When Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, I was born. With the descendants of Adam and Eve, I was stolen away … and thrown into a new world. And in this land I was raised, amid the suffering of its people … My name is the Blues.
So begins Akira Hiramoto’s Me and the Devil Blues, my most recent and dramatic example of how ambitious manga can truly be. It’s doubly unusual in that it’s a Japanese comic about a figure from American musical history — but let’s face it, you’d have trouble overestimating the impact of American popular culture in Japan in all of its forms, especially American music. One of my own favorite musicians from Japan, underground guitar-god Keiji Haino, was inspired by Blind Lemon Jefferson and calls himself “just a bluesman”; heck, they even the word blues itself in Japanese — ブルース — is a direct import from English.
Devil turns to the life of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson for its inspiration, someone whom the term “legendary” follows around like a halo. The broad outlines of his life do read like legend: he had a prodigious talent for the guitar at a young age, drifted around and played and womanized, recorded only a bare handful of songs that have all since become blues staples, and had only two photographs taken of him in his entire life. And then in 1938, at the age of 27, he was dead — poisoned by a jealous husband, or so the mythology goes, for hitting on his wife. The mythology was all the more aggrandized by the notion that Johnson had indeed sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his guitar wizardry. Devil assumes the myth is true, and spirals feverishly outwards from that conceit to create a kind of parallel mythology of Robert Johnson’s life. It’s not meant to be a factual biography, but a fantasy about Johnson and the America he lived in at the time — a land of depression, Prohibition, racism, superstition, violence, and, yes, that ole devil blues.
The book opens with Johnson as a young man toiling as a sharecropper on a Mississippi plantation, his devotion already being tested between his wife and unborn child and the raucous plunking of guitar strings down at the local juke joint. There’s just something about that music that reaches into his soul, so much so that at one point he passes up consummating a tryst with a married woman to listen better. (It doesn’t keep him from getting the snot beaten out of him by her husband, though.) Then comes a night when he’s out there under the moon with a guitar, his longings consuming him — and before he realizes it he’s able to play with stupefying skill, even outplaying the then-already-legendary Son House. Somehow he’s reached down into himself and pulled out the sorrow and made it into something others can hear.
This talent hasn’t come without a cost, however. Johnson discovers that the one night when all this happened was actually six months, and his furious family have since written him off as a deadbeat. There’s a certain irony in that of all the things he’s given up, it’s his wife and child and not his soul he laments losing the most. “It’s not like I ever needed the damn thing anyway,” he muses at one point. Thinking he can do no worse, he slings his guitar over his shoulder and takes to the road — one of the more dangerous things a black man can do in the southern United States in the 1930s, but it’s not hard to see this as a kind of self-imposed punishment for his sin. It’s time for him to sing the blues for real.
It doesn’t take long for him to end up in a whole mess of trouble. He crosses paths with a handsome young criminal on the lam, and ends up becoming part of the other man’s cover story to avoid the authorities. Johnson has a constantly running internal monologue about this possibly psychotic white boy in the car seat next to him (the story makes no bones about the tension that existed between blacks and whites in this time and place), but sees no alternative. This white guy, name of Clyde, doesn’t seem to care that Johnson is black — the only color he cares about is green. Proof of this comes when he uses Johnson as a distraction during a party at a wealthy man’s house. There, Johnson’s bewitching talent surfaces once again, when he plays a country tune without even quite knowing how — and behind everyone’s back, Clyde ransacks the house and lines his pockets. Then he blunders into a room where the rich man’s daughter (or is she his daughter, really?) is in a clinch with another man, and everything goes straight to hell.
Clyde and Johnson barely escape with their necks intact — and over a campfire that night Johnson gets a whole new kind of shock: his guitar-playing had has somehowsprouted five more fingers. As if being a black man in a white man’s world wasn’t alienating enough, this is even more primally terrifying, especially given that this Clyde fellow has a pistol and probably wouldn’t hesitate to blow away Johnson for something that freakish. Clyde’s last name, by the way, is Barrow, and even though Johnson and the Clyde of Bonnie and Clyde probably never crossed paths in real life, the way the story parallels and contrasts them as outsiders is fascinating. Especially in the way trouble follows them around like bad weather: before much longer, Johnson’s in a town lockup awaiting a lynching, and Clyde’s trying to convince the authorities of said town that he’s just a newspaperman on his way through looking for a story. And then there’s the ongoing mystery of Johnson’s hand — which might be the hand of the devil himself, for all we know…
Art: Bold, dark, heavy and beautiful — those are the adjectives that come to mind to describe Hiramoto’s look for this story. There are many individual frames that are almost entirely dark except for the vaguest suggestion of an eye or a face — in fact, a good deal of the artwork here is closer to a scratchboard or woodcut illustration than anything you’d normally see in manga. Hiramoto also loves to use exaggerated perspectives — Dutch angles, fisheye distortion — to make things all the more lurid and disturbing. It’s an appropriately maverick look for a story that’s also quite far from the beaten path, and it works beautifully.
Translation: I was curious how Del Rey would handle this title, since it’s not remotely like any of the other books they’ve put out under their imprint — for one, since it’s not set in Japan and has no Japanese characters, all explanations of honorifics or the like are gone, since they’re not used. But they’ve retained the original right-to-left formatting, touched up effects non-destructively with unobtrusive annotations, and included a couple of intriguing afterwords by two prominent modern-day fans of the blues in Japan. The best part of all is that the translation of the story itself is completely undistracting: aside from a couple of manga-like visual tropes early on in the story, which are later abandoned in favor of a more serious mood, you’d never know this was a “manga”, per se. Finally, at almost 550 pages, it’s like getting three books in one, and the large format printing (this is about the same size as Del Rey’s Yagyu Ninja Scrollsand Basilisk books) helps show off that gorgeously stark art all the more.
The Bottom Line: Me and the Devil Blues is a whoop and a holler, bracing as a bellyful of rotgut, full of dread and darkness and all things sung about in the blues. So, thank you, Del Rey. Between picking up this and Sayonara Zetsubo-sensei, you’re making a very strong argument for me dying happy this year. It’s books like this that remind me why I review manga: nothing this fiercely good deserves to be a niche pleasure.