Comics: ‘Superman vs. Muhammad Ali’ still the greatest

Let’s address this right away: An oversized comic book titled “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” sounds like the dumbest idea ever. Amazingly, it turned out to be a great idea 32 years ago, and has only improved with time.

DC Comics published “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” in 1978 as “All-New Collector’s Edition, Vol. 7, No. C-58” — part of a series of oversized books that measured roughly 10 inches by 13 inches, usually called “Treasuries.” The Ali Treasury was one of the few original ones ever printed by DC, as most were reprints.

It was the right decision, given the eye-popping art by superstar artist (and co-writer) Neal Adams. Most Treasuries just expanded regular-sized comics, and often looked cheesy. But the format was perfect for Adams’ larger-than-life, photorealism style, which makes you feel like you can walk into the panel. You need no further evidence than the incredibly detailed cover, which boasts 172 real people, from then-President Jimmy Carter to then-“Tonight” show host Johnny Carson to then-DC Publisher Jenette Kahn. (Fortunately, there’s a key.)

DC says the size made the book too difficult to reprint for years, although it seems more likely that celebrity images in the book held things up until recent changes in copyright law. What matters is that the book is finally back in print, at its original size in a “facsimile” hardback ($39.99) and a “deluxe” hardback at regular comic-book size (with some additional sketches and background, $19.99).

Of course, the premise still sounds stupid. But it isn’t, honest. The story is about an alien race called the Scrubb that will wipe out Earth unless our champion faces their champion, the superstrong Hun’Ya. Both Superman and Ali volunteer, but since the fight will be under a red sun — where Superman has no superpowers — they fight a preliminary, no-powers boxing match for the right to represent Earth. Naturally, Ali proves the superior boxer, and must face Hun’Ya. Meanwhile, Superman takes on the Scrubb armada.

OK, no points for guessing who wins. But so what if the story is predictable? The joy is in the art, and in Ali’s one-of-a-kind persona. Sure, some of that is the nostalgia factor for us cranky oldsters, but you dang kids who won’t get off my lawn will love it, too. There’s a reason that Muhammad Ali joins Superman on the Top 10 list of Most Recognized People on Earth, and he doesn’t even enjoy the Man of Steel’s advantage of being fictional (and therefore immortal). Ali was not only one of the biggest celebrities of his generation, not only the most dominating boxer, not only beloved worldwide for his civil-rights work, but also just a lot of fun. He really was “The Greatest,” and so is this book.


— In the mid-1960s, virtually all comics publishers jumped on the superhero bandwagon, thinking it a fad. That includes Archie Comics, which for a couple of years ran occasional stories starring a superheroic Archie (Pureheart), Jughead (Captain Hero), Betty (Superteen), Reggie (Evilheart), Veronica (Miss Vanity) and Moose (Mighty Moose). A number of these have been collected by IDW in “Archie: Pureheart the Powerful” ($19.99).

I read most of these stories when they came out the first time, and have remembered them fondly. To my amazement, they still hold up 45 years later. These stories are typically wacky Archie stories of the time, silly fun with subtle commentary on current events. (For example, during a time of rising recreational drug use, Archie learns how to be Pureheart by reading “Happy Hallucinations and How They Happen.”)

Interestingly, these stories anticipate the “Batman” TV show by a couple years, being camp before camp was cool. And they’re still cool now.

— The second volume of “Sweet Tooth” has arrived ($12.99), collecting issues 6-11 of the ongoing DC/Vertigo post-apocalyptic series. The story picks up steam here as hints about the lethal global pandemic are revealed, and Sweet Tooth — a human-animal hybrid — may prove to be the key. Also, there’s a lot of background and character development for Jessup, the former hockey player whose conscience died with his wife — but is showing signs of resurrection.

This story drops hints and moves forward at just the right pace to keep the reader turning pages. I’m still no fan of writer/artist Jeff Lemire’s sketchy art style, but that’s just a matter of taste.

(Contact Andrew A. Smith of The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal at capncomics(AT) or on his Web site,