Guttergeek review: THE ORIGINAL JOHNSON

Posted by on February 5th, 2010 at 10:19 AM

Trevor Von Eeden, The Original Johnson. Volume 1 (Comicmix/IDW, 2010). $19.99, paperback.


Trevor Von Eeden is the perfect artist to bring the energy, ambition, and symbolism of Jack Johnson—the first African American heavyweight champion—alive for a new generation of readers. I am less confident that Von Eeden is the best writer for the job, however, although I know that this project has been a labor of love for him for over a decade. That labor and the love shows in the art in panels that are crackling with energy, with confidence and with a precision that somehow seems spontaneous and effortless. But that same love and labor comes through in the script often as over-labored.

I hasten to add, however, that it is a price well worth paying–and there is reason even behind some of the overwriting here (not all). After all, part of Von Eeden’s goal with this book is to tell an origin story, the birth of a superhero, in bold pulpy brush strokes. And Von Eeden knows something about origin stories, having created Black Lightning, DC’s first African American hero to star in his own book (shockingly late: 1977). In many ways, The Original Johnson is an attempt to write a historical superhero origin story, very much in the style of silver-age comics. And those comics, we must remember, were often overwritten, redundantly narrated, and ruthlessly melodramatic. Such qualities are on display here as well.

Part of the challenge for the book is that it is not clear entirely what audience Von Eeden is imagining. The script might feel less overburdened if I was sure he had in mind a younger audience, and indeed I think this would be a terrific book for younger readers unlikely to know much about the legacy of Johnson and his impact not only in the sport but in society at large. But Von Eeden spends enough time (too much?) on Johnson in bed with various women, on spelling out the pun of the title (“When black men, anywhere, grab their dicks, they’re celebrating the memory of… The Original Johnson”), and on generally celebrating Johnson’s hyper-sexuality as one of his super powers to make me pretty certain this is not aimed at the younger set.

Right. So, not for kids. So maybe then less need for some of the more talky lessons on the the historical oppression of African Americans in the years following slavery, much of which Von Eeden can assume his adult readers know well. Actually, these are some of the more effective moments in the book and the ones that make me wish for a little less about Johnson’s johnson so that it could work its way into classrooms. Von Eeden does a magnificent job in describing the deep interconnections between the physical brutalizations of slavery and lynch mobs and the images and language used to extend those brutalizations deep into the consciousness of both brutalizers and victims:



But, no, this book won’t get into the hands of the middleschoolers that could learn a semester’s worth of critical race theory from a single page of Von Eeden’s book, in large measure because of pages like this one:



Of course, Johnson’s sexuality is a vital part of the story, which Von Eeden continues to serialize online at and which will be concluded in volume two from IDW in the spring. And at the heart of the story, of course, is a man whose truest superpower was his refusal to accept the victimhood white society would impose on him and who used the one legal avenue open to a black man to hit back, and hit back hard. As volume 2 will recount in detail, he will pay a price for hitting back so hard and so well, as well as for his refusal to be ashamed of his own sexuality.

In the end, for all its idiosyncrcies, this remains a great book primarily because of the passion and power Von Eeden brings to his art, which conveys the exuberance and ambition of Johnson better than any representation I have seen over the years. As we approach the 100th anniversary of his defeat of the “great white hope” Jeffries–who came out of retirement, he claimed, “for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro”–this book is probably the closest we can come to fully recalling what that fight represented to the thousands of African Americans who took to the street to celebrate, and what those celebrations meant to the cops and thugs who took to the streets to punish the celebrants. But that is a story for volume 2. For volume 1, the story is about the hope and power represented by Johnson’s right fist.



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