Comics

Float Like a Snagriff, Sting Like a Fish-Snake: 'Superman vs. Muhammad Ali'

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali Cover

Forget the fight, look at the crowd. That's Lex Luthor, Batman, Sonny Bono and Jimmy Carter, scoring the sweet ringside seats. (Yes. Sonny Bono.) DC Comics hide caption

itoggle caption DC Comics

(Note: A Snagriff's a Kryptonian flying dragon, and a Fish-Snake's a venomous beastie found in Krypton's Fire Falls, so uh ... so uh ... yeah. Cough.)

Today, DC Comics is reissuing one of the most beloved, and for my money the weirdest, "X vs. Y" hero smackdowns in comics history. In which Superman, the Man of Steel, squares off against ... Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Lip.

The Battle It Hadn't Occurred To You That You Wanted to See!

I've enlisted a smart friend to help me mark the occasion, who brings an uncannily complete set of credentials to this particular table: Critic. Boxing Expert. Superman Fan.

Meet Chris Klimek, a writer whose work appears regularly in the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper and elsewhere, and who wishes you to know that his boxing class at Results: The Gym (1101 Connecticut Ave., Washington DC) takes place on Wednesday evenings.

I'll start off.

GLEN WELDON:

So, my friend: Let's you and I attempt to unpack Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.

First released in 1978 by DC Comics as an "oversized collector's edition" of the kind much adored by a tow-headed, ten-year-old Glen, as they were perfect fodder for long slothful afternoons spent suspended in the fuzzy blue warmth of the beanbag chair (SHUT UP) (IT WAS THE 70s) in the corner of his bedroom.

As a kid, the size of these books was a big part of their appeal — the tactile pleasure of opening a comic book big as a broadsheet newspaper, of seeing the heroes and villains larger than normal, filling your field of vision. But there was the content, too; these books seemed inflated with import, with the gravity of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The setup to Superman vs. Muhammad Ali:

No sooner does reporter Clark Kent stumble across Muhammad Ali shooting hoops in Metropolis' "inner city ghetto" than an despotic alien named Rat'lar appears to talk intergalatic trash. Specifically, Rat'lar is Emperor of the warlike Scrubb race, and he challenges earth's champion to fisticuffs. If said Earth champion loses, Earth will be destroyed. If said champion wins, Earth will be spared.

The question: Who will be Earth's champion? Superman claims the right, but Ali points out — quite rightly — that Superman is a Kryptonian, not an Earthman. Rat'lar isn't having any of this Terran shilly-shallying — he's got minions to yell at, and that fist of his doesn't shake itself, after all — so he orders the two men to decide the issue by duking it out in 24 hours' time.

Superman and Ali head to the Fortress of Solitude, where the Man of Steel builds a boxing ring within a pocket of space-time that cancels Superman's powers, and — tricky! — in which time is slowed such that 24 hours will take two months to pass.  Plenty of time for Ali to train Superman in boxing, and thus ensure a fair-ish fight, yes?

No. Rat'lar learns of their deception, and orders them to fight one another immediately.

Who will win the right to fight for Earth? And will the victor be able to face down the hulking Hun'la, Champion of the Scrubb, and save billions from destruction?

Okay, Klimek. Some first thoughts, and then some specific questions for you:

  • The SCRUBB? Really? Surely no one, in this day and age, can read Rat'Lar's introductory declaration: "I am of the Scrubb! We pride ourselves on our warriors' valor and abilities!" without expecting him to follow it up with:  "We hang out the passenger's side of our best friend's ride!" or "We Scrubb abjectly refuse to chase waterfalls! We Scrubb stick to the rivers and the lakes that we're used to!"

  • The jacket copy screams: "The Fight to Save the Earth from STAR-WARRIORS!" Marketing, 1978-style. If the book had come out in '82, it might have read: "If THESE E.T.s Phone Home, THE EARTH WILL DIE!"

  • How much do I love that Ali gets his own superhero logo? Answer: So. That's how much.

  • In re: Rat'lar.  For an intergalactic warlord, dude looks a bit more like Larry Fine than is generally advisable.

  • As soon as we learned that Scrubb homeworld is called Bodace, I steeled myself for a "Bodacious!" pun.  I was not disappointed. Except in the sense that one was actually made. Which was disappointing.

Questions for You:

  • There's a great full-page treatment of Ali walking Superman through the jab, the uppercut, and all the other ... fighty .... punch .... things.  Did any of that square with your experience?  Will you be making appropriate changes to your boxing class lesson plans?

  • What about the characterization of Ali himself? I'll admit that some of the Ali-isms fell flat, to me — describing the Fortress of Solitude as "colder'n a judge's smile," say.  But the guy always cast himself as a real-life super-hero, so I didn't have a problem with the larger-than-life attitude O'Neil/Adams give him, here.

  • Is the Man of Steel a southpaw?  (LOOK AT ME! I KNOW A BOXING WORD!)

