More than 35 years ago, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali helped immortalize the famed sports personality in a story by Neal Adams and Denny O'Neill that sold worldwide and became a comic book classic.
Now Adams is teaming up with Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti to parody that graphic novel in Harley's Little Black Book #5, out December 28 from DC Comics. Where the original story featured an alien race forcing Superman to fight Muhammad Ali, the new story shows how the aliens have chosen Harley Quinn as their champion in an almost-mirror story, complete with art that mimics the beloved original.
Newsarama talked to Adams, Conner, and Palmiotti to find out more about the parody of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, how Palmiotti came up with the idea, and why Adams was more than happy to poke fun at his own work.
Newsarama: Neal, Amanda, and Jimmy, the best thing about this interview is that you all sound very different in phone interviews, so it'll be easy to tell who's who.
Neal Adams: Right. I'm the serious and intellectual one, and those are the funny people over there.
Amanda Conner: The clowns!
Jimmy Palmiotti: Call us the clowns.
Nrama: But Neal, with this story, you're having to wear a clown hat, aren't you?
Adams: No! Sacrilegious! This is terrible! What are we doing?
Conner: We forced him to wear a clown hat.
Palmiotti: He just has the clown shoes.
Adams: The truth is that I had to sort of play it straight. You can't do cartoony stuff and then expect people not to take it seriously. I know that sentence is very convoluted.
Conner: Actually, you're right. It works better - the comedy shines more when you play it straight.
Adams: You could make a joke out of it, but I tried to make it look as much like Superman vs. Muhammad Ali as possible.
We have a thing that we do on Page 2 and 3. And Page 2 and 3 in a comic book, you know, when you usually have comic books where you have the X-Men - oh, I don't want to talk about the X-Men.
Palmiotti: The JLA.
Adams: Right. The JLA and all these bad guys, and the writer says, "OK, so all these guys come out from the left, and all these guys come out from the right, and they battle in the middle of it. Have fun." That's the instruction from the writer, and the artist goes, "Oh my God."
Conner: Where's this fun I'm supposed to be having?
Adams: Right. This is not fun.
So that's the instruction you get.
But when we did Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, it was like, "Oh, on a double-page spread, we have Clark and Lois and Jimmy walking down a street in Queens, or in the Bronx, or wherever." And you have all these details and all this stuff in it and nobody's fighting. And there's the kind of fruits and vegetables you can only get in Spanish Harlem, you can't get in a regular store. You know, they're writing their initials in the concrete and sleazy looking guys looking at girls' butts and stuff like that.
That is not a typical double-page spread.
Here, I got the opportunity via Amanda and Jimmy to do a double-page spread of Coney Island. Guess what? I grew up in Coney Island. I know Coney Island more than I know Queens and Brooklyn! And I understand everything about it - Coney Island is my home. I used to work on a carousel on a boardwalk in Coney Island.
Nrama: You worked there?
Conner: That I did not know. That's pretty cool.
Adams: There are a lot of stories there. It was a Steeplechase carousel and we're not going to talk about it.
Conner: Oh, one day we will over drinks.
Adams: You got it. Over a Diet Coke.
Adams: See? The straight-laced Neal Adams, I'm telling you.
So we had the same texture, only it's a totally different picture. It's Coney Island. We're on the beach. OK? There's Harley on the beach getting her tan. [Laughs]
Cooking that white skin in the sun.
And all these people are there, reminiscent of that scene. In the middle of the picture, there's that sleazy guy turning his head and looking at the girls' butt as she walks toward the shore. It's the same guy, and the same girl, and the same butt. Everything else is changed.
So we've done the same thing, but we've brought it forward and given it to Harley.
For me, it was the greatest fun in the world. Ask me whether I'd rather have done that or two teams of superheroes and super villains fighting in the middle of a double-page spread. No. Boring. I've seen it a thousand times.
Adams: Have I seen this a thousand times? No. I've just seen it one other time, done slightly differently.
Everything about this is like that. It's just a turn. It's not done as a cartoon. It's done realistically, but with that kind of MAD Magazine, sarcastic, funny attitude.
