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Guarding the Frontier

Fort Fred Steele (Image taken from

This the second post about my great-great grandfather, Zachary Moyer, a veteran of the Civil War and the Western Frontier. Following the end of the Civil War, Zachary was discharged from the Army in the summer of 1865. Civilian life must not have suited Zach, since he re-enlisted in December of that same year. He served for exactly four years as part of the 30th Regiment of the U.S. Infantry, leaving the Army for the final time in 1869.

Fort Fred Steele

While the many of the details of Zachary's re-enlistment are unknown to me, my limited information indicates that most of Zachary's time was spent in the Western Territories, guarding American interests against Native American forces. At the time of his discharge, he was stationed at Fort Fred Steele, located in what is now the state of Wyoming. Fort Fred Steele, named after the Union General who subdued Arkansas, was established to protect the nearby Trans Continental Union Pacific Railroad. Given that the fort was established in 1868, it's very possible that Zachary Moyer was there from the beginning.

Life at Fort Fred Steele was probably not easy during the early years of the fort. Long before permanent buildings or a civilian population appeared, Fort Fred Steele was a collection of tents surrounded by a population of potentially hostile natives. I'm sure Zachary had his fair share of discomfort, boredom, fear, hard work, and action. Did he view his re-enlistment as a job to be endured or an adventure to be savored? Did he think he was wasting his time at some remote outpost, or did he feel he was playing a vital role protecting American interests? It's a shame that I'll probably never gain any insight into these questions, as both newspaper articles about Zachary Moyer in my possession offer no direct quotes or impressions from Zachary himself.

In a larger context, Fort Fred Steele appears to be a minor historical footnote, with a cursory Google search coming up mostly empty when looking for related events of importance. One item of interest is the Meeker Massacre of 1879, but that occurred almost a decade after Zachary departure. I would guess that the old Fort served its intended purpose, its legacy discerned by looking at a modern map: Interstate 80, starting in New Jersey, runs through the heart of Zachary's home state of Pennsylvania, and extends for 1,800 miles to come within a mile of the Fort Fred Steele State Historic Site before continuing on to San Francisco, California. Maybe some day I will travel that stretch of highway to see the old fort for myself.

Promotion to Sergeant

About a year before his discharge, Zachary Moyer received a promotion to the rank of Sergeant at Fort Fred Steele on January 30, 1869.

Zachary Moyer's Promotion Papers

The papers are signed by the Regiment Commander, John D. Stevenson. According to the Civil War Reference web site, he was a veteran of both the Mexican and Civil Wars, promoted to brevetted Brigadier General for "gallant and meritorious service at the battle of Champion's Hill". ( For those that don't know, a brevetted Brigadier General is someone who carries the rank and responsibility of a Brigadier General, but still gets paid like a Colonel.)

I have tried to transcribe the promotion paper to the best of my ability:


To all who shall see these presents greeting:

Know Ye, That reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities of Zachary T. Moyer

I do hereby appoint him Sergeant in Company "D" of the Thirtieth Regiment of Infantry in the service of the UNITED STATES, to rank as such from the Fifteenth day of January one thousand eight hundred and Sixty nine He is therefore carefully and diligently to discharge the duty of Sergeant by doing and performing all manner of things thereunto belonging. And I do strictly charge and require all Non Commissioned Officers and Soldiers under his command to be obedient to his orders as Sergeant And he is to observe and follow such orders and directions from time to time as he shall receive from me or the future Commanding Officer of the Regiment or other Superior Officers and Non Commissioned Officers set over him according to the rules and discipline of War. This Warrant to continue in force during the pleasure of the Commanding Officer of the Regiment for the time being.

Given under my had at the Head Quarters of the Regiment at Ft. Fred Steele WT this Thirtieth day of January in the Year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty nine

By the Commanding Officer 
???????? John D Stevenson
? Lt. 30 Inftry Bvt ???? USACol. 30th Infty, Bvt. Brig General USA
?Adjutant of the RegimentCommanding the Regiment

A.G.O. No 103.

I was unable to read the signature of the Regiment's Adjutant. I'm sure I could figure it out by looking at some old Regimental records, but the process for accessing the National Archives is too daunting for me to attempt right now.

