Sports and comic books have had their fair share of mixing throughout the years. From the famous “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” to the infamous “Gozilla vs. Barkley,” comic books have had big name sports crossovers. However, other than famous cameos, comic books have also tried to crossover with sports in another way – the sports-based super character.
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These sports-based characters aren’t always as obvious as you may think. While the most famous examples might be those that are a bit heavy-handed, like a character wearing a sports uniform as a costume, there are many that are influenced by sports in a more subtle way. Some are characters that have stood the test of time, while some failed miserably and are remembered as the butt of jokes. Let’s honor both the hits and misses as we take a look at 15 sports-based comic book characters.
15. NFL SUPERPRO
We at CBR would be remiss if we didn’t start this list with the character that everyone immediately thinks of with this category – NFL SuperPro. The character is mainly known for his design, with his costume just being an NFL uniform with stars and stripes. There aren’t many fans that can actually tell you the history of the infamous “NFL SuperPro” series. Created in collaboration with the NFL, the character’s origin is, unsurprisingly, a bit silly.
Phil Grayfield is a former football player-turned-sports reporter, and is now covering a story about a scientist who is creating an indestructible NFL uniform. Through a series of events, Phil is caught in a fire, where he is exposed to chemicals from the scientist’s lab and gains superpowers. Wearing the indestructible NFL uniform, Grayfield becomes the NFL SuperPro. SuperPro, as the first issue states, thus “went from sacking quarterbacks, to tackling crime,” but his crime fighting was cut short after 12 issues. Not even a guest appearance by Spider-Man could save the day.
14. KICKERS, INC.
“Kickers, Inc.” was part of Jim Shooter’s New Universe series of books from the late ‘80s. Created by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, the series told the story of the fictional New York Smashers, a football team that, after the New Universe’s “White Event,” gained superpowers and fought crime. Interestingly enough, the series started as a tongue-in-cheek action/adventure series by DeFalco and Frenz. They wanted to tell stories of a football team that had adventures during the offseason, and fully embrace the campy nature of the premise.
However, Shooter had another idea. His New Universe was going to be realistic and tell stories of heroes that could exist in the real world. Plus, he wanted a sports series. So DeFalco and Frenz had to tweak their concept to fit the new premise. The series never caught on and creative teams came and went over the course of 12 issues. Mercifully, the series was canceled, and the team was never seen again.
Detailing the origins and history of all variations of the Sportsmaster would take forever. The character has had many different iterations over the decades in DC Comics. However, no matter who is under the mask, certain facts remain. Sportsmaster is a former athlete who has turned to a life of crime and uses sports implements to battle heroes. Perhaps the greatest Sportsmaster moment comes from “DC Super-Stars” #10, wherein he sets up the most important game of baseball the world has ever seen.
After trapping a full stadium’s worth of people at a ballpark, Sportsmaster decides that the only way he’ll let the people go free is if the heroes can beat them in a game of baseball. The game ends with Plastic Man shape shifting into a base. Sportsmaster then touches Plastic Man instead of the real base, leading to him being called out. The heroes won that day, but throughout the years, and multiple incarnations, the Sportsmaster keeps coming back.
By his name, readers can probably guess everything they need to know about the villainous Javelin. A former Olympic athlete, Javelin used his skills at, you guessed it, throwing javelins to fight heroes. A frequent villain of Green Lantern, Javelin used trick javelins, similar to Green Arrow and his arrows, to try to get the upper hand. You may be wondering how a character like Javelin might stand up against the incredibly powerful Green Lantern. Well, it’s simple.
Javelin knew Green Lantern’s weakness to the color yellow, and he decided to paint all his javelins yellow in “Green Lantern” #173 and 174. Of course, Green Lantern ended up saving the day. Even after his appearance in Green Lantern, Javelin has shown up in other series as well. He has actually gone on multiple missions with the Suicide Squad, fighting alongside them against the Justice League in “Suicide Squad” #13. Who knows, maybe DC films might want to use him in an upcoming movie?
Breaking away from the silly sports characters for a minute, lets talk about Brian Wood and Ming Doyle’s “Mara.” “Mara” is a six-issue series from 2013 and tells the story of a gifted volleyball athlete, Mara Prince, who is the most famous celebrity in a dystopian future where everyone obsesses over sports. Over the course of the series, Mara gains superpowers on live TV and uses them against the military and government, as the world turns its collective back on her.
