DE Idonije turns athletes into superheroes

The Bears defensive end's new comic book merges the worlds of sports and superheroes. Courtesy of Athleta Comics

Amidst the usual crowd of comic-book illustrators, writers and actors at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) this April, a new player will make his grand entrance: a defensive end.

At C2E2, Israel Idonije of the Chicago Bears will unveil his debut comic book, "The Protectors." This “passion project,” as Idonije describes it, has been in the works since 2007, when he brainstormed the idea during training camp.

Throughout his childhood, the Nigerian-born, Canadian-raised NFL veteran was an avid comic-book reader. He stumbled upon his first comic book after discovering a Green Hornet story in a book donated to his parents’ philanthropic program, Street Love.

Idonije’s initial reading led to more comic-book adventures with the likes of Spider-Man, the X-Men and Iron Man.

“I loved the excitement of the story and being able to connect with the characters,” Idonije says. “As a young reader, you’re living it with them and you put yourself in their situations.

"You’re able to identify with the characters, who are often young and geeky and aren’t quite sure yet who they are.”

During training camp in ’07, Idonije decided to create a comic-book storyline. He hoped to combine the world of sport heroes with that of comic-book heroes. “I wanted to tell the origin story of athletes and where they got their powers and abilities,” Idonije says.

He wrote several storylines and an outline of the relationships as well as the good-versus-evil plot and how he hoped it would evolve. He admits that while he loves to draw, his sketching skills weren’t quite on par with those of professional artists. So over the next few years, Idonije met contacts in the comic-book world.

In 2010, Idonije created Athleta Comics, the publishing parent company for "The Protectors."

“I have a couple of other great stories I’d like to unfold in the future and through Athleta, we hope to tell these,” Idonije says.

Within the past 18 months, the "Protectors" project has picked up speed. The story was worked on by writer Ron Marz, a former sportswriter who has worked on comics such as Green Lantern and Silver Surfer. Marz introduced several changes, including whittling Idonije’s original cast of 10 to 12 characters down to five heroes.

Meanwhile, artist Bart Sears joined the project, drawing characters that blur the lines between athlete and superhero. It's a parallel Idonije has contemplated as well.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say superheroes are athletes but whether they like it or not, athletes are heroes,” Idonije says. “To have the platform that you have, people look up to you and watch the things that you say. Because of that, there’s a certain level of influence. In that sense, as an athlete, you have the potential and the ability to be a hero.”

Idonije described Marz and Sears as the quarterbacks of the project, labeling himself a rookie. Still, was Idonije tempted to showcase himself as one of these superhero athletes who play basketball, hockey, soccer and football while also battling evil?

“Everybody asks me that,” Idonije says, laughing. “No -- I’m not. We’re just telling a great story.”

What about teammates Julius Peppers or Brian Urlacher -- perhaps they provided character inspiration?

“Some of my teammates wanted to be characters. They’d say, ‘Put me in the comic book’ or ‘Give me this superpower,’” Idonije says. “But each is a made-up character with their own identity. Maybe down the line we can work on a project where we tie in current players.”

In March, Athleta will introduce the comic through a 20-day web rollout whereby Athleta’s website will feature a new comic panel each day, building up to April 26, when the C2E2 convention begins.

And while only the initial comic book will be released at C2E2, Idonije hopes for many future editions.

“For me, the No. 1 win will be to hold that first issue in my hands, after five years of work, and say, ‘I did this,’” Idonije says. “To pass out issues to family and friends and people that have been along for the ride will be great.”