guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

Rob Vollmar and Pablo G. Callejo, Bluesman: Complete (NBM, 2008); $24.95, hardcover.

By Jared Gardner

Bluesman appeared in 2006 in three parts and for whatever reason, I completely missed it. I am drawn to the connections between comics and music, and I have a soft spot for historical fictions set in the 1920s and 30s. Given the fact that I must be as close to the ideal audience for this book as possible, the fact that I missed it makes me suspect that others missed it as well—so I am happy that we all have a second chance with the publication this summer of a complete edition of this beautiful book. Bluesman tells the story of a guitar player, Lem Taylor, in the late 20s, during the pioneering days of recorded blues. Lem had walked away from a rigid religious family and the expectations that he would follow in his father’s footsteps as a preacher, and he followed his love of the blues which he encountered as a young boy listening to a blind man play the blues outside of a revival meeting. In the 1920s, this love took him on the road, tramping from town to town with his traveling companion, an irrepressible older piano player named Ironwood Malcott, looking for juke joints to play for tips and a meal and hoping, maybe, that the rumors of “big breaks” for recorded artists might come true for them as well.

We know the famous bluesmen of this generation: Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson—mythic figures who somehow emerged from the poverty, racism and violence facing African Americans in the segregated south during a period which witnessed the explosive resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings. Vollmar’s story seeks to create an imaginative portrait of one of those who didn’t beat the odds, despite extraordinary genius for the music. It is a moving and a sad book, occasionally overwrought (and toward the end it drifts toward a kind of magic realism and away from its very grounded realistic portrait of the conditions of the period). And it is a truly beautiful book, possibly one of the very best books about music written in the comics form, and certainly a book that deserves to stand alongside other historical graphic novels about this period, including
Stagger Lee, Kings in Disguise, and (although set a bit later, a book that kept coming to mind for me in reading Bluesman) Stuck Rubber Baby.

This is the second collaboration between Vollmar and Callejo; their first was
Castaways, another depression-era story that was quite successful although not as original or fully realized as Bluesman. Callejo brings just the right touch with his wood-cut style, respectful of the WPA traditions from the 30s without being overdone or losing sight of the unique dynamic energy vital to the comics form. Vollmar’s prose is loving and believable at every turn, even when the unbelievable is happening on the page. This is a book to cherish, like the discovery of a rare recording by an artist you had thought never had the chance to set his song to wax.