Unlike most of the characters on this list, Mara is not seen as a joke. The character is created with a sports background, but the story is about so much more. She’s not using trick volleyballs to fight crime. Instead, her athletic ability and volleyball fame is used as a jumping-off point to talk about other issues in a dystopian future. “Mara” turns into a coming-of-age story with a superhero backdrop, and is probably the least hokey entry on the list, even if it is about a super volleyball player.
Triathlon is part of the long, historic trope of disgraced athlete-gains-superpowers. First appearing in “Avengers (vol. 3)” #8 in 1998 by Kurt Busiek and George Perez, Delroy Garrett, Jr. is an Olympic track athlete who is kicked out of sport after he tests positive for steroids. After joining a cult to help build his faith, he is given superpowers and becomes Triathlon. For a character with such a bland name and ability set, he certainly rose above and became an integral member of the Avengers.
At first, he was a reluctant member of the team due to him being added to the membership as a possible PR stunt. However, over time, he grew into his role as Avenger. Unbeknownst to Triathlon, his powers are actually taken from a previous Marvel character, 3-D Man, including his super strength, speed and durability, which were equitable to three men. Later in his history, Garrett adopted the 3-D Man moniker, and Triathlon was no more.
9. FLASH GORDON
The oldest character on this list is Flash Gordon. While most people think of Flash — Savior of the Universe — and remember the cheesy “Flash Gordon” film from 1980, where he’s a former New York Jets football player, he actually got his start way before that film existed. See, Flash Gordon started as an athlete from Yale University that goes off to space with his two companions and fought evil aliens from other planets. Standard stuff, really.
In 1938, when the “Flash Gordon” comic strip premiered, he wasn’t a football player at all. In fact, Flash was an accomplished polo player. Through the decades, portions of his origin has changed, but established canon has Flash as a former athlete, which helped explain his athletic abilities when fighting against Ming the Merciless. When it came to the 1980 film, Flash was shown to be a bit of a brainless brute, instead of the more cunning, heroic version of the character seen in the comic strips and early adaptations.
8. CASEY JONES
One of the only characters on the list without an athletic background, Casey Jones debuted in “Raphael” #1 back in 1985 as a deranged vigilante who just happened to have a golf bag full of sports equipment and wore a hockey mask. While his origin has been changed since, the original idea behind the character, according to creator Kevin Eastman was humor! “I thought it was really funny if we had a character who was inspired to do the same, but just from watching too much bad TV.”
However, in the famous 1990 film “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Casey was a former ice hockey player that turned into a vigilante. That would help explain his hockey mask and stick that he used to fight The Foot, though admittedly not much else. Throughout the different various series, his origin has changed quite a bit, but there has always been some constants. He is always in his signature hockey mask and uses a hockey stick; and he always has a fun but gristly personality.
7. EL GUAPO
The story of Robbie Rodriguez, better known as El Guapo, is a tragic tale of a mutant and his sentient skateboard. A former stuntman, who was working on the movie version of X-Statix, Rodriguez eventually joined the mutant group, formerly known as X-Force, when he helped them against a dangerous mutant. Considering the fact that he was an attractive young man (as his name, in Spanish, implies), X-Statix formally invited him to be part of the team.
While El Guapo can be seen as a very campy character, that was all part of the charm. The whole “X-Statix” series is seen as a satire of celebrity life through the use of a superhero team. It is clear he was used in a way to poke fun of all the characters that were created to capitalize on cool trends, such as skateboarding or surfing. Controlling his sentient skateboard, El Guapo could fly around and smash into bad guys. His relationship to the skateboard was symbiotic, and if he were separated from the board for long periods of time, his health would be affected. However, his story came to a tragic end when he hummed a cursed song and his board ended up impaling him.
6. SILVER SURFER
According to Stan Lee, Jack Kirby said he created the surfboard for the Silver Surfer, “because I’m tired to drawing spaceships!” And so, the artist took inspiration from the growing surf culture and created a cosmic hero that traveled around space faster than the speed of light. Leave it to Jack Kirby to combine a sport that has guys riding a board on water, and then translate that to interstellar travel. He’s called The King for a reason, folks.
The Silver Surfer was created almost as an afterthought. During the early days of Marvel, in 1966, Jack Kirby was working on “Fantastic Four” #48 and decided to add a character that wasn’t in the original plot given to him by Stan Lee. He created a silver alien that traveled around on a cosmic surfboard. When Stan Lee saw the character, he thought that it was too silly, but discussing it with Kirby more, they developed a character that readers would grow to love called The Silver Surfer. The character has been an integral part of Marvel Comics ever since, and the surfboard has stuck around through every iteration.
