Interview With Rob Vollmar (Bluesman)

In addition to his work as graphic novelist and comic shop manager, Rob Vollmar has been writing for Comics Worth Reading since 2007, providing insightful manga reviews. He’s had to cut back his contributions this summer as he promotes his new graphic novel, Bluesman, and he was kind enough to let me ask him some blunt questions about that book.

JDC: What’s a white guy from Oklahoma doing writing a graphic novel about a black guitar player during the Depression?

RV: My impulse on my first two graphic novels, both in collaboration with Pablo G. Callejo, was to write best about what I knew best; the places I lived, the things I’ve done, the passions I’ve developed over the years. So writing Bluesman played to what I felt like were strengths in several ways.

First, I’m a guitar player. I appreciate that there are experiences that only an African-American can have and experience, thus de-legitimizing to a certain extent my ability to write his voice authentically. I know also that there are experiences common only to musicians that I have in common with people of every ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual or political persuasion who, like myself, all happen to be musicians.

Second, I have been an ardent listener and student of blues music since I was fifteen years old. I’ve seen and played a lot of shows, good and bad. I’ve listened to a lot of music. I’ve read a lot of books. For me, the blues is not a topic of research but a passion that has accrued into a rich body of information that was just waiting for me to draw upon it for the guts of a good graphic novel.

Last, and probably least convincingly, I’ve lived in Arkansas and felt comfortable about my ability to convey the dynamic changes in its landscape as Lem made his way across the state. People who have never been to New York might feel some comfort in staging a scene based on their vicarious knowledge of the place and its landmarks. Bluesman is set in places I’ve been, places I’ve felt under my feet. It makes a difference, I think.

So, coming back around to your question, I wrote what I thought I knew best and Bluesman was the result.

JDC: How did you connect with artist Pablo Callejo? What unique strengths did he bring to the project?

RV: I was introduced to Pablo through S. Edward Irvin at Absence of Ink Press. You will appreciate that the announcement that brought him to our attention is still to this day archived on Usenet. I’d say Pablo’s greatest strength, among many, is his attention to detail and fearlessness in research. He’s never seen or been to any of the locations and yet his interpretations of these varied settings always rings true with my first-hand experiences. I think his ability to draw people that look like people, despite the caricature aspects of his style, is fairly unique and worthy of closer consideration.

JDC: The graphic novel has been optioned for film; how likely is a movie to be made? Who’s your dream cast?

RV: Under the scenario we’re looking at right now, I think we have a very strong project. That doesn’t mean that it will be made into a film, but I think it will take more effort to pull this one off the tracks than keep it on. As for my dream cast, I must plead the fifth as I am so taken with many of the choices under consideration right now that I don’t want to jinx anything. I will say that I wrote Sheriff Beasley with Sam Elliott in my head, but that has little to do with the casting process.

JDC: Why didn’t you include a CD of representative music with the collected edition?

RV: I debated about a CD, and our French publisher, Akileos, is still considering one for their single-volume edition for that market. But it drives up the price of the final product, which is something I was being very conscious about. The collection isn’t loaded with DVD-like essays and whatnot. It’s the story in its finest, more clarified printing yet and nothing more.

If the Bluesman movie does see the dark of the theater, we already have Keb Mo attached to produce the soundtrack. I wanted to leave that space wide open for him to craft the “sound” of the movie without my having spoiled the waters beforehand. Lastly, there seemed to be something slightly uncool about grabbing a bunch of public domain “old blues” and offering it up as some sort of legitimate soundtrack to the book.

JDC: Covering music on the printed page can be a struggle. How did you approach the challenge, and how happy are you with the results?

RV: I recognize that there’s something inherently masochistic in doing a book about musicians in the comics form. I would describe myself as two-thirds satisfied with our many efforts to bring music and sound alive on the page in the book. I become increasingly pleased as the book moves along.

If I had it to do over with unlimited time and resources, I would probably go back and actually score the section from Book One to reveal an actual blues piano solo for those who had the time, interest, skills, and patience to read it as such. I also recognize that with those filters in place that would represents an enormous outlay of effort to impress the smallest group of readers. So, instead, we tried to embed the visual aspects of performance into the story so that the reader might do the extra work and just fill in the sound for us.

JDC: NBM has been around for a very long time, but they don’t have a very high profile in terms of publicity. Why did you choose them for the book?

