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!

Glen Orbik: 1963 to 2015

Last week on his Facebook page, artist Joe Jusko announced the sad news that painter Glen Orbik had passed away at the much too young age of 51 years.  Orbik had been suffering from cancer, and on May 11th he succumbed to his illness.

While I was not especially familiar with Glen Orbik’s work, I immediately recognized his name.  For about a decade, beginning in the mid 1990s, Orbik painted a number of beautiful comic book covers.  Many of these were done for DC Comics.

Orbik’s first comic book cover was for Aquaman #25.  He painted a striking portrait of the king of the seas, giving him a noble, contemplative look.  Orbik’s style was very well suited to capturing the roughly-hewn majesty of Peter David’s revamp of Aquaman, with his long hair, beard, bare chest and harpoon in place of his lost left hand.

Legends of the DC Universe 1 cover

Also for DC Comics, Orbik illustrated the cover to the graphic novel The Life Story of the Flash.  He contributed covers to the Batman story arcs “Cataclysm,” “Aftershock,” and “No Man’s Land.”  Orbik also painted covers for the anthology title Legends of the DC Universe, including the three issue debut arc starring Superman.  For these Orbik rendered a vision of the Man of Steel that was both bursting with power and endowed with humanity.

During his career Orbik illustrated numerous book covers.  His work was well suited to science fiction, fantasy and especially mystery & noir.  Orbik’s moody, atmospheric work in that genre made him an absolutely ideal choice to contribute several covers to DC Comics’ 1997 annuals, which had the loose overarching theme of “Pulp Heroes.”

Among Orbik’s covers for the “Pulp Heroes” annuals was the incredibly striking painted artwork for Aquaman Annual #3.  His depiction of Aquaman was once again both savage and noble, gracefully gliding through the ocean to discover a beautiful murder victim, an image that was a superb amalgamation of fantasy and hard-boiled crime imagery.

Aquaman Annual 3 cover

Orbik also did work for other comic book companies.  He painted several covers and trading cards for Marvel Comics.  Most notably, Orbik’s dynamic cover for Thor #41 (November 2001) was later re-used in the character’s profile for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Avengers 2004.  He painted several covers for The Victorian and Anne Steelyard: The Garden of Emptiness, both from Penny-Farthing Productions. He also contributed a variant cover to The Oz / Wonderland Chronicles #3 in 2008 (the main cover for which, incidentally, was illustrated by Jusko).

Orbik’s wife Laurel Blechman was an artist, as well.  She collaborated with him on various covers, including his DC Comics work.

A large selection of Glen Orbik’s paintings, including those he did with Blechman, is on display at his official website.  I definitely recommend visiting it.  There is some incredibly beautiful art to be seen.

It is unfortunate that Orbik passed away at such a young age.  He was a very talented artist.

Joe Jusko draws Tomb Raider

When I was in high school, I was a big fan of artist Joe Jusko.  He would create these superb painted covers for such titles as Punisher and Savage Sword of Conan.  And then in 1992 the Marvel Masterpieces trading card set came out, composed entirely of Jusko’s painted renditions of Marvel’s most popular heroes & villains.  That was really amazing.

At the time, though, I often wondered why Jusko never did any interior artwork, never drew any full-length stories.  Obviously back then I was a bit too young to realize that it is a very time-consuming process to paint an entire 22 page comic book.  But since then, I’ve always kept an eye out for those rare occasions when Jusko did illustrate an entire book.

Tomb Raider Jusko coverIt really came as a surprise to me, then, when I recently found out that Jusko had worked on just such a project, and it had completely slipped under my radar.  That book was Tomb Raider: The Greatest Treasure of All, which was published back in 2005 by Top Cow / Image Comics.  However, I was hardly the only one to miss out on it, though.  On his Facebook page, Jusko referred to it as “Probably the best work of my career overall and also the biggest disappointment since almost no one saw it.”  He went on to explain that he had worked on the book for several years, and had put a tremendous amount of effort & energy into it.  But once it came out, somehow it had disappeared almost without a trace, and many people were not even aware that it had actually been published.

Looking through Jusko’s scans of the original painted artwork that he’d posted on Facebook, I thought to myself, “This looks fantastic!”  I immediately decided that I’d try and find a copy of the book.  I was pleasantly surprised when I checked Ebay, because several different comic book dealers had copies of the issue for sale at cover price.  So, yeah, once you know to look for it, it is out there.

Tomb Raider: The Greatest Treasure of All is written by long-time Superman creator Dan Jurgens.  I’m a fan of his work, as well, so it was a nice surprise to see he had plotted & scripted this story.  Jurgens turns in an exciting, suspenseful, humorous tale that features Lara Croft and her associate Chase attempting to liberate a mysterious treasure from an ancient Mayan temple, all the while dodging trigger-happy guerillas.  And, yes, Jurgens does explain why there is a lion in the jungles of Central America!

Tomb Raider Jusko pg 6

I don’t really play video games, so I don’t own a single one of the Tomb Raider games.  And I’ve never before picked up any of the various comic books featuring Lara Croft that Image Comics has published over the years.  Nevertheless, I really enjoyed The Greatest Treasure of All.  Jurgens did a nice job writing a fun, entertaining story.

As for the artwork, wow, Jusko definitely outdid himself!  This book really showcases his talents, not only as an amazing painter, but as a storyteller.  The thing about comic books, I now fully understand, is that it is not merely a matter of drawing pretty pictures.  It is also being able to illustrate the flow of action & events from one panel to the next.  There are many extremely talented artists out there who are simply not suited to draw comic books, simply because they do not have that crucial skill for sequential illustration.  With Tomb Raider: The Greatest Treasure of All, Jusko demonstrates that not only can he create amazing covers, pin-ups, and posters, but he can also illustrate a multi-page story in a very dramatic fashion.

What I especially liked about Jusko’s work on The Greatest Treasure of All was his depiction of Lara Croft.  He gives her a very lithe physique.  To be perfectly honest, from what I have seen of some other Tomb Raider comics published by Top Cow, many artists drew Lara as having this exaggerated porn star-type body, with huge breasts & a narrow waist.  Jusko, in contrast, renders Lara as an athletic figure.  She still looks drop-dead gorgeous, but in a realistic, believable manner.  A major part of this was undoubtedly due to the fact that Jusko uses models.  For Lara, he had Hollywood stunt woman Jasi Cotton Lanier pose for him.

Tomb Raider Jusko pg 19

There are ten pages of “behind the scenes” items at the back of the book.  On display are some pages from Jurgens’ plot, Jusko’s initial pencils & sketches, photos he took of his models in various different poses, and painted pages in progress.  It is a nice look at the creative process.

It is definitely unfortunate that Tomb Raider: The Greatest Treasure of All went pretty much unnoticed when it was initially published.  It features some really amazing art by Joe Jusko.  If you are a fan of his work, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of the book.

I also recommend heading on over to Joe Jusko’s gallery at Comic Art Fans where he has posted high quality images of the art from The Greatest Treasure of All.  His paintings looks even more beautiful when scanned from the originals.