When Penguin Books was looking for a writer for a graphic novel about Muhammad Ali as part of its Who HQ Graphic Novels series for young readers, it was already working with the perfect candidate.
New Orleans-based writer Gabe Soria has written comics and fantasy tales for all ages and has been working on the first installment of a new fantasy adventure trilogy for young adults to be released by Penguin in 2023. He also happens to have spent much of his young life with Ali at his uncle’s house.
“My Uncle Howard (Bingham), who is featured in the book, was Ali’s best friend and photographer,” Soria explains. “There was never a moment when I was unaware that Muhammad Ali was hanging out. They were always having fun at my grandmother’s house. I looked up and Ali walked in. I was going to his daughter’s birthday parties.
“Who was the greatest? Muhammad Ali” will be released on May 31. It focuses on the Thrilla in Manila, the third and final fight between Ali and Joe Frazier. Bingham was part of Ali’s entourage for that fight, and he’s a character in the book.
Bingham was working as a news photographer when he met Ali, who was then using his birth name, Cassius Clay. They quickly formed a friendship, which lasted a lifetime, and Bingham published a historical biographical photomontage of him titled “Muhammad Ali: A Thirty Year Journey”.
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It was at Bingham in Los Angeles that Soria met Ali. At the time, Ali was one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world. The connection between Ali and Bingham was well known.
“In the Michael Mann movie ‘Ali,’ actor Jeffrey Wright played my Uncle Howard,” Soria says. “There’s a scene in the movie that takes place during the Rumble in the Jungle, and the main part of the scene takes place in the foreground, and Jeffrey, as my uncle, sneaks around in the background. Jeffrey does this thing with his thumb and index finger. He’s rubbing them right next to this guy’s ear. The guy hit his ear, as if an insect had flown. I probably shouted “Yes!” in the theater, because it’s something my uncle and Ali have always done to people. They were sneaking up behind people and rubbing their fingers – it looks like styrofoam. They didn’t do it to you once – they would do it all the time. Like dads, they never let go of the joke. They continued to do so.
Soria says that at home, Ali loved jokes and did amateur magic tricks for children, including Soria and his cousins. The book is dedicated to his cousin Damon Bingham, who died in 2016, the same year as Ali and Howard Bingham.
The book focuses on Ali’s struggle and thoughts in the face of challenge. The series is aimed at intermediate readers, and Who HQ books typically focus on a pivotal moment in the subject’s life or career. It is a starting point where curious readers can then delve into what happened before or after. There is both a timeline of Ali’s life and a short bibliography for further reading in the 64-page book. It includes notable biographies of Thomas Hauser and David Remnick.
The book begins as Ali flies to the Philippines for the fight in 1975. He had lost to Frazier in 1971 but returned to beat him in New York in January 1974. Ali went on to win the heavyweight championship by defeating George Foreman in the so- called Rumble in the Jungle – fought in Kinshasa in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The boxing match in Manila was a 14 round battle between two of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time.
“I had the idea that (the book) would be the culmination of a journey in Ali’s career,” says Soria. “The third fight against Frazier was an epic conclusion. I thought it was interesting to focus on a moment in his life where he comes to a crossroads. It was after Manila that he entered his era of stardom. His attention begins to turn to his humanitarian projects – goodwill ambassador in the world. I thought it would be interesting for the children to come at that time.
To capture the action, Soria suggested illustrator Chris Brunner.
“I mentioned Chris because he can draw movement like no one else,” says Soria.
Turns out Brunner also had a connection to New Orleans. Musicians Danny Barker and Blue Lu Barker are his grandparents. Soria and Brunner are also collaborating on a graphic novel set in the history of New Orleans.
In addition to that, Soria is working on a separate graphic novel for DC Comics. He wrote several Batman ’66 titles for DC Comics.
During the pandemic, he kept busy. He published the five-issue first volume of the “Megaghost” comic book series, and he is working on future episodes. He also wrote a science fiction series based on a young readers app for Epic! featuring a family of geniuses traveling through space.
Penguin has also commissioned Soria to do a Who HQ graphic novel about Michael Jordan, and it will be released later this year. But for now, Soria hopes readers who love Ali’s book will seek out more titles about him.
“At least I hope the kids go to the library and pull out the ‘Superman vs. Muhammad Ali’ comic,” he says.