From Don Rickles heckling Jimmy Olsen to Obama fist bumping with Spider-Man, celebrity cameos in comic books have made for some truly bizarre moments. Now with DC’s long-awaited reprint of Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ 1978 classic that pitted the Man of Steel against “The Champ,” fans of all ages will get to enjoy one of the weirdest comic book team-ups of all time.
In a story that is somehow even crazier than the title suggests, Supes and Ali must fight against an alien champion in order to save the Earth from destruction. It was the ‘70s. Just go with it. This leads to one of the strangest training montages in pop culture history, as Ali schools Superman on his patented “rope-a-dope” technique while floating in the far reaches of space. When, Superman and Ali finally face off in the ring, it’s actually Ali’s cornerman Bundini Brown in disguise. (Of course, Ali pretty much destroys fake Superman in the ring.) You see, Superman has traded places with Bundini in order to infiltrate the alien ship, leading to an awkward moment where The Man of Steel is revealed to have been in blackface the entire time. Of course, Superman and Ali eventually team up to defeat the aliens and save Earth. Though, once again, Ali ends up doing most of the heavy lifting by knocking out alien brawler Hun’Ya.
In keeping with Ali’s boastful persona (there are too many references to his greatness to count), The Champ ends up doing most of the fighting. And in a move that still infuriates continuity nerds to this day, Ali deduces Superman’s secret identity in the end. (Ali reportedly agreed to appear in the comic on the condition that he would discover the secret that has eluded poor Lex Luthor all these years.)
Fans who picked up the comic back in the day will remember Adams’ iconic cover, which features a veritable “Who’s Who” of ‘70s Hollywood in the crowd. (Eagle eye readers will spot everyone from Donny and Marie to Andy Warhol.) As former DC publisher Jeanette Kahn reveals in the hardcover’s new afterword, wrangling permissions from all the various celebrities led to some interesting last minute changes. When All in the Family curmudgeon Carroll O’Connor firmly refused to be in the crowd, Adams subbed in soccer great Pelé’s similarly rounded head. Kurt Vonnegut’s distinctive nose was the perfect match for George C. Scott after the Patton star declined to cameo. (Adams’ wife is visible next to Vonnegut, joining several DC staffers and comic book creators who helped to fill out the crowd.)
The newly recolored reprint is available as a normal hardcover and an oversized version which reprints the story in its original Treasury edition format. Adams claims in his intro that Superman Vs. Muhammed Ali is, “one of the best graphic novels/comic books ever done.” Scoff if you must, but consider this: Can Watchmen boast a scene where Muhammed Ali sends Superman to the mat with a crushing left hook?