To honor the passing of the great Muhammad Ali, Brett Weiss has given The Retroist authorization to reprint his epic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali essay, which is one of 60 chapters in his book, Retro Pop Culture A to Z: From Atari 2600 to Zombie Films.
The tabloid-sized Superman vs. Muhammad Ali is much more than a big, bold, brash, beautifully illustrated comic book. At least it is to me.
Before I break down the storyline and pepper you with fresh quotes from the great Neal Adams, who penciled and co-plotted this bulky bad boy, let’s hop aboard the Tardis and travel back in time to 1978 to a small suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, where Superman vs. Muhammad Ali graced me-free of charge-with its four-color goodness.
As a kid I loved comic books more than just about anything in the whole wide world. During the long, hot Texas summers, when I wasn’t riding my bicycle, building models, digging in the dirt, or playing basketball, I was usually planted on my bed, the couch, the front porch, or anywhere else I could find some solitude, thrilling to the exploits of such stalwart arbiters of justice as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The Flash, and Green Lantern.
Money was pretty tight in those days-my buck-a- week allowance was enough to purchase three new issues, give or take a few cents. To supplement my collection, I would trade with my best friend, who lived next door. Better yet, my mom would take me to a couple of used bookstores in the area, where comics were typically half of cover price. Still better was the local thrift store that sometimes had comics for just 10 cents each?score!
When Superman vs. Muhammad Ali hit the stands, I was mesmerized by its now-classic cover, its massive size (I was unfamiliar at the time with any former tabloid releases), and its pitting of two of the world’s most well-known figures against one another. I wasn’t much of a boxing fan, but everyone knew Muhammad Ali was a great fighter, and I was intrigued by the premise.
However, as with the AMT KISS van model kit that came out the previous year, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was something I desperately wanted, but couldn’t afford. The $2.50 cover price was a deal-breaker as I just couldn’t bear spending two-and-a-half weeks’ worth of allowance on a single comic book, regardless of its size or its overall awesomeness.
Enter my older cousin Randy, who, at the age of 16, owned thousands of comic books, mostly Marvels, DCs, and Warren magazines (his mom paid for subscriptions to several titles per month). When my family would visit his family, the big kids would run off to who knew where, and the adults would sit in the kitchen talking, leaving me with hours and hours of reading time in what I considered to be the greatest library in the history of humankind. I was like Henry Bemis in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last” (1959), but without the tragic ending.
One day during the summer of ’78, while Randy’s family was visiting my house, he walked in the front door, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali in hand. After the obligatory hugs and “hellos” and such, Randy asked me if I wanted to borrow the sacred tome. My eyes must have bugged out of my head because Randy, the kind soul that he was (and still is), asked if I’d like to keep it. Needless to say, I took him up on his offer, plopped down on the nearest chair, and devoured the issue like a man in the desert chugging a cold glass of Gatorade. Brain freeze had never felt so good.
After a brief introduction of the two far-famed contestants, Superman vs. Ali begins in Metropolis, with Clark, Lois, and Jimmy searching for boxing great Muhammad Ali in order to do an exclusive interview. They find the Louisville Lip shooting hoops with some neighborhood kids, but before the interview can get underway, the fabulous foursome is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Rat’Lar, the green-skinned leader of a savage alien species called the Scrubb.
Backed by an armada of 100 powerful warships orbiting the planet, Rat’Lar demands that Earth’s greatest champion battle the mightiest Scrubb warrior. Ali and Superman each argue that they should be chosen as champ, with Rat’Lar insisting that the dueling duo fight one another to determine Earth’s true champion. To make things fair for Earthling Ali, the match takes place on Rat’Lar’s home planet, Bodace, which has a red sun. As Superman fans well know, he requires the energy of a yellow sun to have super powers.
