Documenting The Greatest
French comic writer JD Morvan just chatted to Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows about writing Muhammad Ali, Kinshasha 1974, published by Titan Comics…
TW: What was the genesis of this project?
JDM: The genesis of this project is really the work on the Magnum collection. Since I love comics as much as photography, I had the idea to tell the “life” of great photographers, through some of their emblematic photos. When we launched this collection, Abbas was the president of the Magnum Foundation. He was very supportive of us, but that’s not why we wanted to make this book, it’s because we found the story simply fascinating.
TW: How did the artist Ortiz come on board?
JDM: Rafael Ortiz has been a friend for a long time, he is also Argentinean, and now lives in Reims, we work in the same workshop. So it was an obvious choice to approach him. He accepted, and you have the album in your hands!
TW: With such an iconic sporting figure at the heart of this, how did you approach humanising him while still telling this story?
JDM: In reality, I never try to make my characters more human than they are. It seems to me that telling passages of their lives is enough for readers to feel their character. Of course I’m cheating a bit by saying that, because I choose which part of their biography I’m going to tell. Here, I feel that Ali’s boxing training scenes make it clear who he is. And of course I tried to do the same with all the other characters. I try to get to the essence of their characters so that we can understand the reasons why they did what they did, quite simply.
TW: You also made the photographer Abbas the main protagonist of this story. What first made you think that using a photographer as this would work for the tale?
JDM: Once again, this is the main idea of the collection. I’m interested in communicating how photographers become witnesses to such and such a scene. Comparable books have been made with Robert Capa during the landings, Henri Cartier-Bresson the prisoner during the Second World War, or Steve McCurry in New York on September 11. In this collection, it’s the photographers’ gaze that interests us.
TW: Also what made you decide to make this multimedia rather than just a straight graphic novel?
JDM: In the first two albums of the collection, Capart and Cartier-Bresson, we didn’t dare to put the photographs directly into the comic book plates. Perhaps because of the fear of comparing themselves to the legends of photography. But it was stupid and Steve McCurry told us… well, nicely 🙂 For him, it wasn’t a problem and even that he found it interesting to mix the two media. So we went for it. In this type of narrative, sometimes photography can be a pause, other times it can only be one piece in a sequence. There’s almost an infinite play possible between comics and photography. We try to explore it as much as possible.
TW: Why do you think Abbas’ photos continue to have impact with those who see them even many years later?
JDM: Of course, the big pictures continue to speak directly to us. The strength of a photograph is that you don’t always need to grasp the context to feel its power. In this sense the comic book is more explanatory. That’s why we contextualise a lot by trying to give readers the ability to grasp the whole world at that given time. But a picture is an immediate punch. And at that level, a lot of Abbas’s photos will blow your mind.
TW: How did you get inside his head as he is sadly no longer with us? Did you speak to him at all during the genesis of this project?
JDM: We had the chance to meet him before the making of this album and our discussions were always very interesting. Abbas was a character. We even had to, in a way, confront each other in a symbolic boxing match before becoming, if not friends, let’s say colleagues. For Abbas, it was important to know what his interlocutor was thinking. And finally he gave us an anecdote that he hadn’t told anyone and that we transcribed at the end of the book, which I think gives salt to the conclusion of this story… He also adds something to what we have already read or seen about the match. But I’ll let you discover that.
TW: Watching boxing is such a kinetic activity. Were there any particular pointers you had to give the artist to bring the boxing matches to life as comic pages?
JDM: We knew that Raph with his sense of movement would be a hit in the boxing scenes. Paradoxically, it’s not what we focus on the most in the comic strip, but all these boxes, these scenes, give rhythm between flashbacks. I know, it’s really the central point of the album, but we allow ourselves to navigate around it, to go far back in time, to sometimes go a little bit forward to always come back to it and avoid going off-topic.
TW: The book feels like a fitting tribute to Ali and also to Abbas. Do you hope that this project will shine a light on Abbas’ talent as a photographer?
JDM: Oh I think Abbas doesn’t need us, he’s a great photographer. So indeed maybe his name is less known in the general public than some others but he is a master and maybe even now a legend for many other photographers. It was very moving to release this album after his death, a little sad too, I would have preferred to finish it before but that’s life…
TW: Could you describe the book in one simple line?
JDM: Of course, this is simply the story of the greatest boxing match of all time.