Superman vs. Lex Luthor? Sure. Superman vs. Batman? If you say so. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali? Wait, what?
It’s true. The unlikely showdown between the Man of Steel and the Greatest was immortalized in an oversized 1978 comic book illustrated by famed artist Neal Adams — and now, nearly 40 years later, the original art is on display in Midtown Manhattan.
“Everybody thought it was incredibly stupid!” Adams told The Post. “But I became a booster for it and it took a life of its own.”
That it has. The issue, published by DC Comics, is today considered a goofy classic — an over-the-top tale written by Adams and Denny O’Neil that’s filled with aliens who contrive a battle between our heroes. (SPOILER ALERT: Superman’s powers are reduced and Ali wipes the floor with him. Then they team up and become buddies.)
It’s still so popular, though, that two companies — NECA and its sister operation WizKids — have just released sets of action figures and toy miniatures based on the the caped combatant and his real-life counterpart that will be shown off at this weekend’s Toy Fair trade show at the Javits Center.
Adams, 75, whose photorealistic style remade the industry and influenced generations of comics and commercial artists, recently opened a public gallery in his W. 39th Street studio, so it made sense to curate an exhibit displaying the art, paired with the new memorabilia.
The highlight? The wraparound cover, which features a cornucopia of late ’70s celebs — real and imagined — looking on as Superman and Ali square off, including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Pele, “Welcome Back, Kotter” cast members, President Carter and the Caped Crusader himself, Batman.
‘I have a feeling the comic and toys are going to come out forever’
“If you’re going to have an intergalactic fight with the stakes being the survival of Earth, you’d have famous people watching,” Adams said. “There are 172 recognizable people on the cover.”
It’s a cover that’s been parodied and homaged many times over, including by ESPN Magazine.
“John Wayne didn’t want to be on the cover – so I put a mustache on him,” said Adams, who mistakenly drew two Raquel Welches. “With 172 people, you gotta make a mistake somewhere.”
Superman had already been paired with other American icons such as John F. Kennedy, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis – but Julie Schwartz, an editor at DC Comics, broke new ground with the idea for the bizarre new comic.
Adams, who even today is one of comics’ most in-demand artists, was not a boxing fan, but he immersed himself in the “sweet science” and learned how to portray Ali floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.
“I learned to love it and I really grew to love Ali,” he said. “I realized, ‘This is a pretty good guy.’ It became a labor of love.”
When the tabloid-sized comic hit the stands in early 1978, Leon Spinks was the heavyweight champ. But when Ali regained his title, he encouraged everyone to buy a copy of his fight with the world’s greatest superhero.
“Oh, he loved it,” Adams said. “For the life of me, I don’t even understand why it’s so popular. It is beyond my explanation – but it’s one of the best projects I’ve ever done.”
Though he’s a household name among the comics cognoscenti, the average person would likely know Adams through his influence, even if they don’t realize it. Popular TV shows like “Arrow” utilize his concepts, and Liam Neeson’s villainous Ra’s al Ghul from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” of films was co-created by Adams and O’Neil.
The whole notion of treating superheroes as more serious fare can also be traced in part to Adams’ work in the ’60s and ’70s. With that in mind, the exhibit also features art and memorabilia that spotlight many of his innovations, like his work on Green Arrow, Green Lantern and Batman.
But it’s Muhammad Ali and Superman who take center stage.
“I have a feeling the comic and toys are going to come out forever,” Adams said, chuckling.
The Neal Adams Gallery is located at 15 W. 39th St. Admission is free but reservations are required. Call 212-869-4170. The Superman/Ali exhibit will be open Saturday through Tuesday during Toy Fair. The gallery is constantly rotating but the exhibit is expected to remain active through the end of the month, when it’s open Monday-Friday.