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Friday, September 9, 2016

Cover Story - Top 10 NFL Super Pro Covers

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Sports and nerds, two simple concepts that have, for some reason, never really managed to come together.  By now I think we’ve all encountered the somewhat tired argument that nerds and sports have more in common than anyone would like to admit but it really bears repeating.  Sports are one of the only places in real life dominated by colorful costumes and iconography at all in line with the nerd palette and produces the same amount of fandom granularity and sense of defining identity.  

That was the crossover point Marvel comics was hoping to capitalize on in the ‘90s when they forced NFL Super Pro into the world.  NFL Super Pro was exactly what it says on the cover- a collaboration between Marvel Comics and the NFL to produce a football themed superhero, or rather I should say other football hero as their first attempt was called Kickers Inc., which I already covered.  Given that I’m a shameless hack willing to pander to Twitter hashtags, I’ve elected to honor NFL Super Pro with a look back at his top 10 comic covers. 

Settle in folks because this list is going to be part “laugh at the funny pictures” and part “let me learn you a thing.”  Given that not every NFL Super Pro cover could be a laugh riot, we’re starting with a more basic cover to explain how exactly this happened.  See, in the ‘80s Marvel had managed to get in on the ground floor of big money comic adaptations.  There had always been comic adaptations and spin-offs of shows and movies in the days before home video, but Marvel had struck gold by adapting several Hasbro products like G.I. Joe and Transformers.  

Desperate to add more coffers to their war chest, Marvel sought out the NFL to produce a new joint venture and, like all of Marvel’s post-Hasbro adaptation attempts, this ended up creating the incredibly goofy and forgotten Super Pro.  This cover is actually pretty core to that origin story as the whole Spider-Man guest spot thing is exactly the same trick Marvel pulled with Transformers when that was their thing. 

Of course, the NFL Super Pro had two discrete issue #1s, why wouldn't he?  In all seriousness, this entire series was produced solely as an attempt at raising cash in dollars so it’s really not that surprising they’d create 2 premiere issues.  This was right at the dawn of the speculator bubble when people started compulsively buying premiere issues in the hopes they’d appreciate in value later.  I will say that this “special edition #1” is actually really well composed.  

I’m not a huge fan of characters just running at the reader in covers, but the artwork on this cover is so strikingly unique, especially regarding the coloring and brushwork.  The initial design gives it a painted on kind of look by the glare and framework of his chest-plate makes him almost look plasticky, like he’s an action figure come to life.  That’s a fairly accurate representation of NFL SuperPro if ever there was one, I also really like his glowing football field in space, even if it doesn’t make any sense.

See, covers like this are how you know this was a ‘90s production.  Partially it’s thanks to the incredibly gaudy visual design and inhuman proportions, punctuated nicely by the way Ripsaw’s torso is twisted like a melted stretch, Armstrong.  There’s also the incredibly dopey and overdesigned logo work, complete with the NFL shield and the very distracting splash text of his Super Pro’s slogan (does that make this is a slogo?)  

But what really gives this away as a ‘90s cover is that it’s about the rainforest.  This was the decade that gave us Captain Planet, after all, so of course, the cheap cash-in hero has to try and save the trees, what else would he do?  Incidentally, judging by the completely obliterated forest in the background, I think we can concretely say Super Pro failed to save the rainforest. 

This may be the most hilariously bad artwork I’ve ever spotlight on this program.  Firstly, this is a superb time to talk about how a lot of covers just completely eschew backgrounds of any kind.  Seriously, where is anyone in this shot?  There seems to be a window attached to nothing, and a big black dude is being held hostage in the background somehow, the whole thing is a complete mess.  What actually sells the beautiful stupidity of the cover, though, is the NFL Super Pro himself.  

This is actually a pretty common artistic flaw of the ‘90s, and it’s always hilarious whenever I see it but- look at the actual length of his body for a second.  Somehow, his back leg has been compressed to avoid getting cut-off by the end of the cover while his front leg seems to join his body right under the shoulder.  My favorite part is that “Gone Wild” inter-title under the primary logo.  These are the kind of terrible proportions you’d usually apply to a hot woman in the comics so throwing it on this “Super Pro Gone Wild” cover is a subtle, unintentional, bit of comedy.

So, fun fact here- Crossbones is the guy who actually killed Captain America in the Marvel continuity.  He also showed up in Civil War briefly at the start in case you’d like a better idea of whom Crossbones is.  As for why this cover made the list, it’s actually a really well done visual, even accepting that nothing’s happening beyond the heroes running toward the reader.  Much like the special edition cover this all comes down to the blend of inking, artwork, and coloring that makes up great comic art.  

