‘Superman vs. Muhammad Ali’ is still the champ

March 22, 2010 | 7:11 p.m.

FIRST LOOK

Superman vs Muhammad Ali

I own about 9,000 comic books but ask me to pick my single favorite and I don’t need to think twice. It’s “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali,” which (despite the smirk-inducing title) was a world-class knockout when it arrived in the fall of 1978 and remains an enduring classic all these years later.

Above, you can see a new nod to the legacy of the Neal Adams masterpiece,  a statue due this fall from DC Direct and Ali’s licensing team that re-creates the cover clash between the titans of the sports world and comics. This is the first time the images of the statue are being seen anywhere.

The first time I met Adams, I had to profess my love for this giant, tabloid-sized book that still looms so large in my fanboy heart. “I always tell people that ‘Superman vs. Muhammad Ali’ is the greatest comic book ever published.” The artist grinned and gave an Ali-style answer: “And you’re right, it is.”

Here’s another look at the statue from a different angle…

Superman vs Muhammad Ali 2

 

I have four copies of the book. I got the first one when it came out, just before my ninth birthday. I bought three more over the years because, well, I don’t know why. I just loved it so much. The comic book has never been reprinted, either, but that changes this fall when it will be released in two versions: The first is a deluxe hardcover edition that will feature a new cover by Adams and the second is a limited-edition hardcover printed in the original book’s trim size with the original cover. Sign me up for both right now. Here’s the Adams art from the original wrap-around cover…

Superman vs Muhammad Ali wraparound

The book felt like a conceptual mash-up of the 1976 film “Rocky” and Richard Donner’s 1978 film “Superman” and with that “Star Warriors” line above the title you get the feeling DC was trying to shoe-horn in a third 1970s box-office sensation.

When I first got my hands on the oversized issue I probably thought: “Superman would kill him!” but the story, by  Adams and frequent collaborator Denny O’Neill, is remarkably affecting, surprising and suspenseful. In a nutshell: Some nasty aliens called the Scrubb arrive on earth and threaten to invade unless the planet’s greatest champion will fight their massive, snarling gladiator, Hun’Ya. Superman steps forward as the obvious choice but then Ali cries foul — Superman is an alien himself and if Earth needs a champion, shouldn’t it be a human? Superman and Ali then fight for the right to go and since the Man of Steel is stripped of his powers during the bout, Ali wins. But the two heroes of Earth have a plan of their own that involves working in the same corner, not just trading blows.

Here’s one last look at that statue…

Superman vs Muhammad Ali 3

 

A lot of comics — like sitcoms and sailors — age terribly, but this one holds up far better than most. A big reason is the Adams art, which is is sublime (with inks by Dick Giordano on figures and Terry Austin on backgrounds) and manages to be both city-street gritty in its realness and cosmic in its other-world vistas and alien armadas. The cover is a remarkable time capsule with a strange all-star audience of Jimmy Carter, Gerald FordFrank Sinatra, Sonny Bono, Joe Namath, Pele, Wolfman Jack, Kurt Vonnegut, Wayne Rogers and many, many others. My understanding is the reprint was long-delayed by the permissions process needed for the use-of-likeness approval.

The reprints may not help the value of my old original copies but that doesn’t really matter — in truth, a collectible goes up in value only when you’re actually willing to sell it and there’s no way I could part ways with the old champ.

– Geoff Boucher

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IMAGES: DC Comics 

Comments


22 Responses to ‘Superman vs. Muhammad Ali’ is still the champ

  1. Ted Burke says:

    I owned this comic book as well, and I have to disagree with Geoff Boucher. It's aged rather badly and seems little more than a formerly timely gimmick that has not weathered the decades well since it was published. The whole premise is tacky, really, and reveals DC's problem at the time with writing story lines that allowed Superman to be "SUPER", the usual fallback scenarios of exposing him to the ludicrously numerous varieties of Kryptonite or, in this case, taking away his powers to see how he fares in a struggle. Even in the Seventies, I wanted Superman to live up to his name, not be a patsy for a dopey gimmick. The art by Neil Adams, as well, just seems awkward–though a competent draftsman, he never could quite convince me that his versions of super heros were , in any way, exceptional. Rather, they looked as if they had two left footed, constantly in danger of falling over.

  2. Colin Whitworth says:

    Personally, I always saw this comic as a metaphor for racism — the black man could only win if the white man was stripped of his powers (in other words, his power to discriminate). Also, Ali was apparently forced to fight in his underwear, which was also white. I don't see how this could be any more clear.

