by Akira Hiramoto; adapted by David Ury
published by Del Rey Manga; $19.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Subtitled The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson
*Warning: This review contains some spoilers.*
Robert Johnson is perhaps most famous for the legend about how he acquired his ability to play guitar. The most popular version says that he met the Devil at midnight at the crossroads. For the price of Johnson’s soul, the Devil tuned his guitar, and Johnson from that moment forward could play the blues. In his short lifetime, Johnson only recorded 42 tracks of music: 29 songs and 13 alternate takes of those songs. He died very young, at the age of 27.
Me and the Devil Blues centers on the life of RJ. Hiramoto begins his fictional biography with the few facts we have of Johnson’s pre-blues life. RJ is a sharecropper with a pregnant wife. His dream is to be a bluesman, but he simply can’t seem to master the guitar. He hears the legend about sellling your soul to the Devil to become a great bluesman. One night, drunk and desperate, he gives it a try. It’s at this point that the series moves beyond biography and into the imagination of Hiramoto.
After making his demonic deal, RJ goes down to the local juke joint to hang out with the traveling bluesmen currently in town. After a couple of days, RJ’s brother-in-law shows up, telling him how disappointed he is. How he couldn’t believe that he’d abandon a pregnant wife and didn’t even return when she was due to deliver. How it’s been three months since RJ’s wife and child died during childbirth, and RJ hasn’t come to visit their graves. RJ realizes that somehow he’s lost six months of his life.
Everyone in town feels the same way as his brother-in-law, and RJ is ostracized. He decides to become a traveling bluesman and hits the road. A young Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde fame) picks him up and they begin their travels.
Del Rey is publishing this series by including two Japanese volumes in each English edition, so references to volume numbers will be to the Japanese volumes. The first volume of this series is the most musically centered. In it, RJ talks about wanting to be a bluesman hanging out at the local juke joint listening to whatever musician is in town and trying to play the guitar himself. RJ has discussions with Son House and Willie Brown about what the blues truly are. Because of this focus, the section has the densest narrative structure and a tight, quick-moving plot.
Beginning with volume two, the focus and tone of the series shifts. It’s no longer about music; it’s about RJ slowly comprehending the full ramifications of the deal he struck with the Devil. As befitting good horror, the plot slows down and becomes a narrative of RJ and Clyde traveling through the landscape of Hell. However, Hiramoto doesn’t need to leave this planet to find a land filled with demons and perversity. He simply takes his audience on a journey through the terrors that rural America held for a black man in the 1930s.
Hiramoto is to be commended for his research. The people and the places in the series comes across as real and tangible. He captures the bleakness of the life of a Southern sharecropper and the poverty of small, black, rural farming communities. You can smell the sweat and beer in the juke joint. You can taste the dust on the road in the Midwest towns. This isn’t the glamourous America found in the Hollywood films of that period, but the realities of depression and racism. It’s an unsettling reminder of a time when being other than WASP put you at legal, social, and economic disadvantage in many places in America.
Hiramoto has written a gripping tale. Initially, it’s RJ’s passion for the blues that draws you in as you become familiar with his world. Next, you’re fascinated by the bizarre nature of his meeting and traveling with Clyde. Clyde, the burgeoning psychopath, comes across as normal compared to townsfolk they encounter. You’re both repulsed and captivated by these morally twisted people. You want to find out if RJ is literally going to survive. Hiramoto gives you no breaks in the suspense. There are no comic interludes to let you relax. It’s a relentless series.
Hiramoto’s art is gorgeous and realistic in style. In the first volume, he captures the raw energy and passion of the blues. You can almost hear the music when he shows the musicians playing. In the latter volumes, he conveys RJ’s fear and emotional instability as he encounters the various monstrosities of his travels. There are some really beautiful splash pages sprinkled through the series. My favorites are RJ at the graves of his wife and child and later RJ waking up in the jail cell. The chaos of emotions and thoughts portrayed is just perfect.
Me and the Devil Blues is an excellent series for older readers. The setting and art style make this a good starting point for non-manga readers. However, they need to be warned that this isn’t really a story about one of the American blues legends, but more of a Southern gothic horror tale. The grittiness of the people and places reminds me of Flannery O’Conner; however, there aren’t any moments of transcendence. Hiramoto’s landscape isn’t Christ-haunted, but Christ-abandoned. Fans of older suspense and psychological horror stories will enjoy this series most.
(Complimentary copies for this review were provided by the publisher.)