Me and the Devil Blues: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson Vol. 1 (Del Rey)

johnson1.jpgThis dark and fantastic manga explores the life of Robert Johnson, the Depression-era musician who (supposedly) sold his soul to the Devil to become the greatest Blues player who ever lived.

 

526 pgs. B&W; $19.95

(W / A: Akira Hiramoto)

 

 

In 1929 life was hard for everyone, but even more so for the poor blacks who lived in the Mississippi Delta. Robert Johnson is one of them, a soon-to-be father trying desperately to make out a life for himself and his wife. Unfortunately for RJ, as he’s known, he has a small addiction problem—the Blues. He sneaks away every night to the juke, plinking away on his guitar, aspiring to be one of the best but only coming out a laughingstock. The Blues are his only shot at a way out of Mississippi, and he’s willing to do almost anything to make his dream come true, even if that means taking his battered old guitar to the crossroads at midnight. Legend has it if a man does that, the Devil will appear, take your instrument, play it and hand it back. You’d walk away an expert bluesman…but you’d have also just sold your soul. Which is exactly what Johnson did. But he soon learns that playing with hellfire will get you burned, as his talents get him into a whirlwind of trouble. Irate plantation owners, gangsters, and a lynch-crazy town are soon all after the bluesman, who has even bigger worries when his playing had starts acting extremely strange.

Hiramoto’s dark and fantastic manga Me and the Devil Blues re-imagines the life of famed blues musician Robert Johnson like nothing I’ve read before. Every detail is so stunningly laid out, every nuance and bead of sweat so expertly placed you wonder if Johnson’s story might just be the real thing. From his bleak and barren wooden flat in the Mississippi plantation to the dusty and strictly dry Prohibition town, Hiramoto lavishly draws everything on oversized pages leaving no line carelessly drawn. And just when you’re starting to think, "oh I wonder if he is going to encounter this"…it happens.

The cover to Me and the Devil Blues by Akira Hiramoto. Click for a larger image.I suspect a preponderance of research went into Me and the Devil Blues, not just because of the story itself, but also with the clarity of artwork and dialogue as well. The characters speak with a Southern twang or Delta dialect so easily it’s a marvel to think this was originally written in Japanese at all. The interaction between the characters, especially portraying the hierarchy between different classes of people and the tension Johnson faces whenever he crosses paths with whites, is also expertly shown; not so heavy-handed as to be dismissible or clichéd, but woven so well into the dialogue that reading becomes a window into the Depression-era South.

As for the artwork, Hiramoto has a sort of soft realism, where elements of manga style can be seen, but the realistic rendering lends authority to the story. As I read, I swore that I was as hot and tired as Johnson toiling beneath the scorching Mississippi sun; that I could smell the smoke and bitter whiskey of the juke; that the chalky dust of a dying town burned my nose as well. Hiramoto’s shading and tones set the mood of Devil Blues throughout, and his liberal use of full pages emphasized the dramatic nature of the manga as well as made for easy reading.

Even though Devil Blues went for a whopping 526 pages, I was stunned when it ended in a cliff-hanger, and only then realized that this was volume one. This manga is a fantastic read, with a gripping story, outstanding artwork, and wonderful writing. It made me want to know more about Robert Johnson; whether he ever did claim to sell his soul to the Devil and what his music sounds like. I would definitely recommend it. This book is for music lovers, for horror lovers, for anyone who likes a good story, and for those who have the Blues or just want to have a taste of them. Just be sure to hang on to your soul. | Elizabeth Schweitzer

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