I will have more on Zachary Moyer in the future. If you're interested, here is my first post in this series.


Civil Relations

For Veterans Day, I decided to post something about my great-great grandfather, Zachary T. Moyer, a Civil War veteran. He was attached to the Pennsylvania 48th Regiment, probably best known for digging the mine at the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864. That battle was re-created in 2003 movie Cold Mountain.

Along with being involved in a large number of bloody and important battles, he was at Appomattox Court House around the time of the Confederate surrender in 1865. After the war, he re-enlisted for a tour of duty fighting Indians in the Western Territories and then settled down in Kingston, Pa. to raise his family while working for the Pennsylvania Railroad Zachary's son William is my father's grandfather.

The following article was originally published in the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader in 1930, when Zachary was 83 years old. I have other documents that contradict some of the dates in this dry and sometimes confusing article, but for the most part, I think it is correct.

Aged War Veteran In Northern Army Saw Many Battles

Retired Conductor of Pennsylvania Railroad Recalls Stirring Days Following Lincoln's Call to Arms

(This is the seventh in a series of exclusive Times-Leader articles devoted to the surviving veterans of the Civil War.)

Three score and six years have passed since Zachary T. Moyer of 33 South Atherton avenue, Kingston, then a lad of only sixteen, heard Lincoln's call to arms and joined the Union Army to take part in the greatest civil war that history records. Now in his eighty-third year Sergeant Moyer is one of the comparative few that yet remain of the boys in blue whose valor preserved the Union.

Mr. Moyer served two enlistments in the war, the fist of sixteen months and during his second enlistment was promoted to sergeant. Following the war he secured employment with the Pennsylvania Railroad and followed railroading for forty years and the the time of his retirement in 1913 was a passenger conductor between Wilkes-Barre and Pottsville. Although well advanced in years, he is still hale and hearty. With the estimable wife, who is still living they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary ten years ago.

Enlisted in 1864

Mr. Moyers [sic] enlisted from Schuylkill county, Pa., on the 29th day of February, 1864, to serve three years or during the war, and was mustered in the United States service at Pottsville, March 2, 1864, as private of Captain Peter Fisher's Company "D", 48th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried commanding.

This regiment was recruited in the mining regions of Schuylvill [sic] county, and leaving the State September 24, 1861, it proceeded to Fortress Monroe, Va., where it encamped until November 11, when in sailed for Hatteras Island, N.C. It served in Burnside's Department and in April, 1862, was assigned to the First Brigade, Second Division, the Army Coprps, during its service taking part in engagements at Newbern, N.C., Manassas, or Second Bull Run, and Chantilly, Va.; South Mountain and Antietam, Md; Fredericksburg and Campbell's Station, Va. Knoxville and BLue Springs, Tenn.; Wilderness, Spottsylvania, North Ann, Bethesda Church, Cold Harbor, Siege of Petersburg, Mine Explosion, Six Mile House, Weldon Farm, Poplar Spring Church or Boydton Road, Fort Stedman, Fort Mahone and Fall of Petersburg, Va.

Before the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, April 9, 1865, the regiment was detailed to guard the trains at Farmville, Va., where it was relieved to take charge of the prisoners captured by Sheridan, among whom were the Confederate Generals Ewell and Fitz Hugh Lee. The captive were marched to Appomattox Court House, whence, the Confederate Army having surrendered, it returned to Farmville, remaining at the front until the surrender of Johnson, when it proceded to Alexandria, where it was mustered out.

The war having ended, Mr. Moyer received an honorable discharge at Alexandria, Va., July 17, 1865.

Fight Indians

He reenlisted at Reading, December 6, 1865, to serve three years and was mustered in service as a private. Soon afterward he was promoted to Sergeant of Captain D.D. Vanvalvah's Company "D," 30th Regiment United States Infantry. With these commands he was chiefly engaged on guard and garrison duties in the Western states and territories, having a number of encounters with bands of hostile Indians.

Mr. Moyer was with his respective commands at all times during his enlistments, participating in all engagements from the battle of Wilderness until the close of the war, rendering faithful and meritorious service for which he was promoted to the rank of corporal, June 16, 1865.

He received his final honorable discharge at Fort Sanders, Wyoming Territory, December 6, 1869, his term of enlistment having expired.

