On the Ropes

On the Ropes

I never read Kings in Disguise, the 1988 graphic novel about a Depression-era boy turned hobo in search of his father, an alcoholic who abandoned his family, although I knew it was much praised in its time. On the Ropes is the sequel, out 25 years later, but if my experience is anything to go by, you’ll get plenty from this story even without knowing the former. They’re both fine examples of literary graphic novels, long-form comics inspired by the traditional American novel of social realism, as written by James Vance and illustrated by Dan E. Burr.

In On the Ropes, it’s now 1937, and Fred Bloch is working for a WPA circus, assisting a dissolute escape artist named Gordon Corey. Bloch’s struggles to cope with the capricious drinker Corey as he pretends to hang himself nightly take place against a background of strike-breaking and cultural apathy, as the Depression has gone on far longer than anyone expected. Corey’s pitch to the crowds, written by Bloch, goes as follows:

On the Ropes

We’re all scared these days, my friends… on the ropes, like a nation of punch-drunk fighters.

But just because this world’s beat us bloody, it doesn’t mean we’re down for the count. Not us.

Here’s where you spit fear and the devil square in the eye. For just a few minutes, and one twentieth part of a dollar…

The WPA Federal Theatre Project Traveling Circus offers you


Between the financial struggles and the debate over workers’ rights to unionize, the material, although set 75 years ago, is surprisingly timely. Only, as suited for fiction, all the choices are more life-or-death. The other characters include a writer, also working for the WPA, wanting to cover Corey against his will; two violent strikebreakers (thugs, really), one with history with Corey, working to find out how the labor organizers are getting mail out unobserved; and a young woman working with the circus who interests Bloch. Their stories all tie together in unexpected and sometimes shocking ways.

In keeping with its genre roots, there’s a good amount of narration to be sure we understand Bloch’s feelings, as well as flashbacks that provide background from the previous book to readers. The art is straightforward, almost journalistic, with a real feel for the time period. The combination makes the book easy to read, particularly by those who, attracted by the subject matter, may not be that familiar with comics. The ending feels a bit abrupt, but I appreciate the creator’s willingness to keep salacious images off-screen, letting us know what happened without wallowing.

On the Ropes is too ambitious and disheartening for me to look forward to rereading it, but I’m glad we now have a comic industry that makes room for such works and is more likely to get them to an appreciative audience. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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