DC All New Collector's Edition, Vol. 7 No C--58
Cover Date: 1978
Written By: Dennis O'Neill
& Neal Adams
Pencils: Neal Adams
Inks: Dick Giordano & Terry Austin

As reports circulated that DC Comics was planning a special book pitting the Man of Steel against Muhammad Ali, the reaction was the same among comic collectors, sports fans and the general public: "Bwahahahaha!"

In previous decades, Superman had encountered such real-life celebrities as Steve Allen, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Allen Funt, Don Rickles and John F. Kennedy, but by the mid-70s, superhero/celebrity team-ups were looked down upon as one of the sillier aspects of the genre. In a time when comics publishers were desperately trying to redefine their product as serious fare, the Supes-Ali match-up seemed to be a nutty move. Just the title was enough to start most people giggling.

Nonetheless, there were factors in the book's favor. Fan favorite Neal Adams was providing the art, the media was fueling the fire with tons of free press and the much-anticipated Superman movie was mere months away.

So it was that almost two decades before 1993's "Death of Superman," this book became, arguably, the original "media event" comic ...and so -- silly or not -- it sold like crazy.

From start to finish, the book is a miniature time-capsule of the era that spawned it. For starters, it sports a wrap-around cover depicting hundreds of late-70s celebrities from the world of pop culture. Entertainment legends like Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball are easy to spot, but for today's readers even the "key" inside the front cover may not explain the identities of all the has-been stars. Ron Palillo and Robert Heyges? (Here's a hint: "Up your nose wit' a rubber hose!") Tony Orlando? Wolfman Jack? Trust me, kids, you didn't miss anything. Sharing "the good seats" with these pop icons are comic book characters like Billy Batson, Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen, Barry Allen and Diana Prince. Little do they know that neaby sit the DC writers and artists who control their destinies (Joe Shuster, Jerry Seigel, Neal Adams, Wally Wood, Cary Bates, Gil Kane, E.Nelson Bridwell). Over there in the front row is something you don't see every day -- President Jimmy Carter sitting next to Sonny Bono and Batman (!). Some figures really blur the line between comics and the real world: actors Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill and Jack Larson look for all the world like their youthful selves from Superman's serial days, and next to Johnny Carson is Christopher Reeve, looking exactly like Clark Kent (perhaps as a favor to Superman, to help preserve the old secret ID). And if it seems odd that Lex Luthor is sitting so peacefully next to Batman, look at how he's sucking his fingers. Is he just nervous about the fight or could it be that this bald head was originally intended for Telly Savalas, and those fingers were supposed to be holding a "Kojak"-style lollipop?

But, to the story: Things kick off with a gorgeous two-page spread as Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen scour the Metropolis ghettos for Muhammad Ali, acting on a tip that the World Heavyweight Boxing Champ is visiting the area incognito. In fact, they do find him, but so does an alien who threatens to destroy the Earth if our planet's greatest champion can't beat theirs. Circling the Earth is an armada of over a hundred starships, and just to prove their might, the aliens sink an uninhabited island with their plasma missiles.

Hearing out the alien, who claims to represent the "Scrubb" (not a promising name for a race of aspiring sportsmen!), Supes and Ali agree in principle to fight the alien champion on behalf of Earth. But then they get into a shouting match over which one of them will do the fighting. Both men want the job, each considering himself...for very different reasons..."Earth's Greatest Champion." The Scrubb leader offers (or rather commands) a solution: Ali and Superman will fight each other for the title, and the winner will combat the alien champion.

Showing he's a good sport, Ali agrees to train Supes in the finer points of boxing, so at least he'll stand a chance against the Champ. Supes takes him to the Fortress of Solitude, where a "Red Sun ray" temporarily removes his powers, so the two can spar as equals.

Travelling to the agreed upon arena (Bodace, a world under a red sun), they fight before an audience assembled from the races of many worlds (including one race that looks like fried eggs and another that resembles albino chickens. As if in answer to the age-old puzzle, Adams draws the eggs arriving on page 28 and the chickens a page later. Ahem). No sign of Donny and Marie or Joe Kubert in the audience this time, but we do see spaceman Adam Strange and his wife Alanna, plus a menagerie of aliens that looks like they just walked out of the Star Wars "cantina" scene.

In case the suspense is killing you, let's cut to the chase: Superman, lacking super-powers, being largely untrained in the art of boxing and...well, let's face it, being a caucasion, gets his clock cleaned by Muhammad Ali. In fact he's reduced to a bruised and bloodied mess ala Rocky Balboa. However, he does show great character and courage by refusing to give up and fall down. Finally, out of respect for Supe, Ali refuses to go on, prompting the referee to declare a technical knockout, which becomes more than just technical when Superman keels over face first onto the canvas.

Poor old Supes is carted back to Earth in an oxygen tent while Ali steps into the ring with the alien champion, named "Hun'Ya" (like the sound you might make when moving a sleeper-sofa). As the fight begins, we see Ali's associate Bundini Brown breaking into the control room of an alien ship. It turns out "Bundini Brown" is actually a disguised Superman, who's not quite as demolished as everyone thought. While Ali does his stuff in the ring, Superman dupes the alien starship fleet into leaving the Red Sun galaxy. As soon as they do, his super-powers return and he conducts his own personal "Star Wars," smashing the fleet to bits with his bare fists.

Meanwhile, Ali wins his fight, but the Scrubb leader petulantly declares he will destroy the Earth anyway. At this show of poor sportsmanship, the leader's own champion Hun'Ya punches him in the face. Seems the Scrubb people were misled by their leader into thinking Earthers were no-good warmongers, but the actions of Superman and Ali have proven our true colors, so the aliens make their apologies, shake hands and leave in peace.

Returning to Earth, Superman and Ali shake hands and make up, too, not that they were ever really at odds. Ali reveals that he's figured out Superman is really Clark Kent, but Superman seems unconcerned, having come to trust the champ implicitly.

Again, the emphasis on space fleets, coming in the wake of the phenomenal success of "Star Wars" the previous summer, dates the book as much as the celebrity photos on the cover. Also, it's hard to read the fight scenes without thinking of the "Rocky" film released the year before. "Superman vs. Muhammad Ali" is very much a product of its time, but that's part of the charm. For those of us who could never get enough of Neal Adams' Superman, this book, at 72 pages and tabloid-sized, is the closest thing we ever got to a Holy Grail.

Silly? You bet. But fun, too. Although the story's a bit thin, especially for 72 pages, there's a disarming sense of humor to the whole affair. And as showcases for great art go, this one's a real beaut. With the recent resurgence of tabloids in the form of Alex Ross' "Superman:Peace on Earth," "Batman: War On Crime" and "Shazam: Power of Hope," it's fun to remember the original age of comic book tabloids. This one represented the high point of the craze.

The only wet blanket in this whole affair was the fact that at some point during the many months the notoriously late Neal Adams toiled away at the artwork, Muhammad Ali lost his championship title. So it was that by the time the book hit the stands, Muhammad Ali was -- at least in the eyes of the boxing commission -- no longer "The Greatest." Proving, one might argue, that it really is a dumb idea to mix superheroes with real-world celebrities after all.