Q&A: Chicago Bears's Israel Idonije, Ron Marz and Bart Sears Talk The Protectors

Israel Idonije, a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, is not exactly your stereotypical comic book guy. I mean, you don't see NFL players hanging around the comic shop in The Big Bang Theory, do you? He is, however, a long-term fan and now, with the help of comics industry veterans Ron Marz and Bart Sears, the creator of his own comic book series, The Protectors. Set to be published in 2013 from Idonije's Athleta Comics, the series follows the exploits of a group of professional athletes who learn that their skills really are far beyond those of their fellow man--and that there's a reason for that. What follows is a tale of power, responsibility and living up to your destiny when you've got as much to lose as just about anybody. Idonije, Marz and Sears joined us to talk about The Protectors. We've cobbled together this introduction from the first half of the conversation and, as the release of the story draws closer, we'll have a follow-up with the team that gets somewhat more into the process of approaching the story. ComicBook.com: What I wanted to ask to get started is this - Israel, are you a comic book guy? Israel Idonije: Yeah. I grew up reading some comic books that were given to me through one of my father's friends. My father had a program called Street Love where you could donate goods, food, to the people in the community that were in need and one day one of the things that came in were a bunch of comic books--Green Hornet comics and Spider-Man and Iron Man. So that's kind of where it started. As a young kid, I started reading these great stories and escaping into these adventures and that was kind of where it all started for me. Then sports and everything happened and I went off to college and got away from it for a while but in 2007, I was in training camp for the Bears. Literally, training camp is: you wake up, you eat breakfast, you go to meetings, you practice, you eat, you practice, you go to meetings, and you do that for three weeks in a dorm room that's about eight feet by eight feet. That's training camp life, so I decided I wanted to make good use of my time, I wanted to create a story and I decided I was going to make that story based on the origin of athletes--where they get their gifts from and to tell that origin story--tell the story of why this happens. Like everybody else, I watched ProStars when I was a kid and I look at some of the other attempts to bring the world of sport and comics together and I felt that we could do a better job at it, and The Protectors was born from there. I didn't know where it was going to go but it's been really exciting as I've seen the project develop. The images in your head come to life and the things that have happened are just so exciting. Bart sent me some pictures today and--man! You get shivers, you get goosebumps looking through them and you start to identify with the characters. It's a great feeling, it's a great project, and I'm having a blast being a part of this great team.

ComicBook.com: Do any of the three of you have any particular affection for NFL SuperPro, or anything like that? I feel like you're right, in that it's been pretty abortive, any attempts to make something happen in this genre. Ron Marz: Nobody has any affection for NFL SuperPro. [Laughter all around.] ComicBook.com: How long have the rest of you been engaged with this? I mean, Israel has been in it since 2007. Marz: For Bart and I, just since--well, now I guess you would say last year. Since 2012, is when we got pulled into it. On Izzy's end, it's been percolating for a long time and he's had other creators along the way helping the project and then Bart and I were thrown into it in the summer of last year. I remember when we first started talking, you were marooned at training camp, working around your practice schedule. So we've been involved since then, and I think it's fair to say it's kind of been building up momentum ever since. Now we're knee-deep in it. I would say knee-deep for Izzy. That'd be maybe waist-deep for me and Bart.

