Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 7:44PM
Bryan Erwine in Comic Books, Superman, What Ever Happened to the Fan of Tomorrow?

I've been going through my collection of all things Superman and one item that really stands out is the over-sized Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic book, published in 1978.  As a seven year old, I thought it was epic on a scale never seen before, populated with hundreds of aliens, robots, and space ships, and featuring some of the best action scenes ever committed to paper.

These concepts and images rattled around in my head for years. This book, along with Star Wars, cemented my interest in science fiction and space opera. Long before I discovered Star Trek, Foundation, or Dune, there was Luke Skywalker, Superman, and Muhammad Ali. Re-reading it thirty years later, it still stands out as something special.

Check out that tagline from long time ago in a shameless marketing department far, far away.

The Story

Powerful aliens called the Scrubb demand a fight between their champion, Hun'Ya, and the best warrior from Earth. If Hun'Ya wins, the Earth will be destroyed. If Earth wins, the Scrubb will take care of Earth's Bay City Rollers problem. (OK, I made that last bit up.) Failure to participate will also result in Earth's destruction.  Both Superman and Ali volunteer to represent humanity. In a move worthy of Don King, the Scrubb set up a preliminary fight between the pair to determine who will go on to the main event against Hun'Ya.

The boxing takes place on the Scrubb home-world, which conveniently orbits a red sun, robbing Superman of his powers and ensuring the action lasts more than one panel.  During preparations, Superman realizes the Scrubb emperor Rat'Lar plans to annihilate the Earth regardless of the fight's outcome, so our heroes must come up with a way to save our planet from total destruction within the context of their boxing match.

That contrived plot, combined with a large dose of shady comic book pseudo-science, could make the whole endeavor seem silly. Looking at it now, I also notice that a lot of the imagery and drama is borrowed directly from movies like Star Wars and Rocky.  But it doesn't matter. This is an exercise in over-the-top fun:   

 

Look at that cover! The most iconic assemblage since Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, with over 170 distinct audience members including Kurt Vonnegut Jr, the Jackson 5, Batman, President Carter, and Woody Allen.

Open the book! After saving St. Louis from a Scrubb missile attack, Superman smashes his fists together, generating enough concussive force to disrupt a tidal wave headed towards the East Coast of the United States.  

Turn the page!  Against the background of outer space, Muhammad Ali teaches Superman boxing in a ring constructed at "the fringe of creation", where time distortion effects cause one hour to pass for every minute in the real world.

Continue reading! Hundreds of ships traveling to the Scrubb home-world can be seen from the bridge of an vessel piloted by green aliens whose brains are visible through the back of their transparent eyeballs.

Next page! Superman, alone against a powerful alien armada that is minutes away from annihilating the Earth, turns his body into a super-human torpedo, producing a primal scream so loud that it pierces the vacuum of space to be heard across the galaxy! On and on it goes!

 

I don't think I can adequately describe the eye candy and wild ideas contained in this book.  Trust me when I say Adams was able to do nothing less than create page after page of awesome. 

The Writing

Neal Adams is both artist and writer for this endeavor, taking over for Denny O'Neil, who quit the project in its early stages. Adams manages to create what I consider to be the quintessential representation of Superman in the 70's. This Superman is a god amongst men, comfortable with his role as mankind's all-powerful protector, but possessing enough humanity to joke around with Ali or act coy with the alien champion Hun'Ya.  The worst stories from this era cast Superman as emotionally aloof or bland, but the mix of confidence, humor, and determination makes this version of Superman endearing to both the seven year old and thirty-something me.

Maybe one of the reasons that Superman is no longer popular is that today's Superman, with his self-doubts, reservations, and ordinary problems, simply isn't epic enough for Superman-type stories. Superman's defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ali has more resonance if the mortal Ali takes down the divine Superman, not the farm-boy from Kansas. The alien threat is more menacing when an all-powerful Superman admits to himself that the Scrubb have the power to kill him, whereas we know that today's Superman can be killed by a poor man's version of the Incredible Hulk or be pushed around by a sniveling teenage counterpart from Earth-Prime. There are a lot of good things about the more human, post-Crisis Superman, but clearly that character, with his diminished outlook and powers, would not work in this story.

Muhammad Ali spends most of his time fighting or talking smack, coming off as supremely confident, smart, and heroic.  A particularly effective double page spread using a mix of photographs and drawings shows Ali trash talking at the alien champion. Quickly ramping up his rhetoric, Ali promises to win the fight, proclaiming himself to be "The Greatest of Time and Space!".  Adams perfectly renders Ali's facial expressions, making it easy to imagine the speech being delivered in real life. It's corny and over-dramatic, but so was Ali, which makes it all the more wonderful and exciting.  

Ali and Superman playing it cool

Two things stand out about the writing.   First, Ali and Superman repeatedly use their brains before they engage their fists.  In the opening scene, Superman quietly avoids a direct confrontation with the Scrubb to tactically assess their strengths and weaknesses. Half way through the book, there are hints that Ali and Superman have a secret plan in place to outwit Rat'Lar. In climatic final space battle, Superman, faced with defeat, applies the lessons he learned while training with Ali to employ a version of the rope-a-dope to defeat the Scrubb armada.

