James Vance and Dan E. Burr’s new graphic novel goes to the circus

An image from James Vance and Dan E. Burr's "On the Ropes."
(Dan E. Burr / W.W. Norton)

It’s not accurate, exactly, to say that I’ve been waiting for James Vance and Dan E. Burr’s graphic novel “On the Ropes” (W.W. Norton: 248 pp., $24.95) -- until I saw a copy, I had no idea that it was coming out.

But it is the case that Vance and Burr’s first book, “Kings in Disguise,” first published in 1988, is one of my favorite graphic novels — a stark bit of social realism tracing the travails of a 12-year-old named Freddie Bloch as he wanders through the Depression — and with this new work, which picks up the story in 1937, the creators have outdone themselves.


Freddie, now known as Fred, is older: 17, and working in a WPA circus as the assistant to an escape artist named Gordon Corey. Gordon’s trick is to appear to hang himself, although it’s clear from the outset that he is ambivalent at best about the prospect of dodging death.

As Fred (who narrates the book) tells us the story of the circus, he also spins another narrative, about a pair of anti-union goons out to disrupt plans for a steel workers’ strike. This taps into many of the concerns of “Kings in Disguise,” which also dealt with the union movement, and the strong-arm tactics used by American business to try to put it down.

It’s tempting, given this material, to draw parallels to the present, when unions are being challenged from all sides. And yet, if politics and workers’ rights are, as they should be, a key part of “On the Ropes,” Vance and Burr never lose sight of the story they mean to tell.

Fred is a compelling figure: tragic, courageous, a survivor despite his years. He is also complicit in a deep and nuanced way, causing danger for the people he most cares about, forced by circumstance to make difficult choices — choices that continue to trouble him, choices that he can’t resolve.


This was the strength of “Kings in Disguise” — its lack of sentimentality, its refusal to sugarcoat — and it’s a strength of “On the Ropes,” as well. There’s nothing romantic about Fred’s journey through the hobo camps and carny shows, and his political engagement is less the result of idealism than of a kind of steely realism, a sense that it takes sacrifices to foment change.

Vance highlights this with his writing, which is straightforward, matter of fact, telling the story with few frills. But it is Burr’s art that drives the point most fully: black and white, etched in broad strokes like a sequence of woodcuts, evoking the bleakness of the times.


Late in the book, he gives us a three-page sequence of textless images, intercutting Fred and Gordon, both on their own, on the edge. In the course of 18 simple frames, we see each of them come to a decision, irrevocable and inevitable all at once.

This is the power of graphic literature, to bypass intellect in favor of emotion, to draw us directly into a scene. With “On the Ropes,” Vance and Burr have created an epic out of just this sort of compression — one that more than lives up to “Kings in Disguise.”



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