Comic Book Artist Edited by Jon B. Cooke Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.

Convention sketch of Manhunter by Walt Simonson. Manhunter © 1998 DC Comics

The Greatest

Neal Adams and Superman vs. Muhammad Ali

Conducted by Arlen Schumer
Transcribed by Jon B. Knutson

From Comic Book Artist Special Edition

Editor's Note: I may be in the minority fandom opinion on this, but I've long felt that Neal Adams' Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was his best work for DC Comics. It appeared on the stands in late 1978 - just as I was losing interest in comics, and Neal's storytelling and technique blew me away. So, in planning this "Best of '70s DC Comics" issue, I asked Neal and my pal (interviewer/designer/historian extraordinaire) Arlen Schumer, if they could do a brief interview about the story behind the story. In phenomenally short turnaround time, Neal gave us the definitive interview on the project, Arlen sent us original art and the tapes, and transcriber Jon B. Knutson finished the transcript in record time. My sincere thanks to all. As this is an edited version of their discussion, CBA plans to present the entire transcript in the upcoming Comic Book Artist Collected Volume 1 (reprinting the out-of-print CBA #1-3 with new material) including more unseen art. This interview was conducted in Neal's Continuity Studio on November 12, 1999. - JBC

ARLEN SCHUMER: Let's start with the cover: Originally, this project at DC Comics was going to be drawn by Joe Kubert, and for whatever reason, the Muhammad Ali people weren't happy with the likenesses, and somehow the idea came up, "Maybe we can get Neal to work on it."

NEAL ADAMS: Clearly, DC was having a problem with likenesses, and Ali's people weren't happy, so they had me take a try. They were happy with my likenesses, and basically, that was the turning point, and the reason I got the project.

When I saw Joe's original cover (he hadn't done detail to the background) with the two figures, I thought, "Gee, you know, no matter what I do, I don't think I'm going to come up with a better layout than Joe." So I essentially took his layout, and just put my own drawing into it, and if somebody recognizes the pose of, say, Superman as not being a typical Neal Adams pose, it's a Joe Kubert pose, adapted to my style.

ARLEN: I remember looking at this at the time, thinking, "This cover doesn't quite look like Neal."

NEAL: I wanted to keep Joe's name attached to it, and by using his layout, I paid homage to it. Because this is a classic Kubert layout: The one foot up, and the shoulder. The big question that entered my mind was, I knew it would have a wraparound cover, so how do I then make it an event? And I thought, "Why don't I put famous people on the cover watching the match?"

If you count them, I think there's something like 170 different likenesses there. For a cover, that's a lot of drawings. You don't really do that. But I guess I was caught up in it, in that, for instance, I had just met Kurt Vonnegut and I thought, "Gee, Vonnegut would be at this fight." Certainly Muhammad Ali's trainers would be there, and of course, if Superman were there, Lex Luthor would be there. [laughter] And Batman would be there... well, by the time I got that stuff going, we got carried away-it just turned into this ball of string that I just couldn't unravel. And it got to the point where I was saying, "If there's a circle there, I ought to put a person there... where do I stop?" [laughter] Where does it end? Well, it just never ended, we just kept on going and going and going.

ARLEN: As a former employee of yours, I remember one of your lessons in drawing was, when one has to do a crowd, design it in such a way that you suggest a crowd.

NEAL: That was one of those times that I should've stuck with one of my own rules! [laughter] Once the idea was presented up at DC, the question was: Should we get permission from these people to put them on the cover, or should we not? My feeling was, "I don't see why we'd have to get permission. If it was an editorial decision, that essentially these people would be at this thing, if you put drawings of people on a comic book cover, it's just a comic book. You're not really saying anything or implying anything, so I don't think there's any reason for it." Well, for whatever reason, it was decided, "Well, why don't we ask anyway?" Maybe it was the publicity....

ARLEN: And thus, the biggest can of worms was opened.

NEAL: The logical thought was that everybody would say, "Yes, who cares?" And certainly, a majority of people said yes. There were people who decided not to say yes... why, I have no idea. Assuming that they would say yes, I went ahead and put them in. So, then we started to get responses (and most people were very cooperative, and very generous, and I'm sure that even the people who rejected the idea were very generous and very cooperative), some just decided on that day, "I don't feel like giving my permission." You know, it's sort of a flip of a coin. They just said no, or yes, whatever.

