Me and the Devil Blues 1 and 2
written by Akira Hiramoto
It’s pretty easy to see why Akira Hiramoto’s fantastical reimagining of bluesman Robert Johnson’s life has been so well received, even earning a place on School Library Journal’s list of “Best Adult Books for High School Students.”
Me and the Devil Blues not only thoughtfully details the historical underpinnings of its subject matter, but it also evokes the blues itself so effectively that you can practically hear the music reverberating off the plank boards of the 1930s juke joints. And of course there are intriguing, if obvious, cross-cultural possibilities inherent in dealing with a distinctly American art form within the context of a distinctly Japanese one—manga. More to the point, the two volumes released so far are simply great reads: exciting, often thought-provoking, and full of surprising and sometimes innovative visuals.
But arguably Hiramoto’s real achievement is how he’s created highbrow pulp of the first order. He does this by weaving the heavier thematic material and social commentary (which ranges from the subtly inspired to the crudely belabored) into a narrative fabric that grows increasingly dependent on genre conventions. Indeed, readers familiar with only the first volume (the one honored by SLJ) may be taken aback by the dramatic turn into full-scale action-adventure and Western tropes that the second one takes.
In what at first seems to be just another episodic chapter, our protagonist forges an uneasy alliance with renowned bank robber Clyde Barrow. In the second volume, Barrow himself quickly takes center stage as “RJ” (as the gangster calls him) spends much of the time in a jail cell in the run-up to a planned lynching. In fact, Johnson doesn’t sit down to play guitar until the final one of the story’s 550 pages. So while Me and the Devil Blues initially uses its Faustian premise to work squarely in the Southern Gothic mode of the horror genre, Hiramoto then shifts the tempo and tone quite radically. Taking these kinds of chances with the narrative is probably to be expected, though, from an artist so adept at mixing graphic styles: compositions heavy on negative space, while silhouettes give way to woodcut-like precision in some places and more manga-like high-energy sketchiness in others.
However, despite its intensity as a survival thriller and its occasionally exquisite creepiness, the second installment is not nearly as original as its predecessor. When the two “outlaws” are on the lam, clichés abound; we get the ol’ firearms-concealed-in-an-instrument-case routine, and it’s soon followed by our mismatched buddies jumping from a cliff into a river to avoid pursuers.
Still, even if some of the territory seems familiar upon arrival, there’s no telling where Hiramoto might take readers in future volumes. Combining unapologetically lurid elements with a deeply felt anguish over the injustices of the Jim Crow era, Me and the Devil Blues is a one-of-a-kind ride that does nothing consistently if not confound expectations.