June 10, 2013
Five Superman Publications I Like Better Than The Movies 01: Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali
Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali
is on many levels exactly
the ridiculous novelty comic it appears to be. It is contrived, it is shamefully crowd-pleasing, it works so hard to make sure its two characters flatter one another you can see the flop sweat involved. I like it anyway, and not just for nostalgic reasons. In fact, I like Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali
more now than I did when it came out. It's a handsome comic: Neal Adams was at the tail end of his glorious initial run of applying those advertising-ready images to florid mini-ballets of abstracted action, or however the prose of the time might describe it. Dick Giordano was a good inker for Adams; he was a good inker for just about everybody (Terry Austin, equally solid, did the backgrounds). It's a satisfying story for a kid, too, with a not-too-difficult plot twist, plenty of good-guy moments, set pieces with clear stakes, a lot of chicken fat (that cover!), and some well-designed, jerky aliens. Everyone does something you want them to do, even Ali's final opponent.
As a Superman comic book, Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali
may work best as a list of detailed instructions on how to ratchet up the dramatic stakes of a story starring Big Blue by cutting into his still-impressive aura of invincibility. I prefer this way of constructing stories around Superman. It seems to me infinitely better to have to find ways to make the stories work around an iconic character than it is to constantly assert that Superman is the greatest superhero going. The latter always feels to me like I'm being sold
Superman. Some techniques employed in this late Silver Age comic to bring Superman into line with the childhood logic that he should be able to beat everything immediately are tried and true. For instance, we get a standard planet-held-hostage mechanism, with an alien army being just powerful enough to cause Superman to worry about their potential devastating impact on various cities and population centers, real or made-up. As the aliens are thus well-established by the time Superman has to face off against their armada more directly, it's believable he'd fall a bit short in slugging it out with them. Other tricks used are less out in the open. When the aliens initially propose a fight between their champion and earth's champion, Muhammad Ali dogs Superman out for not even being human. Not only is this is a solid, clever plot point perfect for a kid to ponder, jumping right on a potential opponent's weakest psychological hitch is exactly what Ali would have done
. The whole thing moves along at enough of a clip that you don't question any of the umpteen obstacles thrown in Superman's way, either individually or all together: the sign of skillful craftsmen working in a much different era when it came to storytelling density. Also, Superman totally does the job to Ali, which he should have, yet despite losing still manages to maintain his top-dog status. If only Joe Frazier could have managed the same trick. And Joe won the first fight.
* Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali
, DC Comics, originally published in a treasury edition in 1978, now available in a hardcover edition released in 2010 (9781401228415).
posted 7:00 am PST
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