Reviewby Casey Brienza, Sep 1st 2008
Me and the Devil Blues
Mississippi, 1929. RJ and his young wife Virginia are expecting, but even with a baby on the way RJ is having trouble focusing on working the fields. He'd rather hang out at the juke joint and make music. The only problem? He sucks at it. And so he stands a crossroads and plays his guitar, making a deal with the devil and trading his soul in order to learn how to play the blues. Unfortunately, RJ likely traded in his earthly happiness as well; Virginia dies in childbirth, leaving him unmoored and alone. Eager to escape his past, he takes the road and heads West. He can't escape the devil's curse so easily, though, and joining up with Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie & Clyde fame) sure isn't going to help. Then, as if things couldn't get any worse, something is happening to RJ's right hand…
The life of legendary African-American bluesman Robert Johnson is shrouded in mystery, and the fact that he died at the tender age of twenty-seven only intensifies the public fascination with him some eighty years later. Some even say that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent. Which is a ridiculous superstition, right? Right? But what if Johnson really had sold his soul to the devil? What implications would that have for the gaps of his biography? These are the questions Akira Hiramoto's eagerly-anticipated—and heavily hyped—Me and the Devil Blues seeks to answer.
So, does Hiramoto in fact deliver upon this intriguing story premise? Alas, after careful consideration, one must conclude that the answer is a tepid “no.” Certainly not for lack of effort. The higher one aspires, the further there is to fall, but it's safe to conclude that Hiramoto did not sell his soul to the devil to create Me and the Devil Blues. Though the manga is without question wildly ambitious, it fails to fully deliver on Del Rey's hype. The turgid storyline, weighted down by its own gravitas, never manages a pace faster than an agonized lumber.
The book begins with RJ, an irresponsible but well-meaning young man who has been neglecting his family in favor of music. He does not want to spend the rest of his life on the plantation and would rather carouse at the local juke joint. Unfortunately, he has no talent…until one evening in the cemetery, in the shadow of a church, he makes a Faustian bargain that gives him the musical gift of a lifetime. Now he's the toast of the town, but he hardly has time to enjoy his newfound acclaim; he inexplicably lost six months, and in the meantime his young wife died in childbirth. Now haunted by the tragedy and with literally nothing left to lose, RJ takes to the road.
The above background story takes a groaning two-hundred pages to unfold. For the next two-hundred and change, RJ ends up as thief Clyde Barrow's reluctant sidekick. The psychologically unstable white man decides to use RJ as a decoy while he burgles a rich man's house, but a chance string of events almost lead to disaster. The two flee West but are soon separated when RJ is kidnapped by a bunch of white supremacist townspeople eager to lynch him for the spectacle of it all. The last hundred pages explore the creepiness of this Wild Wild West—and RJ's curse, which is manifesting on his right hand. I won't spoil anything further here, but suffice it to say that Hiramoto's sense of the horrific leaves something to be desired…and polydactyl people may feel insulted.
The artwork, rendered in impeccable seinen style, is definitely the high point of this manga. The historic setting of early 20th century America has been painstakingly researched, and nothing—not the characters' dress, not the architecture, not the automobiles—looks remotely out of place. The only egregiously incorrect moment was Clyde's use of Asian body language when beckoning to RJ on page 269. However, racist depictions of black people in Japanese cartoons since Tezuka have had an ignominious history, and the decidedly caricatured designs of many of the black people in this realistically drawn manga may make some Americans uncomfortable. These aren't black people, exactly; rather, these are a Japanese fantasy of black people. And they look—not to mention occasionally behave—a bit like the cast of a blackface minstrel show. Indeed, the manga seems to fetishize race relations in the U.S. (especially the darker aspects) for cheap thrills. It also fetishizes frontier justice, and it is possible to read criticism of contemporary U.S. foreign policy here.
The Del Rey edition, which includes both volumes one and two of the original Japanese tankoubon, is extra large and more squarish in its dimensions than any of the publisher's other offerings. Compared to other single volume Del Rey titles, which retail at $10.99 or higher, Me and the Devil Blues is good value for the money at $19.99. It doesn't really seem that way, though; the 540 page book feels loose and sloppy. The paper used, moreover, is abominable—like scrap—and the image reproduction is not quite as high as it should be. Some visual detail is definitely being lost. The first eight pages in particular, which were probably full-color in the Japanese editions but are black and white here, are nearly impossible to decipher. Content aside, fans of the series will likely be terribly disappointed by the poor quality of this book as an object.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : A-
+ Superb, historically accurate artwork and an intriguing, original story premise.
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