The most impressive part has got to be the color balance on display here given that Cap and Super Pro have pretty much the exact same color palette.  They’re both red, white, and blue Avengers so balancing their respective systems without ever looking cluttered is a seriously difficult task.  Honestly, the whole set-up makes Super Pro look way more interesting and exciting than he actually is, that’s just the difference good art can make.  It’s also pretty impressive they managed to fit the Captain America logo on as well, that’s some good use of space.

From powerful linework and clear colors to this kind of a bizarre hodgepodge.  I actually really like the concept of this cover, and it even features some cool elements, which is why I’m cutting it some slack on how much it has those cyber-ninjas blend in with each other.  What’s more, I think part of the point of the cover is that the cyber-ninjas blend together so I’ll extend NFL Super Pro the benefit of the doubt on this one.  Firstly, the idea of Super Pro being able to throw around a horde of attackers is really solid iconography for this character, especially as it’s not seen that often and actually fits his theme.  

His physicality is really what sells the idea, though, that pose is an excellent way to impart power and strength without just aping the moves of Spidey or Captain America.  There’s also a really fun little gag at the top with the logo, with one of the cyber-ninjas popping out from behind it.  Also, bonus points for that “instant replay” pun in the top right corner. 

Hey look at that- ANOTHER pun, you spoil us NFL Super Pro.  In all seriousness, this is probably the best-drawn cover of the bunch, with the visual design of that energy emission.  I’m fairly certain the cover artist on all of these save the two #1s is Jose Delbo, one of the comics’ workhorse artists that actually produced a lot of great material in his time.  He was the artist on a ton of Marvel’s Transformers material where he really honed his skill on pulp weirdness after following in the style of Jose Garcia-Lopez for his earlier work.  

As such, covers like this where he’s drawing stranger sci-fi concepts and actually gets to cut loose are a real delight and I wish had gotten more appearances.  However, what secured this cover, such a high ranking spot is that it’s one of the several covers to confirm that Super Pro’s super sports abilities are in no way limited to football.  Granted, his prowess here might be based on his use of wonder bat but believe me, as we close in on the #1 spot his cross-sports prowess will only increase. 

Remember what I said about Delbo excelling and weird concept covers, well this is a doozy of a cover.  Before I dive into this example of why Super Pro would dominate the hockey rink as well as the football field, we need to talk controversy for a second.  Apparently, this cover gained some real criticism for the villains at hand here, who were inspired by real indigenous figures.  I wasn’t there in 1992 to see all this go down so I don’t know the details but I just thought I’d mention it before diving into these amazing designs.  

Comics have always had an unfortunate history co-opting indigenous iconography, mainly because it so perfectly fits the world of superheroes.  The exaggerated faces and weird visual designs fit nicely into that cross-section of weird yet memorable visuals that comics have always thrived on.  If anything, Super Pro looks disappointingly normal and out of place in this cover.  I do like the “Iced” pun underneath the logo, a joke so good it apparently deserved its own typeface. 

Man, it is just non-stop puns with this series.  It really makes you wonder why the creators thought there’d be a significant overlap between comic reading jocks and people who love dopey pun humor.  Of course, by the same token, series creator Fabian Nicieza reportedly only wrote the series to get some free NFL tickets so maybe there was less “thought” going into this project than I might’ve projected.  Anyway, this is actually a really well-realized fight scene, that is if you exclude the shockingly poor background.  

Both characters have the proper proportions, even while accepting that Super Pro’s weird cat jump probably wouldn’t dodge anything.  What’s more, it’s pretty obvious that Quick Kick’s about to slice him in half with that sword, so he’s probably screwed either way.  Speaking of, it’s actually shockingly rare to see a black character involved with any kind of martial arts, so that’s pretty cool, even if this is just to confirm that Super Pro is a master of karate as well as football. 


Of course Super Pro knows B-Ball, why wouldn’t he, if this comic series has cemented anything it’s that Super Pro is the greatest of athlete of all time.  I’m actually really curious as to what’s actually going on in this cover.  Super Pro can’t fly or anything so he must be executing one of the most impressive slam dunks ever while also being about to lose his arm when gravity kicks in.  What’s more, this all seems to be taking place in the purple dimension at some kind of outdoor basketball court if the giant flood lights in the background are to be believed.  

I do really like the use of speed lines over things, that’s a nice touch to the design of this cover and fits the style pretty well.  What really sells this cover, though, is Pro’s incredibly stupid expression as he dunks coupled with possibly the whitest expression ever in “Pro Knows B-Ball!!”  I’m really not sure that warranted the two exclamation marks but I can’t say this cover doesn’t sum up the weird blend of stupidity, apathy, and strangely endearing bad decision making that has turned NFL Super Pro from failed property to cult item. 

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