Just as you’d expect with a name like Judomaster, Hadley “Rip” Jagger was a WWII vet who rescued a Pacific island girl, and in return, was taught the martial art of Judo. He then donned a costume, started calling himself Judomaster, and fought crime in a short-lived Charlton Comics series. Eventually, as with the other Charleton Comics characters, the rights to Judomaster were sold to DC Comics. Judomaster is a product of an era where Asian martial arts were seen as mystical and many Caucasian characters were created to learn these arts from Asian masters.
It’s no surprise that Judomaster’s creation happened after the 1964 Summer Olympics, where Judo was first recognized as an Olympic sport. Nowadays, Judo is seen all over Mixed Martial Arts, with athletes like Ronda Rousey showing how devastating it can be. Like many characters from the ‘60s, over the years, the Judomaster name has gone to a couple of other characters. Most recently, Sonia Satos, a former assassin for the Yakuza, has taken the Judomaster name. She was introduced in “Birds of Prey” #100, and has been used sparingly since then, last seen during the New 52.
Roberto Velasquez was a former boxer from Puerto Rico who, because of his size, never was able to make pro. However, when given the opportunity, he became part of a program that augmented his physical abilities, giving him super strength and moderate invulnerability. He became the hero known as Bantam, with boxing gloves as part of his costume. Bantam got his name from the “bantamweight” boxing weight class, known for their small fighters and entertaining bouts.
In his first appearance in “Captain America Annual” #12, it was shown that Bantam had become so powerful that he couldn’t fight any longer, after inadvertently killing another fighter during a match. After Hammerhead kills one of his friends, Bantam joins forces with Captain America to take down the villains. After this, Bantam is forced to give up boxing for good and became a boxing trainer/part-time superhero. Unfortunately for Bantam, his life was cut short during Marvel’s “Civil War” event, where he fought Thunderclap and was thrown into an oil truck. The oil truck exploded, killing him instantly.
3. MUTANT LEAGUE FOOTBALL
What’s better than a post-apocalyptic future where standard football is replaced by a game featuring mutants and zombies who use landmines and fire pits to potentially kill members of the opposing team? The answer is, obviously, nothing! That’s the premise of the “Mutant League Football” video game that was released for the Sega Genesis way back in 1993. However, not very well known to comic fans is the six-part series called “Bring Me the Head of Coach Brikka,” which starred the mutants and zombies of Mutant League Football and was first published in “Sonic the Comic” #31.
The story is pretty different than one you might hear from the NFL. After the Mutant League Football boss Zalgor Prigg watches the Midway Monsters win another game with Coach Brikka, Prigg hires a member of another team to not only kill the coach but to bring the head back to Prigg. If he completes his assignment, the player will have the opportunity to marry Coach Brikka’s daughter. As you can see, this was a strange series from beginning to end.
2. BLACK RACER
After creating a cosmic being that traveled around space on a surfboard, comics legend Jack Kirby decided he wanted to lean in even more, and created another cosmic being traveling around on a unique vehicle. This time, Kirby decided he was going to use skis instead of a surfboard, and Black Racer was born. Instead of being a heroic figure like the Silver Surfer, the Black Racer was created as a version of Death, first appearing in “New Gods” #3.
Black Racer was created as an avatar of Death that collected the New Gods at the time of their demise and brought them to Hadis. His design has changed over the years, skewing away from the classic skis with poles Kirby design. In later appearances, his skis are more boot-like, and his poles are closer to traditional scythes that Death would use. Black Racer has also been seen going after Speed Force users, as seen in “The Flash: Rebirth” #7.
The BrooklyKnight was a co-creation of Marvel Comics and the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. If this scenario reminds you of NFL SuperPro, you’re not too far off. When the NBA gave a team to Brooklyn, they wanted to create a superhero mascot, and turned to Marvel Comics to help them. The result is the BrooklyKnight, who is named for people that live in Brooklyn, as they are called “Brooklynites.” Get it?
Marvel Comics published “BrooklyKnight” #1 by Jason Aaron and Mike Deodato, Jr. in 2012 to commemorate the hero’s introduction. His costume was clearly influenced by Batman but with a lot more armor, and he used a shield with the Nets’ logo on the front. Hyped as the defender and protector of Brooklyn, the BrooklyKnight never really became the hit that Marvel and the Nets had hope for. After being deemed “too scary” for kids and not resonating with the older crowd, the Brooklyn Nets decided to retire the mascot after only two years.
Who is your favorite sports-based hero? Let us know in the comments!