By Rob Vollmar and Pablo G. Callejo
Much tragedy has come out of Hope, Arkansas, a particularly inhospitable town if you happened to be an itinerant blues musician in the 1920’s. In Hope, bluesmen Lem Taylor and Avery “Ironwood” Malcott do not have to look for trouble—it finds them readily enough in Vollmar and Callejo’s graphic novel Bluesman, now collected in a complete edition.
Taylor is the younger of the musical partners, a guitarist who often calls upon his strict religious upbringing when a judicious hymn is needed to get out of a tight spot. Though Ironwood is older than Taylor, in some respects the piano player is more impulsive and less disciplined. When they play together though, the music is always good.
Jukes could be down right deadly, especially for a musician nobody in town would miss should they disappear, but the traveling bluesmen land a gig at a joint run by an honest proprietor named Shug. However, a waitress at his juke catches Ironwood’s eye, and that leads to trouble with an escalating body count. It turns out she was the kept woman of the son of Col. Bilyeu, a powerful white landowner who fancies himself above and outside the law. When Ironwood and the young Bilyeu are killed in a night of madness, Taylor finds himself on the run from the lynch mob. However, he might have an ally in Sheriff Hal Beasely, a legitimate lawman who does not turn a blind eye to vigilante justice.
Dark and moody, Callejo’s art depicts Vollmar’s Southern Gothic story as film noir. It definitely taps into dark recesses of the Blues world that made legends out of Robert Johnson and Peetie “the Devil’s Son-in-Law” Wheatstraw. Vollmar has his period details spot-on and his tale of the blues is surprisingly moving, concluding on a note of sacrifice and redemption made possible by the reawakening of Taylor’s faith. Although, Taylor’s preacher father is depicted as a stern caricature of Christianity, there is indeed a positive, even vital role for Christian faith in Taylor’s story. Ending on a note of real hope, Bluesman’s coda is a love letter to those who always live in hope: record collectors who search for mystical disks, like a fabled Lem Taylor pressing.
Bluesman has been optioned for the screen, and though that is no guarantee it will ever be made, one can hope Hollywood’s craze for all things comic book helps it come to fruition. Keb’ ‘Mo has been attached to supply the music and play a supporting role, which is encouraging. He was quite good in a small part in Honeydripper, the last big-screen juke joint movie.
Perhaps the best that can be said of Bluesman is that it seems to have a good ear for the music it depicts. Though based in Little Rock, Eastern Star Records is clearly inspired by Paramount, and Taylor’s repertoire sounds legitimate for the era, including the ever-malleable “House of the Rising Sun.” Bluesman represents the high end of contemporary graphic novels, pulling readers through at a breakneck pace, but concluding elegantly on an elegiac note. It is one of the best musically-themed graphic novels in recent years.