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ComicBook.com: How did the group actually come together, though? I mean, Izzy isn't a part of an established comics community outside of Lance Briggs's Pilot Season book for Top Cow a while back. I feel like that's a pretty tenuous connection to assume playing any kind of role. Idonije: For me, actually, since I kind of created the entire concept and everything, I had asked people to help me work on it, flesh it out, create a bible for the story. I just was being patient with the process and I didn't want to force anything. When it felt right, it would feel right, you know? I'm a big believer in things happening when they're supposed to happen. So I just went to dinner with one of my friends and he connected me with some friends of his that knew Ron and Bart pretty well and that's where it all started. I flew out to Comic-Con in San Diego and that's where I got to meet Ron and discuss everything, and the fellowship was born. Marz: To me it's just kind of come about organically. Like so many things in comics in particular but in life in general, it's just the connections you make. You know a guy that knows a guy that knows a guy and eventually you end up being connected with the right people to make the entire thing fall into place. To me, this whole story for The Protectors has been an ongoing process of putting a puzzle together. You bring in different people who you find out are the right fit not only for the project but with each other. When I initially was brought in and we started talking about artists, Bart was...I was going to say he's the first guy I thought of, but he's the only guy I thought of because he and I have been friends for going on two decades but also I felt like Bart was one of the few guys who could draw the sports aspect of the story and make it look believable and not like NFL SuperPro. Bart Sears: Yeah, Ron basically just called and said, "I've got this great idea, would you be interested?" And of course I would. And I do agree with him that I can draw this football so that we'll finally see sports in comics that it's not sneered at or laughed at or a joke. It's something that's serious and it's going to look as cool as any superhero battle you've ever seen. I'm kind of excited about it. ComicBook.com: I think it works particularly well for your style because there's a fluid look to your figurework. Everybody tends to look so stiff in most football scenes in comics. It seems like it's a lot of guys who have never actually played sports taking photo references and working from them. Marz: Gee, you think that could be it? [laughs] Idonije: Wait until you see some of the stuff. It's great work. I was telling Bart today, I can't wait until the world gets to the work and the website is up and the stories are out and all of the interactive, creative things that are going to come from this project and all the different directions it's going to go in. It's going to be a lot of fun. ComicBook.com: So--sell the audience on this.  What's your premise? This is very different from somebody like The Situation, where the premise of the comic is, "Hey, look! It's me, but with super powers." Marz: Izzy actually won't let us put him into the book. He's all for everybody else being in the book, not him! Idonije: I think Ron said it the best--he said sports for The Protectors is what the story of a reporter is to Superman. So that kind of really sums it up for me. It's a real story about these individuals who have been given this gift and they've been living this life, using their gifts in this manner to entertain humanity as athletes and to do all these things--but that's not the true purpose of their gifts. They were destined to be more, to do more, to save humanity from this evil force. So now that they know their purpose and they know what they're meant to be and who they really are, they each have a decision to make. Will they continue to be who they have been or will they pick up the torch and take the challenge of being really who they're meant to be and that's the saviors and the heroes to the world? Every single person has a gift and to me that's the undercurrent of the story--that we're talking about these individuals but it relates to every single person that comes in contact with the story. Every person has a gift, has an ability. With that gift, you can do something to make our world better, to impact the world and the lives of those around you. That, to me, is the story of The Protectors. ComicBook.com: While I've got you here, Israel, did you have any thoughts on the departure of Lovie Smith? Idonije: You know what? Everybody knows I've been very public with my love for Coach Smith. A great man, a great mentor to me over the years. You know, of my ten years in the NFL, he has been my head coach for nine of them and he's led with nothing but character and really just showed me how to conduct yourself as a leader. That's something I've learned from him. I've spent plenty of time in his office talking with him. He's one of those coaches that you want to win for so it's heartbreaking to know that we as a team, as an organization, were unable to do enough so that he could do his job. He gets a lot of flak from the media for not being this gregarious, loud, passionate head coach, but that's because those people don't know him. He's very passionate, but that's something that he keeps with us. As far as the media, he's very even-keeled, he's calm, he's focused. He says things intentionally, with definition. On the forward side, to the media, you will not see him out of character or explode at all. I love that about him. For me, I adopt that mentality to everything I do in terms of how I am in my business, how I conduct myself. Always on that front end, you want to make sure you control yourself. You know, it hurt him because in the locker room with us, in our meetings and at halftime when he's actually talking to us? He's passionate. He's everything you want in a coach. For me,  I know what kind of guy he is. I know he's a great coach. It's going to be tough to find a better coach. There are a lot of great coaches out there--he's at the top of that list and over the last nine years, there hasn't been a better defense in the NFL, and he's a big part of that. There hasn't been a defense to outperform our defense in the NFL. For me, it's disappointing that we weren't able to do enough to make it so that the story would end differently. Ultimately, he will get a job somewhere and he's going to do a phenomenal job leading those guys. That's just the kind of guy he is. It's just disappointing that with the guys we have here, we couldn't get a championship for this city. ComicBook.com: ...And Bart, you're tackling a cover for Valiant Comics, marking your first return to the relaunched publisher. What was that like? Sears: X-O was a character that I read the first fourteen before I did my first one or something, and I kind of wished that I'd got to draw all of them. X-O was a character I'd always identified with, and always had a blast on it--especially when Ron was writing it--and it was fun to get back into. I've always enjoyed X-O; it just feels right.