Returning to his native State, Mr. Moyer was married July 1, 1870, to Sarah A. Kreigbaum, at Sunbury, from which union were born three children: William L, Zachary T., and Susan G., of whom one survives, William L. Moyers, of 284 Barney street, Wilkes-Barre. There are thirteen grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren living. A sister, Mrs. Emma Hinckley resides at Harrisburg.

He is a member of Conyhgham Post, No. 97, Department of Pennsylvania, Grand Army of the Republic, in which he served as senior vice commander. His wife is an active and honored member of Relief Corps, No. 37, Auxiliary to the G.A.R.

UPDATE: I've written a second post dealing with Zachary's time in the West.


Ants for The Memories

For years, I’ve marveled at the cover to Action Comics #296. It depicts four giant red ants attacking the Daily Planet, led by an altered Superman sporting an insect head complete with antennae and giant bug eyes. Approaching a startled Lois Lane and Perry White, Superman utters: Follow Me, Soldier Ants ... BZZ-BZZ ... We Must Capture Lois Lane ... BZZ-BZZ ... She Will Be Our Queen! Released in November of 1962, the cover seems coincidentally appropriate for the times, given the rising popularity of LSD as a recreational drug.

I’d first seen the cover to “Invasion of the Super-Ants!” reprinted in a coffee table book showcasing covers from the Silver Age of Superman. Later, DC released a Superman action figure with the giant red insect head. I purchased the toy without hesitation. Since then, I’ve been seeking a decent copy of that issue so I could read the adventures of Red Ant Superman.

Why so much enthusiasm on my part? During the Silver Age, Superman’s creators were constrained by both the Comics Code Authority and editorial demands to maintain Superman’s status quo. Given their limited creative options, they resorted to gimmicks to attract readers. Superman comics became a monthly factory for producing stories with fantastic elements like the Bottled City of Kandor, the Phantom Zone, and Titano, the giant ape with Kryptonite vision. As a concept junkie, I find these ideas intoxicating, even when poorly executed. Upon seeing the cover, I thought Action #296 was emblematic of Silver Age creativity and something I needed to read.

Every now and again, I would think about the cover and imagine scenes of Superman building a giant ant hill in downtown Metropolis. In my mind’s eye, I could see Superman using his powers to collect railroad cars full of processed sugar to feed the colony of Super-Ants. My imaginary story included scientists constructing a can of Kryptonite Raid, with Supergirl and Krypto holding a giant picnic basket in space to lure our insectoid hero into a trap. Given the era, anything was possible.

Last week, I finally found a good reading copy of Action #296 at a reasonable price. Like so many things in life, reality did not meet my expectations. The cover is a bait and switch; at no point in the story does Red Ant Superman attack the Daily Planet. Here’s what really happened in this characteristically ridiculous story:

The Super-Ants start attacking various sites around Metropolis, stealing seemingly unimportant items and occasionally helping those in need. Superman can’t approach the ants because they are hoarding Green Kryptonite. Eventually the ants kidnap Lois Lane. Superman uses a cloud of Red Kryptonite to grant himself immunity to Green Kryptonite and transform himself into Red Ant Superman. Armed with super antennae, Superman can now communicate with the ants.

The Super-Ants explain their mission is to warn other planets about the dangers of nuclear warfare. They crash-landed on Earth and found themselves unable to communicate with Earthlings. This forced the ants into stealing resources needed to rebuild their damaged rocket. They kidnapped Lois Lane in hopes that the crime would compel Superman to discover a means of communication. Also, the ants hoarded Green K because it is the fuel used to power their rocket.

With everything straightened out, the ants repair their ship and depart, leaving Superman with the chore of delivering their message on the dangers of atomic war to the United Nations.

Superman is only Red Ant Superman for the last few pages of the story. Adding insult to injury, Superman doesn’t do anything interesting in ant form other than listen to whole lot of exposition. This story was nothing like the one I imagined. Action Comics #296 became emblematic of the Silver Age in an unexpected way, reminding me that stories from that era rarely delivered on the promise of their exceptional concepts. Still, the image of Red Ant Superman remains terribly amusing and something I’m glad to have in my collection.


