Comics for a cause

CHICAGO -- It was a photo op, but it wasn't phony.

The photographers and cameramen and handlers wanted shots of Lance Briggs holding comic books during his comic book drive at The Comic Vault store on Montrose Avenue on Chicago's North Side.

To the naked eye, each comic book is the same. But you could see Briggs' discriminating eye at work as he scoured the shelves for the perfect one. He settled on "X-Force," one of his current favorites.

Briggs' alternative hobby, unusual for a Pro Bowl linebacker who is something of a hero himself in football circles, has been known for years. So it's not as if he had a secret identity as The Comic Book Guy.

The affable veteran was a special guest this past spring at a comic book convention and made a cover appearance on his favorite title, "The Darkness." He has a website focused on comic books.

But it's always nice to see a public side of a successful athlete, especially in an age in which guys communicate through cliché sound bites, PR flaks and grammatically unsound Twitter accounts. And it's interesting when one's purported interests stray from hunting, souped-up cars and jewelry.

And who would've thought I would have something in common with Briggs other than our shared desire to spend as little time as possible in the Bears' open locker room?

Like Briggs, I have stacks of comics in my childhood home. If he sent someone to pick them up in Ohio, I think Briggs would be my mom's favorite player.

This month, Briggs tied his love for superheroes with the athlete's requisite need to have a charity, culminating in the first comic book drive for any athlete, probably ever.

Every team, and every Shaq, does a toy drive for Christmas, but this is something more specific, and certainly closer to his heart. His earnestness about comic collecting is contagious. I bought two graphic novels while I was there, after donating about 25 old issues.

"A comic book drive is something you don't hear about a lot, especially from a football player," he said. "You hear about donations, as far as giving cash, but this a creative way of giving back in a different way."

The idea stemmed from his PR people trying to find a hook for his charitable outreach, Briggs4Kids, and the owner of The Comic Vault, Matthew Sardo, a big-time Bears fan, getting in touch with him. So far it's been a rousing success.

Sardo figured that they've collected nearly 1,000 comic books from charitable folks, along with a bulk of issues from a smaller publishing company which donated two pallets of back issues. And there's still time to drop donations off at the store.

In conjunction with the comic drive, Briggs is also hosting a party at a North Side bar Monday to raise money for his free football camp.

The comics are going to Chicago Housing Authority kids and to the USO. The idea of giving comic books, rather than just toys, to needy youth is an inspired idea. I devoured comic books as a little kid and my reading comprehension soared. Briggs agreed. He's one of the Bears' more loquacious speakers.

He lost himself in the fantasy world as a kid, starting at "six or seven." His favorite character is probably the Silver Surfer, because "he was cool and carried a surfboard."

"To me, comic books are kind of like a boys' soap opera," he said. "You follow your characters and you want to see what happens to those characters and based off what happens with them, you kind of fall in love with certain characters and you want to see what happens to them."

The 30-year-old linebacker is as at home talking variant covers as he is the Cover 2. In fact, listening to him rattle off comic book plotlines is like listening to a football nerd delve deep into his bag of jargon.

"I'm all over the place," he said. "My favorite comic is 'The Darkness.' I'm into the new 'X-Force, Aphrodite IV.' I think of some of that stuff is very creative. I love the stuff they're doing with the Hulks, all the new Hulks, the Red Hulks, and all his sons. I didn't like the Hulk Wars. I thought it got a little out of hand."

I agree. Jay Cutler was just saying the same thing the other day.

Cutler, actually, would be a great modern comic character. Briggs, who has dealt with his share of embarrassing off-field problems, would too, and maybe that's why he continues to identify with adult twists in his comics.

"The best thing about comics now is every character is conflicted in some way," Briggs said of their adult appeal. "They have modern issues, like everyone. You can relate to a lot of these characters."

Obviously, as a comic book fan, I find this side of Briggs endearing. Even more so, I like that Briggs doesn't collect for art or profit. His copies are worn and dog-eared, reminding me of long car rides in my youth with a stack of comics at my feet. He said he often goes back and re-reads story arcs.

"I read on road trips the most, when we fly that's the best time," he said. "I take a couple graphic novels and a good little stack. ... It's great to get away from football and read that stuff. I'm in my world when I read a comic book."

Briggs doesn't share his interest with many friends. His longtime friend (and former Bears scout teamer) Marcus Riley was in town for the event and the Patriots game. Riley, who played for the UFL Las Vegas Locomotives the past two seasons, was more interested in eating candy and taking a picture with a TV broadcaster than going through comics Saturday.

"That's not my thing," he said. "I used to collect trading cards though."

Professionally, Briggs is used to having thick skin. No team gets critiqued more, despite the city's uniform allegiance to the Bears. So he's not afraid to defend his unorthodox hobby. It's easier than defending the Cover 2, I suppose.

"That's why it's funny when I hear someone say they don't like comics or comic books are for nerds, or something like that, because when you get a comic book movie, that theater fills up," he said. "Everyone wants to see it. To me, there are more comic book fans than people are willing to admit."

While comic books were on his tongue, Briggs was excited to face the Patriots, who are led by Superman (Tom Brady) and Lex Luthor (Bill Belichick). With a win, the Bears will strengthen their hold as the sporting heroes of the city.

"We look at it as a great challenge," he said. "The better team you play, the better you get to measure yourself. So the Patriots right now are rolling and because we get them here in Chicago, we want to show what kind of team we have. ... I really believe we can control our own destiny. I think we match up well with any team."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.