Welcome back to another edition of My 90s Life, where I mainly read terrible 90s comic books so you don’t have to. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The 1990s weren’t all terrible but…
They can’t all be hits, can they?
1991 saw a lot of positive things in the comic book industry: we got first appearances from Deadpool, Bishop, Squirrel Girl, Darkhawk (!!!), Sleepwalker (Sandman done right!), and Lady Death. The event series Infinity Gauntlet and Armageddon 2001 were riding high at Marvel and DC respectively. Weapon X, one of the greatest Wolverine stories of all time, began. Indie darling Bone also began self-publication. And Marvel began production of easily one of its worst titles ever made, NFL SuperPro.
A marketing ploy at heart, NFL SuperPro gave the NFL a chance to advertise to the then burgeoning comic book market of the early 1990s. That the corporate merging of the NFL and Marvel Comics produced such uninspiring entertainment shouldn’t be a terrible surprise to most comic book readers, but I guarantee no one at either company expected NFL SuperPro to be this bad. Indeed, any cursory look at the history of how this abominable publishing turd was made indicates that no one at Marvel really wanted to even work on it. There is a proverbial army of creators in and out of the title, an unusual amount given that a slender thirteen issues (a special and twelve regular issues) were ever produced.
The lack of creative vision and disinterest of anyone at Marvel in putting out an even halfway decent comic book destined SuperPro to become painfully hard reading for everyone involved: past, present, and future. Hell, let’s throw the multiverse in as well. SuperPro is little more than a punchline in the comic book industry today owing to its universally remembered status as being one of the worst comics ever published.
But 30 years on from its original publication, how many people have actually read it?
SuperPro is an easy title to dunk on in the 21st Century with our modern sensibilities for entertainment. However, SuperPro was also easy to dunk on in 1991 too. I owned the first several issues at the time and was soundly mocked by my middle school comic book reading peers for even having purchased them. I was shunned more so than my friend that read West Coast Avengers. It was that bad!
Just how bad? Well, let’s take a look!
Uninspiring Origins for an Uninspiring Hero
The origin of NFL SuperPro is as milquetoast as the hero himself. The clichés of his origin story could be easily forgiven if SuperPro had any personality or defining characteristics at all beyond the fact that we’re told he’s a hero and in the starring role of the book. Phil Grayfield is about as bland a leading man one could have for a title.
As outlined in the NFL SuperPro Super Bowl Special, football superstar extraordinaire Phil Grayfield had it all as a football superstar for Penn State: fame, glory, a hot girlfriend. However, like many football players, he found the transition to the NFL to be a difficult one due to injuries. While attempting to save a friend’s child from falling down the bleachers, poor Phil hurt his knee. Despite having several surgeries and restarts, Phil just couldn’t hack it as a pro player anymore.
Like any good NFL has-been worth his weight in jockstraps, our hero Phil turned to a career in broadcasting. He was mildly successful at this gig until (gasp!) one fateful day. Phil was sent to interview an NFL super fan collector. This scientist turned NFL aficionado had it all. Autographs, jerseys, game balls, experimental toxic chemicals, and an invincible football outfit that he had custom made. You know, for science.
As is wont to happen in situations such as these, robbers come to liberate the superfan of his precious football memorabilia They take everything, except, oddly, the super expensive football outfit and the experimental toxic chemicals, which just so happen to get knocked over during the kerfuffle with the would be robbers. This in turn leads to a fire, with poor Phil being caught in it. Of course, these chemicals give Phil enhanced strength and stamina. Convenient!
As any rational person would do, Phil put on the indestructible NFL outfit and went after the baddies. A star was born…Somewhere, probably, but certainly not here. The pathos and anguish matching that of the Amazing Spider-Man’s origin story this isn’t.
(Not So) Supervillians
Heroes at Marvel and DC are often defined just as much by their villains as they are their own personal triumphs and abilities. A hero’s rogues gallery is as integral to the success of any title’s main star. Batman famously has the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, and Two Face. Spider-Man has Green Goblin, Sandman, Venom, Carnage, and Dr. Octopus.
NFL SuperPro has (checks notes) some dude named Instant Replay. Yikes.
So if a hero is made by the quality of his villains, SuperPro clearly strikes out. I know I’m mixing sports metaphors there, but you get the point. His villains are truly terrible, and not in the, “Oh, no! The atrocities they have committed will go down in comic book legend!” sense.
The aforementioned Instant Replay was an ex-football star turned football-themed ninja with an axe (or katana?) to grind with Phil about past slights. Other “highlights” in the rogues gallery include Quick Kick, Ripsaw (he’s got Ripsaws on his arms), and a squad of Football bad boys known as the Head Hunters. There’s also a gang of ruthless mafia types throughout that are pushing steroids. Sigh.
NFL SuperPro did warrant the attention of Crossbones at one point, but meh. It’s hardly believable that anyone would be willing to shell out the kind of money needed to hire a professional killer like Crossbones to take care of NFL SuperPro. Unfortunately, Crossbones did not succeed in killing off NFL SuperPro. Plot armor is just as stupid as NFL SuperPro’s armor.
Issue #6 Controversy
Probably the worst villain NFL SuperPro had was himself. I’m not just saying that because NFL SuperPro was hobbled by his own innate stupidity. No, the title itself was problematic from the get-go for a variety of reasons outside of the fact that it sucked. For starters, no one seemed to really want to work on the book. It also didn’t do itself any favors with its sixth issue, which used the Hopi Native American tribe as its main villains in what can only be seen as an offensive portrayal.
It would have been dopey and inappropriate to have used a nondescript or fake Native American tribe anyway, but to use an actual tribe as the main villains of story, replete with offensive costumes that reduced the Hopi to little more than a racial/ethnic caricature, was even utterly misguided and insensitive by early 90s norms.
The issue was titled “The Kachinas Sing of Doom” and featured a group of radical Hopis attacking and kidnapping a Hopi ice skater that had rejected traditional Hopi culture. The issue was filled with usual hallmarks of a bad NFL SuperPro issue: clunky dialogue, so-so art, and a cheesy plot. The depiction of the Hopis as savages takes the usual awfulness of an issue of NFL SuperPro to the next level. It was not well received.
After complaints from the Hopi tribe and many in the comic book community, Marvel apologized and attempted to pull the issue. That proved to be a little too late. The book was already out and available at this point. It being the 1990s meant that the offensive issue actually saw a boost in price at the time because it was a hot, banned comic book. That this controversy wasn’t the end of SuperPro altogether right then and there is kind of surprising.
I’m certainly not the first to call out SuperPro’s utter lameness as a hero and his book as a near unreadable mess, nor will I be the last. Much like the Kansas City Chiefs in the last Super Bowl, Marvel and the NFL didn’t score a touchdown with SuperPro.
In the annals of corporate synergy, SuperPro is a quintessential disastrous failure, both creatively and commercially. Lasting only twelve issues plus a special, the character was completely abandoned after the publications of the twelfth and final issue. NFL SuperPro could muster only a paltry 13 appearances. We barely knew him. Or cared!
It’s been nearly 30 years since we last saw Phil Grayfield don the SuperPro armor. One could blame the NFL’s ownership of the character as the reason for NFL SuperPro ghosting us all, but the more likely suspect is that it was a terrible idea through and through from beginning to end. The world of comic books little notes nor remembers the awfulness of SuperPro. That seems about right.
SuperPro is probably available in a dollar bin somewhere near you, but I would be hard pressed to recommend that anyone check it out. I’m a fan of anything that falls under the entertainment umbrella of “it’s so bad, it’s good.” NFL SuperPro doesn’t fit that niche genre. It’s just bad. Really, really bad.