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Superman vs. Muhammad Ali Deluxe

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali Deluxe - Dennis O'Neil I can totally understand why this seemed like a good idea. Let’s put it into perspective: The year was 1976. Muhammad Ali had established himself as one of the all-time boxing greats, by beating George Foreman (1974, Zaire) in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight and Joe Frazier (1975, the Philippines) in the big “Thrilla in Manila” match. Outside the ring, Ali had become a cultural icon, both for his public conversion to Islam (1975), and his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War- he was arrested in 1967 for refusing to enlist, stripped of his boxing titles, and then vindicated by the Supreme Court in 1971. By '76, Muhammad Ali was about as big as a celebrity can become… larger than life. What more was there to do? How could an athlete’s career go any higher than that? Apparently somebody thought the answer was to have him fight Superman. That "somebody" was (Ali's fight promoter) Don King. The Afterword to this book explains that King approached DC Comics with the idea, and in a moment of… well, who knows? either artistic zeal at the creative possibilities, or perhaps just a belief that it would sell a lot of issues, DC Comics agreed. ...And thus Muhammad Ali was written into the DC universe. The artistic problem this project presents is that there have to be two heroes. DC Comics cant' have their top character (Superman) getting his ass handed to him by anybody. He is DC’s all-time biggest moneymaker, so they'd be fools to mess with a winning formula by putting out a story which shakes his image of invulnerability... losing to a mortal Earthman, especially one who has occasionally lost a fight to other Earthmen (Ali lost a fight to Joe Frazier in 1971, and lost one to Ken Norton in 1973). On the other hand, it would also be very poor sportsmanship to feature Superman kicking a mortal Earthman’s ass. Throw in the additional complication that Superman, although technically an alien from Krypton, has a Caucasian appearance, so having him beat up on Muhammad Ali would look like some racist’s sick wish-fulfillment fantasy. Parenthetically (although I'm not framing this sentence in parenthesis; just this comment), I’m fairly confident that neither Don King nor Ali would approve a story where Ali loses a fight- even to Superman.So what to do? That question obviously had DC writers scratching their heads… and they probably should have done some more scratching, because the dilemma is an awkward undercurrent which is not handled well. The story's premise is that a war-like race of aliens called “the Scrubb” (did TLC read this comic?) has come all the way across the galaxy to conquer Earth. Their super-advanced armada is in orbit around Earth, and they've wiped out a small Pacific island demonstrating antimatter weapons which even Superman can't fight against. Interstellar invasion... that's quite an investment in time and resources… still, they’re willing to call off their attack, if Earth’s greatest warrior can defeat their greatest warrior in the boxing ring. Yes, they have boxing. The thing is, empires expand and conquer for all sorts of reasons: natural resources, to obtain strategically valuable real estate, to attain new markets to sell their goods, cheap labor found by enslaving the conquered, plunder, prestige, etc… One of these must have motivated the Scrubb to travel across the galaxy to invade Earth. Are they really going to turn around and call it off, if we win a boxing match? What kind of weird empire is this? After taking a deep breath, and drinking down a large cup of Suspension of Disbelief (also known as Chivas Regal in some circles), I continued.So how do the Scrubb announce their presence and communicate their intentions? Does their emperor appear simultaneously on all the television sets of the world (an old favorite)? Do they send diplomatic envoys to important world leaders? No, the Scrubb emperor, Rat’Lar (oh look! He has “rat” in his name, so you know he’s bad!!) teleports down to a playground where Muhammad Ali happens to be playing a casual game of basketball with the local kids, as I guess he was wont to do (??? pour me another glass, Chizuru..) Rat'Lar just tells Ali about the situation personally, face to face. I don't know how he expected word to get out to the rest of the planet. Luckily Jimmy Olsen “happened” to be there with a camera to get it all down.Ugh. So now we enter the protracted portion of the story where Superman and Ali make appeals to Rat’lar and to the people of the Earth to decide who should fight the Scrubb warrior “Hun’ya”. Superman makes the valid point that he has superpowers, and thus has a better chance at winning. Ali stands on the appeal that Superman wasn’t born on Earth, therefore he isn’t Earth’s greatest hero. Who would’ve taken Ali for a birther? I can't help from feeling in the comic that Ali's plea is based on ego, rather than trying to ensure that Earth not become enslaved. That would qualify as both vain and reckless in my book. The galactic emperor can’t decide between these two… because decisiveness is apparently not part of the required skill set to run a galactic empire… so Rat'Lar decides Supes and Ali must fight it out between themselves to decide who will then go on to fight Hun’ya. (Hun'ya, by the way looks like a 15' tall extremely muscular frog.) The reader is subjected to a hell of a lot of trash-talking during all of this, which one is used to from a professional prizefighter, but which seems very poor form coming from Superman. Example:Ali: I’m not gonna box ya- I’m gonna WHUP ya! …but not too bad.Superman: Face it! You won’t whup me- period! You may be the greatest boxer who ever lived, but I’m the Man of Steel! I change the course of mighty rivers! I bend steel in my hands, and that’s just for starters! It is very embarrassing to read. For one thing, I would say that Superman is violating a generally accepted leadership principle that you should avoid publicly attacking people lower than you in your organization. (“organization” being the inhabitants of Earth in this case). Getting all worked up and defensive over somebody that much lower than you in power, knowledge, etc just serves to give them more attention and credibility than they deserve, and undermines your own authority, status, etc. President Millard Fillmore famously did this by getting into a very public fight with the editor of some minor newspaper in