There's a particular music myth that's been told and retold so many times, it can't possibly be true. It probably persists thanks to a combination of musicians' tendency to romanticize themselves and everyone else's tendency to romanticize an avocation they don't understand. The best example of it is the famous story about Robert Johnson meeting Satan at a crossroads, but there are countless other tales implying the same thing: that great talent requires some sort of devil's bargain, a trade for a crucial aspect of one's humanity. We've seen it everywhere from Kurt Cobain's suicide note to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera.
Myths endure for a reason, and there's probably a way to write about this one that doesn't feel hackneyed. It's unfortunate that Ram V, author of the new graphic novel Blue In Green, hasn't found it. It's doubly unfortunate because his artist, Mumbai illustrator Anand RK, and his colorist, John Pearson, pull off some genuinely exciting things in their artwork. There are a lot of ideas in Blue In Green, but the good ones are all implied visually. It's kind of uncanny to see a book about the power of creativity simultaneously epitomize and betray its theme. Fortunately, though, comics is a visual medium at heart. This is hardly the first time a talented artist has saved a comic from its writer.
Blue In Green's protagonist Erik is a sax player who never made it, despite being "some kinda music whiz kid back in high school." Erik decided long ago that his lack of something "intangible" meant "I would never come close to any kind of excellence," so he abandoned performing and became a music teacher. Summoned home by the death of his mother, he encounters an unnamed evil spirit (it would be far more satisfying if the author had just gone ahead and made it the Devil himself) who offers him virtuosity in exchange for his sanity and, ultimately, his life. The author thinks he can make this story interesting again by emphasizing how many times we've heard it before: As Erik talks to the spirit, Ram reminds us of Charlie Parker and Cobain. Ram quotes the latter's declaration, in his aforementioned suicide note, that "it's better to burn out than to fade away," but neglects to mention that Kurt got that line from Neil Young (or maybe Def Leppard). But Ram's not like the jazz musicians he seeks to evoke: instead of taking this familiar melody in new directions, he simply plays it out as written.
While Ram's story hardly sings, RK's artwork is another matter. Inspired by the deceptive looseness of jazz in a way Ram isn't, RK engages with the comic tradition in all sorts of clever ways. Comics are generally associated with an immediately recognizable "cartoon" style: A few memorable lines will indicate a larger picture, while a character will be summed up with one or two exaggerated features.
If you were to liken traditional cartoons to classical music, RK's drawings might be analogous to jazz. His fuzzy edges and blotches of ambiguous color are as far as you can get from the simple lines and flat tones associated with traditional comics, and his approach to drawing faces is anti-iconic. His characters all start as unstable, foggy sketches, as if you're seeing them through the hazy air of a smoky club. RK gives you one or two features to identify characters from panel to panel, but otherwise their faces are usually obscured with crosshatching and melty at the edges. It's as if he's saying, "You're going to peg this person by their glasses/nose/hairstyle, so what's the point of filling in the rest? How will you decide you've really seen them?" Since Erik and many of the other characters are black, RK's approach can also be read as a rebuke to the racism of classic comics. By refusing to boil his characters down to one or two iconic features, he forces the reader to confront a whole range of assumptions about what people are supposed to look like.
RK references jazz in other ways, too. His compositions, angles and graphical effects echo the work of advertising illustrators in the heyday of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. (The title of this book is taken from a Davis song.) He often leaves faint gridlines on his pages, alluding to the rigid laws that invisibly undergird jazz improvisation. Pearson expands the typical noir palette, lavishly pouring out saturated hues of hot pink, throbbing coral, electric purple and sunshine yellow. The only time the artists stumble is when they depict the evil spirit Erik meets (it looks like something from a Halloween attraction) and Erik's psychotic break. It's as if Ram's plodding story beats are throwing them off their rhythm.
Still, RK and Pearson launch a fascinating, layered, exploratory flight off of Ram's trite composition. They make Blue In Green worth checking out. Let's just hope they didn't have to sell their souls to do it.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.