Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review: the Original Johnson volume one

As I mentioned in my review of African-American Classics, Trevor Von Eeden's biography mentioned he'd created a graphic novel about Jack Johnson, the first African-American to win boxing's heavyweight champion title. I was instantly fascinated to learn of 2009's the Original Johnson, which tells Johnson's life over the span of two volumes. I have a passing familiarity and interest in Johnson, having seen Ken Burns' 2004 documentary Unbearable Blackness.

The Original Johnson (yes, the book's title is a double entendre) volume one was the only half available at my local comic shop, but I hope to obtain volume two in the near future. Most of the text is spent detailing Johnson's early years, which, since Burns' movie skipped over that part of his life quickly, is mostly new information to me. However, by the end of the volume, Johnson's boxing career is only just on the rise, meaning the second volume must cover his entire quest for the heavyweight title, his retirement from boxing, his ultimately tragic return to boxing and loss of his title, then his death. At this pace, I think the story needs at least four volumes, not two!

The novel contains a few sex scenes, emphasizing how Johnson's unashamed virility - and frequent white female partners - would eventually earn him a lot of enemies (amongst both whites and blacks). I feel the sex scenes are more graphic than they have to be - this book should be on the shelves of high schools, but the graphic sex will restrict its distribution.

Von Eeden's art shifts in style during the book; in many scenes, his art is smooth and ground like Brent Anderson, but delves into dream sequences with brush-like strokes evocative of Gene Colan. The dream scenes also enable Von Eeden to break from reality and let his imagination take flight, as in a scene where Johnson dons golden armour, strikes down white men and takes their women.

Strangely, the narrative approaches Johnson's life in non-linear fashion, travelling back and forth within his own life and flashing back to the struggles of African-Americans in the days of slavery. For me, it interrupted the momentum of Johnson's life - it feels as though the story halts and starts over again about three times. However, overall it's a pretty satisfying volume, thanks to Von Eeden's outstanding layouts and I will add the second tome to my collection eventually.

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