John Arthur (“Jack”) Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946) was an American boxer, who —at the height of the Jim Crow era — became the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915). Johnson’s life was fictionalized in the play-then film The Great White Hope (where his named was altered to Jack Jefferson). Celebrated comicbook artist Trevor Von Eeden (who is also African-American) felt that the film really didn’t do justice to the amazing legacy of Jack Johnson, so he set about researching Johnson’s history with the thought of committing it to paper in the form of a graphic novel. The first half of that story — The Original Johnson ($19.99) — was published by IDW in January of 2010 with volume #2 appearing in February of 2011.
With the first installment of this two-part story, Von Eeden delivers a very personal and heartfelt graphic novel biography of Johnson, who, in addition to being the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, was also something of an international celebrity, as well as, arguably, the most controversial American of his time. Born to a pair of former slaves, Johnson grew up a hard life in Texas and learned from an early age to not cower before bullies, but to stand up to them. It was, in all probability, this early part of his life that helped him stand straight and tall and challenge many of the “truths” that were fed to him (that as a Black man he was somehow inferior to Whites on general principal).
For his part, Von Eeden presents us with not simply a retelling of Johnson’s life, but also goes out of its way to give us a glimpse of the era in which Johnson grew up; the culture of hate, mistrust, and fear of the Black man. Von Eeden’s story actually puts us into the mindset of not only the era but Johnson himself as he truly believes himself to be the equal of any man and determines not to cower before anyone simply because that is what he has been told to do. No, Johnson was his own man from the beginning of his life all the way through to the end. At the very young age of 12 Johnson traveled on his own from Galveston TX to New York City to meet Steve Brodie (a New Yorker who gained notoriety by having claimed to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge)
Von Eeden’s narrative jumps back and forth between Johnson as an adult boxer to him as an adolescent in Galveston, always delivering powerful images gleaned from a lifetime working in the comicbook industry on titles ranging from Batman, Black Canary, Black Lightning, and Green Arrow (over at DC Comics) to Power Man and Iron Fist, Marvel Fanfare, and Spider-Woman (from Marvel Comics). Von Eeden got his start in the industry at the age of 16, when DC hired him to design and draw Black Lightning the company’s first ever black superhero to have his own title. When he was around 20, Von Eeden began to suspect that he had only received the assignment because of his skin color. Such a revelation distressed him deeply, however it did motivate him to hone his craft so that it would distinguish itself on the basis of its quality, without any regard for his ethnicity.
The first volume is prefaced by an introduction from editor, Mike Gold, where Gold writes a bit about what went into the making of the graphic novel (including the use of the terms “miscegenation” (race mixing), and “Great White Hope” (which was used as recently as Aug. 12, 2009 by Republican Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins (Kansas 2nd District) to a group of Republicans to help stop President Barack Obama’s political agenda). So yes, this is more of “just another” graphic novel. This is something of a political statement from Von Eeden (and, yes, Gold as well) who want to put forth a more balanced view of not only history, but the human condition as well
The book (which took over four years to complete) has been lauded as the artistic achievement of Trevor’s career. Needless to say, it is totally worth it. The Original Johnson can also be read online in its entirety at ComicMix.