“What is the blues?”
The question looks ungrammatical at first glance but is not. It might be unanswerable, too, but neither of these difficulties prevents one character from posing it to another in a 2005 Japanese biographical comic that reached readers in the United States in 2008. Does the answer (if there is one) change depending on the setting where the question is asked? Comparing notes might help make sense of a 2010 American comic that recasts the tale of three little pigs and one blues-belting wolf in a not-so-funny funny animal version of the Jim Crow era.
Some knowledge of the blues and who played it before World War II certainly helps readers of Me and the Devil Blues: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson. Writer-illustrator Akira Hiramoto situates a Robert Johnson simulacrum called RJ in Depression-era Mississippi, where and when the real Johnson lived, wed a woman named Virginia, and lost her along with their child when his wife was only 16 years old. RJ has these same experiences, as well as the same kinfolk, the same predilections, and the same relationships with other bluesmen of the period that the fabled singer-songwriter had.
“Fabled” is not a casually applied term in this context, for the legend surrounding the real Robert Johnson tells us that he sold his soul in exchange for blues virtuosity. (See Wikipedia for more background on Hiramoto’s manga.) The intersection of that legend and Hiramoto’s narrative is where the unreal, and not merely fictional, life of RJ takes flight into ominous territory.
RJ enters his own story by exiting a dream — a bad one. He answers a knock at the door to find a visitor of unspeakable countenance. “It’s me … I’ve come for you,” the visitor says. RJ wakes up and lies there in terror — until he hears a knock at the door. This visitor is Virginia, but her message is almost as nightmarish as the dream: Get to work. Hiramoto brilliantly visualizes their sharecropping life as a gray treadmill.
At his earliest opportunity, RJ abandons his very pregnant wife for the pleasures of the local jook joint, where Hiramoto’s pictures are saturated in black. There RJ manages to embarrass himself musically and, later, to entangle himself quasi-adulterously. Between these achievements he hears the story of the crossroads, of how someone with ambition can meet the devil at a remote interchange in the dead of night, sing a song, and exchange a soul for power. After hearing this narrative, RJ exists on borrowed time.
The transition between RJ’s subsequent visit to the crossroads and its aftermath is jarring for readers and for the character. Hiramoto hurls us and RJ into the presence of Son House, the intense bluesman-preacher to whom the real Johnson apprenticed himself. Imagine a slender, raucous Buddha with a pencil-thin mustache and you have Hiramoto’s House, who proves to be equally capable of musical nirvana and fierce rants. Night after night, the company of House and the other jook joint regulars sends RJ through further humiliations (at one point someone says the younger man’s playing is “making the booze go bad”). A long, bravura competition between House and RJ ends with the revelation that six months have elapsed, that his family had presumed him dead, and that Virginia and the baby have died. For readers and for RJ, however, Hiramoto has conjured the illusion that only a few nights have passed.
And so RJ is launched into Hell.
Devils abound in Hiramoto’s tale, so many that Eastern notions of plural hells start to seem apt. Music and violence seem to be the sole saving graces in these circles, and RJ gets a suitable Virgil/Lucifer in the form of a well-armed gangster, Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde infamy). Appearing here without his lady, the young white criminal drags his new black companion (accomplice? hostage? patsy?) from one ugly Old South situation to the next. The pair stumbles through what resembles a David Mamet revision of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, flees into the village of the damned-if-you-drink, and ends Book One separated by lynch-minded lunacy and a blind serial murderer who might represent Satan himself.
An important aspect of Me and the Devil Blues is its pacing. Book One comprises more than 500 pages, and a sequence such as the aforementioned musical contest covers more than 20 consecutive pages. Hiramoto tends toward epic depictions in his early chapters, so single images straddling facing pages are common. One particularly effective spread shows RJ’s fingers multiplying along the neck of his guitar and, at their extreme, transmuting to what looks like fire.
Hiramoto’s visual poetry has able assistance in the form of David Ury’s English translation. It lurches only rarely (“I’m twice as tired than usual,” RJ says on page 22), and scores many points with its restrained, on-the-mark deployment of dialect (“gon’” rather than “gonna,” for example). Hiramoto gives readers an expansive, sometimes self-indulgent, always silent (though not unmusical) symphony in ink.
In comparison, writer J.D. Arnold and illustrator Richard Koslowski’s B.B. Wolf and the Three LPs seems like a chamber piece. Its almost constant use of dialect makes the book’s modest 86 pages feel infinitely longer by requiring readers to perform their own running translation of pidgin into English. “This heah is our farm and yer not gonna take it,” says Mrs. Eleanor Wolf as she confronts a policepig attempting to evict her family. After the punitive destruction of the Wolf family by the KKK (excuse me: PPP), the eponymous patriarch, B.B. Wolf, is the only survivor, though he is far from unscathed. He selects vendetta as medicine for his melancholy, after which the Littlepig brothers find themselves on borrowed time.
Like Me and the Devil Blues, B.B. Wolf oscillates between scenes depicting music or violence. Arnold and Koslowski’s tale substitutes motivations familiar from decades of revenge cinema for the typically more mundane antecedents (live women, conventionally dead women, booze) of the blues, however. Furthermore, because their evocation of race misuses the superficial marker that is dialect and yokes it to the Maus-redux distancing device of anthropomorphic critters standing in for discrete groups of people, what their protagonist suffers never feels like the blues.
The creators’ greatest success comes in their last two pages, which imply an intergenerational coda to the traditional narrative of the three little pigs, a sequel set years after the tale at hand, wherein justice (and raw pork) might just get served cold. Arnold achieves an uncharacteristically humorous moment when a bartender asks B.B. whether he wants another drink. “Is the Bear Catholic?” the blueswolf replies.
Koslowski stranded me at the outset, though, with cartooning that hovers distractingly between the worlds of mainstream comics (wolf characters have human-articulated arms, animal-articulated legs, and bodybuilder abdomens) and Warner Bros. animation (B.B. and the other adult wolves bear the snout ridges that make Wile E. Coyote seem so hapless).
Although neither Me and the Devil Blues nor B.B. Wolf and the Three LPs attains the indelibility of the most fully realized comics, each warrants a look. Consider Hiramoto’s book for its sometimes stunning illustratory successes and the Arnold-Koslowski collaboration for its widespread, illustrative, and ideally cautionary lapses.
Me and the Devil Blues: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson (Books One and Two). Written and illustrated by Akira Hiramoto, translated and adapted by David Ury. Published by Ballantine/Del Rey: www.delreymanga.com.
B.B. Wolf and the Three LPs. Written by J.D. Arnold, illustrated by Richard Koslowski. Published by Top Shelf: www.topshelfcomix.com.
Alabama escapee Ed Hall writes journalism, poetry, and fiction. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Code Z: Black Visual Culture Now, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography.