One of America's most celebrated creations, the blues grew out of an African-American experience rife with poverty and oppression. Bluesman, the excellent and tragic graphic novel by writer Rob Vollmar and Spanish artist Pablo G. Callejo, vividly captures that passage from pain to redemptive beauty.
It tells the story of the fictional Lem Taylor and Ironwood Malcott, a pair of early 20th-century bluesmen wandering Arkansas' cornfields in search of backwoods juke joints, pliant women and their next meal. With the same haunting writing and earthy, woodcut-style drawing that gave depth to their Depression-era graphic novel Castaways, Vollmer and Callejo bring Lem and Ironwood's ragged journey and the music's dark joy wrenchingly to life (read an excerpt).
Lem, born to a God-fearing father, is torn between his art and his desire for a morally upright life. "You sing like an angel, play that guitar like the devil," says the beautiful temptress Tarene, the kept woman who belongs to the local white landlord's good-for-nothing son. Inevitably, Lem pays the price for his wayward choices. Falsely accused of murder, he flees a lynch mob and the law after being framed by the very man who once offered him the dream of a record deal.
This is a blunt and upsetting book that uses racial epithets and unflinching scenes of violence and death to illuminate a brutal time in our history. But Lem's trying journey is one of spiritual renewal, too. With almost biblical resonance, his struggle leads to the redemption of both his art and his soul. Bluesman, in the end, is a cathartic ghost story. Is there a better description of the blues?