Editor’s Note: The recent loss of Neal Adams prompted me to pull this off the shelf and enjoy it again, and to entice you to do the same with this column from a few years back…
With the news on Friday of the death of unrivaled boxing champion, social activist and philanthropist Muhammad Ali, I couldn’t help but think back to one of the bigger comic-book events of the 1970s, SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI.
I hadn’t actually read the comic in years, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t really hold up. Not only is it a great tribute to Ali himself, as the book was clearly carefully conceived by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams as showing the proper respect to a real-life champion and not allowing him to be overshadowed by the Man of Steel, but it’s also a great sci-fi adventure story, in which Superman and Ali are forced to compete for the right to challenge an alien champion, with the fate of Earth hanging in the balance.
The introduction of Ali into Superman’s world is a natural one, with Lois Lane and Clark Kent out for an interview with the champ, when they’re confronted by an alien warlord who demands a bout with Ali as Earth’s champion. Ali meets the challenge with his usual bravado.
Superman, however, thinks he should be the one to face the aliens (and to be fair, he does have the experience.)
With a bout between the two decided in order to determine Earth’s champion, Ali and Superman head off to the Fortress of Solitude for a crash course in the sweet science, and it’s in sequences like this that Neal Adams’ portrayal of Ali shines. Not only is this some of the best likeness work of Adams’ career, but it’s also some of his best writing, as Denny O’Neil had to leave the project early and only contributed to the plot.
It’s long been rumored that Ali actually wrote his own dialogue for this book, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit; it all rings true.
When it comes time for the bout (held under a red sun to even the odds), Ali takes Superman to school, and despite being badly beaten, Superman refuses to hit the mat…
…until finally, Ali will not allow the fight to continue, and a bloodied Superman collapses.
Ali’s respect for Superman, however, remains:
Now about to face the alien champion, Ali addresses the intergalactic throng in attendance for the fight, and it’s classic stuff:
Meanwhile, as Ali and the alien touch gloves, Superman (still powerless) heads off on his own secret mission to disable the aliens’ technology.
It’s a nice touch here to have Superman be just as brave and formidable without his powers as Ali. Sure, DC wanted to make sure to treat Ali with respect, but they kept their own guy looking strong, too.
Reportedly, Ali’s only demand creatively was that he was to learn Superman’s secret identity, and they do so in such a way that confirms the two as peers, which, looking back now, is certainly appropriate. If any man walking the Earth was Superman’s peer, it was Muhammad Ali.
SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI is available in a deluxe Treasury-size hardcover, and is well worth your time and money. Check it out.