Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A LOOK BACK: Superman versus Muhammad Ali

I’ve written numerous times about the many comics and cartoonists who inspired my work, such as Milton Caniff, Alex Toth, Roy Crane, and Will Eisner. However, there are also comics and creators more contemporary to me that influenced me deeply as well. I came of age during the 1970s after all, and it was while I was in college during the 1980s that the direct-market and alternative press began to flower. As such, in upcoming posts, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at many of the comics I grew up on, which no doubt played as important a role in informing my tastes as the classic adventure strips I primarily cite as my inspirations.

I thought it would be fun to begin with 1978's Superman versus Muhammad Ali oversize one-shot special from DC Comics. Though the original comic appears to be fairly easy to find at places like eBay, given that we’re in an age of classic comics being released again in prestige formats, it’s somewhat surprising to find that this story has not been reprinted since its original publication—or perhaps not given the licensing and permissions that no doubt would be required to reprint it: not only from Ali, but the literally hundreds of celebrity likenesses who appeared on the original cover of the comic-book among the spectators watching Superman and Ali going toe-to-toe in the boxing ring.

At first glance, the comic-book seems to be the height of 1970s kitsch, another hokey cross-over sales gimmick. However, in execution, this comic-book not only successfully rises above the typical celebrity cross-over comic-book, but in my mind remains one of the best Superman stories ever that still stands as a template for everything a Superman adventure should be.

It helps that the comic-book is written and drawn, respectively, by comics legends Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. While the story is fun and occasionally winks at the audience, O’Neil and Adams otherwise treat both Ali and the character of Superman with great respect, and present an epic story where nothing less than the fate of the earth rests in both characters' hands.

In the story, earth is invaded by a warrior alien race called the Scrubb that challenges Earth to select a champion to defend the honor and ultimate survival of the planet. (The Scrubb actually deem Earth to be an obstacle to their own secret designs to dominate the galaxy). O’Neil and Adams cleverly find a way to create a level playing field in the boxing ring for Ali and the Man of Steel so that they may fight and decide who will represent Earth. The fight is thrillingly presented with great urgency and high stakes. Ultimately, of course, the fight between Ali and Superman turns out to be part of a larger scheme to save Earth and defeat the Scrubb.

t’s an epic storyline told in a tight 72 pages, no doubt partly an attempt to capitalize on the Star Wars craze from the year before (the cover blurb proudly proclaims the comic to feature “The Fight to Save Earth from Star Warriors”). Regardless, the story is told winningly and manages to capture Ali’s braggadocio and outsized personality, while telling a Superman story that manages to be epic and, ultimately, emotionally involving as well.

Adams’ photorealistic art, of course, and the oversize format helped sell the story, and it made quite an impact on my 16-year-old mind: I remember thinking that this is what Superman should be all about. While the story didn't break new ground and definitely was of its time, it's also told with style and enthusiasm—there is a joy and innocence to the proceedings that the field today certainly could use more of.

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