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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Panel Vision - Superman vs. Muhammad Ali

Edited by Robert Beach

Muhammad Ali was the greatest athlete of the 20th century, a towering figure in the world of sports and also a man whose legend and achievements stretched well beyond the boxing ring. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and a major symbol of black excellence as well as a symbol for American Muslims. 

The photographic history of Ali’s athletic achievements and cultural impact are going to be flooding Twitter for the next few days. Suffice to say, he’s one of the few individuals where the story actually lives up to the hype. Again, he really was the greatest of all time, a true legend. And, like any true legend, he met Superman once. 

I’ve already established why a company like DC would want a comic featuring Muhammad Ali; the man was one of the closest things we have to a real-life superhero (even saving a man from committing suicide once as Ali simply happened to be in the area and ran up to help), but to understand why DC would produce a co-star comic where Ali exists alongside Superman needs a little explaining. 

I’ve established before that the ‘70s are my favorite era for comic books, and a big part of that is the free experimentation that informed so much of that decade. The younger fans informing the candy-colored madness of the ‘60s were growing up to become young adult readers, and the big companies were scrambling to respond.

For DC, the need to rebrand themselves and plant their flag squarely on a large chunk of the market was even greater. They'd been desperate to try and figure out how to compete with Marvel since it became evident Stan Lee and Jack Kirby weren’t going away. Most of DC’s attempts at poaching creators from Marvel hadn’t been terribly successful, though wooing Jack Kirby did produce a ton of stuff DC still relies heavily on today.  In the ‘70s, one of DC’s plans to outmaneuver their rival was to do exactly what Marvel was doing only to a greater degree. 

This translated into a cavalcade of harsher stories with a more realistic bent like ‘Snowbirds Don’t Fly,’ in which Green Arrow’s teen sidekick Speedy becomes addicted to heroin. That story, along with a companion series where Green Arrow and Green Lantern traveled America together and confronted economic and racial issues, were spearheaded by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, two 1970s heavyweights. When DC decided they wanted to revive the tradition of Superman interacting with real-world figures (he’d already met with JFK, Bob Hope, Pat Boone, Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis and more), O’Neil and Adams were the two tapped to tell the tale. 

The comic was a colossal 76 pages and actually broke with standard comic size format. Despite the large size, the story is fairly basic. In fact, it’s one of the most fundamental comic stories of all time actually. An alien being came to Earth and threatens to destroy it unless the greatest Earth champion fights the greatest alien champion. It just so happens the alien warlord appeared right in the middle of an interview between Clark Kent and Muhammad Ali, so everyone is a little unsure of who the greatest champion should be. 

After some pretty cool action scenes (more on that in a bit), it’s decided Superman should fight, and Ali will train him in boxing. Unfortunately, when Superman and Ali reach the alien arena, it’s on a world orbiting a red sun, meaning Superman has lost all his powers. Together, the two work out a way for Ali to replace Superman and fight for humanity while Supes works in the background to deal with the inevitable alien double cross. 

If everyone ever asks you for the epitome of a “fun comic,” you point them squarely in the direction of this book. The simple plot is a testament to how well basic (but solid) storytelling can create scaffolding for amazing comics. The heart of the book is obviously the Superman/Ali dynamic, which is infectiously fun as well as very respectful. Neither character ever feels short changed, and you can tell there’s a lot of love for both of them on the creative side. 

The extra size of the book means they both get a plethora of big hero moments, like Ali punching out a giant robot or Superman clapping his hand so hard it the sonic boom stifles a tidal wave. There’s also a lot of boxing scenes, and they are incredibly well choreographed. Adams creates this incredible, unpaneled design for the boxing with character moves and position flowing freely across the page and through time. It honestly reminds me a lot of the Rocky boxing montages in a sequential medium. 

The entire comic belongs to Neal Adams with inkers Dick Giordano and Terry Austin, and colorist Cory Adams (I’m not sure if there’s a relation.) Adams’ stuff has gotten a little weird in recent years, but in the ‘70s, he was just unstoppable. Adams’ redefined how we looked at art in comics, injecting meaning and maturity into the medium in a way that wouldn’t really be replicated till Watchmen. His work on Batman, Green Arrow, and Green Lantern stands up as some of the greatest comic art of all time and completely transformative of those heroes. 

We wouldn’t think of Batman the way we do today without Neal Adams, and he brings all of that skill and ability to the table in this comic. It’s honestly one of the best things he ever drew on every conceivable level. The splash pages are bigger and more expansive with so much detail that never feels cluttered; the fight scenes redefine how you can construct fight scenes in comics, and even the pacing of the issue is magnificent.  The book cuts from tight scenes with several small panels to expanding visuals. In addition to flowing cascades of action giving way to big splashy images, it’s all amazing. 

The color work is also simply phenomenal. I couldn’t find much information on Cory Adams, though he’s worked a lot previously with Neal Adams. Regardless, the two complement each other brilliantly. Cory is a master of soft pop, a muted color palette that still creates this beautifully distinct vibrancy off the page. He’s one of the only colorist who can actually keep up with Neal Adams' extremely detailed work, making sure that every tiny aspect of his glorious splash pages emerges fully formed and unique rather than blending together. DC did a reprinting of the comic in 2010 with re-colorized art, and seeing it side by side with the original is a world of difference. I know it’s rare, but the original printing of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali really is the better print to get your hands on.

It’s also pretty cool how much the comic values Ali as an athlete and the ideals he stood for. They make sure we know, in no uncertain terms, that Ali is the greatest boxer ever, beating every opponent who comes before him (even Superman, twice in a row). Also, DC didn't shy away from Ali’s defiance and empowering confidence. 

There’s an amazing two-page splash near the end of the comic where Ali proclaims himself the greatest of all time and space to the entire assembled galaxy of aliens watching his title fight that actually uses stylized photos of the man as the backdrop.  Later on, what eventually gives Ali the last push he needs to finish the fight is when the alien warlord offers to end the fight and spare Earth if all of humanity lives as his slaves. 

Ali even gets to talk at the end about how if everyone actually lived by fairness and equality, his people, and those like them, would get a true chance at a good life. If all that seems like a strange addition, just remember that Adams’ is the one who pushed to actually address racial issues in America during his Green Lantern/Green Arrow work. 

Superheroes crossing over with real-world people is a stunt that continues to this day, like the time Spider-Man met Obama. However, there really hasn’t ever been a version of this crossover as excellent as Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. A big part of that is the unique place Ali holds in history and popular consciousness: a beloved athlete of unmatchable skill who also stood up to be loudly black, loudly Muslim, and loudly anti-war. Luckily, the folks who brought Ali into comics, Superman and Neal Adams, were the perfect fit. 

Adams had already touched on the need to address racial problems in comics before and would go on to lead a crusade for creator rights, helping Superman creators Siegel and Shuster finally receive recognition and back pay for their character. Superman has always been a symbol of equality and heroism, appearing in countless PSAs (many in the ‘40s and ‘50s) about the importance of not judging others by their race or religion and in support of American refugees. Superman even fought the KKK in the 1940s, but that’s a story for another day. 
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali is a great comic for many reasons, though the biggest one is it’s fully aware that Ali really was the greatest of all time, and not just because of his skill in the ring. 

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