Pneumatic Musings

I'm lucky enough to belong to a group of friends who have a tradition of getting together at least once a year for a weekend of male bonding.  We do the typical things that guys do at these things, like drinking beer, playing sports, and acting like it's 1994 all over again.  Every year, somebody ups the ante in terms of activities, from purchasing enough gear to fill a sporting goods store to cooking a giant 3 lb. hamburger.

One of the specific things we love to do is shoot objects into the air and at each other. It started with a giant three person slingshot and water balloons. Last year, one of the Brians ( there are four of us with the same name) took things to another level with a PVC potato cannon that used aerosol hairspray as a propellant. Nothing beats watching a potato impact the side of a tree, its destruction punctuated with a loud and satisfying "SPLAT!". Even with all that fun, the engineer in me couldn't help but notice that the small barrel and uncontrollable hairspray explosion made it impossible to launch water balloons.

The Slingshot and Potato Cannon

With this in mind, I decided that my contribution to this year's Guy Weekend would be a pneumatic cannon.  The use of pressurized air as a propellant, along with a larger 3" barrel, meant that the amount of force could be precisely controlled, enabling me to launch larger and more delicate objects, such as the beloved water balloon.


I purchased a set of plans for an air powered water balloon launcher from The entire project took me about two weeks to complete and it cost me around $200.00 by the time I launched my first water balloon.  Don't be intimidated by that number, since much of that cost is wrapped up in mistakes and the purchase of hardware I will use on other projects.  I was very happy with the end results: I can launch a water balloon at least 150 feet and the list of items that I have propelled through the air includes potatoes, golf balls, tennis balls, T-shirts, stuffed animals, water bottles, and glow sticks.  Most importantly, it has put a smile on the face of just about everyone who has either seen or used the cannon, including my friends at Guy Weekend. 

Rather that give a detailed step-by-step account of the construction process, I will just offer up some lessons learned for anyone who wants to follow in my footsteps.

I would highly recommend the plans from  They're not perfect, but as somebody new to this type of project, the plans were invaluable in figuring out what needed to be done.  You can find free plans on sites like, but the plans were easier to follow than anything else I found online.

My lack of knowledge about PVC ended up being costly.  While the plans explicitly call out for Schedule 40 pressure rated PVC pipe, I incorrectly assumed that all Schedule 40 pipe was pressure rated.  It is not, which is something I wish I knew before I purchased all of my fittings.  The FAQ at does a great job explaining the differences between the two types of PVC pipe: NSF-DMV and NSF-PW.  NSF-DMV is used for waste water, while NSF-PW is pressure rated for use with potable water.  Sites like and are filled with wanrnings about the dangers of using NSF-DMV in air cannon construction.  Sufficiently scared about losing a finger in a horrible explosion, I decided to replace my DMV parts with new PW fittings.

While it was easy to find pressure rated PVC tubing locally, none of the hardware supply centers I visited carried pressure rated fittings for 2" and 3" PVC.  I ended up acquiring most of my NSF-PW fittings piecemeal from various online Mom and Pop hardware stores.  While the parts were cheap, the shipping and handling charges piled up quickly.  It wasn't until I had nearly everything that I found the McMaster-Carr Supply Company.  They were the only supplier to carry all the parts I needed. If I had ordered everything from McMaster-Carr, I would have saved at least $20 in shipping costs alone.


The heart of the cannon is a sprinkler system value, used to release air from the pressure chamber into the barrel. The plans specifically called for a Nelson Brand 7901 sprinkler valve, but at the time, I had a hard time finding that particular model at a reasonable price.  As an alternative, I found the Orbit 57461 Jar Top Valve which has the advantage of being cheap, easily modified, and available on Amazon (free 2 day shipping with my Amazon Prime membership). I had no problems using the Orbit value as a substitute, and following some online advice, ditched the solenoid mechanism for a manual trigger using a blowgun.  In theory, the manual trigger allows for a quicker and more powerful release of air and ditching the electronics simplified the overall construction process.  I used a great set of instructions from Hall Consulting to modify the valve and build a mechanical trigger.