Ali trains Superman on the finer points of the “sweet science” at the Kryptonian Crusader’s vaunted Fortress of Solitude, but when the actual match begins, it quickly becomes clear that Ali is the vastly superior pugilist. With Jimmy Olsen acting as broadcaster, and with citizens of thousands of intergalactic worlds looking on, Ali dances around the ring, connecting blow after blow (“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” the real-life Ali famously said, describing his fighting style), pummeling Superman to a bloody pulp.
As an impressionable 11-year-old, the image of Superman lying unconscious on a stretcher, his face bruised and swollen, shook me up considerably (I was equally stunned-but in a good way in this case-by an earlier scene in which Superman stopped a tidal wave by crashing his fists together).
Crowned Earth’s champion, Ali must now face Hun’Ya, a big, bald, blue, muscle-bound bruiser. Paying homage to Ali’s cocky reputation for predicting the round in which the fight will end, Rat’Lar asks the famous fighter to do just that. For those who haven’t read the issue, I won’t reveal the final round or the victor, but it’s a close, dramatic fight, with Ali and Hun’Ya each getting in his share of punches.
During the epic bout, Superman, having quickly recovered from the beating dished out by Ali, disguises himself as Bundini Brown, Ali’s corner man, and steals the Scrubb command ship, sabotaging the alien armada in the process. The space battle takes its toll, however, and Superman is once again down for the count.
Naturally, the heroes, along with a surprise helpmate, eventually save the day, with Ali proclaiming at the end of the issue (via a striking two-page spread): “Superman, WE Are the Greatest!”
ADAMS HAS THINGS COVERED
Drawn by Neal Adams, the cover to Superman vs. Muhammad Ali is one of the most iconic in the history of the industry. As the People’s Champion and the Man of Steel duke it out in the ring, no less than 172 celebrities, politicians, comic-book creators, super-heroes, and other luminaries look on, including such diverse figures as Andy Warhol, Gerald Ford, Berni Wrightson, and Donna “Wonder Girl” Troy.
The inside front cover features a number code identifying each member of the audience. As a kid I had a great time going through the list of names and finding the corresponding images on the wraparound cover. I was especially delighted to discover a number of TV and movie stars in the mix, including Lucille Ball, Raquel Welch, and Ron “Horshack” Pallilo. Adams’ detailed illustrations are uncannily lifelike, meaning most of the more famous people are instantly identifiable.
The legendary Joe Kubert was originally slated to draw Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, but things didn’t quite pan out.
“Joe did a wraparound cover, and it was submitted to the Muhammad Ali people,” Adams revealed to me in a recent phone interview. “Apparently Joe’s rough style didn’t translate into likenesses that the honorable Elijah Muhammad [Ali’s manager] was happy with. I’m quite sure that DC was happy with what Joe was doing, and I’m sure he would have done a fine job, but everything had to be run past Elijah, and he didn’t like what he saw.”
Best known for his work on Hawkman and Sgt. Rock, Kubert wasn’t accustomed to drawing Superman, and his sketchy style wasn’t the ideal fit for drawing recognizable faces. “Maybe Kubert wasn’t the best direction to go,” Adams said. “For likenesses, you need someone who draws a little bit more realistically, so I was then approached. I agreed to do it, but I didn’t want any contributions that Joe had made to be wasted, so I took his layout and traced it for the double-spread cover. So that cover is really Kubert’s layout.”
While it may have been Kubert’s layout, Adams had the idea to put famous folks in the audience. “I suggested it,” Adams said, laughing. “If you’re gonna have this fight between Superman and Muhammad Ali, aren’t celebrities going to come, just like in a regular fight? Dumbest idea I ever had [more laughter]. It was a whole lot of extra work.”
According to Adams, it wasn’t a legal requirement to get a celebrity’s blessing to put his or her likeness on the cover, but DC, much to his chagrin, did it anyway. “You didn’t really need to get celebrities’ permission, but DC was becoming a little bit corporate by that time, so that’s the route they took. The problem with asking people is that some of them will turn you down.”
