I read recently that during a Superman-themed panel at the San Diego Comic Con, Grant Morrison was asked about what story in Superman’s history really stood out for him, and he answered, to everyone’s surprise, 1978’s Superman vs. Muhammad Ali by Neal Adams and Denny O’Neill. By coincidence, I’ve just read this book. DC published a couple of reprints of it, and almost on a whim when I was spending some store credit that I had from a comic shop, I decided to go for it. In spite of how absurd a book about the meeting of a fictional superhero and a real life athlete in a boxing arena must be, it’s surprisingly awesome.
The plot is that some a crazed alien warlord comes to earth and threatens to destroy it unless earth’s greatest champion can fight his champion. Both Superman and Muhammad Ali, who happen to have just bumped into each other, put their hands up – Superman because he’s Superman and Muhammad Ali because he’s, well, Muhammad Ali (and also because Superman isn’t from earth). So the alien decides the thing to do is to have Supes and Ali fight it out for the privilege of being the earth’s champion, but under the equivalent of a red sun so Superman won’t have powers. This lead to a sequence where Ali trains Superman how to box, which is one of the book’s highlights, partly because of how strong and clear a voice the creators give to Ali as a character.
In fact, Ali is compellingly written all the way through, with all sorts of great moments of him trash-talking the aliens and connecting with Superman as basically an equal. I only have the scarcest knowledge of the real Muhammad Ali, so I can’t testify to how accurate all this is, but the characterization is so strong that it’s really the sort of thing all comic writers should be aspiring to.
And of course, it’s fun to get to watch the two heroes team up to take down the aliens. The book keeps the action married to the characters well. Ali getting to strut his stuff in the boxing ring against the alien champion in a dramatic bout. Superman, meanwhile, takes out the alien armada using a variation of Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy (where he’d adopt an apparently losing position to get his opponent to wear himself out). All of this is illustrated (and written, primarily) by Neal Adams, who was probably as much of a superstar in his field and Ali and Superman are in theirs. He’s at the height of his game here, and the story and large format of the book (it was originally published an oversized tabloid) giving him the opportunity to really sell a larger than life story.
Maybe the weakest story point in the book is the abrupt arrival of some sort of ethereal space-beauty / embodiment of wisdom, who shows up to referee the match. It’s an abrupt, out-of-nowhere plot development that doesn’t add anything else to the story, and isn’t followed up upon adequately.
But this is a small complaint, simply because it takes up so little time. This book was published back in the days when 72 pages was plenty of time to tell a massive epic of a tale, and that’s what we get. It’s a great comic for it’s craftsmanship as much as it is for it’s novelty factor. DC reprinted it recently in two formats – a “Facsimile” edition that reproduced the original sizing, and another regular sized “Deluxe” edition with a bunch of special features. That’s the one that I got, and amongst the features is a reprinting of the original cover with a guide to the myriad of real and fictional people that are shown watching the title match between Superman and Ali – ranging from people like Wolfman Jack, Paul Levitz, and Batman. It was well worth it for a fun read.