That last fight might not be so familiar. But it happened, if only in a comic book. In 1978, DC Comics published one of the strangest, most enduring team-up books ever: Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. At the time, it seemed like a gag. A superhero and a real person fighting aliens in a an oversized comic? Today, it’s appreciated for its wild story, boundless creativity, and heroic treatment of a transformative, inspirational figure.
“A Superman/Ali comic book had to be not only an epic entertainment, but also an exploration of the ideals and actions that made Superman and Ali heroes around the globe,” wrote Jenette Kahn, DC Comics’ former publisher.
“Here was our opportunity to say something about the world without actually getting involved in the political arena, but getting involved in the area of humanity and high adventure and fun and enjoyment,” Adams says, adding, “Once you realize that you’re going to have Superman and Muhammad Ali fight for the right to save the Earth, the story kind of writes itself.”
That all sounds good, but there’s one big problem. Superman is, well, Superman. If a human punches him, the human’s hand breaks. “The first thing and the obvious thing was we had to level the playing field,” O’Neil says. “Ali was a superb athlete. Still, you know, Superman pushes planets around!”
The solution they came up with was to depower Superman. When he trains with Ali before the big, intergalactic fight, Superman uses a fragment of a red sun to dilute his powers. (Remember, Superman is powered by Earth’s yellow sun!) And then the bout itself happens in a ring orbiting a red sun. And let’s just say, on equal footing, Ali makes the Man of Steel know what it’s like to feel pain for real.
That started with getting his dialogue correct. O’Neil visited Ali at his training camp in the Catskills in upstate New York to watch him and listen for speech he could use. Adams, meanwhile, went with Ali’s quotes verbatim. “You will find certain sections of the book where he’s yelling at the bad guy where we’re quoting him directly,” Adams says. “Most of the speech patterns and the words and the phrases where Muhammad Ali’s.” And when it came to drawing Ali, Adams studied and researched him, his footwork, and the way he fights to create images of staggering authenticity. Some panels look like they could be photographs. “Respect for the fighter became tremendously important for me.”
“This was not a comic book that was done by accident,” Adams says. “This book rubs shoulders with Ali. It takes him out of the myth and makes him a human being. Heroes are meant to be walked down the street with. You walk down the street with them, you find out if they’re good guys. Some heroes are not good guys. Ali, very clearly, was a good guy.”
The book was lightyears ahead of its time, and in today’s pop culture-obsessed world it stands as a fitting tribute and introduction to the Greatest of All Time. “Neither before nor after the publication of Supers/Ali has there been anything like it,” O’Neil says.
“Everybody laughed at [the idea],” Adams adds. “Nobody’s laughing anymore.”