His fist clenched, his gaze unflinching, he’s ready to strike his target. Pow! Foreman goes down. Muhammad Ali is eyeing him from above. It’s the eighth round. Photographer Abbas is in the ring. Click! “I’m in luck, Ali turns around for a fraction of a second to size up his opponent stretched on the ground,” Abbas recounts. He has just captured the end of a historic fight. “The moment is frozen forever.”
This legendary 1974 Kinshasa boxing match between Mohamed Ali and George Foreman was documented by Abbas Attar – a one-man institution, and a benchmark of photojournalism at Magnum Photos, who died in April 2018. The graphic novel retells the intersecting destinies of the boxer and the photographer. Like a series of contact sheets, the drawings take us behind the scenes. Here and there, panels give way to photos. We are looking through Abbas’s eyes, from behind Ali’s fists.
Mohamed Ali, Kinshasa 1974 is the fourth publication in a series that combines document, graphic novel, and photojournalism. The series is a brainchild of Jean-David Morvan, screenwriter best known for his science fiction comics. He is also a great photo enthusiast. In 2012, he struck upon the idea of telling photographers’ lives in comic strips.
The eighth and the ninth arts
“The Comic book drives the narrative. It doesn’t just tell the story the way text does. The comic book shows how the photographer arrives at the photo,” explained Jean-David Morvan who is also the author of a recently released graphic novel about the photojournalist Stanley Greene (Éditions Delcourt).
The comics and photography come together slicing reality into rectangles. The challenge is to find the right balance between the two art forms. “Comic books consist of lots of tiny pictures one after the other. We need several images to say something that a photo might be able to say on its own. What fascinates me is the difference between the two art forms and how they complement one another,” explained the scriptwriter.
The project started out while Abbas was still alive. Jean-David Morvan recalls their first exchange: “It was like a boxing match. I had to be convincing, but we came out friends on the other side.”
Admittedly, this French-Iranian’s photography is very dynamic and lends itself perfectly to the purpose. “The comic strip is very close to that still moment one sees in my father’s photos,” chimed in the photographer’s son, Hamish Crooks.
“I was worried that the format would devalue the subject matter”
Throughout the panels, Ali’s and Abbas’s lives are intertwined. We discover the legendary boxer’s childhood followed by, a few pages later, the reasons which led the young Iranian to cover all the upheavals in contemporary history. “In comic books I like to talk about the international context, to show the material used by the photographer. For the reader to understand the political stakes of this boxing match, what was happening in Kinshasa at that time?,” commented Jean-David Morvan.
Narration through images allows a more pedagogical approach to the story. While in France, history comic books are common, the use of this format is perhaps less evident in Anglo-Saxon countries, as Hamish Crooks points out: “I was afraid that the format would devalue the subject. I love editorial cartoons in the press, like Steve Bell who draws for The Guardian in the UK. But the subjects we were going to cover were really serious. It was a challenge for me to see if it might work.”
The book should be released in the United States early next year, which is a good way to find out if the format works on the other side of the Atlantic. “I am really curious to see how it’s going to turn out. Ali isn’t my father’s trademark subject, but if it brings his work closer to people, that’s wonderful,” his son noted with hope. We wish all the success to this series which brilliantly pictures the decisive moment in history, takes us behind the photographer’s lens, and lends new density to photography.
By Michaël Naulin
Mohamed Ali, Kinshasa 1974
Editions Dupuis & Magnum Photos, Collection Aire Libre
136 pages, 24.95€