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Social Studies

Superman! Vs. Muhammad Ali!

The year: 1978! The place: I don’t know, probably that 7-Eleven on Route 40 or maybe the bookstore in Security Mall! The players: little boy me and my dad! The challenge: convincing my dad to pay the unheard-of price of two! Dollars! And! Fifty! Cents! For a comic! There had already been a moment of tension in the Williams household because the price of comics had risen from 30 cents to 35 cents in the past year, which led to numerous grumbled retellings of the story of how my father would “work down at the ice house and make 50 cents and take that 50 cents, buy two comic books, a roll of baloney, and a hunk of cheese, and still have money left over to go to the movies!” So, usually, one of the tabloid-sized comics would be out of the question. But this . . . this was a special comic. This was Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. Superman! Versus! Muhammad! Ali! Go, gentle reader, Google the cover. Bask in the glory of Neal Adams’ gorgeous realistic rendering of Ali in his prime, inches away from Superman in the middle of a boxing ring surrounded by celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Carter, all four Beatles, and, yes, Batman. My father could not deny the awesomeness of such a tableau and begrudgingly paid the unheard-of price, and I took it home, happy but knowing in my heart that the story couldn’t possibly match the excitement of the cover.

Oh, but it did. It did match the awesomeness of the cover. Lois Lane and Superman, in his secret identity of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, go to interview the champ, who’s playing basketball in The Ghetto with a multiracial collection of Ghetto Youth, ‘cause Muhammad Ali is all about the kids. Suddenly an alien shows up, pushes Lois Lane around and gets knocked out by the Champ! In the confusion, Kent changes to Superman, comes back, and finds out that the alien represents a gladiator race that has come to our planet to challenge our champion to a fight . . . or they’ll destroy the Earth!

And here is where it amps up from awesome to amazingly awesome: Superman and Ali get into an argument about who should represent Earth. Superman rightly lists his bona fides. He can fly, he’s super strong, he’s faster than a speeding bullet, he leaps tall buildings in a single bound, he can change the course of mighty rivers, etc. Plus, y’know, he fights aliens for a living. Yet, Muhammad Ali basically retorts that he’s Muhammad Ali! Ali thinks it’s cool that Superman can fly but, hey, he knocked out George Foreman! Oh, and, by the way, all of this happens in the first 10 pages.

Now, I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of the entire book, but yes, it stays that crazy throughout. Ali challenges Superman to a boxing match to see who’s going to represent Earth, teaches Superman how to box, fights him in an arena where Superman’s powers are moot, beats the living shit out of Superman in a wildly graphic sequence, talks smack to the aliens in a ca-razy two-page spread, knocks out the 15-foot-tall alien gladiator, convinces said gladiator to join him when the aliens want to renege and blow up the Earth anyway and then, after Superman gets rid of the aliens and the both of them are just chillin’, lets Superman know he’s figured out his secret identity through the use of his keen Muhammad Ali observational powers! And then the book ends in a great two-page spread of Ali shaking hands with the Man of Steel and shouting, “Superman, WE are the greatest!”

Can you imagine what this did to my brain? I was never a sports kid, so I knew only through cultural osmosis who Ali was, but this thing elevated the man to some type of demigod status. The movie, comic books, action figures, and The Superfriends had taught me that Superman was invincible. Yet DC Comics signed off on a depiction of his getting bloodied, bruised, and black-eyed, and not to put too fine a point on it, but his getting taken down by a black man was a pretty huge deal in my young life. There’s this weird theme in the history of comics of real-life celebrities interacting with superheroes, and it’s always bizarre. Superman met President Kennedy seven months after he was assassinated, Jerry Lewis had a comic for years, and discussing what Jack Kirby did with Don Rickles would take a whole ‘nother column. But, in this book, Muhammad Ali is hero, warrior, and philosopher, and stands shoulder to shoulder with an icon. In Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, Ali trod mightily into the realm of American mythology. When people talk about Ali’s larger-than-life status and his effect on American culture, I always think about my copy of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.

I still have it. It’s tattered and worn, but my copy of that comic is my most prized nerd possession. In retrospect, this confluence of black, pop, and nerd culture is the most representative artifact of my life. I have tried for years to find a better copy, but, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, it’s impossible to find one. I assume that a copy would be super expensive but, frankly, I’ve never even seen one for sale. And, for years, because of changing copyright laws and the fact that the Ali camp could never reach a deal with DC comics, it has never been reprinted.

Until now. In the next few weeks, it’ll be reprinted in two different versions, and they’re releasing a commemorative statue depicting the two characters boxing each other. As you can probably tell, I’m really excited about it. I’m pretty sure all of it is going to cost more than $2.50 . . . but I’m going to get it anyway.

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