LAST ON HIS FEET: JACK JOHNSON AND THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY: Charles Rammelkamp reviews a shocking and powerful graphic novel by Youssef Daoudi & Adrian Matejka
Last on His Feet: Jack Johnson and the Battle of the Century Youssef Daoudi and Adrian Matejka Liveright, 2023 ISBN: 978-1631495588 336 pages $29.99
Over fifteen years in the making, Adrian Matejka and Youssef Daoudi’s impressive narration of Jack Johnson’s life in vivid illustrations (both color and black and white drawings) and in Johnson’s voice, is centered around the “Battle of the Century,” the 1910 prizefight in Reno between Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion, and Jim Jeffries, aka, Boilermaker, first avatar of “the Great White Hope” for white American boxing fans. The fight took place on July 4, no less, the great American patriotic Day of Independence. The temperature that day was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Structured around the fight itself – “chapters” as Round One, Round Two, etc., through Round Fifteen – the authors thoroughly cover Johnson’s life and challenges in a similar linear fashion.
Throughout the fight, Johnson is shown taunting the slower, less fit Jeffries, who has come out of his five-year retirement just to reclaim the heavyweight crown. (In Round 8 Daoudi and Matejka show Jeffries on his Vernon, CA, alfalfa farm, “the ideal American White.”) “Are those love taps your best?” Johnson scoffs, and the crowd goes into a frenzy. “Make him stop yapping, Jeff!” they implore.
Ringside, the racist taunts are painful to witness. The contorted faces of the rabid white fans Daoudi has drawn shout, “Coon!” and “Smoke!” and “Your mother must’ve fucked a gorilla to have you!” They are relentless; it’s almost overdone, to make the point. “All niggers are cowards!” “Niggers shouldn’t be on the same continent as a white man!” “Swim back to Africa!” “Kill the Coon!” And more. Daoudi recreates the cartoons and posters depicting Johnson as an ape, a darky minstrel, a savage. “The funny thing about America,” Johnson observes, “You can never be anything more than the cartoon it’s already drawn you to be.”
At one point Johnson confesses, “It might have seemed like I was having a good time, but I’ve been angry most of my life. You would be, too, if people questioned your heart, your smarts & your manhood everyday. I got tired of the jokes. I got tired of all the insinuations about my skin.”
The authors fill in the background of Johnson’s pursuit of the heavyweight crown, trailing Tommy Burns, the current champion, who refuses to fight him, from Ireland to England to France, and all the way to Australia. This is narrated and illustrated in Round Five. Finally, Burns can no longer avoid the fight, and Johnson defeats him in Sydney in 1908 to become the first Black heavyweight champion of the world – which prompts Jeffries to come out of retirement.
The prizefighter Gentleman Jim Corbett, now a retired pool hall manager in San Francisco, engineers the “Fight of the Century.” He has Jack London in his corner, demanding the fight. “Mr. London Says Personally He Wants to See Battle So Bad It Hurts,” one headline announces. Daoudi recreates many sensational headlines throughout the book. Daoudi draws London shouting at the start of “Round 8” proclaiming, “Jeff, it’s up to you!” And in another frame, “The white man must be rescued!”
Matejka’s prose and dialogue frequently become poetic verse, Johnson’s commentary like dramatic monologue, soliloquy, as in “Round 10” in a passage titled “I Wonder to Myself,” which begins:
Look at my teeth – I chew my steaks with enough gold to buy a new automobile. Tell me I’m not the biggest sport in town.
“I’m a Free Man” and “From the Day I Was Born” are two other eloquent soliloquies that get inside Jack Johnson’s head.
“I Wonder to Myself” heralds the depiction of Johnson’s extravagant Chicago club, Café de Champion, where his first wife, Etta Duryea, commits suicide. Rumored to have been beaten by Johnson, she shoots herself in the head.
Johnson’s two marriages were with White women – Duryea and Lucille Cameron – which likewise incensed White Americans who demanded strict separation of the races. Indeed, even though he’d already married Cameron, he was tried and convicted by an all-white jury for violating the Mann Act, sentenced to a year in prison. He skips bail, and he and Cameron flee to Canada. Johnson lives in exile for the next seven years, losing his crown to Jess Willard in Havana in 1915. He finally surrenders to U.S. authorities in 1920 and serves his prison sentence. Johnson and Cameron divorce in 1924.
After Johnson defeats Jeffries, White America goes wild, lynching Blacks, burning churches, we read (and see) in Round Fifteen, the final chapter. “A Black man in West Virginia got lynched just because he was wearing a suit & drove a Thomas Flyer like mine.”
Johnson was an avid racecar driver, when automobiles were just coming into style. The authors depict his 1910 loss to Barney Oldfield in a race at the Sheepshead Bay Track in Brooklyn. Indeed, Johnson dies in a traffic mishap at the end of the book, his car slamming into a light pole in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was 68.
I never could reconcile how I could beat any man in the ring, but outside of it I might as well have been a featherweight just because of my skin. But in an automobile, everybody looks the same.
Last on His Feet is a gripping read. The graphic novel form is the perfect vehicle to show the violence that was the overarching theme of Jack Johnson’s life, the blood, the tears, the savage bigotry that followed him everywhere.