Manga Friday: ‘Me and the Devil Blues’
It’s unofficially been Blues & Jazz week here in my reviews – and, if you’re wondering how Erotic Comics fit in there, you don’t know what the word “Jazz” means. So, for Manga Friday, here’s the first book in a series that retells the life of blues legend Robert Johnson from a very different perspective.
Me and the Devil Blues, Vol. 1
By Akira Hiaramoto
Del Rey Manga, July 2008, $19.95
If you know anything about Robert Johnson – the archetypal bluesman, who came out of nowhere to record 24 songs and then die young – it’s that he sold his soul to the devil, one night at a Mississippi crossroads, to get his amazing ability to play and sing. Is it true? Well, it’s a damn good story, and that’s what matters most.
Speaking of damn good stories, Akira Hiramoto weaves one here, drawing from the legends and few known facts of Johnson’s life and bringing in careful research on the rural Mississippi of the ‘30s, plus his own speculation and fiction. In a life as full of holes and mysteries as Johnson’s, the only way to tell a story is to make it up.
Hiramoto starts his story in 1929 with a young man called RJ, who works on a plantation, dreams of becoming a bluesman (though he’s not very good at singing or guitar playing), is harried by his domineering sister Bessie, and loved by his pregnant wife Virginia. He sneaks off to the local juke joint just about every night, to drink, talk with his friends, and hear the blues. He keeps trying to play, but never gets far – he really is lousy. The traveling bluesman Son House tries to explain to RJ what the blues is, but RJ doesn’t quite get it.
Then, one night, RJ hears an great, unknown bluesman, and runs outside to return the man’s guitar. When he doesn’t find anyone there, he plays the guitar a bit and mopes about. But then, somehow, he’s playing with Son House – and playing better than the master. When it’s over, though, his sister Bessie confronts him: he hasn’t been home in longer than he thinks, and things have changed, badly, while he was away.
That’s most of the plot of “Cross Road Blues,” the story that takes up the first two hundred pages of this volume. (It’s roughly double the size of a typical manga collection, topping out at close to 550 pages.) The second half, “32-20 Blues,” sees RJ meet up with a edgy young white man, Clyde Barrow – yes, that Clyde – and visit a rich white man’s plantation house and get in trouble in a very, very dry town.
Clyde is a nervous, casually murderous man of fleeting desires and turbulent passions, and RJ’s still trying to come to terms with what’s happened to him – in fact, it’s still happening to him, in a skin-crawling way that I doubt you’d see anywhere but in manga. By the end of this volume, they’re not quite a team, not quite friends – RJ, as a black man, can’t really be a white man’s “friend” in 1929 Mississippi to begin with – but they’re beginning to understand and depend on each other, which might be the best either of them can hope for. (And, of course, we know how each of them died, not all that long afterward: violently, in pain, separately.)
Hiramoto draws African-Americans better than I’ve seen from any manga artist – they’re real people, each separate and distinctive, living in their particular world in that time. He doesn’t rely on caricature, but also doesn’t over-render his faces; he lets tone fill in the contours and focuses his drawing on the eyes and mouths. He’s populated a world entirely unlike the one he lives in, but true to the reality of the 1929 Mississippi Delta, and, even more, he understands the terror of race relations in that time, when any black man had to keep his head down to avoid being called “uppity” and whipped or lynched. There are some stereotypically manga touches to the art, but not many – this would be a great first manga for music lovers willing to read “backwards.” Me and the Devil Blues is soaked in the sound and feel of the blues; I’m beginning to suspect Hiramoto may have made his own deal with the devil to be this good himself.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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