Review: Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa 1974

Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa 1974

Maybe you already knew this, but comic books aren’t just for fiction anymore. I stumbled upon this fact last year, thanks to the Book Riot’s annual Read Harder challenge. I’ve never been the biggest fan of non-fiction, but last year that changed. First, I went on a graphic memoir reading spree. Then with the passing of John Lewis, I binge-read the March trilogy before going on to read several other non-fiction graphic novels about black lives or with anti-racist themes. As such, 2020 was the year I discovered that great storytelling in comic books doesn’t have to rely on fictional characters. This personal trend is set to continue in 2021 with a new non-fiction graphic novel from Titan Comics, Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa 1974.

Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa 1974 tells the story of the historic fight between Ali and George Forman. Surprisingly, this isn’t a run-of-the-mill illustrated retelling of history. Instead, writer Jean-David Morvan takes a multi-media approach in his retelling of the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Morvan uses a combination of real-life photos and illustrations from artist Rafael Ortiz to form a creative and unique narrative of the historical boxing match. The graphic novel is further elevated by insight from Abbas, the photojournalist who captured the match. Abbas’ perspective casts the photos he took, the same ones used by Morvan in this book, in a whole new light.

My favorite part about Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa 1974 is that it reads more like an action story than a biographical recounting. This makes the facts and events being relayed by Morvan even more compelling. It is also a wise touch on Morvan’s part to use Abbas’ insights and remembrances as the voice of the narrator. His words give even more authenticity to the narrative and in the early pages of the book, set the tone for the upcoming clash of boxing greats.

I found it interesting that Morvan also gives background on a variety of different topics, each adding its own context to the fight that, appropriately, makes up the graphic novel’s main event. Morvan covers a lot of ground, giving readers information on Don King, who promoted and organized the match, the government and culture of Zaire in the seventies, as well as background details about Ali, Abbas, and Foreman’s lives in the years leading up to the fight. All these additional details play out, interspersed with excerpts from the boxing match itself. As the match progresses in the background, Morvan sets the stage, scene, and stakes by delivering the facts in an engaging manner. Be sure to also check out all the extras at the back of the book. Morvan goes into detail about the beginnings of the project and the making of the graphic novel. He provides a lot of really cool sketches, done by various artists, that show photographers taking some of the world’s most famous photos

Ortiz’s art style is a bit all over the map. Sometimes it’s very realistic. There were pages where I had to do a double take between panels, as it took my brain a moment to ascertain which images were hand drawn and which were real life pictures. Ortiz also does a great job drawing the boxing scenes, capturing the stances and fluid movement of the fighters from one panel to the next. Both of those artistic elements really speak to the realistic level of detailed drawing Ortiz is capable. Yet, there were other times where the illustrations looked blurry, almost as if the ink had been smudged. These are usually drawn in close-up. Luckily, most of the times when the clarity dips, the narration text explains what the image is supposed to show.

Regardless of the unevenness of visual clarity, Ortiz draws all the panels in such a way that they feel authentic to the time period. Unfortunately, just like with the quality of the line work, Hiroyuki Ooshima’s colors are hit and miss as well. There are panels where the color adds just the right touch of detail. For example, the red shading on a pair of boxing gloves in an otherwise black and white or grayscale panel. Other times though, the colors muddle the visual clarity even further. An example is blue tint across a panel that makes the thick lines look even blurrier. I honestly think the entire book would have benefitted from being kept in black and white. Or even just grayscale. Aside from unifying the clarity of every panel, this would also make every illustrated image match the majority of the included real-life photos.

Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa 1974 is no ordinary graphic novel. It’s a testament to the kind of innovative storytelling possible when a creative team thinks outside the box and mixes media. It is more than just the story of a boxing match. This graphic novel offers a snapshot of history and uses context to explore everything surrounding the fight between Ali and Forman. This graphic novel is perfect for fans of boxing, fans of history, fans of photojournalism, or those who prefer their fight scenes to be between well-developed (both physically and artistically) men in shorts instead of superpowered dudes in tights.

Story: Jean-David Morvan Art: Rafael Ortiz Color: Hiroyuki Ooshima
Story: 10 Art: 7.5 Overall: 8.8 Recommendation: Buy

Titan Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

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