The Comic Book Club: Batwoman, Detective and Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali

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GRAEME: “Superman, we ARE the greatest!” Well, I don’t know about that, but the reissue of Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali was definitely much more fun than I was expecting, I have to admit. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading it. Being (a) British, (b) Not Sporty and (c) too young to have missed Ali in his prime, I know more about Ali’s reputation than the man himself, and most of that has come through parody. The same could be said of this comic, which I’d heard talked about a lot, but never actually read. Color me surprised, then, to find out that it’s actually a pretty good mid-’70s Superman story that just so happens to guest star a real-life boxer.

There are some pretty amusing “Oh, come ON” moments that are obviously done to build Ali up – He figures out Superman’s secret identity? REALLY? – but overall, he comes out of the whole thing not just with his dignity intact (not always true of real life people in comic books), but as a fascinating guy. I like that he came across as imperfect, despite his boasts – mouthy, arrogant, hot-tempered – making him the most interesting character in the whole book. Definitely more interesting than Superman, who gets given other tasks to keep him occupied while Ali saves the world through boxing… An idea that should feel stupid, but instead feels faithful to Superman’s own weird Silver Age adventures. Considering the Superman of “regular” DC continuity is currently too busy wandering across America to fight off any alien invasions, this was a very welcome exercise in nostalgia, and a nice reminder of how cool Superman could be, when he’s not being forced to be relevant or important.

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EVAN: I didn’t grow too differently from you, Graeme, even if it was in Brooklyn, New York. Skinny, clumsy nerd who hated gym class. I only had two sports heroes growing up: Reggie Jackson and Muhammad Ali. They were larger-than-life black men who beat the odds. Superheroes, really.

This was a comic I lusted after as a kid but could never convince my mom to get. I probably read it off of a friend or in a 7-Eleven. I finally did get a battered copy of my own a few years ago, but it looked like it had gone twelve rounds with Mike Tyson. Chunks were missing. Re-reading this hardcover edition, there’s a lot in this issue that I didn’t remember. Superman really treats Ali like an equal from the very beginning, and there’s a easy looseness to the proceedings.

Superman talks so much trash here, too! When I was a kid, I didn’t realize that this was a particularly radical characterization for Kal-El. I just thought Superman strutted like this all the time. It’s really, really fun. You can tell that Adams was drawing from reference in certain spots, but overall Ali really looks like Ali. The Superman/Ali fight sequence might just be Adams at his peak. Kal-El really looks like he’s taking a pounding. And two small details that I love: that robe Superman wears (DC Direct, make a replica and you will sell millions) and the fact that he keeps his cape on.

It’s ironic that this re-issue comes amidst all the angst lately about all-ages comics. Superman/Ali gets that mix right, mostly by not feeling self-conscious. Sure, there’s some skin-color preachiness in parts, but it feels sincere. And there’s enough prickliness in the characterizations that the whole affair doesn’t feel like a publisher begging for mainstream eyeballs.

However, the secret identity reveal feels really editorial, almost as if someone decided that Ali and Supes had to be equals in both wits and brawn. Speaking of editorial, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that Adams basically takes credit for the whole book. I don’t know the in-and-outs of the whole history of the project, but I am a big Denny O’Neil fan. There’s a lot of his particular rhythms in the dialogue and the sentence structures, so I’m not sure as to how uninvolved he was.

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DOUGLAS: I do see some parts that read like O’Neil, but there are also a bunch of parts that scan like Adams–compare the loopiness of Batman: Odyssey to the loopiness here. I mean, Pallas Athena showing up apropos of nothing? That’s Adams. Dialogue where each consecutive word gets its own balloon? Adams. Scene-shifts in two consecutive panels? Adams. Jimmy imitating Howard Cosell’s speech patterns?… That might be O’Neil, actually. But this definitely doesn’t have the kind of easy narrative flow of the O’Neil/Adams Batman or Green Lantern stories. I’d be very curious to find out how exactly the creative process went here. (I also note that the coloring credit for this version has been moved over to the small print, and that Moose Baumann shares credit for it with someone called “I.R. Colourer”–is that the equivalent of “Alan Smithee,” or the old Crusty Bunkers’ “D. Hands” credit?) And there are places where Terry Austin and Dick Giordano lay it on thicker than usual. Take a look at Lois in the lower right-hand corner of pg. 15: that’s a Dick Giordano drawing much more than a Neal Adams drawing.

All that said: Adams nails it again and again here. That opening two-page spread of a “Metropolis” street scene? Perfect 1978. (And the oversized layouts really give him room to show off.) This could have been a terribly shabby cash-in, and instead it’s a very earnestly crafted piece of kitsch–as thrilling as a comic book with a premise this ridiculous could be. I think I last read it about thirty years ago, and rereading it now jarred loose bits I still remembered from then, especially Ali declaring “He’ll hit the floor in four!” As a kid, this story was my first exposure to Ali (beyond a general sense that he was a boxer and people called him “the greatest”); when I got to see more footage of Ali in his prime, I was surprised that he was even brasher and funnier and livelier than he is here.

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