Last on His Feet: Jack Johnson and the Battle of the Century by cartoonist Youssef Daoudi and poet Adrian Matejka is an evocative, lyrically structured, sweeping graphic recreation of the historic 1910 heavyweight title bout between Johnson—the first Black heavyweight boxing champion—and James J. Jeffries, and the fight’s social ramifications. The book is out now from W.W. Norton/Liveright Publishing.
On the hot morning of July 4, 1910, 20,000 people packed into a newly-built outdoor boxing ring to witness the "Battle of the Century": Jack Johnson (1878-1946), the world’s first Black heavyweight champion, vs. James J. Jeffries (1875-1953), a former heavyweight champion and “White Hope,” who came out of retirement to fight Johnson, and reaffirm white supremacy in the boxing ring and beyond. Enduring a torrent of vicious racial insults from the ringside crowd, Johnson battered and defeated Jeffries in a 15-round match that set off deadly race riots across the country.
The book is partially based on Matejka’s acclaimed book of poetry The Big Smoke, which won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for poetry. Born in Morocco and based in France, Daoudi's previous book is the acclaimed graphic biography, Monk!: Thelonius, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution, which recounts the life and music of the iconoclastic jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. PW talked with Matejka and Daoudi about the racial ramifications of Johnson’s fateful fight, his flouting of the racial taboos of the period, and how they constructed this book.
Publishers Weekly: Is this graphic novel an extension of The Big Smoke?
Adrian Matejka: When I wrote The Big Smoke, I knew there was too much material. As you see in the book, Jack Johnson's life is unbelievably rich. I spent two years researching [his] life before I started writing any poems. And so I'd collected an inordinate amount of archival material and all these fun facts that I thought would be useful, but it was too much for a book of poems. And I didn't want to write two books of poems. So in 2013, my editor at Penguin back then, Paul Slovak, and I came up with the idea of doing a graphic novel. I'm a big fan of graphics. I'm a big fan of comic books. And [writing this book] gave me the opportunity to try to do something that I had enjoyed as a reader, but never experienced as a writer.
When did you become aware of Youssef Daoudi?
I discovered Youssef's work through his 2018 graphic novel Monk!: Thelonius, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution. It’s a gorgeous book. So our shared agent, Holly McGee, got some of the pages of it before the book came out, and I saw it, I was like, man, if I'm gonna ever pull off a graphic novel about Jack Johnson, I need to work with an artist that's got a vision and dynamism like this guy does. He can make Monk’s music appear on the page, he can make Jack Johnson dance in the rain. Those movements, music, boxing, and poetry, they all flow together with the same kind of cadences. And Youssef has a unique eye, and ear to be able to create that graphically. So Holly introduced the two of us, and then we just started cutting up. And Youssef, if I remember right, you've been interested in doing something about Jack Johnson …
Youssef Daoudi: Absolutely. And, just to follow up Adrian's little story about our encounter, when I read The Big Smoke, I immediately wanted to begin this collaboration. And writing this book together was a fantastic experience. I wanted to make some kind of hybrid form of book, not of the illustration and text genre, which is fine. But we wanted to make something very dynamic, using poetry, to push the story forward; to have this music between words, the drawings and all that.
I think that you can’t do something like this without working through this ginormous jigsaw of poems, dialogue lines, scenes, everything. Let’s put it this way. I tend to say that I draw, therefore I write. That is why I'm not very comfortable with the notion of Illustrator. [You don't just] illustrate these kinds of books, you work together with the text… you’re co-writing something, and I think it's very, very important to emphasize this.
AM: I remember, early on, we were having discussions about not making a graphic novel, but making an art book, and Youssef definitely achieved that with his art in the book. There’s an incredible and striking visual narrative happening, as opposed to narrative storytelling. And I think it allowed us a kind of freedom to create a different kind of story, a hybrid version of what one of these things might be.
The book is full of images and graphics culled from the time of Johnson’s 1910 Reno fight, that move the narrative backwards and forward in time.
YD: We wanted to create meaningful pictures, to try to emulate some kind of immersion into the period. I'm a history buff, so we used everything that was at hand: newspapers, cartoons, the signs that can convey the imagery of the era, especially when we use this kind of black and white and red [ink], which is obviously, it's just colors I like, but it works quite well with the underlying violence that that goes through the book.
In the book, you mentioned about 20 literary and archival sources. Can you cite a few of them, starting with the companion book to the Ken Burns documentary, Unforgivable Blackness written by Geoffrey Ward?
AM: That’s a staggering book. stunningly written and meticulously researched. There’s a Department of Justice file in the bibliography that's got all this crazy stuff from when Johnson was in Leavenworth. [Hounded by racist prosecutors, Johnson served a year in prison in 1920.] And he decided at some point that he wanted to write his own story. So there are photocopied pages on Leavenworth stationery, and I think we used some bits of it in the book, where he tells his own stories. Jack Johnson's ghost written autobiography In the Ring and Out, is another interesting one. Some of the chapters are just about the business of boxing, which was useful, but a lot of them are Jack Johnson at his most fabulous. One of the things we tried to convey in the book is that I don't think Jack Johnson ever let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The virulent racists of that period portrayed Johnson as a brutish animal. However, the book goes to great length to portray Washington as an intelligent, multifaceted human being.
YD: Jack Johnson was very interesting, in the contrast between the beauty, the aesthetics of his discourse, and the brutality of the period and the brutality of society. All of the books I've made up to now in the graphic novel format, are not biographies, they are portraits with facets, with nuances, with complexity. It's something more interesting than a biography. We took very, very good care not to fall into that trap of dehumanizing Johnson and portraying him as a brute.
That said, Johnson had his flaws, as evidenced by his mistreatment of his first wife, Etta Duryea Jackson, a white socialite who gave up everything to be with him, and killed herself in 1912.
AM: We’re talking about 1910, when domestic violence wasn't even—they didn't have a name [for it] yet. So he's behaving just like everybody else around him. So we should acknowledge that he's behaving terribly, and the rest of the people of his time, not everybody, of course, but many others were [behaving] that way too.
While we can acknowledge that we have made progress dealing with violence against women, the horrible racist insults openly expressed in public and in the media over a century ago, sadly, have a familiar ring today.
AM: Racism was racism, it was what it always is in the United States. But now, after the Trump administration, all of that was much more obvious and transparent, and open in a way that I think we'd all hoped [would have] gone out of fashion. So when you go back, and you see the stuff in his book, some of those comments, the images from newspapers, that we included … the kind of language that they throw at Jack Johnson. It's not that far off from the kind of stuff we're dealing with right now. It makes no sense that we would go 100, 113 years from this fight, and still be using the same kind of ignorance to harm one another.
I was born in the 1970s. And so I grew up with a kind of latent racism around me and my father was Black. And it looked like it was settling down, and we were making progress. And I feel like now, we've kind of gone in reverse, in a way that makes this book even more timely, even as it is also a historical document.