Writer Rob Vollmar and artist Pablo G. Callejo collaborated on Bluesman, a comics tale of traveling musicians in Arkansas in the late twenties. We first meet Lem Taylor and Ironwood Malcott as they bicker their way from town to town, playing for meals and money -- until they find themselves mixed up in a violent encounter that casts a long shadow. While the story sticks close to its characters, its construction celebrates roots music by mimicking the twelve-bar blues rhythm. Or, as Vollmar explains elsewhere:
Blues music is most often played in 12/8 time which means that there are twelve beats in each measure with each beat being measured in eighth notes. Every chapter of Bluesman is twelve pages long, except for the fourth in each section, which doubles in length as some blues musicians will do with the final measure of each stanza to break up the pattern a little. Also, 12/8 time is thought of the imposition of a triple meter over a double one, leading to its distinctive "One two three Four five six..." rhythm. To emulate this, I broke all the scenes in every chapter up into increments of three pages.
I know to some folks that this all might seem a little...well, unnecessary. What I discovered after having invented all of these ridiculous rules was, like the blues, it made the work itself incredibly easier to write. I always knew how long a scene was going to be. I always knew when the chapter was going to end. All the writing, at that point, became almost reductive, chipping away at everything that didn't fit into the structure until we got to the book itself.
There's a lot going for Bluesman, including woodcut-style art that often bends out of the box. The thick, exaggerated lines and heavy shadows hit just the right note for a story about roots musicians. And there's a fearlessness in how the book faces the Gothic mythos and religiosity that informs so much of the blues. I was interested, too, in how the story sync-ed up its fable with mid-century journalism about traveling bluesmen that's quoted in the text when the chatter of the characters quiet down...but that device fell away for no particular reason
Ultimately, though, this book felt thin. What was probably intended as archetypes felt like caricature. Characters were drawn simply -- which is right for a fable -- but when they take the shape of, say, the portly racist Southerner, or the strong, self-sacrificing "negro," it just feels too familiar. Moments in the story that might shock you out of the pattern--for example, in the multiple scenes of violence--don't quite have the follow-through to work. The inherent energy of violence is lost in predictability; just about all the characters who are victims of violence die, and quickly.
I love mythic stories, which tend to be rife with violence and extreme characterization. But there's a difference between a story that is mythic and a story that is romanticized. It bothers me when one is mistaken for another; it seems like an insult to the real power of myth. Maybe what bothered me about Bluesman comes down to perspective. For me, the blues has potency because of its fiercely first-person vantage. The "I" voice is essential -- though the "I" also carries a collective set of "I's" behind it; the first-person is both singular and plural in those songs. Stories about the blues, like this one, overlay not just a third-person perspective, but a third-person that aspires to grand omniscience. Rather than having the cumulative power of "I," the omniscient story settles for "them, within a universal scale." Even if the omniscient story is basically true -- as in Bluesman, which celebrates these musicians as meaningful, even prophetic, voices -- the contrast to its content is just too sharp. Because of that basic lack of reconciliation, the core power in the blues is undercut, and its native mythos, diminished.