  • The Superman in this book is the one I grew up with, but you weren't even born when this book originally came out. Did anything you saw surprise you?

  • What are your general impressions of how the book handled the sweet science (I'VE READ RING LARDNER! WOO! UPTOP!)?

CHRIS KLIMEK:

Both of us have railed against those who use the term “comic book” as hacky shorthand for something unconvincing, pal, but this is one comic book that is just comic booky as hell.

In the foreword of the new hardcover edition, Neal Adams, the beloved Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman artist who drew this and apparently wrote much of the script after his frequent collaborator Denny O’Neil had to bail — know anything about that, G-Weld? — writes, “I think this is one of the best comic books/graphic novels ever done.” Which shows his own confusion about what to call these things — to me, graphic novel is worse — as well as a humility worthy of Ali himself.

But it is a fun book, published the same year the Richard Donner Superman film came out and Ali retired for the first & shoulda-been last time.  We even get an atmospheric taste of that famous Carter-era malaise, when one rubbernecker reacts to Rat?...Lar’s? threat to destroy Earth by declaimng “Someone better call the president!” and another asks, “What’s he gonna do?”

What, indeed?  Let me take those questions one at a time:

  • Lesson Plan? Yes, the jab, cross, hook and uppercut are the basic types of punches, and Adams draws them all correctly. Except for the uppercut, when Ali’s legs should be bent more since he’s using them, moreso than his arm or his shoulder, to drive his fist upward.  And all that jive the champ talks in this scene about how a jab is a question, a cross is an argument, and an uppercut is a statement?  Also totally accurate.  In point of fact, in my boxing class you have to spend two weeks diagramming sentences with me before you’re allowed to put the gloves on, and only students who can explain the subjunctive clause to my satisfaction are allowed to spar.  (Lies.)

  • Ali? I enjoyed the characterization of Ali.  I mean, of course we have a white guy — Adams? Or O’Neil? —  trying to write dialogue for a black character, a situation that in the 70s often resulted in black characters talking like Ali anyway. Given that this one is actually supposed to be the guy Leon Spinks called, "The Mouth from the South," I'm okay with it here. Nothing he says in the book is as funny as genuine Ali hyperbole, whether he’s taunting his three-time opponent Joe Frazier on The Dick Cavett Show or puffing about how he's gonna whup Mr. Tooth Decay, and of course Ali's much-imitated sing-songy delivery contributed immeasurably to his charm as a verbal performer, which he was.  But his speech here still gave us a flavor of the outsized personality that made him so beloved.  With hands like that, he’d have been famous for his athletic skill even if he was a mute, but it was that larger-than-life persona — and, of course, his controversial refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War, which got him banned from boxing for three years of his prime — that makes us remember him so vividly almost 30 years after his last fight.  Oh, and when he refers to a robot he's just punched out as a Trekkie?  Nine years after Star Trek was canceled, but still before the movies got going? Maybe Ali wouldn't have said that, but I'll take it.

  • Super-Lefty? Supes’s stance seems to change often enough that it’s hard to tell.

  • 70's Superman? Ha! Yes! You are right, I was not even born when — okay, so, I was alive, but not in any state to procure or appreciate this book, or Darkness on the Edge of Town (also just released in a lushly updated, expanded edition), or those first couple of albums by Prince, The Clash, and Elvis Costello.  Supes here seems quite deferential to the champ, retorting to his boast "I am the professor!" with a sycophantic “You certainly are!” But then Elijah Muhammad, the man Ali identified as his leader & teacher, had to approve O’Neil and Adams as the creative team, so there might’ve been some pressure for Kal-El to suck up to the former Cassius Clay a little.

GLEN WELDON:

..."G-Weld?" Seriously?

I don't know any more about the dynamics of O'Neil/Adams partnership than Adams lays out in the introduction — evidently the two of them co-plotted the book, and then O'Neil had to step aside, so it was left to Adams to script and pencil the book, with Dick Giordano's inks. Which seems like a good segue to talk about the art, which is, I think, pretty spectacular.

Adams is much lauded for his photorealistic approach, which takes the cartooniness out of superheroes by giving them faces that seem distinctive, particular, and recognizable. But I was struck, here, by the sweep of his layouts — that splash page of the "inner city ghetto" makes it look ridiculously gorgeous.  He introduces us to the Fortress of Solitude using Ali's perspective, looking up from the floor into its vasty heights, so it seems fittingly huge and impressive.

That impressionistic shot of eeeeevil Rat'lar holding a glowing Earth in his slimy clutches? That's just good comics, is all. And man, he knows how to make Superman seem super.  Whether he's smashing through spaceships or stopping a tidal wave by pounding his fists, Adams and Giordano's Superman always looks as powerful as he should — and as human as he is.

Which is why that full-page image of a bruised and battered Superman getting carried out of the ring really lands. Adams gives us an overhead shot with the lifeless Man of Steel taking up the center of the frame, but surrounds him with furious, violent action. Our eye keeps getting pulled back to the unusual and unsettling sight of a K.O.'d Superman.

