see the stages he went through in illustrating this story.  And, once again, it definitely demonstrates just how much of the final look of the published artwork can be determined by the inker.