Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Ali, Aliens, and Athena

By C. W. Marshall

Working in popular culture as an academic can mean turning one’s guilty pleasures into an object of study. So it was for me when I read the 2010 re-release of DC’s 1978 comic, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (written by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams). Along with the Rumble in the Jungle (his 1974 fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in which he regained the Heavyweight title) and the Thrilla in Manilla (his 1975 fight against in the Philippines against Joe Frazier), Muhammad Ali’s fight against Superman would surely rank as a highpoint in his 1970s boxing career. I wasn’t reading this for its classical content.

Ali fights Superman in the Fortress of Solitude (not in a celebrity-filled Madison Square Gardens, as the cover implies), in order to determine who will represent Earth against the champion of the alien Scrugg invaders, Hun’Ya. Though not superpowered, Ali represents Earth and defends it from the Scruggs in an interstellar boxing match, held in space, where – I kid you not – the goddess Athena appears and serves as a guest referee.

Now I’m pretty certain that this intrusion of the ancient world into a moment of intergalactic conflict is an unexpected turn in the story for the comic’s readers.  Within the narrative, Lois Lane’s words encapsulate the reader’s sense of disruption: “What we’re witnessing here is something totally unexpected by anyone!! A strange, ethereal — though definitely feminine form — is slowly descending to the center of the ring!” (p. 43.1). Daily Planet Editor Perry White’s clichéd exclamation, “Great Caesar’s ghost!”, leads to Athena’s declaration of intergalactic syncretism: “I did observe the various Caesars of years gone by. I am… Pallas Athene!” (44.1) – to which the comic’s editor attaches the footnote, “the Greek goddess of wisdom.” Rat’Lar, leader of the Scruggs, is impressed: “To us she is Aurenim…spirit of courage” (44.2); “I am many things to many people,” is the golden goddess’s enigmatic reply.

The shared religious inheritance of Scruggs and humans means that both sides accept the floating goddess’s impartial arbitration: “I have come from within the faith of my peoples to answer a need in the ‘force’, to moderate this contest,” she declares, as she infuses the rules of fair play directly into the combatants’ unconscious minds (44.3-4l it is hard not to see a reference to the Force in 1977’s Star Wars). Earth’s fate is given a transcendent dimension infused with wisdom, courage, and (for those who know more about Athena than the editor’s footnote) a willingness to fight in the frontline of battle (whether as Athene Promachos, or, as a goddess of victory, Athene Nike). The Hellenizing spelling used – “Pallas Athene” – encourages a deeper reading of the god’s appearance, perhaps mediated by the golden form in Gustav Klimt’s 1898 painting that used the Greek name as its title. This shared identification between the races points to Fair Play as an absolute virtue, not something merely to be localized on the planetary backwater Earth. When Rat’Lar later behaves dishonorably, ordering an attack on earth after Hun’Ya has been KO’d by Ali, both sides recognize the violation of their shared sense of justice. The lesson is clear for all, and Athena need say nothing: “Sensing a shift in ‘force’, Aurenim softly fades away” (69.2).

Pallas Athene appears; Aurenim vanishes from view. Ali’s victory saves Earth and establishes an intergalactic boxing legacy that is recognized by sentient species across the galaxy and by the gods of ancient Greece, even if it remains strangely unmentioned in most Ali biographies. The integration of Athena into Superman vs. Muhammad Ali may push the extremes of interpretable classical allusion, but in its way it too is part of the legacy of the ancient world.

C.W. Marshall is Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Theatre at the University of British Columbia. He is editor, with George Kovacs, of Classics and Comics – the first book to explore the engagement of classics with the epitome of modern popular literature, the comic book. The images you see above are (c) DC Comics.

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