Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa 1974’

“To save the people you gotta serve the people; to teach the people you better reach the people”

Writer Jean-David Morvan had a brainstorm one day, he writes in the back matter of this book, about taking famous photographers and building comics about them using their photographs. It’s a cool idea, and it seems like he’s done more than a few, but the one we’re concerned about is this one, which takes the photographs of Abbas Attar (who didn’t use his surname, because he was far too cool for that) at the famous “Rumble in the Jungle,” and turns it into a comic (Abbas, unfortunately, died a few years before this comic was published, although it seems like he saw some of it, at least). After the original artist dropped out, Rafael Ortiz came on board, with Hiroyuki Ooshima providing the colors and Jessica Burton translating it and lettering it. It’s yet another comic from Titan Comics, which is neat of them.

The Rumble in the Jungle is one of the most famous boxing matches ever, so it’s ripe for “fictionalization,” and it turns out it was luck that Abbas was in Zaire in the first place. The fight, between Ali and George Foreman, had been scheduled for late September 1974, but while sparring, Foreman suffered a gash to his eye, and it needed to heal. Instead of canceling, the fight was moved back to late October, and Abbas was offered the job because he was going to Zaire as part of a tourism assignment and he got his accreditation the night before the fight. So it was luck that got him there, but his talent that made his photographs immortal. Morvan focuses on Abbas, because that’s what the project is about, but he also gives us brief biographies of Don King, Ali, and Foreman. This was King’s first big fight (although it wasn’t his first with Ali, as he had attached himself to the fighter a few years earlier), and he wanted to change how fights were promoted, so he offered huge money to both boxers, whether they won or lost. To get the money (King was broke), he came up with the ingenious solution of holding it in Kinshasa, as Zaire was trying to throw off the oppression of the West and renewing itself under its president/dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. The Congo was rich thanks to its natural resources, and Mobutu enjoyed exploiting them, so he had plenty of ready cash. The fight became the culmination of a celebration of black popular culture, and King cleaned up. We also get a bit about Ali and Foreman, two men with similar upbringings but with different ideas about what it meant to be an American. Ali, famously, was stripped of his title because he refused to go into the army to fight in Vietnam, while Foreman, after winning gold at the 1968 Olympics, spoke about how great it was to be an American and how much he admired war veterans (this was the same Olympics at which Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists). The people of Zaire naturally gravitated toward Ali, as he knew how to play to the crowds while Foreman arrived with a pet German shepherd, which the Belgians had used against the Congolese natives when they were in charge. So Ali was the crowd favorite, and Morvan spends more time with him (Foreman took some time to become a showman, as he wasn’t one at this time), but the book isn’t unfair to either boxer. It’s more of an examination of Abbas’s photography, despite the biographies of King, Ali, and Foreman (and Abbas himself, although he was reluctant to discuss that). The book gets into how Abbas viewed his subjects, how he tried to capture them, and what he tried to accomplish with his photos. It also ends with Abbas, not the boxers, as the book ends with something that feels like pure wish fulfillment (although I have no doubt it actually happened). By focusing on the photographer, Morvan is able to create larger-than-life characters out of the fighters, which feels right for something as monumental as this event. There is an excellent documentary about this fight, When We Were Kings, and Morvan is able to capture the feeling of that title, as by viewing things through a chronicler’s eyes, Ali and Foreman become giants walking the earth.

This is helped by Ortiz’s excellent art, which is brutal and ferocious, like the boxers. He captures all the likenesses very well, which works because of the photographs interspersed among the panels, so the transition between “real” people and the drawings. He uses a very rough hatching line (some of his panels remind me of Jorge Zaffino, which kind of feels random but which might not be, as Zaffino was Argentinian, as is Ortiz, so perhaps Ortiz was influenced by Zaffino), which works very well to get across the power of the fight, and it also makes the blurry motion lines work in the context of the rough battle going on throughout the book. The entire fight is in black and white (with gray scales), which sets it apart from the rest, which is in color. This helps heighten the power of the boxers while also adding realism, as the black and white contrasts with the flashbacks to the boxers’ and the promoter’s stories, allowing us to focus on the fight more. Naturally, the use of Abbas’s actual photographs throughout helps make the art pop, as they come at interesting times and are often in color, so they stand out from the black-and-white, more blurred action of the line work. It’s a clever way to present the material, and it benefits both the art and the photographs.

Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa 1974, despite the lack of “Foreman” in the title, is a very good book about these two men, who took what the country left over for them as black men growing up in the 1950s and made themselves legends. I’m not a big boxing fan, but this book is about more than boxing, and that’s partly due to the boxers themselves and partly due to the focus on Abbas, as it shows what a man can do to create legends even more than the people who become legends themselves. It’s a beautiful comic, and it’s a very neat project. Morvan does a very good job touching on a lot of topics without being too obvious, and Ortiz and Abbas form a very good artistic team. That’s a good formula!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆


    1. Jeff Nettleton

      Unless, like me, you watched the fight when it was first televised. That was a hell of an era for heavyweight boxing: Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes. All that and Howwwaaaaard Coooooosell.

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