DC has reprinted the 1978 comic book “Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali,” a tale that is exactly what it sounds like, and if it’s not kooky-sounding enough already, the battle takes place in outer space as special guest referee Athena handles zebra duties and Jimmy Carter, Sonny Bono, Kurt Vonnegut and Andy Warhol sit ringside. It’s silly fun, crafted beautifully. Whether the book is worth owning at $19.99 or $39.99 (depending on which edition you get) depends on how much of a comic book or boxing fanatic you are, or whether you simply can drop hints to family about the kind of thing you might want as a Christmas gift.
My review copy from DC arrived a bit late, so by now the re-release of this 72-page comic book is old news. To recap: The giant-sized comic was, according to DC, hard to reprint, although copyright laws due to all the celebrity cameos might have had more to do with it. Why anyone thought this was a good idea is difficult to imagine. But DC enlisted two of the finest comic book talents of the 70s — Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, best known for their socially conscious work together on Green Arrow — for the assignment, and the project profits a great deal from their involvement. Although the story has a message about the nature of humanity and war, the best thing about it is that… there’s no other way to say it, really: It’s Superman and Muhammad Ali. Fighting. In outer space. (With Adams providing the gorgeous artwork.)
The back story is entertaining in its own right. In the introduction, Adams writes that he and O’Neil had to be approved by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad before they could begin working. There’s some funny business as well about a potential Spider-Man cameo, and about Ali insisting that he get to discover Superman’s secret identity as a condition of his participation.
If you expected that O’Neil and Adams had to jump through a lot of hoops to come up with a Superman vs. Muhammad Ali storyline, you are clearly the kind of person who has wise expectations. Without spoiling the plot entirely, the gist is that an alien species threatens to blow up the Earth unless the planet’s finest warrior does battle with their finest warrior. Superman and Ali get into a dispute about which of them should do the deed, so they have to have a bit of a box-off to decide matters, but it happens under a red sun so Superman’s powers are nullified. Then there are still some aliens to fight, of course. Mixed in with all this is some business about whether mankind is inherently warlike, along with some lessons from Ali on boxing and gamesmanship.
Pointing out the flaws, given that set-up, is almost cruel. There are some corny 1970sisms like Jimmy Olsen making Grateful Dead allusions in his dialogue. Yet even those flaws are part of the charm. The “meaningful” story begins corny and ends corny, but it’s the right kind of corny. The preposterous plot is all the funnier for its preposterousness. And there are some genuinely good moments of writing mixed in there, like Ali telling Lois Lane she’s “prettier’n Cosell” and a great Ali-esque poem and blustery soliloquy sequence. Most of all, the artwork is magnificent.
I’m something of a comic book fanatic, or was. I worked four years in a comic book store, and my uncle is a nationally-known comic book collector. (His name is Tony, if you want to insert some “Iron Man” jokes in the comments section.) And I can tell you that, as much of a goofy good time as this was, it’s not something I would have been happy buying had I not been offered a review copy. But if someone had got it for me for Christmas, I most certainly would have been grateful.
Admittedly, I grew up more a Marvel guy than a DC guy. Superman might be the most boring superhero of them all. But with “Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali,” the company produced a crossover story that entertains — sometimes by accident — and is rendered with exceptional skill. There are, by the way, two versions of the book: deluxe and facsimile. The facsimile version replicates the original giant size. And if you’re getting it as a gift, I recommend requesting the $39.99 version, since the artwork is so splendid.