'On the Ropes': A graphic novel of Depression-era America that feels utterly contemporary

Jim Vance and artist Dan E. Burr continue the adventures of a character they first introduced in 1988.

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It's unusual in the world of fiction to see a direct sequel to a project 25 years after the release of the original, but that's exactly what "On the Ropes" is. The new graphic novel by writer Jim Vance and artist Dan E. Burr continues the adventures of a character they first introduced in 1988 in a seminal work of comics called "Kings in Disguise."

Originally published as a six-issue comic book series by Kitchen Sink Press, "Kings in Disguise" told the story of Freddie Bloch, an adolescent who lived the life of a hobo in Depression-era America. Freddie and his older brother discover through a hastily written note that their alcoholic father has left to find work. Once it becomes clear they have been abandoned, Freddie runs away from home to find his dad. Along the way he meets Sam, a hobo who introduces himself as the King of Spain and convinces Freddie that all men are kings of their own world.


By James Vance and Dan E. Burr
W.W. Norton & Co. ($24.95).

Sam teaches Freddie the ways of surviving the road and becomes, in many ways, a surrogate father. Their story takes them to Detroit where they become embroiled in the violence and civic unrest of the early days of the Labor movement. They ride trains, help build a hobo shanty town, meet a man who claims to be the outlaw Jesse James, are confronted by sickness and death, and along the way Freddie learns that sometimes you have no choice but to abandon the things you love the most in order for them to grow.

Though not as well known as many of its graphic novel contemporaries, "Kings in Disguise" was critically acclaimed, winning two Eisner Awards in 1988 and a Harvey Award in 1989. It's included in Steven Weiner's "The 101 Best Graphic Novels."

"On the Ropes" picks up several years later. Knowledge of the original book is not necessary to enjoy the sequel. Deft dialogue and concise flashbacks tell everything the new reader needs to know.

Freddie is now an older teen touring through the Midwest, working for a circus sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He has found another surrogate father, an alcoholic escape artist named Gordy. The metaphor of the title is made explicit in Gordy's stage patter as he prepares to escape the hangman's noose.

In a world where death seems imminent, where everyone feels at the end of their rope, how does one escape? Is it possible to dream of a better world when day-to-day survival consumes your every waking moment? In "Kings in Disguise," Freddie was portrayed as a dreamer who escaped into the world of the Silver Screen. Although older and the bearer of terrible losses in "On the Ropes," Freddie is still able to dream. The cinema pales compared with his real-life adventures.

Once again the story is set against the burgeoning labor movement, proving that in the most dire of circumstances the common man still dreams of a better life. But action is needed to make those dreams a reality.

The traveling nature of the circus allows Freddie to serve as a messenger between various labor organizers under the radar of the union busters. The messages he delivers are important for coordinating strikes and other activities, but it is the personal message he creates as an aspiring writer that proves more valuable. His amateurish but heartfelt descriptions of the riots and death he had witnessed in Detroit speak to the workers who read them in a personal and human way that intellectual, Marxist rhetoric never can.

Mr. Burr's naturalistic artwork is beautifully rendered in black and white with gray tones, creating a nostalgic sepia-toned feel. Both Mr. Vance and Mr. Burr have engaged in meticulous research of the period. Clothing and technology are accurate in detail, conveying a time within living memory that still feels like the ancient past to those of us who didn't live through it.

Part of the genius of "On the Ropes" and "Kings in Disguise" before it, is making this historical drama feel contemporary. The issues of workers' rights versus those of the corporations who hire them could be ripped from today's headlines as easily as from those of the 1930s. The concerns of the average citizen, their hopes and dreams, their triumphs and their suffering, are universal and timeless.

As a homeless transient, Freddie learns the lessons of the balance between self-reliance and the responsibility to community. In searching for his father he transcends him by not only learning to take responsibility for his own life, but in learning to take care of others. Like many coming-of-age stories, Freddie needed to leave home in order to find it.

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Wayne Wise is a freelance writer and novelist living in Lawrenceville (tetroc@gmail.com).


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