In 1978 I was 11-years-old. Publicity for the upcoming Superman movie was everywhere. The tag line for the movie said, “You will believe a man can fly.” For me, that was going to be an easy sell. I believed in Superman and in Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
In 1978, the only thing bigger than Superman was Star Wars. And Muhammad Ali.
Star Wars conquered my childhood, conquered all of our childhoods, in the summer of 1977. Muhammad Ali, like Superman, had been around a lot longer.
Ali was arguably the greatest boxer of all time who battled Joe Frazier in what is arguably the greatest boxing match of all time, the Don King-promoted “Thrilla in Manilla”. He was a civil rights hero, a war protester who risked his freedom and his career to do what he thought was right, to do what was right. I didn’t know much about the boxing and the heroism in 1978, however. I didn’t know where Ali had come from. But he was there, as far as I knew had always been there, a fixture in my universe and on my parent’s black-and-white TV screen.
Ali was the center of attention for The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast in 1976. Then, in 1977, he was everywhere: The Captain and Tennille Show, The Jacksons, The Sonny and Cher Show. And, on Saturday mornings, he was there right beside Superman in his own cartoon, I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ail.
Ali said he was the greatest, he said it over and over again. For me, it was an easy sell. I believed in Ali, and in Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
I remember reading and re-reading my copy of DC Comic’s Superman vs Muhammad Ali, which was released in 1978, until the card stock cover came off of the tabloid-sized comic. It came on the heels of the earlier DC/Marvel crossover, Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century, another tabloid-sized comic that sold a ton of copies and generated a lot of media attention. The Superman/Ali battle even borrowed the shape of Spider-Man’s logo for Ali’s name on the front cover. But the Superman/Ali story was better than the Superman/Spider-Man one. It was less contrived, more real.
And why shouldn’t it have been? DC put the famous team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams on the book, the team that had rejuvenated Batman and produced, in their run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, some of the most timely and relevant comics of the decade. O’Neil left the book early, leaving Adams on both script and art. It’s one of Adam’s best works, which says a lot, considering the incredible body of comic book art that he has created through the years. Adams’ rendering of Ali is especially amazing: the greatest, distilled in pen and ink.
The story could have been a joke, of course, something even less serious than Ali chatting with Donny and Marie, but it wasn’t. It was fun but serious, a story well told.
And just to make sure it included everything that my 11-year-old self could ever want in a comic book, it even gave a shout out to Star Wars — right there on the cover: “The fight to save Earth from Star-Warriors” in big letters above the title. Though, in reality, it had a lot more in common with Adam’s classic work on Marvel’s The Avengers, the story arc that has come to be known as “The Kree-Skrull War”. The bad guys in this book are even named after the villains of that earlier piece. Yes, Superman and Ali do have to box one another in this story, but the real threat here is from an alien race known as the Scrubb.
Reading this book today is a step back in time. Ali is young and strong and vibrant, stalwart, brash, and true. Superman is older than he is now, an experienced self-assured hero, unlike the neophyte struggling to come to terms with his great strength that we seem constantly forced to watch and read about in movies and in comic books today. Superman was more powerful in those days, too, able to stop tidal waves with just the smashing together of his mighty fists. Ali was stronger too, stronger than we remember him from the recent past, lighting the Olympic flame or in those photos from his last days that have filled our computer screens over the last weekend.
But Superman is the one who changed the most. In those days Superman made us believe that we could fly. Today, in the hands of Warner Brothers and Zack Snyder he doesn’t so much fly as smash into things. He doesn’t so much leap tall buildings as topple them. Somewhere, Superman lost his way.
Ali never lost his way. Or if he did, we never knew it. He stayed true. I can’t imagine an 11-year-old today finding anything heroic or inspirational in the Superman who battled Batman in multiplexes around the world earlier this spring. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone, of any age, not being inspired by Ali, then or now, to be better, more confident, more true to their convictions, more realistic yet hopeful about the human condition.
It was in 1978, in the pages of Superman vs Muhammad Ali, however, when both heroes are at their finest, at their greatest. Superman is in his red trunks where he belongs, in the costume of a strong man or a wrestler. He stands in the ring with Ali, athlete facing athlete.
O’Neil and Adams get the characterizations just right in this book. Superman is all earnest and virtuous; he is the world’s finest. Ali’s braggadocio and poetry and strength of character are on display, as are his arrogance, courage, and ferocity; he is the greatest. They both have motives without question. They both stand for what is right.
The plot involves an alien race that worries that the people of Earth are too dangerous and thus insist that the fate of the Earth is to be decided by a battle of champions between the greatest fighter that the Scrubb have produced and, of course, the greatest fighter from planet Earth: Muhammad Ali.
When Superman, out of a sense of responsibility and not pride, argues that he should be the champion from Earth, the Scrubb propose another battle: Superman vs Ali to determine who will battle their chosen one. Superman will be robbed of his strength for the battle so, to make sure that it is fair, Ali takes the time to teach him the boxing moves that have made him famous.
The heroes fight, really fight, in a boxing ring in outer space while being watched on television screens around the universe. On top of that, everyone who is anyone is there, if we are to believe the cover: Jimmy Carter is in the audience, as is Andy Warhol, Donny and Marie, and Sonny and Cher. So is Batman, and Mad Magazine founder, William M. Gaines. Look closely, and you’ll see Liberace and Lucille Ball.
After the bloody and brutal battle, Superman and Ali work together to out fight and outsmart their common enemy, each risking his life to save the Earth. Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad, is prescient when he says, “If the fate of our planet is at stake, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather put my faith in than those two great men!” He believed in Superman. He believed in Muhammad Ali. We all did.
Superman died last week in the comics. He died on Good Friday in the movie theaters, buried by his mother, Lois, Bruce Wayne, and Diana Prince. Frankly, I don’t care. How could I care? He’s died before and he’ll die again. He always comes back.
But that’s not why I don’t care. I don’t care that Superman died because he’s been gone for such a long time already. He was gone before he gave up the trunks, then really gone when Zack Snyder turned him into a monster, made him forget who he was.
Ali’s death is different. It’s different, of course, because he is real, because he leaves behind a family in mourning, because he truly helped to make the world a better place, because he was a mercurial marvel who pranced across the last half of the 20th century with a confidence and humor and a sense of justice, that we seldom see — and all done with grace.
Superman went away, then he died, and then he came back. But no one cares.
Ali is gone and we know that he will never return. We also know that he will never leave.
He is the Greatest.