Celebrities who said “no” to being featured on the cover created more work for Adams. “Out of a given number of celebrities, certain people turned us down, so DC comes back to me and says, “Can you patch over this,” and I said, “come on, I got a hundred people here, and now I’ve got to start making patches”
To disguise a certain cowboy actor known as the Duke, Adams employed a creative, yet quick and easy fix. “I started putting mustaches on people,” Adams said. “So John Wayne is in the audience [to the left of Johnny Carson, above and to the right of Lex Luthor’s bald head], only he’s not identified as such because he has a mustache.”
In the year 2000, ESPN Magazine contacted Adams about producing a similar cover for a special “100 Greatest Athletes of the Century” issue. Their art director called him and said, “I don’t want to take a hundred photographs of these various people and put them on the cover. Do you think you could do that cover over again and put those people in the audience?” Adams quickly agreed and was very happy with the results.
“Ali and [Michael] Jordan were number one and number two,” Adams said. “So in place of Superman, we have Jordan fighting Ali, with the other 98 greatest athletes of the century looking on. Unfortunately, a lot of fans didn’t get to see the cover because all three million issues went to subscribers. I got a lot of money to do that, and the cover actually turned out better than the cover on the comic book. As unbelievable as that sounds [laughs].”
JULIUS SCHWARTZ-LARGE AND IN CHARGE
The late, great Julius Schwartz edited Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, which suited Adams just fine, even though Schwartz was a known taskmaster. When I asked Adams about Schwartz’s reputation as a tough, but fair editor, Adams said, “Julie was my favorite editor. He didn’t put up with any crap from anybody, but he didn’t hurt anyone either. He was just grumpy. He must have read something about editors in a book somewhere that said that that was how editors were supposed to be [laughs]. He was kind of like Perry White [more laughter].”
Adopting a more serious tone, Adams said, “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was Julie’s pet project, but he couldn’t act warm and caring about it, because Julie was Julie. But you could tell that it warmed the cockles of his heart, and he didn’t mind giving me the extra work of putting people [celebrities] in and taking people out. He couldn’t find more money for me to do it, but he didn’t come begging for me to do it, either. He was a pain in the ass from beginning to end, but without that attitude, we couldn’t have gotten a project like this done.”
SIZE TRULY DOES MATTER
According to an interview published in The Amazing World of DC Comics #10 (1976), Sol Harrison, DC??s Vice President of Operations at the time, played a key role in launching the oversized format used for such special projects as Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.
“We were looking for a new format, because our magazines weren’t getting proper placement among the 120 magazines on the newsstand at the time,” Harrison said. “Returning from a trip to the World Color Press plant at Sparta Illinois, I began to play around with different sizes for comics. None of the sizes seemed to work, since they couldn’t be put on a newspaper high-speed color press. But by opening the comic up, with one less fold, we could create a tabloid size comic that would stand out on the newsstand.”
The first tabloid comic published by DC starred a famous fictional character, but it wasn’t a man or woman in cape and tights. “I convinced Carmine [Infantino] that we should test it,” Harrison said, “and we launched this new format with Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which was released in 1972, a full six years before Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.
For Adams, the new format didn’t pose any special problems in terms of illustrating the story. “I didn’t have a problem with it because the original art was practically the same size” he said. “My stuff I tend to draw detailed, so you’re going to get a pretty good product no matter what.”
IT’S IN THE DETAILS
Adams is clearly the star of the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali show, adapting and expanding upon the story and penciling the entire issue. However, he gives ample credit to his collaborators, particularly inker Terry Austin, who was a fan favorite during the late 1970s and early ’80s for his work embellishing John Byrne’s pencils on The Uncanny X-Men. Austin, along with the late, great Dick Giordano, inked the star-spanning tale.
