Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Championess’

“I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face but I’ve come through”

Legendary, a comics company primarily, I think, known for big, bloody, manly epics, dips into the “YA” market with a big, bloody, womanly epic, Championess, which is written by Kelly Zekas and Tarun Shanker, drawn by Amanda Perez Puentes, and lettered by Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt. It’s edited by Nikita Kannekanti, and like most Legendary books, I assume someone, somewhere in the company is trying to make a movie out of it!

This comic is “based on the true story of Elizabeth Wilkinson,” who’s one of the first female boxers (could anyone be the absolute first, as presumably they would need another woman to fight?). She was active in the 1720s, but very little else is known about her life, which gives Zekas and Shanker plenty of leeway to create a story. They do, and the result is a pleasantly entertaining book.

Elizabeth fights because she likes to fight, but also because she needs to make money. She and her sister, Tess, live on the margins of society, always in debt and always just a step ahead of the debt collectors (they live in a section of London called “The Mint,” where debtors could live freely at the time thanks to some ancient legalities about the land), and while Tess has a suitor and might be able to escape, Elizabeth thinks she can’t take care of herself, so she thinks she has to make a lot of money quickly instead of slowly, like Tess is doing. During the course of the book, it turns out the Mint is no longer a sanctuary, and Tess does get dragged off to debtors’ prison, so Elizabeth isn’t exactly wrong, but the writers do a good job slowly letting us know that Elizabeth has some blinders on when it comes to her sister and her life. In the meantime, Elizabeth manages to get a fight with promotor James Figg (he’s portrayed in the book as being older, but he wasn’t even 30 years old when the book begins), but of course she has to struggle against the prejudices associated with her gender. She is trained by James Stokes, another of Figg’s boxers, whom she eventually marries. She learns about throwing fights, she learns how to actually fight instead of just hitting someone, and she figures out how to be a better person. I mean, it’s a YA book – it’s not going to get too dark!

It’s a good story about growing up, even though Elizabeth is an adult at the beginning of the book. She might be an adult in age, but she often acts like a child, and the writers’ commitment to making Elizabeth kind of a jerk is nice, because they could have simply made her super from the beginning. Elizabeth clearly needs to learn some lessons, as she bashes her way through life the same way she bashes her way through fights, and despite her poverty, her gender, and her race (I’ll get to that), she clearly has no idea how the world works. I mean, sure, she might be surprised that Figg fixes fights, but it really shocks her, which seems silly. She gets angry at Stokes for throwing fights, but she has no idea what his life is like and what his goals are and how fixing fights might help him get where he really wants to go, especially given his race. She ignores Tess for most of the book, telling her sister what’s going to happen because she, Elizabeth, is going to fix it, not understanding that Tess might be able to do things for herself or even not want Elizabeth’s help. Elizabeth is terrified, and that comes across pretty well throughout the book, as she puts up barriers to that fear but also to everything else, and only when she starts to break those down does she become a better fighter and person. Obviously, this is not a new tactic in fiction, but the writers do a good job with it, and making Elizabeth kind of a jerk from the beginning helps with that, because it’s harder to like her but easier to see why she’s the way she is. It’s a trope, sure, but it’s well done here. The climax is a bit corny and far-fetched, but that’s not a deal-breaker. It’s a good way for Elizabeth to come into her own, so it works in the context of the story.

Zekas and Shanker make Elizabeth Indian and James Stokes black, which are unusual choices (there’s no evidence that they were or weren’t anything other than boring white people). On the one hand, it doesn’t really matter. In fact, the writers don’t make too big a deal about it, which seems strange. At one point, Elizabeth tries to get a job, and some of the people won’t hire her because she’s Indian, but otherwise, it isn’t really relevant. Stokes hints around at some prejudice he’s faced, but it’s also not that big a plot point. The fact that Elizabeth is a woman trying to break into a male-dominated sport is much more relevant, and the writers do a nice job with that. Her ethnicity is odd because it feels a bit out of place – in 1722, the United Kingdom was not involved in India to the extent that it would be in the 19th century, so it seems like it would be a bigger deal to the people, but Zekas and Shanker don’t really get into it. In that case, making Elizabeth Indian doesn’t seem to be a good idea, even if the reasoning is only so modern people who aren’t white will identify with her more. That’s fine, but it distorts the historical record. Again, there’s no evidence of what Elizabeth looked like, so they could have made her any ethnicity and it would be fine, but if you’re going to do that and set it in a historical era, you ought to know more about that ethnicity during that historical era. This is also a problem with the female aspect of the book. Apparently, Elizabeth was an incredibly popular boxer, the most popular one of the time – even more so than men. While this is an “origin” story and she might not have been popular early in her career, that fact argues against the prejudice she encounters in this book and makes it feel more “modern,” as if the writers want to show how shitty it is for women today, so they’re showing how shitty it’s always been for women. It probably was pretty shitty to be an Indian woman in early Georgian England, but it’s interesting that the real story of Elizabeth Wilkinson seems a bit more nuanced than this comic. Fictional stories tend to have a pretty clear plotline, one in which there are good guys and bad guys, and that’s just not always the case in real life.

Puentes reminds me vaguely of Ming Doyle, and that’s not a bad thing at all. In the early chapters, her art is much starker and her lines finer, and she uses flatter gray tones to shade the work, but as she goes along, she uses thicker, bolder lines and more rendered shading, and the art becomes heftier. It feels like Puentes is gaining confidence, and I wonder how long she worked on this, as her style definitely changes. Her “action” scenes aren’t the greatest, but as usual, that’s the hardest part of art for artists to master, and Puentes does well enough with them, using speed lines to blur the characters’ moving parts and even exaggerating their arms to make them look longer, implying quick, violent movement. She shows the effect of boxing quite well, too – Elizabeth is missing teeth throughout most of the book, and she and Stokes walk around with a lot of bruises, which is nice. The art isn’t spectacular, but it’s solid. Puentes does a good job immersing us in a downtrodden, dangerous world, so it helps the story a lot.

This is a good story, not a great one, and I wished the writers had gotten more into the socio-political situation due to their choice of Elizabeth’s ethnicity. It feels like pandering when it’s in this kind of story without context, and it’s frustrating. The story is about a woman overcoming a patriarchal situation, and adding a racism angle to it without exploring that fully seems like a missed opportunity. Obviously, we need more stories with all kinds of diverse characters, and making Elizabeth Indian isn’t the worst choice, it’s just a strange one. But it doesn’t change the fact that this is an entertaining, interesting comic. There’s nothing wrong with that!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

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