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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Graphic Novel Review: On the Ropes

from graphic novel guest blogger, Francisca Goldsmith:

The Empathy Muscle

Vance and Berger practice storytelling and visual art in a manner that brings immediacy to history and universality to distinctly detailed fictional characters. The influences of politics, economics and individual chance all have as much bearing on what we can and do make of ourselves as do our ambitions. Charles Dickens was the master of depicting this so that readers could experience empathy with the downtrodden, see behind their own prejudices about their social “betters” and come face to face with questions about how they themselves might have responded in situations such as those surrounding the hero Oliver Twist or such important, yet minor, characters as Miss Havisham. In Fred/Jim, we have not an Oliver Twist but a character as strong and as accessible, just as Gordon, Betty, and the others in Fred’s life have their own lives as well as influences on his.

American history curricula at the secondary school level rarely delve into the power politics of strikes and the criminal elements engaged in union busting during the Great Depression. Yet, teen readers will find that aspect of the action here as fascinating as the guaranteed gangster-thrills provided by the worst of the bad men, the empathy-leached Bill Sykeses who lurk in dark alleys and murder such semi-innocents as Fred’s girl friend. That Fred receives an education–clearly more that than indoctrination as political critics so often reduce it–in the theories of communism makes good sense in circumstances where we see the poverty of the period so vividly, but also have come to understand that our hero’s brain thirsts for theory to explain reality. That it is the Communists who provide for his prosthetic leg is perhaps heavy handed symbolism for sophisticated readers with a thorough understanding of political history, but teens may find this a perfect opportunity to experience the power of storytelling’s props to both carry the narrative and expose aspects of its underpinnngs.

Gordon’s story within the story is gracefully enclosed, an echoing demand that reader empathy replace the original antipathy his character rouses in both Fred and the reader. Like Dickens’ Fagin, rather than the flat evil Bill, his twisted personality is shown to be the result of efforts to cope with life’s imperfectly dealt hand.

What would I do? That is the question that provokes reader growth. Vance and Berger create a story so artful that the question refuses to fade long after Fred–and Gordon–have had their stories shown.

VANCE, James. On the Ropes. illus. by Dan E. Burr. 247p. Norton. Mar. 2013. Tr $24.95. ISBN 978-0-393-06220-5. LC 2012037353.  On the Ropes

Adult/High School–Returning to expand on their excellent Kings in Disguise (Norton, 1988), Vance and Burr have created a meaty graphic novel that weaves adventure, politics, noir crime, and the Great Depression into a seamless and fully engaging whole. Teenaged Fred Bloch has taken to the road, more to fill his belly and active mind than to escape his youth. After adventuring as a hobo–and losing a part of his leg in a train accident–he is taken in and given both prosthetic medical care and an education by members of a Communist Party cell. Then, it’s off to join the circus, where Fred assists a bitter and alcoholic “magician” whose shtick is escaping a hangman’s noose and gibbet before cheering crowds. Both Fred and Gordon, the escapist, believe that they are keeping their personal secrets from each other. Fred’s includes his work for the Party, which entails regular instructions mailed to towns the circus will visit, addressing him as Jim Nolan. Union busters are hard on the mysterious Jim’s trail, and Fred himself longs for a life that allows him to follow his nascent writing career. Period style black-and-white comics tell important aspects of this story and its varied cast of characters. The era’s workers’ rights struggles, complicated as they were by party politics and gangsterism, spring to life as the story unfolds, but the evolution of Fred from hopeful boy to wiser young man satisfyingly remains at center stage.–Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA 

Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.


  1. As always, Francisca takes a review of a graphic novel to another level. Well done!