To kick off what I hope is the inaugural edition of PopCult’s weekly look into the world of comic books I’m going to take a look at two recent hardcover Superman books, from DC Comics. One is a facsimile edition of one of the greatest comic book stories of all time, while the other is a fresh take on the Last Son of Krypton.

“Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” Facsimile Edition

First up is the over-sized hardcover reprint of the comic book event of 1978, “Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali.” Back when the book was announced, it was widely mocked. The idea of the fictional Superman taking on the real-life “Greatest,” Ali seemed ridiculous. In lesser hands, it might have simply been a silly cross-over comic, a pointless sports tie-in.

However, this book was not left to lesser hands. The superstar team of writer, Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams had set the comic book industry on fire in the early 1970s with legendary runs on Batman (where they created Ra’s Al Ghul, and told the story that was largely adapted into “Batman Begins”) and Green Lantern/Green Arrow. The latter title brought relevant social issues into the comic book world in a way that even exceeded what Stan Lee had done at Marvel Comics.

Adams adapted O’Neil’s original plot for the comic book, and provided some of the most impressive artwork of his long career. Aided by inkers Dick Giordano and Terry Austin, Adams obviously poured his heart and soul into this book.

A two-page spread of a ghetto neighborhood that makes up the second and third pages of this book is one of the most detailed panels ever seen in a comic book. With no superhero in sight (unless you count Clark Kent), the reader is drawn into a completely realistic world, packed with detail and nuance. A fruit stand is depicted in extreme detail, complete with cheap toys and a sign advertising caviar. Late-model cars fill the street. One guy walking down the street is more interested in the backside of a young mother.

I could write a book on these two pages. They’re so packed with detail that we can’t even bring you the entire two-page spread here, just a fraction of it.

The premise of the story is pretty straight-forward. Clark Kent is doing a story on Ali when an alien invasion begins. The aliens want the greatest warrior on Earth to face their champion, with the fate of the world in the balance. Ali manages to defeat Superman in the ring, and goes on to face the alien champion Hun Ya (who looks a bit like Joe Frazier). Meanwhile, Superman takes action to thwart the alien menace.

Like I said, in lesser hands this could have been cheesy as hell. But with a master artist bringing this story to life, it’s a classic. Last week I was trading Facebook comments with Neal Adams, and he addressed the naysayers who thought the concept of Superman fighting Muhammad Ali was silly, “Super Hero comics are a reflection of life on a god-like scale and bringing Ali onto that canvas made a MASSIVE point that I agree with. Ali is a hero of the 20th century second to none. Against the war,sacrificing his freedom and championship, and representing for every non-white in the world.”

As you can see from the examples posted here, this is one of the most-beautifully drawn comics books of all time. The cover is legendary, depicting an audience filled with celebrities (Frank Sinatra is seated next to then-DC Publisher Jeanette Kahn, in front of Cher and Andy Warhol, and a few seats down from Kurt Vonnegut. Raquel Welch is seated a few rows in front of Gerald and Betty Ford and Plastic Man). The story is a fun plea for unity with enough intrigue and action to keep it from being preachy.

Even though I still have my copy of the original comic from 1978, it’s nice to have it in hardcover form with bright white paper. My only complaint is that the facsimile edition, which is printed in the same double-size as the original, lacks the bonus background material included in the standard-comic book-sized “Deluxe Edition.” It’d be cool to have it all in one package.

The Superman vs. Muhammad Ali Facsimile Edition has a list price of $39.99, and can be ordered locally at Taylor Books and Lost Legion Games and Comics the Rifleman. ISBN: 978-1-4012-2872-9

Superman EARTH ONE

Superman EARTH ONE, written by J. Michael Straczynski, with art by Shane Davis, is a complete re-imagining of the Superman mythos, aimed at bringing a new audience to The Man of Steel using a new format and a superstar creator.  Straczynski (heretofore referred to as “JMS” is the creator of the sci-fi series, Babylon 5, and has been very successful at Marvel, where he wrote best-selling runs on Spider-man and other titles.

This is not replacing the current comic-book incarnation of Superman.  You can still follow the established Superman in several monthly titles.  However, this new “EARTH ONE” series is being published as a graphic novel instead of a monthly comic, and in doing so this new take on Superman avoids one of the pitfalls of serial entertainment–the need to reboot and refresh the storyline every few years.

The Superman story has survived many “do-overs” through the decades.  The Christopher Reeve movies in the 1970s updated the character (and ruined Krypton in the process).  In 1987 DC brought John Byrne over from Marvel to start the franchise over again, and his version of the character is ostensibly the one currently starring in the comic books. Ten years ago, “Smallville” brought an all-new perspective on Superman’s early days to television.

A couple of years ago, DC Comics experimented with “All Star Superman,” where superstar creators Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely were allowed to ignore the decades worth of accumulated continuity barnacles to tell iconic stories of Superman.  The success of that 12-issue series, and it’s subsequent collected editions, may have inspired “Superman: EARTH ONE.”

So it’s not like this is the first time Superman has been reinvented.  The question is, how good is it?

It’s really good.  JMS has crafted a rock-solid story that is familiar enough to please the Superman purist, but fresh enough to engage a new audience.  This is a young Superman, making his way to Metropolis for the first time, trying to figure out his purpose in life.  We see glimpses of his origin and upbringing, but JMS has thrown some new touches into the mythos to keep things interesting.

Clark Kent and his adopted parents don’t know much about his powers or where he’s from.  The fate of Krypton has a new twist on it.  In this version of the story, the planet Krypton did not explode due to natural disasters.  Rather, it was assassinated by a sister planet orbiting the same sun.  This all comes to a head when an alien armada attacks the Earth to finish the job by wiping out the last survivor.

The script, by JMS is sharp and there are several clever nods to the earlier incarnations of Superman.  The art by Shane Davis is very effective, with dynamic layouts and fine rendering.  This Superman is a bit younger than the one most comic book readers are used to, but he’ll fit right in with the image that fans of “Smallville” have.

“Superman: EARTH ONE” is an exciting reboot.  It’ll be cool to see what they do with this fresh take on the first comic book Superhero, starting over in a universe where he is the first superhero again.

Superman EARTH ONE has a list price of $19.99, and can be ordered locally at Taylor Books and Lost Legion Games and Comics the Rifleman. ISBN: 978-1-4012-2468-4