Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson would have been 100 years old this month, had he not made the mistake of accepting an open bottle of whiskey from a jealous husband, leading to his precipitous death at the age of 27.
Johnson's centenary is as good an excuse as any to take a second look at one of the most awesome manga ever released in English, Akira Hiramoto's Me and the Devil Blues, which starts out as a loose account of Johnson's life but then crosses over into another place entirely when Johnson meets Clyde Barrow (in his pre-Bonnie days) and the two wind up embroiled in the inner doings of the weirdest town you will ever see in a comic.
Del Rey Manga published the manga as two double-sized volumes, each containing two volumes of the Japanese version. The first volume follows Johnson's story fairly closely, but after that it branches out into a much more imaginative narrative, a sort of Japanese interpretation of Southern gothic. Unfortunately, the series is incomplete: Hiramoto seems to have stopped with volume 4 (the end of the U.S. volume 2), dropping the series just as the story was heading in a promising new direction.
Little is known about Johnson, and much of what is known is dubious, but the handful of recordings he made in the last two years of his short life were enough to establish him as one of the greatest bluesmen of all time. And the source of his talent has long been rumored to be a deal with the devil.
Me and the Devil Blues starts with this version of Johnson's life. Hiramoto depicts his character, known to all as RJ, as good-hearted but a bit lazy, pushed to church and to his work in the fields by the women in his family rather than his own initiative. He shares some tender moments with his pregnant wife, but he also likes to spend his evenings in the local juke joint, drinking and wishing he could play the blues. Which he can't: His playing stinks, and his fellow drinkers (including real bluesman Son House, who was a big influence on the real-life Johnson) tell him he doesn't understand what the blues is anyway.
RJ's deal with the devil isn't one of those deliberate, eyes-wide-open transactions; it just sort of happens. He isn't sure he believes the story, but he goes to the crossroads anyway and something dark and mysterious transpires there. Suddenly, he is back at the juke joint, now an accomplished musician, playing the blues with Son House and Willie Brown. Then suddenly the party is broken up by the arrival of Johnson's sister and brother-in-law, who have been searching for him—RJ has somehow lost six months of his life, during which his wife and baby died in childbirth, and they have been searching for him all that time. The news leaves Johnson reeling, and after a few days, he takes his guitar and hits the road, leaving his home town behind. But the devil isn’t done with him yet.
RJ is picked up by a young Clyde Barrow, who uses him as a decoy to rob the house of a wealthy man. The burglary goes wrong in a hilariously chaotic way, and Clyde and RJ barely make their escape. While everyone else is distracted with guns and adultery, however, RJ realizes that his supernatural bargain is manifesting itself in a physical way—his right hand suddenly has ten fingers, a fact he tries desperately to conceal from the world. (This seems to relate to the fact that during his two recording sessions, the real Robert Johnson played in a corner, facing the wall. In fact, he probably did that to improve the sound quality.)
Clyde and RJ separate and then reunite, this time winding up in a bizarre Southern town run by an autocrat who has proclaimed the death penalty for anyone who touches liquor. This odd premise actually leads to a fairly interesting storyline, with RJ ending up in jail awaiting lynching for a murder Clyde committed, and Clyde scheming to rescue him. There are subplots and intrigues, some of which get dropped mid-story, but much of the second volume is taken up with chase sequences and beatings, and the story moves painfully slowly. Hiramoto's art saves the volume from tedium; while the pace of the story is slow, the way it unfolds is visually striking.
The first volume of Me and the Devil Blues is definitely worth a look, especially for the art. Hiramoto clearly relied on a lot of photo references, but he does a good job of capturing the look and feel of the American South in the 1930s. And given that there are only two known photos of Johnson, Hiramoto does an amazing job of bringing him to life. The second volume is definitely flawed, but the story of the strange dry town winds up at the end of this volume, so while the series is not complete, the story arc is.
At the end of the second volume, Hiramoto returns to his original subject matter, with RJ once more playing guitar in a crowded juke joint, only this time, the crowd is not so friendly—and Clyde is proving to be a considerable liability. It's a great setup, and we can only hope that eventually Hiramoto will return to his drawing board to continue the story—and that Kodansha Comics will pick up the series once more.