It's been one month since I started launching things with my cannon, and I have been plagued by leaks involving the sprinkler valve.  The valve is connected to the cannon using threaded PVC nipples and the valve itself is held together with a hard plastic retainer ring which is threaded onto the body of the valve. As I have discovered, threads are the source of all leaks, even when teflon tape is used.  Two part plastic epoxy has become my best friend for plugging trouble spots, although it seems every time I fix one leak, another one takes its place.  The leaks haven't stopped me from using the cannon, but it does mean that I need to fire before the air pressure drops too low. 

The completed air cannon

Some miscellaneous construction points:

  • The thing is more like a shotgun than a sniper rifle, so building the recommended scope would have been for purely aesthetic reasons. Ditching the scope was an easy way to save time and money.
  • The plans called for a 3" pressure chamber, but I scaled it down to 2" to make the cannon lighter and easier to handle.
  • The plans secured the tire stem to PVC cap using nothing more than a washer and nut. As insurance against leaking, I used epoxy on the inside of the cap to seal any gaps between the tire stem grommet and the cap.
  • Make sure to install an air pressure gauge on the cannon, if for no other reason than to detect leaks.
  • The plans were very sketchy on how to secure the pressure chamber to the barrel.  I ended up using zip ties and a plastic connector from an old piece of furniture to bind the two pieces. This step easily required the most tinkering.

"Never bring a gun to a bazooka fight"

In Practice

I originally planned on using a small, portable $15 air compressor made by Slime to power the cannon.  It turned out to be underpowered, so I purchased a $50 Craftsman Rechargeable Air Compressor from Sears. Not only does it fill the air chamber very quickly, but since it runs off a battery, I'm not tethered to a car or wall outlet when I need to pressurize the cannon.

The key to launching balloons is to construct a sabot using two cups cut down to the diameter of the barrel. It's a great system, since nearly all of the air pressure is captured by the lower cup, which in turn, pushes the upper cup holding the balloon.  At first, I used styrofoam cups for my sabot system, but they were blown apart after each use.  I found that the clear plastic soft drink cups used at Sheetz gas stations were strong enough to withstand the forces generated by each firing. Also, a little bit of soapy water squirted into the barrel lubricates the cups and made a noticeable difference in the distance that objects travelled.

I found that 60 psi is the ideal air pressure for launching water balloons.  Anything higher will burst the balloons as they exit the barrel.  I have launched tennis and golf balls at higher pressures, but am hesitant go above 80 psi, the maximum recommended pressure for the sprinkler valve.  That being said, 80 psi is more than enough to launch most things a considerable distance.

Posing with my air cannon

Overall, this was a great project that everyone seems to enjoy.  Leaks aside, my only remaining problem is trying to figure out what the heck I am going to do for next year's Guy Weekend.


Superman vs. Muhammad Ali

I've been going through my collection of all things Superman and one item that really stands out is the over-sized Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic book, published in 1978.  As a seven year old, I thought it was epic on a scale never seen before, populated with hundreds of aliens, robots, and space ships, and featuring some of the best action scenes ever committed to paper.

These concepts and images rattled around in my head for years. This book, along with Star Wars, cemented my interest in science fiction and space opera. Long before I discovered Star Trek, Foundation, or Dune, there was Luke Skywalker, Superman, and Muhammad Ali. Re-reading it thirty years later, it still stands out as something special.

Check out that tagline from long time ago in a shameless marketing department far, far away.

The Story

Powerful aliens called the Scrubb demand a fight between their champion, Hun'Ya, and the best warrior from Earth. If Hun'Ya wins, the Earth will be destroyed. If Earth wins, the Scrubb will take care of Earth's Bay City Rollers problem. (OK, I made that last bit up.) Failure to participate will also result in Earth's destruction.  Both Superman and Ali volunteer to represent humanity. In a move worthy of Don King, the Scrubb set up a preliminary fight between the pair to determine who will go on to the main event against Hun'Ya.

The boxing takes place on the Scrubb home-world, which conveniently orbits a red sun, robbing Superman of his powers and ensuring the action lasts more than one panel.  During preparations, Superman realizes the Scrubb emperor Rat'Lar plans to annihilate the Earth regardless of the fight's outcome, so our heroes must come up with a way to save our planet from total destruction within the context of their boxing match.

