If you like boxing and old film noirs, you might know the movie The Set-Up. Directed by Robert Wise, it’s an impactful film about struggle, grittiness and aging all wrapped up in the knowledge you are just “one punch away from being the champion.”
This book isn’t exactly like that.
As it turns out, the story’s original writer hated the film version. Author Joseph Moncure March was a New Yorker born into wealth. He worked hard to understand, and write about, the “real” world and the common man. He is best known for his earlier work, The Wild Party. This story, first published in 1928, is told as a long poem. It is about a black fighter’s battles in and out of the ring.
The author described it as “the story of a Negro fighter who has already been defeated by race prejudice, but doesn’t know how to stop fighting.”
Korero Press, the UK publishing house that is always stretching to try creative new projects, has just published a new version of The Set-Up. It’s a cross between a graphic novel and a heavily illustrated epic poem. It has the feel of a lost treasure one would find on a back shelf of some forgotten bookstore. And yet, somehow it seems crisp and new.
The art is a big part of the experience. Erik Kriek is a powerful modern-day illustrator. He’s based in Amsterdam, and maybe that’s why I’m not familiar with his work. He has illustrated graphic novels (including In the Pines and Creek County) as well as children’s books.
His experience with children’s books makes sense. He has a heavy line and a style that harkens back to old books I would borrow from the local library when I was a kid. There is a definite Will Eisner vibe to his renderings, and it’s a perfect match to this period piece. If you can imagine there was a month long collaboration where Eric Powell, Charles Burns and Will Eisner were all locked in a studio together, you will be able to envision exactly what this art looks like.
Kriek’s illustrations employ black and grey tones with a moody effect. And he’s not handcuffed into any formal page layout or size. Some illustrations are full pagers, some are spot illustrations in weird shapes, and some overflow to two pages. There are no word balloons, and as this is a poem, there’s great flexibility and freshness to each and every page layout.
The cover sports a strong vintage-looking logo by one my favorites, Rian Hughes.
Reading The Set-Up, and getting into the rhythm of the syncopated language, takes some getting used to. It’s like watching an old black and white movie in a new living room chair that you’ve just been delivered from the furniture store. You know this chair going to be cozy and comfortable soon – but it’s not there quite yet.
And that’s part of the fun.