Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: The Original Johnson, Book 2

Having looked at the Original Johnson volume one earlier, I knew I'd get around to the second half of this biography eventually. However, I have to say: I'm not impressed by some of the creative decisions.

In the continuation of Trevor Von Eeden's adaptation of the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the story resumes as Johnson's career soars, leading to a run of successful bouts and eventually to Johnson's victory over Tommy Burns for the title of heavyweight champion, then defending his title against Jim Jeffries, but years later he lost his title to Jess Willard. Along the way Johnson's relationships with various women are recounted with erotic detail.

I felt the first volume spent too little time on Johnson's boxing career so I'm pleased to see the second half gets into the sport itself, even providing a quick history of boxing, properly framing Johnson's ascension through the ranks. Further, the Burns and Jeffries bouts are depicted in great detail.

However, Von Eeeden's depiction of Johnson's love life continues to be an unwelcome distraction for this reader; pages and pages are devoted to Johnson's lovemaking. I still feel Jack Johnson's biography belongs in high schools, but Von Eeden's graphic sex scenes will ruin this particular version's chances. The most glaring bit of business is Johnson's relationship with Dominique St. John, a wealthy white female painter. I don't know if St. John was a real person or not, but the entire sequence (48 pages long!) reads like the first chapter of "the Erotic Adventures of Jack Johnson," not the continued narrative of Johnson's life. Further, Dominique is dropped from the story when the 48-page sequence is over.

Many of the scenes involving Johnson and his partners devolve into lengthy speeches as Johnson opines how much better he is than other people; it begins to feel as though Von Eeden is using Johnson as his mouthpiece for his own view of the world, rather than summarizing Johnson's own life. As to Johnson's life, Von Eeden's version is ultimately a very idealized interpretation. Johnson's achievements are lauded, but his negative aspects - like his deteoriating relationships, his reckless driving and his eventual defeat by Willard - are glossed over. In fact, when the defeat by Willard enters the story, Von Eeden doesn't relate the story as it happened (as he did earlier with Burns & Jeffries), but instead tries to "set the record straight." He tells the audience about "the famous photograph." What "famous photograph?" This is clearly your version of Johnson's life, Mr. Von Eeeden - all along, you've been our guide. Why the sudden assumptions that we came into this book with certain facts or prejudices about the Johnson-Willard fight? His writing here becomes hopelessly hyberbolic: "No one ever noticed this -- ever."

The Johnson-Willard fight is still a point of controversy - that is, did Johnson throw the fight (as he later claimed), or did he honestly lose the match. It's up for debate, which is to say, there's no clear answer. I'm reminded of a piece of dialogue from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, concerning how Davy Crockett died: "The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died." Thus, your informed perspective on the Johnson-Willard fight has more to do with your belief in Johnson's legend than anything; Von Eeden is firmly in the grasp of the legend.

I wish Von Eeden had delved more closely to the events of Johnson's life - in chronological order and with weight given to both his highs and lows - and that he'd let Johnson speak to us rather than Von Eeden speak through Johnson. But as this is the only graphic novel of Jack Johnson's life I know of, it is, by default, the best.

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