That contrived plot, combined with a large dose of shady comic book pseudo-science, could make the whole endeavor seem silly. Looking at it now, I also notice that a lot of the imagery and drama is borrowed directly from movies like Star Wars and Rocky.  But it doesn't matter. This is an exercise in over-the-top fun:   


Look at that cover! The most iconic assemblage since Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, with over 170 distinct audience members including Kurt Vonnegut Jr, the Jackson 5, Batman, President Carter, and Woody Allen.

Open the book! After saving St. Louis from a Scrubb missile attack, Superman smashes his fists together, generating enough concussive force to disrupt a tidal wave headed towards the East Coast of the United States.  

Turn the page!  Against the background of outer space, Muhammad Ali teaches Superman boxing in a ring constructed at "the fringe of creation", where time distortion effects cause one hour to pass for every minute in the real world.

Continue reading! Hundreds of ships traveling to the Scrubb home-world can be seen from the bridge of an vessel piloted by green aliens whose brains are visible through the back of their transparent eyeballs.

Next page! Superman, alone against a powerful alien armada that is minutes away from annihilating the Earth, turns his body into a super-human torpedo, producing a primal scream so loud that it pierces the vacuum of space to be heard across the galaxy! On and on it goes!


I don't think I can adequately describe the eye candy and wild ideas contained in this book.  Trust me when I say Adams was able to do nothing less than create page after page of awesome. 

The Writing

Neal Adams is both artist and writer for this endeavor, taking over for Denny O'Neil, who quit the project in its early stages. Adams manages to create what I consider to be the quintessential representation of Superman in the 70's. This Superman is a god amongst men, comfortable with his role as mankind's all-powerful protector, but possessing enough humanity to joke around with Ali or act coy with the alien champion Hun'Ya.  The worst stories from this era cast Superman as emotionally aloof or bland, but the mix of confidence, humor, and determination makes this version of Superman endearing to both the seven year old and thirty-something me.

Maybe one of the reasons that Superman is no longer popular is that today's Superman, with his self-doubts, reservations, and ordinary problems, simply isn't epic enough for Superman-type stories. Superman's defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ali has more resonance if the mortal Ali takes down the divine Superman, not the farm-boy from Kansas. The alien threat is more menacing when an all-powerful Superman admits to himself that the Scrubb have the power to kill him, whereas we know that today's Superman can be killed by a poor man's version of the Incredible Hulk or be pushed around by a sniveling teenage counterpart from Earth-Prime. There are a lot of good things about the more human, post-Crisis Superman, but clearly that character, with his diminished outlook and powers, would not work in this story.

Muhammad Ali spends most of his time fighting or talking smack, coming off as supremely confident, smart, and heroic.  A particularly effective double page spread using a mix of photographs and drawings shows Ali trash talking at the alien champion. Quickly ramping up his rhetoric, Ali promises to win the fight, proclaiming himself to be "The Greatest of Time and Space!".  Adams perfectly renders Ali's facial expressions, making it easy to imagine the speech being delivered in real life. It's corny and over-dramatic, but so was Ali, which makes it all the more wonderful and exciting.  

Ali and Superman playing it cool

Two things stand out about the writing.   First, Ali and Superman repeatedly use their brains before they engage their fists.  In the opening scene, Superman quietly avoids a direct confrontation with the Scrubb to tactically assess their strengths and weaknesses. Half way through the book, there are hints that Ali and Superman have a secret plan in place to outwit Rat'Lar. In climatic final space battle, Superman, faced with defeat, applies the lessons he learned while training with Ali to employ a version of the rope-a-dope to defeat the Scrubb armada.

Granted, feats of strength and willpower are what ultimately win the day, but the point is that brainpower was needed to place Ali and Superman in a position for victory.  This stands in real contrast to most Superman stories, where Kal-El is nothing more than muscle who blindly punches his way to victory.  Heck, it stands in contrast to most super hero books, period.  I doubt if Superman vs. Mohammed Ali was the first time I was introduced to the idea of brains before brawn, but clearly it was a lesson that I took away from this book. 

Think before you fight!

The other interesting aspect of the writing is race. This book is not like O'Neil's and Adams' work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, where issues of racial injustice were ham-handedly tackled. Instead, Adams attempts to reinforce the notion of racial equality by closely linking Superman with Muhammad Ali, two obvious proxies for America's black and white cultures. This is demonstrated subtlety at first, through the actions of the protagonists, who behave heroically and demonstrate a clear respect for each other.