  3. Luke Howitt says:

    I don't have, haven't read, and so won't comment on, "Superman v. Muhammad Ali." But, in defense of Neal Adams: his fresh and beautiful work on the dying days of the original Uncanny X-Men (Sauron and the Savage Land! Havok and Polaris!), not to mention his amazing pencils on the juiciest moments of the Kree-Skull War epic made him one of the most exciting superhero artists out there for me. Adams's heroes may not have been the most muscular, but they had poise and life. Falling over? Or leaping forward with style? :-)

  4. Louie says:

    Well, I don't know if I would read too much into the whole racism thing. It's a comic book, for Pete's sake. Hardly the medium to make a profound statement on race relations, don't you think?
    As a side note, I saw copies of this comic book at Pic n' Save – lots of them – in 1980. So I'm inclined to agree that yeah, this was very much a novelty. Still, I didn't buy it when I had the chance…grrr

  5. Bob Johnson says:

    Keep screaming "racism," I'm sure that'll make your joke of a life meaningful.

  6. Now it Begins says:

    Why don't you include Jesse Owen's amphetamine enhanced "victory " in Berlin?

  7. Ted, sure it's a gimmick, and yes, DC used Kryptonite as a crutch, but if you think Neal Adams drawing Muhammad Ali beating the crap out of Superman is anything less that awesome, you are completely unqualified to make any commentary on comic books.
    Two left feet? It's dynamic art, man! You musta hated Jack Kirby too, for trying to make every character leap off the page.

  8. theycallmemistertibb says:

    Just try and stop me from getting that statue. Geoff Boucher is indeed a kindred spirit. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali has been my favorite comic ever since I got my first copy of it in 1980 at Pic 'n' Save when I was just a lad of 8 years old. This book also secured Neal Adams's position as my favorite comic book artist of all time. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Adams at the San Diego Comic Con. He autographed one of my three copies of the book and we rapped for about half an hour. He told me that he felt that Supes vs. Ali was his greatest work and I was inclined to agree with him. As a kid–and even now–I'm still in awe of the book. I'm also a big Muhammad Ali fan and I love the idea of a larger-than-life person like him as a comic book hero.
    @Ted Burke: maybe you haven't read the book in a while, but Superman got to be quite "super" in this story. Do you recall those magnificent pages of Supes taking on the alien armada? Superman is doing the most and putting major foot to alien butt. And you are drinking way too much Haterade talking mess about Neal's art like that.
    @Colin Burke: you are reaching with the whole racism thing. Both Superman and Ali were powerful in their own right and therefore on equal footing. Maybe you'd have a case for racism if Superman had won the fight with Ali, but Ali was no doubt the superior fighter and Superman acknowledged that. Supes has always had his powers to fall back on and without them he proved that he is no boxer. Ali is not a Kryptonian and therefore can't fly, bend steel in his bare hands, or singlehandedly take on an alien armada, but he could outbox Supes and the alien champ Hun'Ya. Though Supes's powers were taken away, Ali's power of skillful ringmanship could not be taken away. Both men had strengths as well as limitations. There was a balance of power between them and this is made evident by Supes and Ali each doing their part to save Earth (Supes taking on the armada, Ali flattening Hun'Ya). Ali summed it up at the end of the book when he told Supes: "Superman, WE are the greatest!"
    And Colin, what's this about Ali being forced to fight in his underwear? For crying out loud! He's wearing boxing trunks, not underwear! How is a boxer wearing boxing trunks racist?

