Readers of this blog may remember our obsession with the 1978 comic book “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” but it turns out we are not alone. Today, a guest essay by bestselling author Brad Meltzer (who is well-known to comics fans for his landmark work on “Identity Crisis”) who believes that the old champ still holds up as a classic in comic book publishing. You can judge fpor yourself, too — this week DC is releasing a new hardcover reprint of the sublime 1970s artifact.
Our subject today: My Heroes…Trying To Kill Each Other (or ‘”Why Superman vs. Muhammad Ali may just be the greatest comic…of all time”)
Don’t roll your eyes.
This is about Muhammad Ali, and in that man’s honor, I make no apologies for hyperbole.
So let’s take a peek at the Polaroid. I was eight. I didn’t watch the Thriller In Manila. I didn’t care about George Foreman. And I was too young to know about Ali’s fight with the U.S. government over his service in Vietnam. All I knew was Howard Cosell was the host of “Battle of the Network Stars.” I loved “Battle of the Network Stars.” And Cosell seemed to love this guy Muhammad Ali.
Plus, there he was. On the cover of my comic book: Muhammad Ali. And who was he fighting?
He was fighting Superman. Do you need me to say that twice? Muhammad Ali. Was Fighting. Superman.
It really does bear a third time…
Muhammad Ali was fighting Superman. In the comic. In my hands. Even eight-year-olds know gold when they see it. This was gonna be good. And let’s be clear a moment: who else should Muhammad Ali be fighting? He’d already beaten Rocky Balboa (I was eight. I believed it. He beat Balboa!). So who else was left to fight?
You got it. Superman. And you want to know the real best part? I didn’t know who was gonna win. And y’know why I didn’t know?
1) Pay attention. I was eight.
2) I’d seen Scooby-Doo team-up with the Harlem Globetrotters. And Batman. This was serious stuff. Even the size of the book told you that — the story couldn’t be contained to normal comic book size. It was a giant treasury-sized 10.5 x 13.5. Anything could happen.
3) Look at the cover of this book.
I tell my son all the time: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
This is the exception. This is Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. You can easily judge by this cover.
This wasn’t just some dumb fight being watched by the usual group of nondescript extras who regularly stand around, gawking and pointing, in the backgrounds of comic books.
Look at the audience. Frank Sinatra. Gerald Ford. Wolfman Jack. These were real people! And not just a dozen or so real people. 172 real people. And not just 172 real people. 172 of the greatest people ever assembled. Okay, I hear you. You now think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. Look at the list:
Donnie and Marie Osmond. Andy Warhol.
Cher. Pelé. Kurt Vonnegut.
Are you still reading? I just said that this is a comic book with Donnie and Marie, Andy Warhol, Cher, Pele, Kurt Vonnegut and Wolfman Jack on the cover. And that’s just the beginning…
Ron Howard. William Gaines.
The Challengers of the Unknown. William Conrad. (William Conrad!)
Plastic Man. The Marvel Family. Doc Magnus and the Metal Men. Julius Schwartz.
Have you fainted yet? I almost did just typing this. But it STILL gets better…
Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen, Ray Palmer, Barry Allen (all in civilian clothes!) Alfred E. Newman. Paul Levitz. (Wait. Paul Levitz? I know Paul Levitz. And right now, I swear to you, I am e-mailing him and asking him this question: “What was it like being in the crowd at the Superman/Muhammad Ali fight?”)
I’m now waiting for him to reply.
He hasn’t replied yet.
He still hasn’t replied. And so, I will go back to telling you about who else was in the crowd at the fight, because I know you don’t think it can get better.
But it does. Christopher Reeve is there. Lucille Ball is there. Don King is sitting next to Lex Luthor!
And who else is there?
Liberace. The Batman. Sonny Bono.
Wait. Paul Levitz just emailed me back.
He replied: “I enjoyed it for years, showing off the giant blow-up on the DC offices tour even though the me in the crowd was from a shaggy time long ago.” Yes. That is exactly the right reaction. I’d have showed it off too. On a t-shirt. That’d I wear. Forever. So. Can I top myself by showing you more members of the crowd (knowing full-well that I left off by throwing down the triumvirate of Liberace, Batman, and Sonny Bono)?
I believe I can. Look closely, and you’ll also spot:
Jimmy Carter. Boston Brand. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
The Jackson 5 (colored to look like the blackest men ever to crash that near all-white party).
And the Sweathogs! The Sweathogs! I challenge you right now to tell me who else could’ve been included to make this sporting event better (although, yes, I agree that if the Spy vs. Spy guys were there, it would’ve been a little better).
But that’s the opening picture. That’s who I get to look at on the cover. I’m excited. Real excited. And I haven’t even opened the book yet.
