Superman, who returned to the silver screen yesterday, has had a tumultuous superhero career since his debut in 1938. He has been forced to walk the Earth as the boring Clark Kent and suffered the stress of battling villains like Lex Luthor and Braniac. In 1992, he was even killed by another foe, Doomsday, before returning a year later.
Prior to his death, the only other person to best the Man of Steel was the Greatest himself in D.C. Comics’ Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, released in 1978.
There are many rumors surrounding the creation of this comic, which pits Superman and Ali in a boxing match to save the world. One is that it was inspired by Johnny Wakelin’s Billboard Top 40 hit, Muhammad Ali, the Black Superman. Another is that D.C. Comics wanted to capitalize on the success of science fiction blockbusters like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
However, D.C. comics has never acknowledged that Wakelin’s song was the inspiration, and Neil Adams, one of the comic’s creator, said planning stages began in 1976, a year before both movies were released. In an interview with Comic Book Artist in 1999, Adams said, “Certainly, when I heard it, I thought it was a great idea. I mean, just the concept… yet, at the same time, the logical question is, ‘How do you have a human being fight an alien – Superman – and how do you justify such a battle?’”
Writer Denny O’Neil was the first person tasked with finding an answer. He wrote the original script for the 72-page comic book. Artist Joe Kubert was responsible for the drawings, but both D.C. Comics and Ali’s handlers were not pleased with the Greatest’s artistic depiction. Adams was then brought in.
“They were happy with my likenesses,” said Adams, “and basically, that was the turning point, and the reason I got the project.”
Before he could go to work, Adams and the other creators had to be approved, not by D.C. Comics or Ali, but by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. After Ali’s convergence to Islam, much of the literature about him, including his 1975 autobiography, had to be sanctioned by Muhammad.
“And there was really only one way we could be approved of by him,” said Adams, “and that was for us to get on a plane, go to Chicago, be driven by limousine to the home of Elijah Muhammad.”
Adams said that O’Neil and he sat in Muhammad’s elegant, Turkish-like parlor waiting.
“And Elijah Muhammad came out, said hello, got into a phone call, was called away, and left. And we were excused!”
One of Kubert’s drawings that Adams built upon was the cover, which features Ali and Superman battling in front of an immense crowd. Adams took it a step further and filled it with superheroes and 1970s celebrities. The onlookers include Batman, Don King, Jimmy Carter, Lucille Ball, and Adams himself. There would have been more but many declined to appear on the cover.
“John Wayne decided he didn't want to be in it, but I'd already drawn him,” said Adams. “So I decided, ‘I don't want to take him out, but on the other hand, I don't want everybody to know it's John Wayne.’ So we put a mustache on him.”
Because of all the changes, the detail, and the required approval by both Ali’s camp and D.C. Comics, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali took longer than a normal comic for a release.
“My agreement with DC Comics was that I couldn't commit to a deadline,” said Adams, “and it was agreed it would be done when it was done. That was the agreement – the full measure of the agreement – and it took a year to get the thing done! If there was a deadline, certainly the book would've been pulled long before the year went by.”
The comic begins with the alien Scrubb from the planet Bodace threatening to destroy Earth unless it sends its greatest fighter to face Bodace’s champion, Hun’Ya. Since Ali and Superman are the planet’s finest warriors, they both agree to a boxing match to determine who gets the honor. In fairness, Superman will fight near a red sun, diminishing his powers, and Ali will teach Superman to box.
When the two face-off, Superman gets through the first round with ease. In round two, things go downhill as Ali’s superior boxing skills overtake the Man of Steel. The fight ends with a bloodied Superman on the canvas, and he returns to Earth in an oxygen tent.
An armada of spaceships heads towards Earth as Ali prepares for Hun’Ya. It is clear that the Scrubb have broken their word. During the fight’s introductions, Ali’s corner poet Drew “Bundini” Brown slips away from the crowd and makes his way to the bridge of the lead ship. Once there, he removes his mask, revealing that he is actually Superman and prevents the Scrubb from destroying Earth.
Meanwhile, Ali gets off to a poor start with Hun’Ya, but true to form, is able to overcome his opponent in the later rounds. At end of the comic, the two congratulate other, with Ali, saying, “Superman, we are the greatest!”
The plot is a bit silly, as is the case with superhero and athlete comic book crossovers. The release was mistimed as well. At the time of its inception, Ali was the heavyweight champion coming of a landmark victory against Joe Frazier. By the time of the release, he had lost his title to Leon Spinks and was preparing for a rematch.
Nevertheless, the popularity of both fighters led to high sales worldwide. The comic has since become a collectible. Originally selling for $2.50 in 1978, the comic is now valued at $80 by Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide.
And while it seems outlandish by today’s standards, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was not a misfire. The Man of Steel would probably rather box Ali 100 times before attaching his name to a project like the Broadway musical, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, again. The comic also gained Adams a great deal of recognition, as he was asked to contribute art for ESPN Magazine’s millennium edition.
“There are some people out there who've seen it (Superman vs. Muhammad Ali), and have a certain amount of respect for it,” said Adams. “One wonders why DC Comics hasn't reprinted that book, or in some way, promoted it.”