Albany, NY. He should’ve just gone on about his business without making such a big deal. Superman should’ve just flown up to the Scrubb mothership floating in orbit around Earth to conduct further negotiations in person, cutting Ali out of the discussion. Nothing against Ali, but I just think Superman would have an edge fighting the Scrubb warrior, what with his superpowers and all. The next part of the story involves a long sequence of sparring, during which Ali teaches Superman how to box. Why does Ali teach him, if they are to be opponents? ..a sense of fair play, it seems.. oh, and as a plot device so Ali can explain all his signature moves to the boxing dilatantes in the readership. This whole schooling part is quite embarrassing for Superman fans, as it portrays Supes as the wide-eyed student getting schooled by the master:...and getting his ass handed to him in the boxing ring. I found the whole trash-talking very tiresome, in part because I never really got the point of trash-talking. For one thing, talk is cheap, and anybody can say anything before a fight. It really means nothing at all. I’ve had this discussion before, and I’ve had it explained to me that braggadocio is supposed to rattle one’s opponent, creating self-doubt which may psychologically hinder him during the fight. Does this really work, if everybody knows that’s what you’re trying to do? It seems kind of stupid. The other thing that makes trash-talking ridiculous is that it broadcasts a set of predictions or promises that the trash-talker now needs to live up to. If you go out and tell your opponent “I’m going to kick your ass!”, and then you lose, it makes things all the worse, doesn’t it? Not only have you lost, but you look like a deluded, self-important chump for all the bragging beforehand. You know what would really fuck with peoples’ minds? REVERSE TRASH TALKING. Tell everybody that you aren’t that good. It will lower peoples’ expectations, and your opponent might let down his guard. Then.. If you win, you can play it off like “Wow! I wasn’t even at the top of my game today… I was really tired, and kind of out of practice, yet I still kicked my opponent’s ass.” THAT will REALLY get your opponent questioning himself, and it will also make you look like you’re usually a lot better than you really are. See, this comic has Ali going around telling everybody how great he is. If I were a prizefighter being interviewed before a big match, it would go like this:Howard Cosell: Brian, this is a huge fight! You’re going up against one of the all-time greats. What do you have to say?BirdBrian: Howard, I think he’s going to kill me! It was really dumb of me, but I haven’t been practicing at all, for like three weeks. I’ve just been watching television and eating Twinkies™. I didn’t even get that much sleep last night. I’ve considered calling the fight off completely, but I decided to at least give it a try, to see what I can do.…of course in reality I’d have been training like a motherfucker, then I’d go out and give that fight everything I had. If I lost.. Well, I’d be covered; everybody would understand that I wasn’t in my best form. BUT IF I WON… then my interview after the fight would go something like this.Howard Cosell: Brian! That was amazing!! You said you were out of shape, but then you beat that guy to a pulp!BirdBrian: Yeah, Howard, I know. It wasn’t even that hard. I hope I didn’t hurt him. I’m just thinking that if I could beat him in the shape I’m in right now, it’s really good for him that I wasn’t training harder. You know, Howard, I just don’t think the major leagues is the right place for him; he’s gonna get hurt bad.Now THAT would REALLY fuck with my opponent’s head! I don’t understand why more professional athletes don’t do this.Well, there’s more details I could spoil here, but I won’t. The fight is on the Scrubb home planet, and may I just take a moment here to comment on how nobody in these comics ever seems to be appropriately amazed by their circumstances. I mean, take Jimmy Olsen. He’s announcing the fight for the Earth television broadcast… because the all-time most historically important sports event ever should probably be narrated by an unknown junior reporter from a newspaper, not a professional television sports announcer. Anyhow, Jimmy Olsen is on this heretofore unknown alien planet, and other unknown aliens from all over the galaxy are coming to see this battle in which the fate of mankind actually really does hang in the balance… and I just don’t get a sense of that from Jimmy at all. He’s concerned that his buddy Superman will be okay, and that’s about all he says. My mind would be so fucking blown in a situation like that, I probably wouldn’t even know who I was, let alone Superman.So I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that mankind is not enslaved by the Scrubb at the end of the story. The day is duly saved, as we knew it would. There’s a whole time-travel sequence, where Superman and Ali get more time to practice by transporting their boxing ring faster than light or some damn thing, so they can practice for six months instead of the 24 hours they were given. I dunno… it seems uncharacteristic for Superman (and probably Ali too, I don’t know) to be fiddling with the conditions he had agreed to. It’s a bit unsportsmanlike for the Man of Steel (...which is what Joseph Stalin’s name also meant, BTW. Don't you think the creators of Superman would stop calling him the Man of Steel after Joseph Stalin sent over 10million of his countrymen to be worked to death in the gulag? It gives the moniker a very bad association.). If you read this story, I’d appreciate hearing in the comments below whether you thought this was cheating. At the end, it’s hugs and kisses all around, and the trash-talking Superman and trash-talking Ali both agree that they’re both the best. (golf clap)I guess the rest of us are chopped liver. One last note: there's plenty of 70's nostalgia in here. Not only does Ali make frequent references to Howard Cosell, but there is a scene with President (elect, at the time of publication) Carter negotiating with the Scrubb, and the audience who comes to see the fight on the Scrubb home planet is filled with celebrities of the day, including: the cast of Welcome Back, Kotter, Donnie and Marie, Lucille Ball, and Sonny & Cher. Goodreaders will appreciate that Kurt Vonnegut is also in attendance. Also notice the 1976, pre-Star Wars subtitle on the cover of this comic (image at the top of this review): the greatest fighters save Earth from the "Star Warriors"! Good stuff.