“Terry Austin had become Dick Giordano’s assistant at that time, and he was a geek-out,” Adams said. “Every time I would indicate something, he would put even more in. You know that double-page spread that looks like Queens or the Bronx, where the characters are walking down the street and you see all that stuff? Nobody else would have done all that. I indicated it, but I’m doing it thinking that somebody-one of Dick’s assistants-is going to screw it up. They’re just going to quickly ink it, and that’ll be the end of it. But suddenly there was Terry Austin, and he just went crazy.”
The city scene Adams referred to is spread over pages two and three, and it is indeed a wonder to behold. The setting is a summer day in Metropolis. The sidewalks and store fronts bustle with activity, from a kid bouncing a basketball to a clerk manning a fruit stand to Lois, Clark, and Jimmy looking for Ali. Birds, signage, garbage cans, windows, antennae, traffic lights-it’s all there, clearly indicating that Austin went above and beyond the call of duty.
“And it wasn’t just that,” Adams continued, praising Austin’s work on the rest of the issue. “There’re multiple spaceships and all kinds of stuff that he put in. That’s standard practice for today, to put all that stuff in, but that’s if somebody’s making a lot of money. In those days, the inking went for probably $25 or $30 per page, and the background guy probably got $10 a page if he was lucky. Now, try to imagine putting all that background stuff in for $10 per page. He was totally insane. That’s not even minimum wage.”
THE PLOT THICKENS
As mentioned earlier, Adams is credited with adapting Denny O’Neil’s original story. When I asked Adams about this, he said: “Julie came up with the original conflict. Denny and I both did outlines-we went off and plotted. Mine was a little bit more direct. Denny’s kind of meandered around a bit. Julie liked my outline better and pushed it on to Denny, which wasn’t a great situation because he did it right in front of me [laughs]. I didn’t like that.”
According to Adams, O’Neil tried to make the best of things. “Denny agreed to the job and started working with the combination outline, but he kind of got lost in the story. He was going through a difficult time with all the work he had-his tremendous workload. It was not a good time for Denny. He started the story, but it went south. Julie and I had a meeting, and by the end of the meeting it was determined that I was going to finish the script. It was the one time Julie became a little bit heartless during the project; at a certain point he took the whole catfish boat and threw it in my face and said to just do it.”
Adams didn’t particularly care for the way the whole thing went down (he described the script changing hands as “rough” on both he and Denny), but he was certainly up to the task at hand. “It was the proper solution,” he said. “Julie was running into problems. The story was running into problems. Denny needed a break, and he got the break. I finished the story, and it was no burden.”
Further elaborating, Adams said: “It was easy for me. Denny had written a bunch of stuff along the way, and I just took every bit of his stuff and molded the dialogue from his to mine. You don’t see a break in the continuity. You can’t tell what Denny wrote and what I wrote. At the end of the day you’d have to call the writing of the script a collaboration between three people: myself, Denny, and Julie.”
As most anyone who has read Superman vs. Muhammad Ali will attest, the final product was a success, despite some difficulties along the way. “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was a big load,” Adams said. “It seems like a nice, simple book, but it was a big load, and it’s better for something like that to be in the hands of one person. It turned out to be easier for me to simply finish it up by myself. I don’t see me solving the problem so much as relieving Denny of the burden. He was just so busy with other writing projects. I don’t normally collaborate with people in terms of script writing. I either do the story, or someone else does the story. If someone else does the story, I leave it alone, and I don’t have an opinion. Other people are comfortable working together on a script, but I’m really not.”
SUPER SOCIAL RELEVANCE
While it was Julie’s idea to pit the Last Son of Krypton against the Louisville Lip, Adams takes personal pride in having worked on the project, especially considering how few African-Americans were portrayed in comics as positive role models in those days. Seven years prior to the release of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, Adams and O’Neil brought more color to the world of four-color graphic fiction with the introduction of John Stewart in Green Lantern vol. 2 #87. “There are a lot of people who consider the creation of John Stewart to be one of the breakthrough moments in the culture of America,” Adams said. “I have black guys coming up to me all the time at conventions-even now-with tears in their eyes, because of John Stewart.”
