As far back as I can remember it never seemed so far-fetched for a kid to become attracted to both comic books and sports. The unfortunate part was the realization that our culture still deemed comics as a childish medium in the Seventies, and that most kids would naturally stick with sports over comics because that’s what their parents, teachers, and peers expected. Many youngsters left behind those four-color wonders never to return. But those of us who stayed true, we witnessed the day that sports and comics collided on a level playing field in the 1978 release of the now classic Superman versus Muhammad Ali oversized comic book treasury (#C-56 of the All-New Collectors Edition series) .
Of course, sports comics weren’t exactly a new niche inside the medium, but most efforts were pretty trivial and crudely drawn. Superman vs. Ali was the real deal. To create this “outa space thriller”, publisher DC Comics enlisted their best comics creators: artists Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, and writer Denny O’Neill – the same creative team that reinvigorated Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and other household comics characters in the Seventies. And to top it all, this larger than life epic was produced as a gigantic treasury edition – a 72-page story inside an eye-appealing comic book that measured approximately 10″ by 14″.
“It sounded like an incredibly stupid project and at the same time a wonderful project,” Adams told me. “(Longtime DC Comics editor) Julius Schwartz came up with the idea. Julius was a very good idea person. He came up with this in spite of everyone laughing at him.”
With the idea in place, no one was more invested in the creation of Superman vs. Ali book than Adams – the great comic book icon who piloted the project. His meticulous cover to this book is a testimony to his commitment to the craft, and today it is recognized as a classic in the world of pop culture – Adams even recreated the image for ESPN magazine in 2000 for their special issue to the Sports Century Top 100 athletes.
While artist Joe Kubert’s original cover layout was a simple “night at the fight” scene, Adams raised the stakes in the published cover. As if the awesome spectacle of Superman going toe-to-toe with Muhammad Ali was not enough, the artwork’s detailed background features a sea of humanity. Anyone who was anyone in 1978 is seemingly present within the audience. From the Jackson 5 and Donny and Marie Osmond, to Pelé and Joe Namath, to the incumbent President Jimmy Carter and scores of DC characters – Adams even worked in his family and dozens of his fellow comic book professionals – the joy and anticipation on the faces in the crowd conveyed this was an event unlike any other.
Time has also given editor Schwartz the last laugh because the book is today celebrated as one of the most beloved comics of the era. No comic exudes the sweetness of the medium and the era more than this book, possibly the piece of resistance in the brilliant career of Neal Adams. This beautifully drawn page-turner serves as a masterful textbook on the incredible elasticity of the comics narrative, the only medium where such a fantastical starry bout could take place with such compelling awe and delight. In the pages of this old comic book, there are no limitations: the imagined is conceivable, and you can go where you want with it (if you have a little imagination).
For decades, the book was a sleeper buy at a modest $20 to $40 value in fine condition. Nowadays, a nice fine copy will cost anywhere between $50 to $100 since nostalgia, the Neal Adams pedigree, and the enduring popularity of Muhammad Ali have made it more desirable. High grade copies of the book are rarer because of the difficulties that come with storing those gigantic comics. I’ve even seen a handful of these books signed by Ali fetch a nice premium when they emerge in the marketplace. We’ve come a long way since the days when many dealers neglected the treasury edition format because of their intimating size.