[Spotlight] ‘A League of Their Own’ – A Look at the Relationship Between Sports & Comic Books

We’re in that awkward time of year where the Super Bowl has come and gone and the NBA season is in the grip of All-Star Weekend.

Larger than life characters, boastful rants, and feats of amazement. Hmmm, doesn’t sound too different from things you’d find in the pages of a comic book, does it?

Think the world of sports and the world of comics couldn’t be further apart? Think again. There is a firm relationship between both worlds, that invades many genres of book and just as many sporting codes.

Tom Brady may seem like he’s from Krypton, but former Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs is famously a huge comic book fan. Not in the sense that he knows who the Avengers are or has watched a Batman film. Briggs has an astonishingly large single-issue collection and allegedly has a Mark Waid-level brain for retaining facts about comic book first appearances and major events.

Lance Briggs attends the First Annual Lance Briggs’ Comic Book Weekend at the Comic Vault on December 11, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jeff Schear/WireImage)

Maybe Briggs is a fan of Booster Gold, who’s classic origin had him as a star quarterback for Gotham University in the 25th century before coming to the present and taking up as a cornerstone of the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League.

Booster faired better than the NFL SuperPro. Up there in ‘reverence’ with the likes of the New Universe and the DC implosion, the NFL SuperPro was a canceled-after-12-issues series of the early 90’s that featured an NFL player endowed with an indestructible football uniform who fought crime.

Speaking of the New Universe, Kickers, Inc. was another sports comics hybrid idea that only lasted 12 issues. Kind of like if the NFL SuperPro has some buddies and they decided to rip-off the heroes for hire, like most of the New Universe, Kickers, Inc was a shutout.

For a more successful take on football (or gridiron to the internationally inclined) the first word, when it comes to comics, is Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards. Like a blend of Friday Night Lights and 100 Bullets, this excellent series leans heavily on its sporting backdrop to the point where, just like the town of Craw County, you’ll believe the Runnin’ Rebs are the be all and end all of everything.

Todd McFarlane must have believed in baseball being the be all and end all of everything. In 1998, he paid 3 million dollars for the ball Mark McGwire hit to make his then record 70th home run.  He doubled down in 2003 paying $500,000 for Barry Bonds 73rd home run ball.

McFarlane’s sports obsession also saw his white-hot McFarlane Toys company become the official licensee of action figures for the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB. Turning out exquisite figures of the same quality as his movie and comic book licensed productions.

Comic book creators love for America’s favorite pastime has often spilled onto the comic page. As far back as the golden age Green Lantern having one of his main villains being the Sportsmaster, or Casey Jones from TMNT and Kevin Matchstick of Mage swinging for the fences. Green Lantern (vol. 3) #19, a key issue in fostering my love for GL, features baseball being central to the eventual return of Alan Scott to the Green Lantern mythos.

The X-men enjoy a long-standing tradition of having regular baseball games become a hallmark of any good X-men run. The tradition began in 1978’s The Uncanny X-men #110 and has endured all the way through to recent runs.

Ernest Thayer’s American classic poem Casey at the Bat has often been adapted into comic book form. Most prominently by Peter David and Gary Frank in The Incredible Hulk #435, and in Fables #92. But my personal favourite will always be the all baseball-centric The Young All-Stars #7 featuring a baseball game to support the war effort between the JSA and the Young-All Stars.

For less super heroics and more biographical comics about baseball, All Star by Jesse Lonergan and 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago are essential reads.

Unfortunately, basketball isn’t as well represented in comic books as some of the fondly respected material mentioned above. It’s a commonly known fact that Shaq has a deep affinity for the Superman symbol (not talking about the Steel movie here, move along). Also, there is the tenuous link that Dwight Howard enjoys carrying the nickname ‘Superman’.  

Comics and Basketball are plagued by head shakers like the NBA’s own take on the NFL SuperPro, the BrooklynKnight and LeBron James: King of the Rings (please just stay out of the sports world, Marvel).  1992 saw Dark Horse extend the multimedia cross-over by publishing the comic of Charles Barkley vs Godzilla.

For something left of centre, check out Chopper: Song of the Surfer. A future-sports take on surfing featuring the Judge Dredd character, but an excellent look at competition by John Wagner and Colin McNeil, published in 1990. Or, in a similar vein, Mara from Image comics by Brian Wood and Ming Doyle that mixes volleyball, coming-of-age storytelling, and superpowers.

Going from sports to sports entertainment, let’s not forget the relationship between pro wrestling and comics. From Marvel’s WCW adaptation to Chaos! Comics Undertaker tales of the “Attitude Era,: wrestling comics have come a long way to get to the excellent Dennis Hopeless and Serg Acuna produced WWE from Boom! Studios.  There have also been two excellent biographies in graphic novel form about Andre the Giant that are critically praised.

That’s not forgetting, either, that many of the athletes from the world of wrestling are proud comic book fans. Chris Jericho often states love for Wolfman and Perez’ New Teen Titans, stating that’s where he came up with the Jericho name. AJ Styles and Samoa Joe have professed love for comics in interviews. As has Cody Rhodes, who is also a big cosplayer.  WWE superstar Alexa Bliss is renowned for appropriating cosplay into her ring gear, with obvious nods to the Riddler and Harley Quinn amongst her outfits. Finn Balor has built an alter-ego as the Demon by coming to the ring at times in a Venom inspired look. AJ Lee is a proud comic book geek, as well is her husband, CM Punk, who has even written for Marvel and DC.

Former UFC women’s champion Miesha Tate has been known to cosplay as Wonder Woman and Batman as well.

But no sport has been better represented in comic books as Boxing. The sport of kings, the sweet science has a far reaches in comic book lore. The Joe Palooka comic strip of 1930 had most recently been revived by IDW in 2012.

Paul Pope featured boxing as one of the central stories in the incredible 2002 Vertigo miniseries 100%.

Boxing is a key thread in the origin of Daredevil, most notably with the death of Matt Murdock’s father, boxer Battlin’ Jack Murdock. This sporting element has featured heavily in every call back to the beginnings of the “Man Without Fear.”

Golden Age hero Wildcat Ted Grant is the undisputed boxing legend of the DC Universe. Every iteration makes sure to play up the boxing element when featuring the much loved JSA stalwart.

But the greatest example of comic book and sporting worlds colliding? Every comic book fan worth their weight knows without a doubt it’s 1978’s pop-culture icon Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. A diamond in the jewel encrusted bibliography of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, it remains, fittingly, the last word on the weird and wonderful relationship between sports and comics.