So y’know what time it is now? It’s time for the eight-year-old me to open that book and ask: Does the interior sizzle match the exterior hype? In the name of good unbiased journalism, let me be honest with you – you’re #$%in-A right it did. And it still does. This is Neal Adams in his prime — when no one drew a better angry preacher filled with righteous indignation — and he’s drawing, without question, the greatest angry, righteous preacher of all time.
Remember how great it was when Neal Adams drew Green Arrow – finger pointing out — shouting liberal hyperbole? Now make that Muhammad Ali.
Better, right?But I hear you. You’re wondering about the plot. You sit there, flipping through your own memories, all judgmental and ask yourself: Was the plot any good?
It was called Superman vs. Muhammad Ali! Do you really need anything else?
No. You don’t. It was Superman fighting Ali. And from the very first page, it had all the self-obsessed dramatic flair that made the 70s the most beautiful disaster of all time. Look at the opening line, in big red letters:
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, your attention PLEASE!
In the blue corner…champion of the people…Muhammad Ali!
In the red corner…Superman — also champion of the people!
(notice the early, not-unnoticed dig on Superman, like he’s the also-ran)
The prize? A WORLD!
A world!? They were fighting for an entire world!?
Yes. They were.
Forget the rest of the plot. Just enjoy the moment…
The moment of Ali on page 8 declaring, in full Ali-like dialogue, “I am — the greatest!” (not “I am the greatest!” “I am — the greatest!”)
Did Ali write his dialogue himself? I heard he did. I still believe it.
Or page 17, where we see the tiny “red sun” globe that allows Superman to be just a mortal man…as Ali clocks him straight in the face. Or page 18, fully dedicated to Ali doing the two things he does best — fighting and talking — as he teaches Superman rope-a-dope. That’s where Superman learned it!
Sure, there are missteps (using that ginger wuss-face Jimmy Olsen as the announcer instead of Cosell, who at least got a nice cameo).
But look at pages 34 and 35. Even Jimmy looks scary. Though not half as scary as that black eye(!) Superman’s wearing as he enters pages 36 and 37, where (can I be reading this right!?) the crowd actually turns on Superman, gets behind Ali, and starts chanting for Kal-El to “FALL DOWN!”
Fall Down! Fall Down! Fall Down!
Even I wanted Superman to get his butt kicked (Author’s Note: That’s totally not true. I made that up right now).
But the real beauty is Ali’s reaction after he wins the fight and puts Superman on his ass. Does he gloat? Does he peacock? No. He threatens: “If one of you so much as touches him, I’ll punch you out!” It is a moment perfectly designed to manipulate our young brains — by making us see the honor in Ali — right before presenting us with the third best moment in the entire book: the splash page of Superman on that stretcher, bloody and beaten.
Can I describe this page to you, you ask?
No. I cannot. The words that would do it justice have not been invented yet. So look here:
Are you crying? Then you have no heart. Because this was IT (up until the moment you reach pages 46 and 47 — the second best moment in the book — the double page spread with the haunting silhouette of Ali yelling, juxtaposed with the close-up of him also yelling, creating an image that I honestly believe, when I look at today, is such an inspiration, if it were released by the Obama campaign, it could’ve single-handedly brought home the Presidency a few years earlier (and now that I think of it, may actually be responsible for young Barack wanting to be President in the first place). Look for yourself:
I see you nodding. You know I speak the truth.
And yes, there’s some more plot stuff. More stunning dialogue (“I’m mad! I’m terrible! I’m gonna DEE-STROY!!” “I’m gonna whup ’im and spank ‘im! I’m the GREATEST! I’m the KING!!” [Author’s Historical Note: 1) That was Ali’s dialogue’s, not Superman’s. 2) The amount of exclamation points that appeared in this book outweighed the exclamation points for the entire Golden Age.] And there were other high points (from more Ali speeches, to Superman disguised as a black man, to Ali punching the giant green alien killer physically out of the ring (and snapping the top rope to do it).
But after three years of law school, two years on Law Review, and a true understanding of the power of a well-reasoned oration, let me quote directly from the closing argument of William Jennings Bryan in the now-classic Scopes trial, by saying, “Look at the #$%-ing double-page-spread that they close the book with! It’s Superman and Muhammad Ali shaking hands!” “SUPERMAN, WE ARE THE GREATEST!”
I rest my case.
— Brad Meltzer
Brad Meltzer usually writes novels (“The Inner Circle” is out in January). And comics. And TV shows (“Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” next month on the History Channel). His latest book, “Heroes For My Son,” is a non-fiction one he wrote for his sons and is a collection of heroes throughout history. Yes, Muhammad Ali is in it.
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