So, there were people I just left out. But there were other people I'd already put in there. For example, John Wayne decided he didn't want to be in it, but I'd already drawn him. So I decided, "I don't want to take him out, but on the other hand, I don't want everybody to know it's John Wayne." So we put a mustache on him. So, if you look very carefully on the front cover, you'll see a guy with a mustache sitting right next to Johnny Carson, and sure enough, that's John Wayne with a mustache. You'll see next to Ron Howard, is a guy with a mustache-that's Fonzie [Henry Winkler] with different hair and a mustache.

ARLEN: So, basically, anybody with a mustache is somebody that didn't give approval? [laughs]

NEAL: Well, I can't guarantee that! It becomes a game to look around and find people who might not have given permission. We tried, but it got to be like a silly joke after a while. I thought, "Oh, God, what are we doing?" So, there were a whole bunch of people I really had to put aside, if I had to take them out, but in some cases, I did the mustache thing. So there are, again, over 170 people on this cover... big, big project! The two figures in the middle? The easiest part of the cover! [laughter]

Remember, I had to have photographs to work from, and I then had to draw these people so small, yet the likenesses had to be there, so people wouldn't come to me later and say, "Gee, that doesn't look like so-and-so." It's a professional thing to not miss the likeness. Also, all the people who were not stars on the cover, but people I liked, I didn't want to disappoint them, and put them in such a way that you couldn't recognize who they are. So the game with this comic book, of course, if anybody can find it, is to play that little game of "Find out who all those people are."

ARLEN: Whose idea was it to do this comic in the first place?

NEAL: I think it generated like lava, from some swamp beneath the earth, and it suddenly appeared. [laughs] My memory says that Julie Schwartz had something to do with it, and of course, without knowledge, I'd love to give Julie credit for the whole idea, but I guess you'd have to ask him. Certainly, when I heard it, I thought it was a great idea. I mean, just the concept... yet, at the same time, the logical question is, "How do you have a human being fight an alien-Superman-and how do you justify such a battle?" We had to come up with an answer.

Joe Kubert's cover art for his version of the book, a design which Neal retained in homage to the great artist/editor/ mentor. ©1999 DC Comics, Inc.

ARLEN: Let's back up for a minute. Once you did your thing, and were approved, in a sense, as the artist, were there any other creative people involved?

NEAL: Denny O'Neil was certainly involved, and both Denny and I had to be approved, not by DC Comics or by Muhammad Ali, but by Elijah Muhammad [head of the Nation of Islam, the American Black Muslim organization]. Elijah Muhammad had to decide whether or not we were okay to do this book. Remember, Cassius Clay had accepted Islam as his religion, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and essentially put himself under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad. So, here we were in this curious situation, that once the artwork was approved by the Ali people, the question was, were we approved by Elijah Muhammad? And there was really only one way we could be approved of by him, and that was for us to get on a plane, go to Chicago, be driven by limousine to the home of Elijah Muhammad, set out in the windy plains of Chicago, through a gate, and up to his rather elegant house.

ARLEN: This is just you and Denny?

NEAL: Just me and Denny, led into a parlor, very Turkish in design, surrounded by columns and couches around the edges. And Elijah Muhammad came out, said hello, got into a phone call, was called away, and left. And we were excused!

ARLEN: So you were approved as the artist, Denny was approved as writer, Julie Schwartz as the editor.

NEAL: Now, I participated in the outline, and it turned out, in the middle of the project Denny could no longer work on it, so essentially, Julie Schwartz dumped it into my lap to finish.

ARLEN: We've got some script pages so we know it was written as a traditional script.

NEAL: Up to a certain point. Remember, this is a 72-page story. You don't write it all at once, you do it in parts. Midway into it, Denny was unable to finish, so Julie asked, "Do you want finish it? You know the story better than anybody else." I said, "Fine." He said, "Have the remainder of the script in here Monday." [laughs]

ARLEN: He wanted you to write it up full-script?

NEAL: Of course. Any work that I've ever done for DC Comics, I have to write full-script. I wrote the "Deadman," and a couple of issues of The Spectre that way. [laughter] Believe me, Julie Schwartz gives no dispensation to anybody. He's a very, very tough editor.

ARLEN: Up until this point, nothing is drawn, right? It's all script?

NEAL: Right, and because this is the way it was established, I basically had to say at DC Comics-contrary to what anybody may say, this is the deal that was made-I said, very clearly, and it was agreed, "I cannot be on a deadline on this book, because I'm no longer taking up space at DC Comics, I'm really not pushing myself forward as a comic book artist, I have to make a living, I have a studio, I have to fit it in between whatever else I do." It turned out my partner, Dick Giordano, was the inker on the book, and so he would ink the pages as I would do them, but it was very, very clear from the beginning that they could not be on a deadline. Everybody agreed that it would be fine.

