Muhammad Ali, Kinshasha 1974 by writer Jean-David Morvan and the photographer Abbas, with art by Rafael Ortiz, is an unusual graphic work. The book, which is just out from Titan Comics, grew out of a project organized by Morvan pairing a series of photographers from Magnum, the celebrated French photography collective, with cartoonists to create hybrid works that make use of comics and photographs.
Told through the recollections and photographs of Abbas, who photographed the bout, and the dynamic drawings of Ortiz, the book vividly recreates the historic 1974 heavyweight title fight between former champ Muhammad Ali, out to regain the championship title stripped from him for refusing army service, and then-champion George Foreman, a younger and fearsome heavyweight slugger. The fight was held in Zaire (now, the Republic of the Congo) and became known as “The Rumble In the Jungle.” PW talked with Morvan about the conception of the work and the central role of Abbas, who died in 2018, in its creation.
Publishers Weekly: This book was part of a series of hybrid comics/photograph books created in partnership with the great photographic agency Magnum. Can you tell us how this project began ?
JD Morvan: In fact, it's a very simple story. I've always been a fan of comics and also photography. One very late day, around 4 a.m., I could have gone to bed, but I looked at my comic books on one side and my photo books on the other. I said to myself: what if I mixed the two? I have always found photographers to be heroes. They go on very dangerous terrain to show us a reality we don't want to see. It takes perseverance to do that.
As I didn't know any photographer, I looked on the internet for the email address of the Magnum agency, and wrote a message. To my great surprise, I received an answer three days later from the offices of Paris Clément Saccomani, who was the Magnum editorial director for France at the time, and he gave me an appointment. We set up a project together and looked for a publisher to publish it. This was done thanks to Thierry Tinlot and the Dupuis publishing house.
The first album we released (Omaha Beach on D-Day by Morvan, Séverine Tréfouël, with art by Dominique Bertail) was on the celebrated WWII photographer Robert Capa and his experiences during the June 1944 landing. The second was on photographer Henri Cartier Bresson and his spirit of freedom. The third on photographer Steve McCurry on the September 11 tragedy in New York. Abbas during the rumble in the jungle, is the fourth book in the series.
How was Rafael Ortiz chosen to be the artist and what were his strengths.
It's a pretty long story, but I think I tell it at the end of the comic. Rafael is a powerful designer, who manages movement very well and knows how to feel the strength of moving bodies. He was perfect for this comic.
Tell us about Abbas, and his work and legacy as a photographer.
Abbas is a huge photographer, not necessarily known to the general public but highly respected by his peers. He was a long time president of the Magnum Foundation and helped many young photographers to realize themselves. He worked a lot on religion. For example, he was in Iran when Khomeini took power. He was a fabulous guy, I'm very happy to have met him.
Tell us about the structure of the book’s narrative which interweaves the lives of Ali, Foreman, the notorious promoter Don King, and Abbas.
I would say it's an organic structure. It's not linear at all, but you go from one period to the next according to the ideas that follow one another. I tried to make the reader not realize these permanent changes of place and characters. I tried to make the reader feel that each character whose story he is reading is the hero of this book. Basically, the hero is Abbas, since he is the one who speaks constantly.
Did Abbas get to see any of the work in progress before he died?
Yes, we were lucky he was able to see the first pages drawn, to read the entire script, except for the last pages where he wanders, a little alone, at night in Kinshasa. But I know that he would have validated them since he asked me himself to include them, even though he had never told anyone about them.
At the very end of the work Abbas appears to be surrounded by Zairian prostitutes. Were you concerned that this final scene might overwhelm other perceptions of the book?
Ah yes, as I mentioned above, it was Abbas who asked me to add this anecdote. There is one thing that seems to have escaped you, is that these two girls are absolutely not prostitutes. As Abbas told me: "the young Zairians of the time really liked artists". No one was forced into this story, except maybe Abbas, by the beverage he had drunk from Ali's bottle of orange juice [shooting from ringside, Abbas grabbed the bottle and took a swig from it before Ali’s corner man snatched it back]. As he told me: “I'll never know what was in it, and then, I didn't taste Foreman's which might have had the same effect on me.” In short, it was a completely ordinary sex story between two Zairians and an Iranian, adults and consenting.
Were you concerned about the responsibility of depicting the life of Ali, a Black man who is an international symbol of Black liberation and the fight against racism?
Well, simply by fighting racism as well [with our work]. All the elements of the life of Don King's boxers and the history of Zaire are factual. There is no interpretation on my part. Here, I have no particular reflection on the subject, I am telling a story as it was lived, doing my job as a screenwriter.