Hopefully you’ve read that last paragraph in your best Howard Cossell voice. If you haven’t, go back and try to channel your inner Cossell. Everyone has one of those.
So, here’s the story: alien invaders come to planet earth looking for a champion to fight their top warrior. Their choices, found on a basketball court in Metropolis’s down-town “inner city ghetto,” end up being Superman (natch) and Muhammad Ali (floating like a butterfly as he teaches inner-city ghetto kids how to dunk a basketball because that’s what a boxing champion does- he plays basketball.) To test their mettle, the two potential champions of Earth are forced to have their own boxing match to determine who will face in intergalactic warrior. After Ali trains Superman, who constructed a ring at the fringes of space where time moves much slower so they could get a lot of training done in the span of hours, Ali whups Superman’s butt in the real match, proving that he is the greatest and is truly the Earth’s champion.
And that’s just the first half of the story.
And it just gets more absurd and more wonderful from there.
Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali is simply an incredible and outlandish story, beginning with the cover by Adams that features drawing of 170 celebrities, writers, artists, DC staffers and even DC characters. It’s nice to know that if this fight ever took place in an arena like Madison Square Garden, Lex Luthor and Batman woud be able to get ringside seats next to Sonny Bono and President Jimmy Carter. But the cover isn’t all just super heroes, villains and Presidents. It also has Sweathogs on it. And not the cool Sweathogs like Vinnie Barbarino or Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington. No, Neal Adams included Horshack and Epstien in it. (I’m sure that Epstien has a note from his mother getting him out of school for this fight of the century.) The cover has an “everything and the kitchen sink” aspect to it, as there’s no detail too small or insignificant for Adams to leave out of his likenesses.
The level of detail in O’Neil and Adams’ story isn’t quite as meticulous as the cover but it’s there, from the training montage to the different alien races that Adams creates to the explanations of boxing (real) and intergalactic ringside announcing (not real) that fills this story. With only 73 pages, O’Neil and Adams make sure that there’s some kind of odd half real/half fictional logic to this thing, filling it with so many facts and explanations that you eventually just get overwhelmed with them and sucked into the story, shrugging your shoulders and accepting everything that the creators have to say. From race relations to boxing strategies, it’s all there in this book.
Honestly, this is one damn silly comic book but, while there’s a sense of a nudge and a wink from O’Neil and Adams, the never really let on that there’s any part of this book that’s a joke. It’s actually a pretty straight-forward teamup. After all, Superman has over time met everyone from Jerry Lewis to Don Rickles so why couldn’t he meet the heavy-weight champ? O’Neil and Adams may have know that this was a bit silly but the story never did. While it is played almost totally seriously, O’Neil and Adams show us how everything can and should be able to happen in a super hero comics book. Even as this book was coming out, and certainly since, super heroes have gotten too conservative and too serious. There’s a gimmicky-ness to it when Spider-Man meets President Obama that even the story has to acknowledge as it tries to figure out why and how that could happen and how to keep it slightly plausible. That practicality doesn’t exist in this comic as once Superman and Ali are together on the page, the story just takes off like it’s any other teamup.
In many ways, this was a last hurrah for Adams, as his commercial art work with Continuity studios would lure him away from a lot of comic work. While there would be his own short-lived Continuity line of comics, for the past couple of decades, new artwork from Adams has been few and far between. But if this was how he was going out, he went out in style as his work has never looked better. Inked by Dick Giordano and Terry Austin, Adams must have had the larger size of DC’s tabloid editions in mind as he was drawing this comic book. He opens the book with a two page spread of inner city Metropolis, with Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen walking down a street, hunting for a story. These three characters are only a minuscule part of the spread as Adams just illustrates a 1970s-era city street with all kind of people, cars, buildings and activities happening on it. It’s not the clean, stylized and generic Metropolis that exists today; this is a street out of New York or Chicago that existed only on warm summer days, where you could buy your fresh fruit and vegetables on the sidewalk in front of the store.
With as much care and detail that Adams puts into drawing the downtown streets of Metropolis, he puts into almost every page and panel of this book. For a man who has had a great career but is known in superhero comic circles as the man who changed Batman from the campy Adam West Batman of the late 1960s into the dark detective of the 1970s, Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali may be the best looking comic that he has done. Taking advantage of the larger size of the book, Adams really uses the page, filling every possible inch of it with wonderful drawings. Whether it’s a page packed with panels of Superman and Ali walking through an alien ship, a massive spash page of Ali teaching Superman how to box or an awesome 2-page spread of Ali knocking aliens out of the boxing ring, Adams lets his full energy loose on every page, producing some of the most realistic-looking superhero comics.
If you’re looking to get this book, DC has republished it recently in two editions; a facsimile edition that matches the original size of the book and a smaller, deluxe edition. Honestly, I can’t imagine experiencing this story any way other than at it’s original size. Neal Adams’ artwork almost demands that you enjoy now the way you would have in 1978.
Even if it is older than 30 years, Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali is everything that I want and everything that is missing in superhero comics today: giant characters, pages crammed with ideas and concepts that I can’t see anywhere else and almost need to have a real semblance of reality. For two creators who pulled Batman out of the campy 1960s, this book may be O’Neil and Adam’s last hurrah of the Silver Age, that period in comics where Superman could have a lion’s head one issue and be turned into two versions of himself, one red and one blue, the next. None of the heavy realism or pessimism of 70s or 80s era comics exists in this book. O’Neil and Adams created a book that celebrated the larger-than-life Muhammad Ali by teaming him up with the only superhero who could match his grand persona; Superman. Once you have these two characters together, anything and everything should be possible. A book that wasn’t as outrageous and grand as Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali turned out to be would not have lived up to everything that the man and the fictional character stood for.