  9. Leo Partible says:

    Brilliant article, Geoff! I’m in agreement with you — this is the greatest comic book ever published. I’m so happy to find someone else that shares my enthusiasm for this book. Neal Adams’ artwork, with its combination of realism and decompressed storytelling, hinted at the cinematic possibilities of the superhero. He brought Cinemascope to the comics and his covers were like epic, attention demanding movie posters that screamed “This is an EVENT, folks!” They didn’t tell you to “Face front, effendi!” They compelled you. They FORCED you.
    As much as I love Marvel Comics, I identify more with DC Comics. SvMA was a masterful polemic against the narrow minded Marvel Zombie Eloi that thought (and still think) that Superman was a boring and stupid character. It expressed all the brilliance of the Superman character, the one loved by U.K. comic book writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Mark Millar, novelists like Brad Meltzer, Jonathan Lethem, and Michael Chabon, and filmmakers like J.J. Abrams, Bryan Singer, and Chris Nolan (who cites the first film as the inspiration for his Batman). Neal Adam’s Superman was the Chris Reeve Superman, in contrast to (as much as I love his depiction) Curt Swan’s Supes (and Alex Ross, for that matter) who is basically John Hamm (which is probably why so many people are lobbying for him to play the Man of Steel). I used Neal Adam’s Superman as a defense against the disparaging remarks of geeky peers who insisted that the character was cheesy, juvenile, decrepit, and looked like a misnamed senior citizen. SvMA had awesome scenes like Lois and Clark in an urban setting, Superman s#!%-kicked and BLOODIED, crowd scenes with aliens from a thousand worlds, real-life celebrities, Superman as a human battering ram smashing through a massive Star Wars-like alien armada with his face frozen in a primal scream (loved seeing that same face in the Superman movie when Reeve takes to the sky after he finds Lois dead).
    While the Richard Donner film was the love letter and tribute to Superman the American Icon, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (which came out around the same time) showed us Superman’s mission in the world, and the universe. It did more to present Superman as the defining American myth, the way the way the Gilgamesh defined the Babylonians, and Moses and David defined the Ancient Israelites. It explained his place in the Universe as a cosmic force for good against a much larger galactic threat. SvMA was transmedia storytelling at its best. It presented a DC Universe that easily accommodated fantasy and the real world, human drama and galactic epic, Tarantino violence with George Lucas fantasy.
    This is why I think Chris Nolan and Co. should seriously take a look at Superman vs. Muhammad Ali as the model for the Superman reboot. I can guarantee that utilizing all its elements will catapult the Man of Steel’s cinematic return to Billion dollar levels.

  10. Shaun says:

    Ugh… Honestly? I remember this one from my childhood (I was 8, almost 9, when it came out). I hated it then, and I hate it now. First, by the time the comic came out Ali had been dethroned as champ (by Leon Spinks, I think) so that certainly took some of the luster off the book.
    Also, the much ballyhoo-ed fight was sure a bust. Whenever Supes loses his powers, which happens far too often, Supes is pretty much worthless and ALWAYS gets beaten up. So it was here. In the book, Supes is beaten, bruised and battered to a pulp and then carried off on a stretcher near death. Yippie… What was the point of all that? Why can't he ever put up at least decent stand while powerless?
    I do remember that Supes and Ali had a plan to defeat the aliens, a subterfuge enacted after the fight, but even as a kid I remembered thinking the story was pretty stupid. Mostly, I just resented seeing my childhood hero get savagely beaten like that. That was part of the plan? Ali couldn't take it easy and Supes just takes a fall?

  11. Shaun says:

    Leo said: "This is why I think Chris Nolan and Co. should seriously take a look at Superman vs. Muhammad Ali as the model for the Superman reboot. I can guarantee that utilizing all its elements will catapult the Man of Steel's cinematic return to Billion dollar levels."
    Ugh… Thankfully, I think Chris Nolan is a lot smarter than that. No, the idea of using this campy story as a basis for a new Superman film would make it a laughing stock, not unlike Superman 3 or 4. Heck, it might even make the dreadful Superman Returns look like a fun, rollicking adventure.
    I don't know what Nolan & Co. have in mind, but I hope it will take a far more contemporary approach, perhaps using the John Byrne revamp from the late 80's/early 90's as its approach. At the very least, if Luthor must be used yet again as a villain, I hope he will be the ruthless, powerful industrialist who owns at least half of Metropolis, and not some low-level crook who's not a true challenge for Supes.
    I'd also like to see a truly epic, cosmic adventure that takes advatange of today's special effects. Let's really have a SUPER Superman on the big screen. Brainiac, Metallo, some variation on Parasite, or Darkseid as villains would be awesome.
    But, please, a story involving Superman and a boxer teaming up to fight an alien threat just sounds laughable. I think we've also seen enough of Supes getting stripped of his powers, and then getting beaten up, too. We got that Superman 2, and again in Superman Returns. Let's a see a true test of Supes' full powers instead.

  12. Leo Partible says:

    Shaun — I think you misunderstood my comments. I didn't say Nolan and Co. should do a DIRECT ADAPTATION OF SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI. I was trying to say that the book captured the essence of Superman, and these elements — "It presented a DC Universe that easily accommodated fantasy and the real world, human drama and galactic epic, Tarantino violence with George Lucas fantasy" — should be a part of the new Superman reboot.
    I don't think Nolan and Co. are using anything from the Byrne era, except maybe his expansion of Darkseid and the Kirby Fourth World in the DCU. If anything, they'll be using elements of the Geoff Johns-Gary Frank run, the Superman Animated series and last 2 seasons of Justice League Unlimited, Superman: For All Seasons, and Donner's Superman (but nothing like Bryan Singer's take). Remember, that Geoff Johns oversees the Film and TV adaptations unit of DC Entertainment, and he began as Richard Donner's assistant. Also, his earliest work at DC was with David Goyer on JSA. Chris Nolan is a huge fan of 70s era blockbusters, and cites Star Wars, Superman the Movie, the Black Hole, and The Spy Who Loved Me as some of his favorite films.
    So with that information, I gather their Superman will utilize their already proven formula on the Batman series, by taking their cinematic influences, and the Superman classics that resonate with them, to craft a GALACTIC Superman epic. I can see them (and I hope) doing a Star Wars-like Superman film involving Darkseid and the Fourth World characters or a story involving all 3 of Superman's other popular foes, a trio consisting of Brainiac, Luthor and Zod.

