The passing of a legend means there are spoilers ahead for…
The ‘Superman vs. Muhammad Ali’ book was printed in every free country in the world, OK? Now, it’s so good in its way that we can go in and make fun of it and feel good about it.Neal Adams
The comics world was saddened by the news of the passing of Neal Adams on Thursday. He was 80.
This is the part where I say something cliché like, “The words ‘legend,’ and ‘giant,’ and ‘icon’ are tossed around too often these days, but when it comes to Neal Adams, they can’t be used enough,” or do something more cliché by saying it as a result of saying that it’s the sort of thing you’re expected to say.
Cliché or not, Neal Adams was a legend, a giant, and an icon. His direct artistic contributions alone would earn him those names, but he was so much more than just a fantastic artist and storyteller. He helped shape modern comics by his artistic example, through mentoring, and in his fierce advocacy of creator rights.
I won’t even attempt to list here the many achievements of Neal Adams, or the various characters for whom so many believe he was the definitive artist, as the focus here, in celebration of his life, is the work that I find most iconic.
I never owned any of the oversized Treasury Edition comics as a kid – indeed, even now I only own one original Treasury Comic, which I picked up a few years back at a convention – as I never actually saw any in the wild.
I did, however, see lots of house ads for them, and there was one that always stood out because it was so incredibly detailed, and it raised so many questions.
Why was Superman fighting Ali? How could Ali even stand a chance in such a fight? He might be The Greatest, but Superman is SUPERMAN. Who were the STAR WARRIORS? And who were all of the celebrities watching the match?
The comic was released in 1978, and it probably wasn’t until a year or two later that I even learned of its existence, and it wasn’t until decades later that I learned the answers to those elusive questions when I picked up a hardcover reprint.
Our story opens with intrepid reporters Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen hoofing it around Metropolis following a tip that young Mr. Olsen received. Lois and Clark are getting tired of wasting time chasing this phantom lead, but soon enough Jimmy is vindicated, as they find Muhammad Ali hanging out at a local playground playing basketball with some of his young fans.
Lois approaches him to get an exclusive interview – these were the days when The Daily Planet was owned by Galaxy Broadcasting, and the top reporters at the Planet also worked for the WGBS news – and the Champ agrees.
The interview is interrupted by an even bigger story than a visit from the Champ as an alien suddenly appears in a burst of light. Lois turns to the alien to get a few words and is rudely and roughly shoved aside.
This doesn’t sit right with Ali, who demands the alien apologize, and receives the back of the alien’s hand in response. That doesn’t go so well for the alien.
Clark excuses himself to alert the authorities but is in fact using this as an opportunity to change clothes and fly into space to see if there’s a reason this alien is being so bold, as he assumes the alien didn’t come alone. And he’s right: there’s a huge armada of alien ships in orbit.
While Superman’s away, the alien explains that they view Earth as being the most warlike planet around and feel that one day humans will pose a threat. To mitigate that threat, the aliens propose a contest, pitting their greatest champion in single combat against Earth’s.
Superman agrees that there’s no reason to argue with Ali or go along with the alien’s proposal, but he provides a reason in the form of destruction, launching a missile from above towards St. Louis. Superman manages to save the city, but just barely. Still, the reason is clear: one of the two, either Superman or Ali, will have to face the aliens’ champion lest Earth be destoyed.
Still, the two can’t agree who it should be, so the alien demands that there actually be two fights: one between Superman and Ali, with the victor going on to face the aliens’ champion. This would, of course, be an unfair fight, but the alien asserts that they have the means to nullify Superman’s advantage.
There’s one problem: for all his skills, Superman doesn’t really know the first thing about boxing, nor does he have much time to learn, as the alien has given them a mere 24 hours to prepare. However, Superman has a trick up his sleeve, and in a strange twist, he asks his opponent to become his trainer.
He takes Ali to the Fortress of Solitude and uses a device that will slow down time for the two of them so that 24 hours will seem like two months. Further, he uses a fragment of a red sun to eliminate his super-powered advantage.
And with that, inside the squared circle Superman starts learning all about the Sweet Science from its greatest scientist.
However, the aliens catch on to Superman’s tricks, and destroy the time-slowing device and demand that the fight proceed immediately.
The fight venue is in outer space, under the light of a red sun, putting the two combatants on equal footing, and Superman and Ali get to meet the prize that awaits them after their contest is settled: the aliens’ hulking champion.
Still, neither man is willing to let on that they feel at all intimidated, and the fight proceeds, broadcast throughout the universe, with Jimmy Olsen serving as the announcer.
I won’t spoil the outcome of the first bout. I’ll leave that to Grandpa Simpson. Sort of.
I will say that it was a battle for the ages.
After that contest is decided, the second match begins, and I should note here that my understanding is that this comic came about in part as a reaction to DC’s Marvelous competitor getting the rights to the biggest movie in the world a year prior, the little-known film called Star Wars.
DC wanted something big and bold and unexpected that incorporated a cultural icon, and they also included some not-at-all subtle nods to the George Lucas film, from the reference to the “Star Warriors” on the cover, and the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a goddess just before the second match is about to begin, who decides that she will be the one to referee the fight.
I have come from within the faith of my peoples in answer to a need in the “force,’ to moderate this contest.
Again, I’m not going to spoil the remainder of the book, but I will say that while the battle rages on in the ring, there’s also a bit of a war among the stars happening, thanks to the duplicity of the alien leader, and in the end, Earth isn’t destroyed, so make of that what you will.
I should also mention that in the twist towards the end there is an instance of blackface, though it isn’t done in the interest of comedy or with any sort of malicious intent. Still, it is there, and it’s worth being aware of.
I’ll also note that there’s a big surprise reveal in the last few panels, and the whole thing ends with this iconic image:
Overall, it’s a silly book, but it’s a lot of fun, and it comes from the groundbreaking team of the late Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, who are sometimes given the celebrity couple name of O’Neal. This pairing redefined comics for a new generation and pushed the boundaries of the form. They, like Superman and Ali, were The Greatest, and it’s notable for being from a time in which DC was willing to take some really wild swings. I can’t help but love it for that.
Plus, it’s just beautiful to look at, and as I said, it lived rent-free in my head for decades just because of that intriguing house ad.
It’s welcome to stay in my head without paying a dime until the place is finally condemned.
I’ve poked a bit of fun at Neal Adams here in the past, but it was in fun, and no matter how goofy, outlandish, and utterly batshit some the comics he’s made over the years may have been, at least they were always entertaining, fully of energy and dynamism, and were always stunning pieces of visual art and examples of pure mastery.
Sometimes I wonder just why I love comics so much. Then I’m reminded at times like these, sad as they may be, that my earliest exposure to comics featured the work of legends, giants, icons like Neal Adams, so really, who can blame me for loving them like I do?
Oh, and because it’s unlikely that you can spot all of the celebrities on the cover, especially if you’re younger than I am, and less knowledgeable about comic characters and creators, here’s the included guide listing them all.
And finally, as I wrap up this special Spotlight Sunday, I want to thank my patrons on Patreon, seeing as how I actually have some of those now. If you want to be like those extremely kind people, you can support me – and OpenDoor Comics – on Patreon as well.