I was six in 1978, the year DC Comics first published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, so I can’t claim to have fond memories of reading it or seeing it on the newsstand. But as a product of the 1970s, the idea of putting a superhero and a celeb in an “event” comic makes intuitive sense to me. In 1978, it seemed like every TV show featured a special guest star or assembled a large group of Hollywood luminaries for some kind of friendly competition: remember The New Scooby-Doo Movies, in which Sandy Duncan and Cher helped the gang solve preposterous mysteries? Or Battle of the Network Stars, a forerunner of modern reality TV?
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali combines these two trends into a shamelessly entertaining package in which the world’s most famous superhero teams up with the world’s greatest boxer to defeat an alien race called… The Scrubb. (If you had any doubt that ten-year-old boys were the target audience for the original comic, look no further than the names; The Scrubb’s ruler is named Rat’lar.) Better still, Superman and Muhammad Ali duke it out in front of a distinguished audience of fictional DC characters, Hollywood actors, DC Comics personnel, and the POTUS himself, a veritable who’s-who of 1978. (At least on the cover; in the actual book, the fight takes place in front of a large, boisterous crowd of aliens that does not include Raquel Welch, Joe Namath, Kurt Vonnegut, or The Jackson Five.)
The concept was the brainchild of legendary boxing promoter Don King, who first pitched the idea to DC Comics in 1976 after seeing the media frenzy that accompanied the release of another event comic, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century. Working with editor Julie Schwartz, Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams developed King’s Superman-versus-Ali concept into a storyline in which Superman and Muhammad Ali are ordered by alien invaders to fight each other to determine who is Earth’s greatest warrior. The winner, in turn, must go mano-a-mano with The Scrubb’s best fighter; if Earth’s representative loses, the planet will be annexed by The Scrubb as a slave labor colony.
On many levels, the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali is cheesier than a plate of Velveeta: who but a ten-year-old boy would dream up a scenario in which the fate of the world rested on the outcome of a boxing match between a fictional superhero and a larger-than-life athlete? Yet the well-crafted script keeps the idea in the realm of the… well, I won’t say plausible, but… logical, at least within the established parameters of the DC universe. Dennis O’Neil anticipates the reader’s many objections to the premise — doesn’t Superman have an unfair advantage over Ali? how could Ali possibly defeat a giant green alien who’s bigger and meaner than George Foreman? — by addressing them head-on: the big fight, for example, takes place under the glare of a red sun, thus draining Superman of his powers, while Ali proves the intergalactic versatility of the rope-a-dope when fighting The Scrubb’s best boxer.
The other secret to Superman vs. Muhammad Ali‘s success is that O’Neil captures Ali’s charisma and swagger without imitating his famous verbal mannerisms — a wise decision, I think, as it would be awfully hard to write Ali-esque dialogue without shading into parody. What O’Neil does instead is pure genius: he inserts a brief speech in which Ali explains the grammar and syntax of boxing to Superman, comparing various punches to declarative and interrogative statements. It’s hokey as hell but it works, showcasing the boxer’s quick wit and flair for metaphor while walking the reader through the basics of the sport. O’Neil’s characterization of Ali is nicely supported by Neal Adams’ artwork; not only does comic-book Ali look a lot like the real man, but he moves with the agility and speed that were hallmarks of Ali’s boxing.
If I had any criticism of Superman, it’s that DC published two different versions of the book: the cheaper, smaller “Deluxe” version includes some nice bonus material — an essay by DC publisher Jenette Kahn, preliminary sketches — but not the glorious, wraparound cover, while the “Facsimile” version reproduces the comic at its original trim size, with the full cover gracing the outside of the book. (The Deluxe version’s slipjacket only reproduces part of the original cover; the full image appears inside the book, to decidedly lesser effect.) At $39.99, the Facsimile version is nearly twice as expensive as the Deluxe version, further limiting its appeal to all but the most dedicated Superman fans.
Still, that’s a minor complaint about an eminently worthwhile project. I’d love to see DC and Marvel re-issue Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man in a similar, hardbound format. And if DC would really like to make me happy, they could commission a special 35th anniversary tribute to Superman vs. Muhammad Ali in which Supergirl and Laila Ali picked up where Clark Kent and Cassius Clay left off in 1978. Now that would be awesome.