‘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 

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