As the story continues, the dialog of supporting characters is used to reinforce the link between the two heroes. When the press interviews Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, he volunteers: "If the fate of our planet at stake, I can't think of anyone I'd rather put my faith in than those two great men!" At another point, Jimmy Olsen declares the pair "Earth's greatest champions". Later, Olsen, filling in for a visibly upset Howard Cosell, says: "Ali and Superman circle each other like... well... like mirror images of each other! For those of you wondering why Superman agreed to fight with his costume on, it's because many of our alien spectators wouldn't be able to tell the fighter's apart! Except for subtle changes in hue, all humans like exactly alike to them." [ The letterer's emphasis, not mine. ]

After the fight, Ali delivers the most direct statement on race when he says: "If more people tried to live by simple rules, of fair play, My people, ALL people, would get a fair shake!" [ Again, the letterer's emphasis. ] This is the only time in the entire book that an explicit message about race is presented. It is also the only time that Ali identifies himself in terms of race, even though he never mentions his race by name.

The exclamation point to Adams' message of equality is the final double page showing Superman and Ali shaking hands while Ali proclaims: "Superman, We are the Greatest!" This scene reads like A Very Special Episode of your favorite 70's TV show, complete with the final freeze frame shot and vintage canned applause. Kidding aside, I can appreciate what Adams was trying to say and hesitate to criticize the implementation at all, especially given some of the more cringe-worthy attempts at dealing with race in both comic books and children's entertainment.

Finally, I can't talk about Superman vs Muhammad Ali without touching on one of the most dramatic moments, one that stands in contrast to the understated way race is handled throughout the rest of the book. The scene in question is Ali destroying Superman in the first boxing match, resulting in a unconscious and bloody Kal-El being removed from the ring in a stretcher. There could be many meanings to this, but what's interesting to me is that Muhammad Ali, a man hated and feared by a significant number of Americans in 1978, beats up Superman, one of the most well-known symbols of traditional American (cough)white(cough) values.

Even if Adams had no message in mind when he designed the scene, you can't ignore the obvious: for many people, the image of any black man, let alone Muhammad Ali, beating up a white hero like Superman is either incendiary or revolutionary, depending on your point of view. How did this scene make it into the book unaltered? At the time, comic books were still mass-market products designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Given that conservative corporate climate, the inclusion of this imagery is shocking. Kudos to Neal Adams and DC Comics for publishing it as is.

The Art

Adams is one of my top five comic artists of all-time and he uses the oversized pages to showcase his talent. He was one of the first to apply a realistic style to comic books, but it is clear from these pages that unlike fellow realists Greg Land or Alex Ross, there is a real dynamic quality to the art. Along with speed lines and cleverly constructed sound effect graphics, Adams is able to orient the figures and objects in a particular panel in a way that tricks your eye into producing motion.

Adding to the dynamic effect is the way the panel layouts change from page to page.  There are only one or two spots in this book where a traditional grid layout is used.  Panels are curved, askew, overlapping or non-symmetrical.  Images bleed over into the margins and into the next panel. Single and double page spreads are used liberally, but always for great dramatic effect. Looking at this book as an adult, it's a safe bet that I would not have enjoyed as much if not for Adams' artwork. This may be his comics masterpiece.

Dynamic Realism


Superman vs. Mohammad Ali is drama on its most basic and grandiose level, with two underdogs battling a stereotypical bad guy with nothing less than the fate of the world at sake. In years since 1978, many of the conventions used in this book have been abandoned or become cliche. Still, the book overcomes these limitations with interesting characterizations of Ali and Superman, Neal Adams' stellar artwork, and the rapid fire assault of science fiction concepts. There is no woolgathering; events and ideas come and go, many lessons are learned, and the good guys win in the end.  All of this stands in stark contrast to the padded and adult oriented storytelling style in today's mainstream super-hero books.

I don't know that a child reading Superman vs. Mohammad Ali today would be impressed like I was way back when, but I do know that Marvel or DC aren't publishing anything today that even attempts to instill that same sense of wonder and excitement.