Adams is only a casual sports fan (“If the World Series is on, I might watch three games,” he says, “and I paid attention when Mike Tyson was knocking everyone out”), but he’s admired Muhammad Ali for years. “If you look at the first comic Dennis O’Neil and I did with a black Green Lantern-that guy, John Stewart-was another Ali, he just happened to be an architect instead of a boxer, and he became a Green Lantern.”
Muhammad Ali, the only heavyweight champion to hold the lineal championship three times, is one of the two or three most famous athletes in the history of professional sports while Superman, the first-ever super-hero, is one of the most recognizable fictional characters on the planet.
Sales of Superman comics have fluctuated over the years, but he’s always been considered a good role model and a popular figure. Since shortly after the publication of his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (1938), Superman has remained in the public eye as one of the country’s brightest, most beloved pop culture icons, helping the helpless, protecting the oppressed, and fighting the good fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, while he’s a beloved hero and an American institution nowadays, was a controversial figure during his time in the ring, dividing the general public along racial, cultural, political, and religious lines.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on January 17, 1942, Ali changed his name in 1964 after joining the Nation of Islam, a black Islamic sect founded by Wallace D. Fard in Detroit in 1930. In 1934, Elijah Muhammad assumed leadership of the group, which espoused economic, political, and social independence for black Americans. Such controversial figures as Malcom X (circa 1960s) and Louis Farrakhan (who leads the Nation of Islam today) followed.
In addition to his unorthodox (relative to the average American citizen) religious beliefs, Ali staunchly opposed the Vietnam War and refused to take part in the conflict. In fact, his religious faith kept him out of the military altogether. He was eventually arrested and found guilty of draft evasion (though he didn’t spend any time in prison), losing his boxing title and license in the process. His appeal, which made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, was successful, but he didn’t fight for nearly four years during the process.
Ali’s vocal opposition to the Vietnam War escalated in 1967, when he said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong… No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
“Ali’s stance against the Vietnam war was a big deal and had a lot to do with the public’s negative attitude toward him,” Adams says. “He was willing to give up his title to not fight in a war that he didn’t believe in. His braggadocios nature and Islamic faith were also sore points with some people. In America he was considered an anti-hero. As a result, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali sold better overseas that in did in the states.”
ORIGINAL OR REPRINT?
Today, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, which was published under the All New Collectors’Edition imprint as Vol. 7, No. C-56, goes for more than $100 in near mint condition. Good reading copies can be found online or at any number of comic book conventions around the country for $20-$25 each.
In 2010, DC re-released Superman vs. Muhammad Ali as a hardcover graphic novel. This new edition includes a brief forward from Adams, an afterward by Jenette Kahn (DC’s publisher when the comic-book was released), 11 pages of pencil sketches by Adams, and a reproduction of the wraparound cover with corresponding key code. The Deluxe version ($19.99 suggested retail) is the standard size of a graphic novel while the Facsimile edition ($39.99) is larger to more faithfully evoke the original tabloid-sized issue.
“We recolored the story for the reprinting, but we followed the color scheme that we originally did,” Adams said. “We just souped it up and rounded it and made it better. Everybody loves it.” And, of course, instead of newsprint, the story has been reprinted on sturdy white paper stock.
From Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) to King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) to Avengers vs. X-Men (2012) to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), pop culture is riddled with titanic tussles between famous formidable foes. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, with its larger-than-life characters, larger-than- comics format, and lavishly detailed art, is one of the more memorable entries in this always dynamic subgenre.
Brett Weiss is the author of eight books, including the “Classic Home Video Games” series, The 100 Greatest Console Video Games, and his latest, Encyclopedia of KISS: Music, Personnel, Events and Related Subjects. Check his website for more info: brettweisswords.com.