Examining the Surreal Intersection of Sports and Superheroes
At first glance, comic book and sports fans don’t seem to have much in common. However, a closer look reveals some surprising parallels between the two camps, chief among them their mutual admiration of grown men wearing colorful uniforms with cool logos.
Now, with a new baseball season under way, I think it’s worth taking a look at those rare occasions when the parallel worlds of comic books and professional sports actually did overlap. So pour yourself a cold one, settle back in your Lazy Boy, grab the remote and
“LET’S GET READY TO RUMMMMBALLLLLL!”
(cue your favorite blaring stadium anthem)
One of the earliest “super-jock” covers is Comic Cavalcade #1 (1942), depicting a running race between Green Lantern, the Flash and Wonder Woman, who appears to win the race by…er….a nose. Golden Age acolyte Roy Thomas referenced this very race in his 1980’s All-Star Squadron series, adding crucial details like how Green Lantern would be able to keep pace with the two super-speedsters (with a magical assist from his power ring, naturally).
Judging from this montage of Golden Age World’s Finest covers, crime fighting seems to have taken a backseat to non-stop athletic competition!
Batman doesn’t fare as well on the cover of Detective Comics #174 (1951), as a big palooka knocks the Capeless Crusader into the ropes!
In Daredevil #156 (1979), it’s especially fitting that D.D. battled “the original Daredevil” in a boxing ring, since the mob’s murder of his father, “Battling” Jack Murdock, inspired a grieving Matt to create his wonky yellow jumpsuit in the first place.
Of course, the ultimate boxing-themed cover remains Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (1978). One of the strangest team-ups of all time, legend has it the project was inspired by the 1977 Top Forty song Muhammad Ali, the Black Superman (though everyone involved denies the connection). Fortunately, the odd pairing and somewhat goofy story was eclipsed by the spectacular Neal Adams artwork (arguably the greatest of his career), including an amazing wrap-around cover that was a virtual “who’s who” of late 1970’s pop culture.
Legendary batter Mickey Mantle made an “appearance” of sorts on the cover of Action Comics #389 (1971), as Superman’s inept batting performance made it clear he was “no Super-Mantle”. Though Mantle had retired from the game only a few years earlier, he obviously remained the gold standard of baseball greatness for some time.
The term “baseball greatness” certainly didn’t apply to Wonder Woman #78 (1955), as the Amazing Amazon must prevent a school from closing by training a gorilla to play baseball.
In case that went past you, let’s review:
Training a gorilla.
To play baseball.
Though it hardly seems possible, an even stranger baseball game took place (fittingly enough) in the “Strange Sports” issue of DC Super-Stars #10 (1976). Brought about by the villainous Huntress and Sportsmaster to resolve a marital spat(!), nine superheroes and nine supervillains are corralled into a game of baseball….with the lives of thousands of hypnotized spectators on the line! Surreal nonsensicality that’s nicely symbolized by Uncle Sam as the umpire…and the Joker playing catcher!
This certainly wasn’t the first time the Sportsmaster used his sports-themed schemes to stir up trouble. In fact, this frustrated athlete-turned-criminal had been scoring with rocket baseball bats, knockout baseballs and exploding hockey pucks ever since his debut in Green Lantern #28 (1947).
As a sequel of sorts to their classic Christmas clash a few years earlier, it’s Hulk vs. The Rhino…both of whom were disguised minor league baseball players in The Incredible Hulk #435 (1995)!
Batman and the Outsiders #14 (1984) finds the team at the 1984 Summer Olympics facing god wannabe Maxie Zeus and his gang The New Olympians, whose names and powers mirrored those of the ancient Greek gods. Now those are the kind of Olympic Games I might actually watch.
In my home state of Minnesota, ice hockey enjoys an insane and near-cosmic level of popularity, but nowhere near as insane and cosmic as the mysterious GAARD in Fantastic Four #163 (1975). Obviously patterned after a hockey goalie, Gaard was actually an alternate earth version Johnny “Human Torch” Storm, who was charged with guarding the Nexus of Dimensions with his “cosmic scepter” (a.k.a. “hockey stick”) and gravity-defying skates.
Another skating-themed villain appeared in Flash #257 (1978). The Golden Glider was not only the sister of Flash foe Captain Cold (hence her ice-projecting skates), but was also the girlfriend of another Flash villain named The Top (hence her super-spinning abilities).
At this point you might be saying, “Hey, Mark…the Olympics? Hockey? Ice skating? Come on…how about getting to the ultimate American sport?”
Ah…yes. Soccer, the sport of…
Just kidding. Of course, you could only be referring to the grand game of AMERICAN FOOTBALL!
Former Metropolis Meteors quarterback Steve Lombard made his debut in Superman #264 (1973), as a solar “healing ray” not only fixed his injured knee, but also created a rampaging energy being that adorned itself in his old uniform. Once Superman defeated the creature, Lombard was recruited to become a WGBS sportscaster (as well as a perpetual source of comedy relief).
The cover of Captain Marvel Jr. #13 (1943) finds Junior stiff-arming none other than Mussolini, Hitler, and Tojo, making this quite possibly the only visual depiction of the hated Axis leaders’ bare shins.
Ol' Webhead faces “The Deadliest Hundred Yards” in Amazing Spider-Man #153 (1976), as he and former ESU football star Bradley “Boom Boom” Bolton battle a blackmailer and his thugs for the life of Bolton’s young daughter. After “reenacting” his history-making dash for the end zone, Bolton makes the ultimate sacrifice for his daughter. Hey, it’s no Brian's Song, but this overlooked story is quite the sports-flavored drama.
Think you’ve ventured some risky bets on football games before? That’s nothing compared to the bet the Watcher took in Web of Spider-Man #34 (1988), as the fate of the universe hinged upon the outcome of a pick-up football game between the bullies and the wimps (who get an able assist from Spidey).
Despite a cameo from Spider-Man, the last (and most assuredly least ) of our sports cover survey comes NFL SuperPro #1 (1991). According to the Chicago Sports Review in 2005, this official collaboration between Marvel Comics and the NFL was “perhaps the worst comic book ever created”. Lasting an improbable twelve issues, NFL SuperPro was actually ex-NFL star Phil Grayfield who wore a near-indestructible football uniform and battled world-shattering villains such as “Quick Kick”, “The Headhunters” and “Instant Replay”.
Word has it that comic book writer Fabian Nicieza (who’s still getting good-natured flak for NFL SuperPro) accepted the assignment in order to get free NFL tickets.
I guess every man has his price.