RV: When we discovered that we were going to have to move Bluesman to a new publisher in mid-serialization, Pablo and I made up a list of publishers with which we would be interested in working. While they were not the only company we queried, they were at the top of both of our lists AND the only company willing to invest in our vision of the book’s serial release in the softcover volumes. We designed the three-volume edition to straddle the US and European markets by emulating the classic French album format, and it was very important to us to complete its serialization in the States like that.

The ironic thing about NBM is that they are the oldest and one of the most successful graphic novel publishers in the United States. They publish P. Craig Russell, Brian Talbot, Ted Rall, Rick Geary, Lewis Trondheim, Will Eisner, and a holy host of other amazing cartoonists that give me a major inferiority complex. If some segment of the market is just now becoming aware of their amazing catalog, I’m tempted to speculate that it is the market finally catching up to what NBM has been doing well for decades rather than the converse.

Plus, I am very familiar with the basic contract terms for most of the meaningful graphic novel publishers that originated in the Direct Market (excluding more recent additions like Pantheon or First Second), and my deal with NBM is dramatically superior to nearly all of them. As all that we brought to the table with which to bargain was our story and the discipline to finish it, I have to assume that this deal is relatively standard and generous by anyone in comics’ reckoning.

JDC: You’ve published several European versions in other languages, correct? How did those deals happen, and are they worth the effort?

RV: While I manage the English leg of the Bluesman Project, Pablo is our contact man in Europe. He facilitated both the French edition (with Akileos) and the Spanish edition (with De Ponent). Both publishers were generous on their advances by American industry standards and, of course, there’s the delicious slide of the dollar against the Euro that made those payments worth substantially more than they might have just five years earlier. Neither Pablo nor I have become independently wealthy as a result of working on Bluesman (yet) but I do feel like we were justly compensated for the immense amount of work it represented for both of us.

JDC: What else are you working on?

RV: I finished my latest graphic novel, Inanna’s Tears, back in March and have focused most of my energies since on preparation for the Bluesman hardcover release. I may be naïve in this expectation, but I’m still hoping for a breakout hit that transcends the adventurous direct market shopper and captures the public’s imagination.

I’m spending June and July focused on maximizing Direct Market sales, culminating with an appearance at San Diego Comic Con at the end of the July. Concurrently, we’re making some great contacts in the blues media community that we hope will help us spread the gospel of Bluesman to the folks who will really enjoy it most. If any meaningful portion of the vast blues music market worldwide takes notice of what we’ve done, it could really break the sales out in a way that few graphic novels are able to.

In August, we’ll see the general bookstore release of the book and I will embark on a concert/book signing tour, playing blues and gospel material from the 20s and 30s as well as signing copies of the book. My plan right now is to hit as much of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas as time, resources, and fuel prices will allow.

I’ve got a number of scripts on my desktop that are in various stages of development, including two more stories for Papercutz’ Tales from the Crypt. My second story for them, “Graveyard Shift at the Twilight Gardens” is collected into the third digest volume, Zombielicious. We are still working on the publically announced Frank Zappa: At Lancaster graphic novel with Eric Knisely at NBM, but our progress has been slow thus far.

I have at least three other graphic novels underway but am not at a point in the process where it is a very good idea for me to ramble on about them. 2008 is going to be all about Bluesman with more hints about what the future holds as the year goes on.

JDC: What’s your vision of the future of comics — both what will be, and what should be?

RV: There will be more of them available at any moment, in nearly any form, than ever in the history of the world. I’ll be able to legally purchase and download into my PDA a complete run of anything, ever, indexed by artist, author, character, subject, genre, whatever. From any country, any time. Book versions will no doubt become more expensive and cater, like all print, to an ever-narrowing audience of die-hard-copy readers. People who create comics for the web will become ever-more-divorced in influence from the ink and paper traditionalists with the former vastly outnumbering the latter.

Allowing my own preferences into the mix, I’d like to see more well-made educational resources done in comics form as I honestly believe they would do a better job of educating our children. Non-fiction still seems to be one of comics’ most untilled fields, and as long as we’re all still capitalists, I think there’s money in it, too.

Thanks very much, Rob, for your candor, and best of luck with Bluesman!

2 Responses to “Interview With Rob Vollmar (Bluesman)”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » June 25, 2008: Beat the press Says:

    […] Johanna Draper Carlson interviews Bluesman writer Rob […]

  2. NBM: On the Odd Hours, Joe and Azat, Year of Loving Dangerously » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] demonstrates that he never learned it. I’m repulsed. Callejo’s art, previously seen in Bluesman, is functional. […]




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