ARLEN: Again, do you remember what year this was?

NEAL: Probably 1976, something like that. That was the way we proceeded, and I must admit, I proceeded slowly. But on the other hand, if you just look at that cover, you'll get some idea of the kind of work that went into doing this book. So, I did it when I could. It got to a point, a half a year, eight, nine, ten months later, people were asking, "When is this thing ever going to get done?" I worked on it whenever I could, but it's one of those books that if you look at it, you go, "Boy, this guy really busted his ass on this book." And I did!

ARLEN: Did DC make the mistake of promoting it too far in advance?

NEAL: I'm sure they didn't say it should be out, but they certainly said that we were doing it. I don't know what their promotion was. My agreement with DC Comics was that I couldn't commit to a deadline, and it was agreed it would be done when it was done. That was the agreement-the full measure of the agreement-and it took a year to get the thing done! If there was a deadline, certainly the book would've been pulled long before the year went by. Everybody agreed there was no problem, and it was a big project to do.

ARLEN: The ironic thing is that Ali was champion when the project was announced, and in a bitter irony, by the time the book came out, he was....

NEAL: In between his second championship and the third. Then, almost on the occasion of the book's release, he won the championship back a third time. So, I actually liked that the coincidence worked out very nicely. I had no problem with it. It was clear the book was very popular all over the world. It appeared in more languages than you can possibly imagine, and it was very, very popular. Superman, of course, is a popular character around the world; Muhammad Ali-even though he got rapped in the United States-you must remember that Ali is the champion of the world. He was certainly the champion of people whose color isn't exactly white. And for people like myself, he's our champion, too, because he stood up for what he believed in, and was willing to go to jail for it [i.e., refusing to fight in Vietnam, citing his religious beliefs].

ARLEN: And he forfeited the crown.

NEAL: These are not small things. People do make light of them, but I don't. I really feel very strongly about it.

ARLEN: Actually, they don't make light of him now.

NEAL: They did, they don't so much now. I'm doing the cover for ESPN Magazine featuring the 100 greatest athletes in the last century, and you can pretty much guess about right where Muhammad Ali is located. In fact, I was asked by ESPN to do it very much like the cover for Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali, because the editor remembered that book. So, there are some people out there who've seen it, and have a certain amount of respect for it, which is pretty gratifying after all these years! One wonders why DC Comics hasn't reprinted that book, or in some way, promoted it.

ARLEN: Your whole alien design is reminiscent of some earlier work. You never finished the "Kree-Skrull War," [laughter] but this was sort of your intergalactic sequel to that with so many designs that resemble characters from that Avengers run.

NEAL: Between you, me and the fencepost, I would love to have finished the "Kree-Skrull War," because I think that was a project that would've been, should've been done. You can't go very far in this comic book and not find Neal having fun-it's all over the place, all you have to do is turn the page!

ARLEN: Were you happy with the reproduction? Between you and me, the reproduction is lousy. Was this the best DC could do at the time?

NEAL: Sure, this was toilet-paper comic books. I mean, nowadays, we'd look at this with a jaundiced eye, because we get good quality reproduction. We worked within the medium, all comic books looked like this. Within the medium, if you do your job right, even in spite of all that, it's going to look good.

ARLEN: In the late '60s/early '70s, the reproduction in newsprint comics actually seemed better. In the mid-'70s, it actually went downhill.

NEAL: No. Understand the difference between what you're talking about, and that is that in the '70s, when we were still printing with letterpress presses, which means metal plates were pressing the image into the paper. Nowadays, we essentially put the ink on the plate, and it's separated by oil and water, and we "lick" the surface of the paper with the ink, so the dot or whatever it is appears only at the size it appears. Here, we're pressing the ink into the paper, so every time you have an edge on a color, and this is a good example of it, if you have a tone, right at the edge of the tone, the letterpress pushes into the paper. The same thing with lettering. If you remember the time, this quality-wise was well above that quality, because we were using more colors than other people, at least I was. We were using white as a color, which is hardly ever done in the comics.

