Thursday, July 20, 2006

Between the Devil and Miles Davis

Lucifer’s Garden of Verses Volume Four: Between the Devil & Miles Davis
By Lance Tooks

The Prince of Darkness. The Dark Magus. These all some of the demonic monikers often bestowed on the legendary Miles Davis. As a result, Amo Tanzer, the protagonist of Lance Tooks’ graphic novel, Between the Devil & Miles Davis is finding the Faustian premise of her contracted Miles Davis book clichéd and uninspiring. Despite the badgering of her editor and sometime lover, she dismisses her undelivered book as a case of “paging Robert Johnson.” (p. 3)

Tanzer has issues: professional, financial, and personal. After a traffic accident, she stumbles into a mysterious bar that only plays the music of Miles and his sidemen on its jukebox. Narcissa, the proprietor, mixes her some special cocktails. As they drink and relate very personal episodes from their pasts, Tanzer regains her perspective on her life and a new inspiration for her book project, telling Narcissa “I’ll just listen to the music and jot down everything it tells me. It’s got plenty to say.” (p. 71)

Between the Devil is strongest when the woman are relating their family stories, as when Tanzer’s parents meet at the Montreux Jazz Festival and Narcissa’s mother endures the humiliating treatment of a director who bears a resemblance to Woody Allen. Unfortunately, the graphic novel often hits off-key notes when it veers into political diatribe.

When we first see Tanzer on page one, she explains she keeps a photo of Gov. Jeb Bush because “I’d hate to lose sight of the horrors ahead.” She wears a “Haliburton Plantation” t-shirt, which borders on the offensive for many reasons, particularly given that several of the company’s employees have died trying to build a stronger Iraq. Tanzer dismisses her Republican Secret Service brother as “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” which at least is a hip reference to one of the better blaxploitation movies with a great Herbie Hancock soundtrack. Interestingly, Tooks seems to be on target when he satirizes a Louis Farrakhan figure, who insists Tanzer sit before him on a footstool during their interview, but then he makes PC efforts to distance the character from the Nation of Islam, describing his faith as “a mix of the writings of Iceberg Slim and the Klingon Empire.” (p. 8)

Given his musical references, it is clear Tooks knows his Miles Davis. However, when he succumbs to the temptations of the political rant, it undermines the power of the story he is trying to tell. Part four of a thematically related quartet, Between the Devil has its moments of insight well complemented by the black & white art. However, Miles Davis fans will probably be left cold. After all, the last tune we hear coming from Narcissa’s bar is one-hit-wonder Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way,” a pop tune he covered late in his career on Tutu.

(Welcome Lance Tooks fans. Thanks for checking out a dissenting review—remember, dissent is patriotic. Check out the "Graphically Novel Jazz" post from 7/28 while you're here.)