  13. Alico, LLC says:

    Superman vs. Muhammad Ali 1978 oversized comic book autographed by Ali. Cover also depicts 172 celebrities at ringside. $1,000.00 ($24.95 S/H)
    SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI COMIC BOOK WITH WINDOW STICKER AND TICKET
    "The Most Spectacular Super-Hero Battle of All Time!" preserved in a 26" x 28" black lacquer frame along with a rare ticket to the fantasy fight and a rare window sticker used by shopkeepers to advertise the 1978 DC comic book. Its celebrity-packed cover depicts over 170 famous faces at ringside, including Jimmy Carter, Johnny Carson, Christopher Reeve and Lucille Ball. A page 2 diagram identifies them all. Double matted with gold trim, autographed in black sharpie by Ali. $1795.00 To order or more info, call 201-489-9489 now!

  14. BMikeA says:

    I, like Geoff, thought this comic was fantastic fun for us fanboys.
    @theycallmemistertibbs You perfectly summed up everything that I was going to say but perhaps better. Great points and I agree completely.
    And, the underwear that Ali fought in…were indeed trunks…the same type of trunks Ali boxed in when in several of his matches.
    Also, Kryptonite was not the equalizing factor. It was that Bodace, the planet they were on (that the alien Scrubb were from) circled a red sun. Superman loses his powers under a red sun. That was the type that Krypton orbited.
    Regarding race, I think the book actually points out something that I always misunderstood as a kid and didn't realize until much later. When Superman and Ali first come out of their corners to fight, Jimmy Olsen points out that Superman is fighting in his costume because all the spectators/aliens can't tell a difference between the fighters based on their skin hue (black/white)… humanoids look the same to them. I think that kind of sums it up that color isn't a big deal to them. Of course, from a boxing standpoint, they could have had Supes fight in nifty Prince Naseem spangly blue trunks with the Super S to differentiate…but that's a minor point.
    I think the story is still fun.

  15. James Larsen says:

    Great statue. Although, I am not sure that it's the best comic ever.

  16. [...] of this blog may remember our obsession with the 1978 comic book “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” but it turns out we are not [...]

  17. Michele says:

    Hi, does anyone know how much an original copy is worth?. In good shape.

  18. tony says:

    I throughly enjoyed reading this comic back in the day! Trying to guess who the celebrities were on the cover. I liked the story too. I wish I knew what happened to that copy!

  19. Marcel says:

    I fall into the camp of people who LOVE this comic book.

    Is it campy, and "gimmicky", and over-the-top? Yes…to the same degree that ALL super-hero comic books are. I disagree with one of the above comments ("It's a comic book, for Pete's sake. Hardly the medium to make a profound statement on race relations, don't you think?"), in that I think this medium has room to spare for both the silly and the sublime. (MAUS. 'Nuff said.) That said, there's a lot of powerful work in SvsMA that is maybe overshadowed by the stature of its stars.

    I've always been a Superman fan, and don't quite get the cries of "foul" from people resenting seeing their SUPER-hero getting beaten so badly. In the best of stories, the hero is always beaten badly before he rises back to glory. I thought – and still think – the sequence where Superman becomes credited across the Universe as "The Man Who Would Not Fall Down" stands as evidence of the character's strength, even when outmatched.

    Ali is simply the Greatest, in any medium, galaxy, or time-space continuum.

    Neal Adams is a cinematic artist, who was the perfect choice for this book. His compositions and sense of character are enviable.

    So you're left with three icons at the top of their game, coming together for a snapshot of the 1970s in something that's a whole lot of fun.

    It IS the Greatest!

  20. Murrowboy says:

    Glad to know that I'm not the only one with fond memories of this team up. When I first read it, I remembered thinking that it was exactly the kind of story a Superman adventure should be. I think it's held up well over the years too, and still have my original copy.

    I, too, initially felt a bit sorry that my original edition would likely lose some of its value/specialness with the reprint (this had probably added to its mystique), but I'm glad it's now out there for others to appreciate.

  21. jacob says:

    this is sick broski ali man

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