Monday, March 7, 2011

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali Deluxe Edition: A Comic Review

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali Deluxe Edition
Publisher: DC
Script: Denny O’Neil
Pencils: Neal Adams
Inks: Dick Giordano and Terry Austin

This is the big one we were all waiting for! I remember seeing the tabloid-sized original at our mall's Waldenbooks way back in 1978 and, as a major fan of both Muhammad Ali and Superman, wanting desperately to buy it. But $2.50 was beyond my price range at the time and there was a question of just where to keep the damned thing. It was monstrous and wouldn't fit easily on any of our bookshelves. In time, I came to think I'd dreamed it all. Superman versus Muhammad Ali? Why would those two ever fight?

Here we are decades later and thanks to our perceived hunger for overblown hardcover "archival" reprints of beloved childhood stories, Superman once more floats like a butterfly while Muhammad Ali stings like a bee. Two pop culture icons take on aliens with the stupidest name—the Scrubb. From the planet Bodace. I was kind of hoping it would be the planet Bonaduce and the erstwhile Danny Partridge might make a guest appearance as Jimmy Olsen, but no such luck.

That disappointment aside, where else can you see Superman punch his mighty fists together to stop a tsunami caused by plasma missiles from outer space? Or Muhammad Ali explain the sweet science from jabs and uppercuts to rope-a-dope tactics to the Man of Steel, then use his famous psych-out pre-fight patter on a bunch of star warriors? Or Superman disguise himself as Bundini Brown before battling an entire armada of enemy starships?

This is an outlandish and at times extremely silly epic-- witness Superman sheepishly explaining to Muhammad Ali why the Fortress of Solitude is full of so much junk and Jimmy Olsen's laughable ringside commentary to a crowd that includes anthropomorphized chickens-- that breathlessly spans light years and features crowd scenes that would have blown Cecil B. DeMille’s mind and bankrupted George Lucas. Neal Adams dazzles with double-page layouts full of space freaks and bizarre interplanetary vistas, and his Muhammad Ali caricature is spot-on.

Preserved in his beautiful prime-- the book apparently was so late in hitting the stores Ali was actually slightly past it in reality-- and transformed into a comic book hero by Adams and inker Dick Giordano, Ali may be the only real life person who could go mano-a-mano with Superman (convenient red sun pocket universes or not); he was and remains that much a legend, a towering figure of the 20th century sports/pop culture scene along with Babe Ruth. I wouldn't be surprised to find this story somehow entering mythological status a couple of thousand years from now (when I'm very old) and Ali's become some sort of demi-god figure whose factual existence academics debate at good ol' Mars University's Classics Department. Okay, I'm stretching things, but not by much.

For his part, Denny O’Neil provides fevered captions with appropriately purplish prose and nails Ali’s distinctive speech patterns. Confronted by an armored green alien, Ali is definitely not nonplussed-- not that you'd expect him to be:

ALIEN: We intend to prove ourselves you superior by showing our standard-bearer is the greatest!
ALI: WHOA... Right there, Dog-face! I AM-- the Greatest! Man... They rank me with Joe Louis... Sugar Ray Robinson.. Ezzard Charles... Archie Moore... Rocky Marciano... Gene Tunney... Jack Dempsey! I ain't agreein' to fight... but if I did, I'd whup your man. I'd stomp him--

If you grew up with Ali on TV and at the movies, you can "hear" this dialogue in your head in the man's distinct cadence; Ali's working himself up and preparing to do some real ass whuppin'.

It seems to take place outside of regular DC continuity. There's no Justice League satellite to warn Superman of the alien armada; he has to fly up into space to look for himself. And while some sort of Athena being makes an appearance at the fight itself to observe (over at Marvel, Stan the Man would've given us the Watcher with appropriately lofty nonsense dialogue, no doubt), there's no sign of Batman or the Green Lantern Corps. It's almost as if Ali's powerful charisma crowded them right out of the universe. So if you're a hardcore geek who has to fit every story into some sort of overarching narrative-- well, you probably should seek psychological help. Here it helps to lighten up and enjoy the weird.

Why? Because there's a sense of the creative team just knocking themselves out (otherwise Ali might have done it for them) to produce something special, an event reminiscent of one of those “Battle of the Network Stars” specials or a Bob Hope holiday show with everyone in his Rolodex invited and then some. And because they manage to convey such a sense of fun, the book works both as a tribute to Ali and as a curious artifact of the 70s, the latter emphasized especially by the inclusion of Adams’s famous wraparound cover featuring such leisure suit era luminaries as Jimmy Carter, Pele, Sonny Bono, Johnny Carson, the entire Jackson 5 (man, they got some shitty seats!), a couple of Sweathogs from Welcome Back, Kotter and a young Ron Howard. If you look closely, you can make out a reunion of sorts for the Fab Four-- that's right; John, Paul, George and Ringo are there in the crowd. No sign of Linda or Yoko. You can also see a few famous faces with mustaches slapped on them because, as Jenette Kahn relates in her afterward, a few celebs balked at making a ringside appearance. And in what kind of world does George C. Scott turn down DC Comics only to be replaced by Kurt Vonnegut?

All this and a selection of Adams's surprisingly tight layout thumbnails. Just buy it and dig it, my babies.

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