Any scenes jump out at you? Anything that didn't work for you, whether boxing-related or no?

KO'd Superman

Man of Steel, Jaw of Glass: From Superman vs. Muhammad Ali DC Comics hide caption

itoggle caption DC Comics

CHRIS KLIMEK:

In my dog-eared copy of of his history The Comic Book Heroes, Gerard Jones writes that Adams was "handsome, confident, good enough to take comics or leave them, and unafraid to do anything." So maybe that's how Adams could say, all these years after Love & Rockets and MAUS and Watchmen and Persepolis and Asterious Polyp and whatever else, that this book is one of the best "ever done" instead of one of the best he ever did, which it surely is.

It was the every-page-a-splash page, roid-rage aesthetic of the early 90s that drove me out of comics for a while, so it was great to see how a masterful storyteller like Adams could become a star back in your fuzzy bean-bag 70s.  (No, I wasn't really all that conscious then, but I've seen Boogie Nights.  I know what was up.)

Favorite scenes, artwise? The actual boxing match between Supes & Ali on pages 33-39, leading up to that overhead shot of the beat-down, rusted-up Man of Steel, is some thrilling stuff.  Ali's trash-talk monologues on pages 45-7 is powerful because of Adams's gift for expressions and layout, even if the dialogue ("After this fight, they gonna say Ali is terrible!") is a little too wound up.

I think we should talk more about this passive-aggressive Superman.  Page 19: "I confess I never realized there was so much to ringmanship! It's more than adding fist to face!" Because, you know, I'm more used to fighting alien armadas.  Catching school buses that fall off of bridges. That sort of thing. He may as well have added, "I never got my jaw broke by Kenny Norton!"

GLEN WELDON:

Right? Actually, champ, I'm gonna ask you to stick in a pin in that story about how you beat up that guy, okay?  I'm just ... just gonna nip off to ... prevent Australia from sinking into the sea. Back in a jiff!

(And, dude, you gotta let Adams’ “best ever done” thing go. If someone writes something in the introduction to a comic book or graphic novel, it doesn’t count.  It’s called the Stan Lee Exception.)

Let’s close with a few words about the most awesomely I Love the 70s thing about this book: the wraparound crowd scene on its cover.

CHRIS KLIMEK:

What a weird stunt! Nowadays, comics are marketed and sold exclusively to 40-year-olds, it seems like, but in 1978?  How excited was 10-year-old, tow-headed Glen that Andy Warhol and Kurt Vonnegut were on there?  Or to put it another way, did you weep that Carroll O’Connor, most famous for playing that loveable bigot Archie Bunker, declined permission for his likeness to be used?

We should state here that the book contains a numbered map of the cover, identifying all 170-plus of the people pictured, with a key explaining, broadly, who they are. (Celebrities, largely, except when they’re comics creators or ah, Warner Communications executives.)  Then again, maybe Adams just told those (wide-lapelled) suits he was drawing them. Christopher Reeve is identified as one of those famous faces, but you can probably guess what he looks like in pencil-and-ink form.

After that goofy Green Lantern trailer hit last night, I used the face-map to look up Hal Jordan and girlfriend Carol Ferris on the cover.  Unrecognizeable to me.  I also tried to locate Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who are also supposedly included.  Maybe that was part of the settlement wherein DC finally agreed to give them credit and what amounted to a pension for creating Superman for them 40 years before.

GLEN WELDON:

Yeah, way to be a jerk, CARROLL.

To Chris’ point: In an afterword (note: afterwords DO count), then-DC-publisher Jeannette Kahn describes wanting to fill the crowd with various DC heroes in their secret identities, DC staffers and Warner executives. But she also wanted to feature various celebrities and heads of state, only to realize – after Adams had already begun to draw – that she would need to get permission to use their likenesses.

Knowing this, it’s fun to imagine her making urgent telephone calls (on, I want to believe, an avocado-gold-colored Trimline phone, while chain-smoking Virginia Slims) to various deeply 70s celebrities.  Most said yes, and the result is a hilarious snapshot of the then-zeitgeist.

And yeah, actually, I do remember spending lots of time consulting the helpful key inside the front cover to find such luminaries as: Sweathogs Ron (Horshack) Pallilo and Robert (Epstein) Heyges!  Wolfman Jack!  Wayne Rogers! Liberace! Donny and Marie! Andy Warhol (oh, like HE'D say no)! Tony Orlando!  Phyllis Diller! And in ringside seats, Lucille Ball and Sonny Bono! (And where was Cher, you ask? FOUR ROWS BACK, that’s where.)

(And for the record: I did know who Vonnegut was – I’d read my brother’s Breakfast of Champions by then – but had no idea who Pele and Jim Bouton were.)

(For the record: I still don’t know who Jim Bouton is.)

This was fun; thanks for your insights on matters Kryptonian and pugilistic, pal.  I appreciate it. May the Marquis of Queensbury … shine ever… on your … Everlast … something.

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