Granted, feats of strength and willpower are what ultimately win the day, but the point is that brainpower was needed to place Ali and Superman in a position for victory.  This stands in real contrast to most Superman stories, where Kal-El is nothing more than muscle who blindly punches his way to victory.  Heck, it stands in contrast to most super hero books, period.  I doubt if Superman vs. Mohammed Ali was the first time I was introduced to the idea of brains before brawn, but clearly it was a lesson that I took away from this book. 

Think before you fight!

The other interesting aspect of the writing is race. This book is not like O'Neil's and Adams' work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, where issues of racial injustice were ham-handedly tackled. Instead, Adams attempts to reinforce the notion of racial equality by closely linking Superman with Muhammad Ali, two obvious proxies for America's black and white cultures. This is demonstrated subtlety at first, through the actions of the protagonists, who behave heroically and demonstrate a clear respect for each other.

As the story continues, the dialog of supporting characters is used to reinforce the link between the two heroes. When the press interviews Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, he volunteers: "If the fate of our planet at stake, I can't think of anyone I'd rather put my faith in than those two great men!" At another point, Jimmy Olsen declares the pair "Earth's greatest champions". Later, Olsen, filling in for a visibly upset Howard Cosell, says: "Ali and Superman circle each other like... well... like mirror images of each other! For those of you wondering why Superman agreed to fight with his costume on, it's because many of our alien spectators wouldn't be able to tell the fighter's apart! Except for subtle changes in hue, all humans like exactly alike to them." [ The letterer's emphasis, not mine. ]

After the fight, Ali delivers the most direct statement on race when he says: "If more people tried to live by simple rules, of fair play, My people, ALL people, would get a fair shake!" [ Again, the letterer's emphasis. ] This is the only time in the entire book that an explicit message about race is presented. It is also the only time that Ali identifies himself in terms of race, even though he never mentions his race by name.

The exclamation point to Adams' message of equality is the final double page showing Superman and Ali shaking hands while Ali proclaims: "Superman, We are the Greatest!" This scene reads like A Very Special Episode of your favorite 70's TV show, complete with the final freeze frame shot and vintage canned applause. Kidding aside, I can appreciate what Adams was trying to say and hesitate to criticize the implementation at all, especially given some of the more cringe-worthy attempts at dealing with race in both comic books and children's entertainment.

Finally, I can't talk about Superman vs Muhammad Ali without touching on one of the most dramatic moments, one that stands in contrast to the understated way race is handled throughout the rest of the book. The scene in question is Ali destroying Superman in the first boxing match, resulting in a unconscious and bloody Kal-El being removed from the ring in a stretcher. There could be many meanings to this, but what's interesting to me is that Muhammad Ali, a man hated and feared by a significant number of Americans in 1978, beats up Superman, one of the most well-known symbols of traditional American (cough)white(cough) values.

Even if Adams had no message in mind when he designed the scene, you can't ignore the obvious: for many people, the image of any black man, let alone Muhammad Ali, beating up a white hero like Superman is either incendiary or revolutionary, depending on your point of view. How did this scene make it into the book unaltered? At the time, comic books were still mass-market products designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Given that conservative corporate climate, the inclusion of this imagery is shocking. Kudos to Neal Adams and DC Comics for publishing it as is.

The Art

Adams is one of my top five comic artists of all-time and he uses the oversized pages to showcase his talent. He was one of the first to apply a realistic style to comic books, but it is clear from these pages that unlike fellow realists Greg Land or Alex Ross, there is a real dynamic quality to the art. Along with speed lines and cleverly constructed sound effect graphics, Adams is able to orient the figures and objects in a particular panel in a way that tricks your eye into producing motion.

Adding to the dynamic effect is the way the panel layouts change from page to page.  There are only one or two spots in this book where a traditional grid layout is used.  Panels are curved, askew, overlapping or non-symmetrical.  Images bleed over into the margins and into the next panel. Single and double page spreads are used liberally, but always for great dramatic effect. Looking at this book as an adult, it's a safe bet that I would not have enjoyed as much if not for Adams' artwork. This may be his comics masterpiece.

Dynamic Realism

Conclusion

Superman vs. Mohammad Ali is drama on its most basic and grandiose level, with two underdogs battling a stereotypical bad guy with nothing less than the fate of the world at sake. In years since 1978, many of the conventions used in this book have been abandoned or become cliche. Still, the book overcomes these limitations with interesting characterizations of Ali and Superman, Neal Adams' stellar artwork, and the rapid fire assault of science fiction concepts. There is no woolgathering; events and ideas come and go, many lessons are learned, and the good guys win in the end.  All of this stands in stark contrast to the padded and adult oriented storytelling style in today's mainstream super-hero books.

I don't know that a child reading Superman vs. Mohammad Ali today would be impressed like I was way back when, but I do know that Marvel or DC aren't publishing anything today that even attempts to instill that same sense of wonder and excitement.

 

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