Want to know what it's like for Neal to have fun? This page [pg. 15]! [laughter] You'd think there's something mundane in a scene with policemen lining up, holding people back, but for me, the challenge is to take a mundane situation and make it interesting. That's what I used to do when I did my Ben Casey comic strips-I learned this process of how you take something that's not that interesting and make it interesting by the way you do it. So, any time we've calmed down and the characters are talking to one another, I would find ways of making that panel interesting... the cops lined up in front of the people, the way it's colored, the way you can feel the sunshine of day on the situation, you can see the cops become a symbol of what happens when cops hold people back.

ARLEN: Being that this was an oversized comic, do you remember how big the original art was?

NEAL: It wasn't 150% of the page size, I think it was something like 15% larger. It really wasn't gigantic. Remember this: I always draw quite tightly. You can tell from my layouts that I have no trouble with drawing small. The second thing was, once again, I had Terry Austin doing backgrounds, and he is very meticulous. I had no problem with, "Well, the page is big, it's going to be reproduced big, are the backgrounds going to hold up?" With Terry, they held up. I had no problem with that. I don't know that I'd do that with another background guy. You look at some of these backgrounds with the Zip-a-Tones, and all the fine linework....

ARLEN: Your accumulated years of studying photographs enables you to draw without photographs, and almost subconsciously you're pulling it up, where it ends up looking like a photograph, from those years of experience.

NEAL: And there's the quiet secret, isn't it?

ARLEN: "You are what you eat" when it comes to drawing: You surround yourself with photographs and looking at life, you're going to end up drawing photographically.

NEAL: Well, it's a tool you can learn from. There are a lot of art students-and a lot of artists-who decry the use of photographs. I think they're very foolish when they say that, because artists aren't born in a vacuum, they don't grow up without having input. The question is, how valid is your input? Are you going to make false markers, to say, "I'll do this, but I won't do this"? If your goal is to do a good job, then why should the things that are supplied to you be limited by other people's opinions? So, using photographs-it becomes almost foolish not to use them.

And the readers go wild! Stunning example of Neal's tight thumbnail pencils. Thumbnails to pgs. 62-63. Courtesy of the artist. ©1999 Neal Adams. Superman, Jimmy Olsen ©1999 DC Comics, Inc.

ARLEN: You put the work in on this job-the blood and the sweat.

NEAL: No, not blood and sweat! Never blood and sweat. Fun. It's always fun. Here, we've got two aliens talking to one another, and their brains are floating inside some kind of gelatinous crap in their head. [laughter]

ARLEN: Neal, at what point do you take over the story? Was it a concrete, "He only wrote up to page 37," or...?

NEAL: I think it was a process. Remember, these are things I believe Denny would've done had he continued. If you're writing a story, and you get up to page 40, and you have a given number of pages left, you have to edit yourself, take it back, or the editor does it, and then you start to edit it. That process wasn't available to Denny, so that was the process that I took over by taking things out and adding other things back in. In a way, it was an amalgam. One thing drifted over into the other, and the story got finished. There are pages in here, for example, that Denny wrote that I kept that are later on in the story, because they're so powerful, and they fit the story. Other pages I took out because we didn't need that event. It's more the event wasn't needed, and it slowed the pacing of the story down, and we needed to get other events in. Certain things-the big close-ups of Muhammad Ali, where Muhammad Ali is yelling-Denny looked that stuff up and wrote that out in sequence, that's really great. This was a page I felt I'd made a particular contribution to in a writing sense, this idea of... because I'd done that Kanigher thing, I thought it would be really interesting to have this ship take off and do this little conversation... "Yet these soldiers stand in silence, until the ship disappears from sight, and in their hearts, there is a special place for this alien warrior. And when fighting men sit around and cook fires on distant outposts, they'll tell about the man who would not fall down." I liked that piece of writing; it's very nice, I think.

ARLEN: Do you feel Superman vs. Muhammad Ali is the best comic you ever did?

NEAL: I would have to say yes. I've been asked lots of times, but I must admit, even I enjoy reading this book over and over again. People say, "Superman vs. Muhammad Ali?!? What the hell is that?!?" But it really works out to be a pretty good story. If there were more stories like this, I'd be reading Superman more often.

People criticized this story, saying, "Why did you want to do this Superman vs. Muhammad Ali-it's ridiculous." Not for one second is this story ridiculous-it's a terrific story. It was a pleasure doing it. As far as I'm concerned, Superman and Muhammad Ali are the greatest. Two Jewish boys from Cleveland, Ohio, and the Black heavyweight champion of the world-that's what it's all about.

These are just excerpts from Neal Adams' interview.

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