On the Ropes, the long-awaited sequel to Kings in Disguise

In 1988, Kitchen Sink Press broke ground in the comics world with its publication of Kings in Disguise, a six-issue comic series by Jim Vance and Dan Burr (later collected in a graphic novel with an intro by Alan Moore). Kings was one of the first modern American comics to tackle straight historical subjects, and it succeeded brilliantly. It told the Depression-era tale of Freddie Bloch, a Jewish kid from California who ends up on the road and on the bum, who becomes involved in a bloody labor uprising in Detroit.

Earlier this year, the sequel, On the Ropes was published. To call this book "long-awaited" is to commit violent understatement. Kings had attracted high praise by the likes of Art Speigelman, Will Eisner, Harvey Kutzman, and Alan Moore, and had swept the awards when it was published. It took twenty years for the sequel to emerge, and you know what? It was worth the wait.

On the Ropes picks up shortly after the end of Kings, and finds Freddie (now Fred) working in a travelling WPA circus in the midwest, assisting the show's last remaining freak, an escape artist named Gordon Corey, who puts his head in a noose and his hands in shackles and then escapes and saves himself from hanging in a count of five, performing for an audience that pays a nickel a head to watch him risk death.

Fred is haunted by all that he's been through, but he's not the only scarred one in the circus. Everyone has been brutalized by the Depression, and back in Chicago and across America, workers are taking to the picket-lines to demand a better deal, a Fred roots for them — and assists them, in his own way. The plutocrats of the day aren't going to tolerate this, of course, and rebellion becomes espionage, and then erupts into bloody war.

As with Kings, Burr and Vance attain brilliant synthesis of word and image, and the end-product is violent, noirish, gripping, and wrenching. On the Ropes shows that art sometimes needs a long time to germinate, but that it's well worth waiting for when it does.

On the Ropes