Thursday, March 28, 2013

Superman vs Muhammad Ali (comic)

Writers: Neal Adams, Denny O'Neil
Artist: Neal Adams
Original Graphic Novel

It could only have happened in the 70's.

Think about it. Ali was still in his prime and while the Silver Age had been winding down, it would still be a while before COIE and men like Frank Miller and Alan Moore would put it to rest for good. Try and pitch it just a few years later and the idea would probably have been laughed out of the DC Offices. Trying it any sooner wouldn't work either; Ali's exile from boxing over Vietnam cost him several years of his career. It feels like one of those circumstances where, had the stars not aligned just right, this book wouldn't even exist.

Which would be a shame, because I had a good time with it.

The cover doesn't lie. This is indeed about a boxing match between The Greatest and The Man of Steel. Obviously, it goes a bit further than that - an intergalactic empire decides to waste Earth unless the winner of the titular bout can defeat their champion in the ring - but it's window dressing to justify the fact that Superman is just straight up chillin' with Ali and at one point trading punches.

It's almost goofy in how very Silver Age it is. The aliens, the fact that it's decided that a boxing match would be a pretty bitchin' way to decide the fate of the planet, the other aliens being moved to turn against the warlord by the courage and honor of the title characters. It is ridiculous.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Personally, I have a rough time with Silver Age comics. I love the crazy anything-can-and-frequently-does-happen nature of the era. But those comics are very, very dated; I've said this before, but as much as decompression is decried, the format of comics changed for a reason. A lot of Silver Age comics - because almost all of them had to end in twenty two pages or less, as was the sensibility of the time - end up reading like a still clip show. As though someone arranged a bunch of pictures, with no fluid motion or connectivity, and attempted to make a story out of it.

Superman vs Muhammad Ali does not have that problem, because it's illustrated by Neal Adams in his prime. Adams is a master of his craft, able to craft dynamic page layouts and tell a coherent story with his art. Portraying the intricacies of a boxing match in the comic style of the time has to be a tall order, but Neal Adams is good enough to pull it off.

Of course, the writing is also handled by Neal Adams, which normally would be cause for alarm. Yeah, his usual partner - similarly legendary writer Dennis O'Neil - has his name on the cover, but as the intro explains O'Neil was forced to drop out of the project fairly early. For a man who understands sequential storytelling like few others, Neal Adams is a notoriously bad writer. Skateman is the stuff of bad comic legend, while Batman Oddessy is so off the wall bad that it loops back around to being enjoyable for it.

I'm not sure if it came down to the editing or the approval process - as the text pieces explain, Ali's people pored over the book extensively and had final say - but Neal Adams manages to hold the story together fairly well. Oh sure, it's still goofy as all get out, but it's the fun sort and not the kind that requires bleach for the brain. A bit too wordy - this is still a comic from the 70's, after all - but not as overbearingly so as many old comics tend to be.

The hardcover is in DC's Deluxe Edition*. It really is a nice looking book. I guess they even managed to get all the proper permission, because the original cover is used and included for the book**. It's a nice package and well worth putting on your bookshelf. The Deluxe Edition format is well liked for a reason.

The Score: 8 out of 10

It's ridiculous. It's outrageous. But more importantly, it's a lot of fun. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a classic or one of the best OGN's of all time, but it's a really good time and well worth putting on your shelf. You just don't get stuff like this anymore.

It's only fitting that the greatest duo receive the greatest hardcover.
* I'm not sure, but I think DC may have retired the Deluxe Edition since the New 52 started. I may have missed them, but I don't recall seeing any since the New 52 started to hit trade. Shame. They make for a nice package.

** The cover of Superman vs Muhammad Ali has a who's who of 70's celebrities in the audience. Pretty much everyone you can think of is there, including Jimmy Carter. You'll also notice assorted DC superheroes and DC staff of the time if you're particularly eagle eyed. There's a ton to pore over in that one cover. The hardcover included a key in the back for identifying each crowd member.

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