Now this takes me back. In 1978, as a part of its large-sized Treasury Edition series, DC released the 76-page comic, Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali. At the time of its release, Ali was indisputably the most famous athlete in the world, while the Man of Steel still held his own as a pop culture icon, so the match-up made its own kind of commercial sense even if a lot of comic book fans back in the day were nonplussed the first time they saw that title. Recently, DC reissued this comic book curiosity in two editions – a facsimile hardcover reprinting the book in its original 10-x-13.25” inch size, along with a smaller “Deluxe” edition containing some additional developmental art – for a readership that in many cases is too young to even remember the Thrilla in Manilla.
The plot, credited to long-time comics pro Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams (who reportedly did the bulk of the actual script work), is a simple one. A race of warrior aliens called the Scrubb shows up on Earth, challenging the planet’s greatest fighter to a contest. “We know you to be this galaxy’s most warlike and savage people,” Scrubb leader Rat’Lar leader tells Ali as a conveniently present Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen witness this first contact. Once Clark does his usual vanishing act and Superman shows up on the scene, both he and Ali are challenged to a contest wherein the winner gets to take on the Scrubbs’ champion fighter, a hulking creature called Hun-ya.
At stake, of course, is the fate of this ”green-blue pearl” called Earth, as an armada of Scrubb ships surrounds the globe. To prove their seriousness, Rat’Lar orders a rain of plasma missiles on the city of St. Louis, but, of course, Superman is able to avert that catastrophe. The actual contest is set to take place in a solar system with a red sun, taking away the Son of Krypton’s super powers, so before the match Ali teaches him all about the tactics and psychology of boxing. (That Superman — who has been in an uncountable number of scraps over the years — proves naïve about the ways to psych out your opponent seems rather preposterous, but never mind.) The fight itself is broadcast over “intergalactic television,” with Jimmy Olsen incongruously being thrust into the role of blow-by-blow commentator. While Ali fights in the usual boxing shorts, Supes remains in his costume for the sake of the aliens watching the event. “Except for subtle changes in hue, all humans look exactly alike to them,” Jimmy none-too-subtly explains.
“The Fight to Save Earth from Star Warriors,” the book’s front cover trumpets (the comic was released a year after Lucas’ Star Wars), and Adams the artist brings his usual muscular commitment to a storyline that could’ve come out of the original Star Trek. You can clearly see the artist enjoying himself in sequences like the pre-fight training scene, where Ali gives a stance-by-stance demo of basic boxing moves, while the sci-fi action scenes take maximum advantage of the outsized format. If at times, the banter comes across as more campy than comic (“Too much red sun make Scrubb wack-a-ding-hoy!”), well, sprightly word balloons weren’t DC’s stock in trade back then — that was more Marvel’s turf.
Without getting too spoilery, you know that the gladiatorial competition between Ali and Kal-El will be resolved without either character losing out. Both of these icons have way too much dignity for this comic book conflict to play out any other way. But as an artifact of a time when a two-page spread of Metropolis’ Inner City ghetto could look sexily vibrant and friendly, when Ali was still the Greatest even if this comic was actually released between his reigns as heavyweight champion, when the idea of a sporting competition that was more than just a match-up between overpaid athletes didn’t seem that outlandish, Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali provides the nostalgic goods.