COLORS: George Freeman, Glenn Hauman
LETTERS: Marc Alan Fishman
AFTERWORD/EDITOR: Mike Gold
ISBN: 978-1-60010-664-4; paperback
136pp, Color, $19.99 US
The Original Johnson was first published as a webcomic at the site Comicmix.com. Written and drawn by Trevor Von Eeden, a comics veteran of over three decades, The Original Johnson is a comic book biography about John Arthur “Jack” Johnson (1878-1946). An American boxer, Jack Johnson was the first Black man to win the “World Heavyweight” boxing championship, a title he won in 1908 and held until 1915.
IDW recently published the second of two trade editions collecting Von Eeden’s 240-page graphic novel. The Original Johnson Book Two can be described as the education, maturation, triumph, and fall of a great boxer and of a greater man. Early in Book Two, Jack reaches the turning point in his career that takes him to the next level as a true professional boxer. He faces his first opponent who, rather than rely on brute force, has developed a science and system to boxing, Joe Choynski. Book Two also details Jack’s complicated relationship with women and his reasons for preferring white women as his mates. The story recounts his triumph as world champion and also makes a case for why he chose to lose the world title in 1915.
I found that The Original Johnson Book One presented Jack Johnson’s life (from the age of 13 to 22) as being like a coming-of-age story about a young superhero – a kind of Black Superboy/Superman. Book Two is more a straight biography, but it is also an essay and treatise on racism, both national and internationally, against Black people.
With his pencil art, Von Eeden captures the physicality and musculature of Jack Johnson. With his inking, he depicts power and dynamism that marries Burne Hogarth’s love of anatomy and the intensity of Michelangelo’s David. At times, Von Eeden turns Jack Johnson’s figure into a blunt instrument to batter his bigoted opponents and the virulently racist spectators at boxing matches. At other times, Von Eeden transforms Johnson and his perfect physique into a precision machine, undulating waves of ecstasy into the white women he frequently beds (Mandingo!).
Much of Book Two is both philosophical and even informative about the racism African-Americans and Black people faced in the United States and abroad in Johnson’s time. The reason for the hate was because many people who did not have black skin refused to see Black people as anything other than less than white people. Black people were subservient half-citizens who were often beasts of burdens. Not only does Von Eeden present the story of Jack Johnson the boxer, but he also uses Jack Johnson as a fictional paladin through which Von Eeden boxes against racism.
The over-arching theme of The Original Johnson is that of taking freedom no matter what others may say or do. That permeates Trevor Von Eeden’s comic book. This is the work of a free man unafraid to speak his mind and to present his work as he sees it. The graphical style, the design, the formats, the compositional qualities, the storytelling feel as if these are all Von Eeden’s choices, made free of other’s prejudices and expectations.
The Original Johnson doesn’t read as if it followed the rules for comic book writing that fans and critics think Alan Moore established in Watchmen. Nor does the art slavishly ape Jim Lee or some photorealist. Jack Johnson was a man, and Trevor Von Eeden is man enough to tell his story the way he wants. Johnson and Von Eeden did it their way, and the result of each man’s effort is greatness.