Israel Idonije doesn't wear a helmet or absorb punishing blocks while performing his side job as a comic book creator. Yet the former Bears defensive lineman insists that developing his superhero title "The Protectors" has been more difficult than tackling an NFL quarterback.

"I've been sacking quarterbacks for 10 years, so I'm a veteran in that department," said Idonije, a free agent who has spent his entire career with the Bears. "In the comic book world, I'm a rookie right now, so I'm going through all of it for the first time. I'm in my training camp right now, which is the hardest part of the year."

This weekend's Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo at the McCormick Place represents the kickoff for "The Protectors." Athleta Comics will debut the first issue at C2E2, with Idonije scheduled to speak at a panel Friday afternoon and help man a booth on the convention floor where comic book fans can meet him.

At the booth, fans can pick up limited-edition posters depicting superhero versions of current Bears players Julius Peppers and Jay Cutler, and former Bear Brian Urlacher.

"I've been at C2E2 the last three years, but the real difference is that instead of just walking around and collecting stuff, I'll be behind the booth for all three days," Idonije said. "It's going to be great."

Set in Chicago, "The Protectors" follows a squad of athletes granted superpowers to defend Earth against an evil force called The Dissenters, which plans to enslave humanity. Each of the main characters--a diverse group that includes an African-American football player, a basketball star born on Chicago's South Side, a Latino baseball player, a French-Canadian hockey player and female soccer player--will get their own extraordinary abilities over the course of the story, which Idonije says will be a full origin story.

One Protector character in particular sounds like a proxy for 32-year-old Nigeria native Idonije. "Isaac" is a 6-foot-6-inch native of Africa who immigrated to America as a child and is now a defensive lineman in Chicago. "All of the characters are fictional," Idonije said, downplaying the similarities.

Professional sports and comics haven't necessarily mixed well in the past. Marvel Comics' 1990s flop, "NFL Superpro"—about a football star turned superhero—is a particularly egregious example, but Idonije believes "The Protectors" will be different.

"Typically, comics about sports give your favorite athletes powers and abilities and it's almost a gimmicky approach to the bringing the two worlds together," Idonije said. "You take Bo Jackson or Wayne Gretzky and give them special powers. That's great in the short term, but it doesn't really lend itself to stories that transcend time."

Idonije has enlisted the help of comic veterans Ron Marz and Bart Sears, whom he said "have been phenomenal in helping craft "The Protectors.' " Writer Marz is best known for his long runs on "Silver Surfer" and "Green Lantern," while Sears has illustrated "Justice League Europe" and "X-O Manowar."

Comics have been something of an obsession for Idonije the past couple of decades. As a child, his parents were strict about enforcing a one-hour-a-day TV-watching rule and made their children pick a hobby that involved more creativity. His sister read thick novels, but that wasn't for him.

"I read a lot of comics," he said, counting the Green Hornet, Spider-Man and Iron Man as his favorite heroes. "There's engagement on a different level—through illustrations and texts. And as a young boy, I really connected with it."

It wasn't until Bears training camp in 2007 that he decided to get into the comic-making business.
"I wanted to do something unique and wanted to create something," he said. "Something that has potential to have a positive impact on the world."
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

Colossal con weekend
There's so much to experience at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo this weekend that not even all those Avengers could make it through everything. With that in mind, RedEye asked its resident geeks to suggest some of the many events they'd like to see at the annual event running Friday through Sunday at McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive. Tickets are $25-$65 at c2e2.com. Check the website for a complete schedule. RedEye

The Protectors
Israel Idonije and his collaborators--writer Ron Marz, artist Bart Sears and letterer Troy Peteri--will discuss the comic and answer fan questions during a 2-3 p.m. Friday panel at Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo at McCormick Place. They will be at the Athleta Comics booth (Booth 903) throughout the weekend.