And there are a ton of gags, all the way through. It was so much fun. And I think if you were going to kind of play with Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, then Neal Adams is the one to do it.
Palmiotti: And if Denny O'Neill gets pissed, he can come after you.
Adams: But he won't. Denny will laugh like a jackass. Believe me.
Nrama: Whose idea was it to do this? Jimmy and Amanda, did you come up with the idea to put Harley in the place of Muhammad Ali and kind of play around with that beloved issue?
Conner: We were struggling a little bit with what to do with Harley and Superman. We were trying to figure out what a good storyline for those two characters would be.
And then Jimmy…
Palmiotti: Actually, [DC Co-Publisher] Dan DiDio was telling me that Neal was available for some work. And I started laughing. And I said, "Well, maybe we can write a different version of the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali book, taking out Muhammed Ali and putting in Harley."And Dan's laughing, and I'm like, "No, no, no, I'm serious. Even though it's about half the pages, we can still get kind of the story through there."
And we just thought, "OK, now we need to see if Neal would be up to doing a parody of his own work."
Adams: And of course, I was aghast and shocked. I was horrified something that approaches a sacrilegious endeavor would be thrown at me and I'd have to respond like a civilized person instead of tearing the wallpaper off.
Of course, I said yes.
Palmiotti: When they announced it, I think there were a couple of people on the internet going to me, "How could you do this? How dare you!" And I'm just like, "Come on. It's fun."
Adams: Nothing's modified about the old project. It still exists. It's still there. And this works off of it.
This is what I say to anybody who might have any kind of problem with this at all: Go get the old one. And then read them together, so you can have the same fun we had.
If you can't have a good time with this, you are crazy.
Palmiotti: Mel Brooks spoofed Star Wars in Spaceballs.
But you know, on the serious side, there's an actual story there in the comic.
Adams: Oh my God, there's a story? Did I miss that?
Palmiotti: That's not for you to worry about. We added the story later, Neal. The story came later.
The idea of the Little Black Books have been to take things over the top and crazy, and I think we set it in motion with Harley stalking Wonder Woman. And it just makes sense that Harley would go into outer space and box Superman.
Conner: And Harley's Little Black Book is really just a vehicle to get all of these A-List superheroes to roll their eyes at Harley. That's basically what it is.
Adams: I'm reminded of the old Brave and the Bold team-ups. It's a great vehicle to explore Harley.
Palmiotti: And we can take credit for making Neal draw Clark Kent changing into Superman in a Porta-Potty.
Nrama: Neal, what changed in the story for Harley that made it different from the Muhammad Ali story?
Adams: Absolutely nothing. You know, this was, I don't know, an eel sliding through. This happened so easily. Basically, it was adding humor to a story that everybody sort of took seriously, but you know, nobody really took it seriously. When the idea was first presented, everybody hated it. They said it was a stupid idea. "Are you out of your mind?" Half the country didn't like Ali and half the country did like Ali. As far as I'm concerned, the first half of the country can go to blazes, because Ali was a real hero.
The Superman vs. Muhammad Ali book was printed in every free country in the world. OK? Now, it's so good in its way that we can go in and make fun of it and feel good about it. There's no downside to this or to what we're doing right now, because it's all fun and it's all comics, and we're all having a great time.
Conner: It's become an iconic book, so that makes it so that you can sort of parody it, and it makes it even more fun.
Nrama: Jimmy and Amanda, what else is coming up with Harley that fans should watch for?
Palmiotti: Since Harley Quinn's bi-weekly, we can't even keep up with what's coming out and what we're doing. We're constantly writing and working on the book.
Coming up, we have a three-issue arc with the Joker coming up, and then after that we have a couple of guest stars in the book, but I can't really talk about too much of it. And then the next Black Book is with Lobo.
Adams: That's with Simon Bisley, right?
Adams: Ah! If this all gets collected into novels, I want to be in the book with Simon.
Palmiotti: You are! You are! All of it's going into one big book.
Adams: You guys are having way too much fun.
Conner: We are. It's really out of balance here. Its way too much fun and not enough sleep. Twice a month is a tough schedule to keep. But we're having a lot of fun.