Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #212 by Drew Barth
How many times have we heard the phrase “the battle of the century” in any context from sports to cooking to music only to be disappointed?
Because, if we’re talking about history, it’s hard not to think of Jack Johnson’s most famous bout. The first black man to ever hold the world heavyweight boxing championship made Teddy Roosevelt wanted to ban boxing altogether. Johnson defended his title against the proclaimed “great white hope” Jeff Jeffries, that took the mantle of the Battle of the Century. That fight centers Yousseff Daoudi and Adrian Matejka’s graphic novel on Johnson’s life, Last on His Feet.
Using the Battle of the Century as a frame, Daoudi and Matejka explore the life, career, and death of Jack Johnson—from brief glimpses of his early life to having to fight blindfolded for food to his first success in the ring and to the last days of his life telling his story as a sideshow curiosity. They hold nothing back in terms of the racism and prejudice he faced at every turn of his life during each event they highlight. Either from Jeffries’ supporters screaming at him before their fight or the US government trumping up charges against him for “violating” the Mann Act, Johnson had to endure more than most due to his skin color and public status. After so long, his story isn’t even about beating Jeffries—that’s a foregone conclusion—it’s about surviving everything that would come after his victory. Johnson was one of the best in the ring—his speed and skill was overwhelming—but he can’t dodge a low-blow from a country that wants him down. As much as he would tire his opponents out in the ring, playing defensive until they couldn’t stop his retaliation, a government can’t be clinched.
The non-linear structure of Last on His Feet is what really makes this graphic novel stand out. We begin with Johnson in his later years, as a storytelling in a traveling act, opening with the morning of the Battle of the Century. From there, we follow the chronology of the rounds but skip from one moment of his life to another—in one instance the phrase “sometimes the time between a thrown jab and the impact feels like an eternity…” cements this as from that jab being thrown to its impact in the story covers years of his life after the fight. It’s an incredibly clever device that helps to ground us in the moment of the fight, but lets the story beyond the fight breathe.
Daoudi and Matejka have crafted one of the most important historic graphic novels of the decade with Last on His Feet. It is a full exploration of how graphic narratives can tell stories and illuminate some of the often forgotten parts of history. It’s an exploration of Jack Johnson’s life as much as it’s an exploration of how to tell such a varied and complicated history.
Get excited. Get on your feet.
Drew Barth (Episode 331, 485, & 510) resides in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida.