I feel like I hit the jackpot when I came across this 1978 comic pitting two of our American icons against each other in the ring. In one corner, stands Muhammad Ali. In the other corner, stands The Man of Steel himself, Superman. While you could superficially gloss over this comic as merely a test of strength and masculinity for two heavyweight icons, this comic surely has much more to tell about the state of the collective American mindset. The biggest tell-tale surprise of all from this DC comic is who ends up winning the fight.
The late 70’s were a sort of watershed moment in American history. Gerald Ford, himself a sort of somber reminder of the mess of the Nixon years, had been defeated in the 1976 election by Democrat Jimmy Carter (as a fun side note, both Carter and Ford can be spotted on the celebrity-laden cover of this comic) whose entire campaign harkened back to the simplicity of small-town American values. Of course, these same values are the ones which Superman himself so adamantly defends. But, on the other hand, America was really not so simple in the 1970’s as Carter or Superman would wish for it to be. The Vietnam War was a failure, and America’s most famous artists such as Andy Warhol, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jerry Garcia (all of whom are also on the cover of this comic) had made huge careers as figures of the counter-culture. Even more radical was the fact that America’s most famous athlete was a member of the Nation of Islam! Arguably, there had been no other point in American history in which the ideals of “America as simple” and “America as diverse” had been so much at odds. DC brought both of these ideals to life in the forms of Superman and Muhammad Ali respectively and had them duke it in the boxing ring.
When I first come upon this comic in google images, I assumed that Superman HAD to win. I mean, he’s invincible! At the very least, I assumed it would end in a sort of tie, like the first Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed fight. It seemed inconceivable that DC would publish a comic in which Superman was defeated by a “draft-dodging Muslim” who seems to represent everything Superman would hate in an American! However, after some further investigation, I discovered that Ali not only won the fight, but he pummeled the daylights out of Superman! In 1978, by making the “greatest American hero” lose, DC writers seem to be admitting that simplicity isn’t always the winner in America. Superman’s version of the ideal America is no longer the only acceptable version of the ideal America. Now, even radical viewpoints such as those of Muhammad Ali can be accepted. Of course, it is worth noting that DC seemed to in a sense whitewash Ali and remove all of his stigma of radical Islam in this comic; however, at this point, the American public would rather have their own conceptions of Ali which they could place onto this comic.
In the comic’s ultimate double-page spread, Superman and Ali are shown shaking hands as Ali is exclaiming, “Superman, WE are the greatest!” In a sense, this is a sort of corruption and whitewashing of the conceptions of narcissist and radical that the American public had of Ali at this time. But, from a more symbolic standpoint, this reconciliation of ideals represents America as a place where even the unpopular or losing ideals can still be accepted, and they all come together to make America the great nation that the writers want to portray it as. Ultimately, the great irony of this entire comic as that only through brutal violence could such a peaceful reconciliation of conflicting ideals occur. Of course, this battle represents the greater American battle of racial politics. Like a Flannery O’Connor shortstory or a bit of Black Panther rhetoric, non-violence is shown not the solution to the problems of race and religion in America in this comic book. So, when Muhammad Ali is beating Superman to a bloody pulp, he is not only doing it for himself, but for the promise of a peaceful America in the future.