Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"And then you meet Malcom X...
"All of Harlem is ready to follow him, but you are the one he chooses.
"You like him as much as he likes you, and he knows how to put your thoughts into words. You never leave his side, you are like soulmates finding each other in a sentimental movie."
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this biography. If you've read a few comic biographies you'll know that much like prose ones, often they can feel rather dry and not really present a fully-formed picture of the individual in question. Perhaps that is even more true with comic biographies actually, given the much more concise amount of time and space the creators have to present their take on an individual.
I'm happy to report to I did really enjoy this work. It wisely picks some interesting scenes and episodes from Ali's life that it wants to focus on and then presents those in very detailed fashion, often with quotes from a fixed cast of talking heads. Again, the cast is chosen carefully, a narrow selection of his opponents, (including Henry Cooper who so very nearly beat Ali, then Cassius Clay at Wembley Stadium in June 1968), his inner circle of boxing coaches and people like Malcom X and Elijah Muhammad.
A relatively small portion is given over to his boxing bouts, just the most famous ones like the bout with Cooper, his two match-ups with Sonny Liston, the Rumble In The Jungle with George Forman and the Thriller In Manila with Joe Frazier, which I think is probably the right choice. And even these are seen mainly from the perspective of his opponents or coaches looking back, which provides an informed, relatively objective viewpoint, rather than Ali's bombast.
The majority of the book actually focuses on his socio-political awakening and subsequent cultural influence. For some of my generation and younger, especially an ocean away, who only ever knew Ali the hero, it'll perhaps be surprising to learn how reviled and feared he was by the white American populace at large at the time once he converted to Islam, Malcom X by his side as he rejected Cassius Clay as his slave name, and joined the Nation Of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad. He was already regarded as an obnoxious braggadocio by a lot of people, perhaps not unreasonably so given some of the more unpleasant trash-talking antics he submitted his opponents too.
But once he embraced Islam it was open season on him, which ultimately culminated with his imprisonment at his refusal to fight in Vietnam. His impassioned speech on that topic, encompassing the inequalities still faced by blacks at the time, was an immensely powerful oration, and it is portrayed superbly across a double-page spread. It also earned him a prison sentence of 5 years, a fine of $10,000 and a ban from boxing of 3 years. He managed to avoid prison whilst the case was appealed, but his boxing licence wasn't returned for nearly 4 years.
Given the FBI's then covert COINTELPRO program to engage in covert surveillance against black leaders and groups, with the justification that they were infiltrated by communists, to "increase factionalism, cause disruption" that definitely contributed (at the very least...) to the assassinations of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. it is perhaps surprising that Ali himself wasn't the subject of an assassination attempt.
The work also shows the one act he truly regretted for the rest of his life, turning his back, figuratively and literally on Malcom X. Malcom had already split from the Nation Of Islam, perceiving Elijah Muhummad as someone who wasn't a true Muslim in heart or practice, and choosing to whole-heartedly embrace traditional Islam, including a pilgrimage to Mecca. Ali, meanwhile, was touring various African countries at the behest of the Nation Of Islam when a chance meeting outside a hotel occurred in Ghana (not Nigeria, as the creators incorrectly suggest here). Malcom called out to Ali, delighted to see him, and Ali simply turned and walked away for the entire world to see. Within a year, Malcom X was dead, and Ali always deeply regretted both the snub itself, and then not ever making amends with his friend.
Ali's early life and latter post-boxing days bookend the meat of the story, told in sped-up fashion so as to encapsulate his whole life. I thought overall this was a very well presented work. I did struggle slightly with some of the narration at times, purely because much of it is worded in the second person as though it is spoken to Ali himself. It's a distracting conceit I personally didn't particularly care for though after a while you do stop noticing it. The art is excellent, with lots of interesting page and panel composition devices, and some nice period touches. In summary, it might not be the greatest biography but it is a very good biography of The Greatest.