When Sport and Superheroes Mix
When Sport and Superheroes Mix
There was a time when superheroes were just that – super, their powers pitched beyond our human reach. Superman discharging laser beams from his eyes? Check. Spider-man’s targeted glandular secretions? Check. The Amazonian physique and commensurate athleticism of Wonder Woman? Double check, and extra points for her invisible sky car.
These archetypal superheroes from the Golden Age of RKO radio serials and early 20th century comic-strips bagged all the best powers for themselves. But the public appetite for superheroes was voracious, and demand soon began to outstrip supply. Increasingly desperate writers were charged with dreaming up new heroes and hero powers, and some turned to the world of sport for inspiration – that sound you can hear is the bottom of creative barrels being scraped.
Here’s a quick look at some of the less-than super superheroes they came up with, and the obscurity to which they were (rightfully) consigned.
First on the field – and pun very much intended – is NFL SuperPro. Phil Grayfield is an aspiring football star whose NFL career is ended when he injures his knee in the act of saving someone’s life. Future plans derailed, he becomes a sports writer instead, and as luck aka plot contrivance would have it, one of his first gigs involves interviewing an eccentric scientist/sports fan who has invented a $5 million gaudy yet indestructible football uniform.
During the interview, thieves break into the scientist’s home and set it ablaze. Grayfield is trapped in the fire and exposed to a bubbling vat of experimental chemicals. This, together with the proximity of ultra-rare NFL souvenirs, somehow grants him a range of suit-based superpowers which basically amount to being able to run quite fast, jump quite high, and throw quite far; these are certainly impressive talents when demonstrated by a human, somewhat less so when equipped as “super-powers.”
Indeed, there’s nothing here that hasn’t its real-world equivalent. In fact, soccer legends Ronaldo and Neyman Jr recently got up to far more impressive stunts in their contributions to the online sports challenge campaign #raiseit, feats from which include curling a football into the boot of a moving car at some considerable distance and shooting a golf ball directly onto a drone. That’s a demonstration of skill and talent and timing, but it’s a human demonstration, within the reach of us mere mortals – or at least mere mortals blessed with prodigious sporting acumen. That’s probably why audiences were left unimpressed with NFL SuperPro.
Created in 1991 as a collaborative venture between Marvel and the NFL, NFL SuperPro ran to a dismal 12 issues before cancellation. Writer Fabian Nicieza later confessed he only created the character because he was promised free NFL tickets.
The fearsome Javelin. Said no-one, ever.
This German-born ex-Olympic contender turned his back on field sports and opted to embrace the dark-side as a super-villain. He first turns up in issue 173 of The Green Lantern (February, 1984), in a story written by Len Wein and Dave Gibbons, two stalwarts of the DC Universe who really should have known better.
Javelin wears a fetching one-piece of yellow and purple, and has but one power, a power you might guess from his name: he throws pointy sticks at his enemies. Scary stuff, then. These aren’t magic javelins, they don’t return to his hand after being thrown or talk or make him coffee when they’re hanging out. Sure, there’s an array of different javelins, but they’re not particularly exciting. Some explode on contact, some are ultra-sharp and can be hurled through brick walls. Some contain listening devices or homing beacons. Most however, are just sharp sticks.
There’s not much more to add really; Javelin resolutely failed to capture the public imagination, and though his menace extended further than NFL SuperPro’s run, he never really amounted to much and after a few minor escapades was summarily dispatched beneath the wheels of a jeep.
As yet, no-one has bothered to resurrect him. Alas, poor Javelin.
The Battling Bantam
Roberto Velasquez was a bantamweight boxer in Puerto Rico, his prospects uncertain due to his slight build. Enter one Armando Aviles, sinister crime-boss backed by the even-more-sinister Power Broker, with an offer Velasquez cannot refuse. An experimental physical augmentation treatment transforms Velasquez into a hardened strength-enhanced pugilist with flashes of berserker style rage. His first fight ends in disaster, and the death of his opponent, sending Velasquez into hiding with a suitably painful origin story.
He re-emerges as the Battling Bantam to avenge the death of his friend at the hands of Hammerhead, another augmented boxer from Aviles’ stable. Cue “whack-bam-pow” or rather “punch-thump-spar.” The Bantam’s power lies in a good old-fashioned right-hook; his costume is absurd and yet purely ornamental. He’s not so much a superhero as a man in a silly chicken costume who hits people.
The Bantam enlists the aid of Captain America to defeat the Power Broker, and then hangs around at the periphery of the Avengers team, training his fellow superheroes in the art of punching.
He first appears in 1940, then again a decade later, with other cameos through the years, culminating in his heroic death during the events of the superhero Civil War in a standoff against Thunderclap in 2010.
No-one really notices.
Trouble comes in threes. Just ask Delroy Garret, unimaginatively blessed with some pretty mundane athletic super-powers originally stolen from 3-D Man, courtesy of the Triune Understanding.
Garrett began his career as a professional runner, showed some initial promise, and bagged 3 gold medals. But his sports career ended in steroidal ignominy, at which point he was recruited to the Triune Understanding, who were masquerading as goodies. Thanks to their diabolical efforts, Garrett found himself “improved” by a factor of three.
Dubbed “Triathlon” (which is a step-up from Delroy) he now had the strength and agility of three men. Not four, not ten, but three. And a fetching new costume.
Later adventures saw Triathlon come to his senses and leave the Triune Understanding on the understanding that they were actually the baddies after all. He then drifts dissolutely into the Avengers team, but proves to be a less than perfect fit, which kind of sums up his underwhelming skillset nicely.
Possessing the strength of three men and a triple-enhanced healing rate really doesn’t count for much when you’re rubbing shoulders with demi-gods such as Thor and super-mutants like the Incredible Hulk.
Triathlon gets marks for sheer persistence though, appearing 102 times in the Marvel Universe, from his debut in 1940 until his swansong in 2010. Nice going, Delroy.
Less than Super
Despite the passing similarities between the world of sports and the realm of the superhero, overlap tends to the mediocre, if not the patently absurd. We can only imagine how this monstrous hybridization comes about – picture a room full of business folk with heads full of clashing images – bright sports uniforms and garish superhero costumes, merchandising tie-ins and marketing deals. OK, perhaps there is potential for an exciting sports-based superhero. It’s just that while real life has given us many admirable sports stars, the world of graphic novels has disappointed – for now?