THE GOAT GETTERS: JACK JOHNSON, THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY, AND HOW A BUNCH OF RAUCOUS CARTOONISTS REINVENTED COMICS
By Eddie Campbell
Library of American Comics/IDW Publishing, $49.99, 320 pages
U.S. President Donald Trump announced in April he was considering a pardon for Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion.
Johnson was found guilty in 1913 of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal for men to transport women across state lines for “immoral” purposes. Since the two women being transported by Johnson were white, it inflamed the racial intolerance of many Americans.
If Mr. Trump follows through with his plan, Eddie Campbell’s “The Goat Getters: Jack Johnson, the Fight of the Century, and How a Bunch of Raucous Cartoonists Reinvented Comics” should serve as a source of inspiration.
What’s a “goat-getter?” Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a person who or thing which makes another person angry, annoyed, or irritated, especially deliberately.” To get someone’s goat, you must willingly challenge authority and propose solutions that may seem foreign to most individuals, societies and even nations.
“Cartooning was there at the beginning of, and integral to, American newspaper illustration,” writes Mr. Campbell. It provided an entertaining mix of humor, frivolity and intelligent commentary for readers. Yet, it should be noted “cartoonists in these years, approximately 1890 to 1920, were all-round newspapermen” who had the ability “to apply themselves to all the categories of picture making for the press.”
William Randolph Hearst, a “genius” who had “an unlimited supply of cash and a doting mother,” was one of the first publishers to realize how illustrations and newspapers could work together. He brought in talented political cartoonists like Thomas Nast (who created the Republican Party elephant, and issued a “relentless attack” against the corrupt Boss Tweed), Homer Davenport (known as an “animal artist par excellence”) and Jimmy Swinnerton (who became popular “on account of his drawings of a bear), and made them household names. He revolutionized newspapers, and gave them the freedom to create, inspire and change people’s minds.
Which brings us to Johnson, the focus of several chapters.
Boxing was a popular sport to illustrate. Many well-known, early 20th century pugilists were white, and sports cartoons of real and imaginary fighters reflected this. But there were black fighters who originally fought for the “colored” world titles, and began to fight — and beat — white fighters for the recognized world titles of different weight classes. Sports cartoonists like Robert Edgren, Ralph Yardley and Charles Voight may have drawn black fighters like lightweight champion Joe Gans in a somewhat stereotypical fashion, but their illustrations exuded confidence and strength rather than pure racial negativity.
Johnson’s status was different. Racially-based illustrations of the legendary fighter obviously existed, but most emphasized his smile, power and ability to dominate.
Consider this profound side-by-side comparison. On Jan. 23, 1904, Charles Dana Gibson created a “classically organized illustrative cartoon” called The Champion for Collier’s Weekly. It was a depiction of James J. Jeffries, the then-undefeated heavyweight champion, “walking along a street, surrounded by a crowd of boys tumbling along around him, all looking up worshipfully.” On Jan. 6, 1909, two weeks after beating Tommy Burns for the heavyweight title, cartoonist Tad Dorgan “redrew the composition figure for figure” for the Chicago Evening American “with Johnson in Jeff’s place, and all the kids are black.”
If this stunning image didn’t get the goat of newspaper readers, nothing would.
This visual transformation continued in the build-up toward the July 4, 1910, Fight of the Century between Johnson and Jeffries, “the most thoroughly cartooned sporting event” of its time. Dorgan drew a stunning cartoon showing Johnson “racing the memory of boxers who had trained along the Ocean Beach Road in earlier years.” George Herriman created sports-related strips that displayed “a bucolic fantasia woven” around the two boxers. Rube Goldberg visited Johnson’s training camp, and produced stereotypical albeit positive and revealing cartoons of the boxer.
When Johnson beat Jeffries in 15 rounds, the illustrations told an incredible story. Dorgan drew a powerful champion crushing his opponent, and a stunning four-image profile of Johnson in rage before the fight, and switching over to a confident smile after winning the bout. As for Jeffries, cartoonist Robert Carter drew a defeated, humbled champion under the heading, “For He Was a Jolly Good Fellow.”
“The Goat Getters” is a scintillating examination of how some legendary cartoonists helped change newspapers and its readership. They marched to the beat of their own drummer, and challenged societal norms and preconceived notions to make America a better country. That’s surely what they would have advised Mr. Trump to do with Jack Johnson’s long-awaited pardon.
• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.