Price: 19.95 USD
Naturally the world of manga is not limited to modern Japan, or even planet Earth. From the New Yorker gun-for-hire girls in Gunsmith Cats to distant planet Astria Andromeda Stories, time and place are only markers in Japanese manga.
Comics in Japan are also known for niche titles, most of which don't make it into English (though that is changing). Cake baking to baseball, mah-jong to musclemen, any hobby or theme can and probably has appeared on Japanese shelves.
What surprised me about the new release, Me and the Devil Blues: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson, was more than it was a release that was translated into English, it was actually a title released in Japan. Me and the Devil Blues is the "unreal" account of the mysterious and short life of a 1930s black blues musician from the American South.
Robert Johnson ("RJ" in the story) was a real person and is a legend in blues and rock, despite having left behind only a couple dozen individual recordings and two known photographs. His songs still influence and are covered by the great rock and blues musicians of today. Me and the Devil Blues describes the legendary story of the crossroads: a place where a man sells his soul to the devil in return for expert blues guitar skills.
In this telling of Robert Johnson's story, RJ did just that (at a greater sacrifice than he expected) and what happens in this first giant volume is fantastic, dynamic, and surprisingly real. Writing a comic about the blues sounds about as easy as talking about how flowers smell or writing about how wine tastes. I can only applaud author Akira Hiramoto (Chinless Gen and Me) and his valiant attempt to bring a long-gone Southern bluesman's story to a modern Japanese audience.
The fact that it is entertaining isn't hard to fathom. The fact that it feels very real is mind-boggling. The mesh between Japanese manga and American blues (two media and locations that couldn't be more different) is deftly connected not only by Hiramoto's tone and style, but by David Ury's smooth and careful translation. I haven't read the original Japanese, so I can't guess what it sounded like, but writing comic book dialogue set in 1930s southern USA between mostly African American characters that sounds authentic without being exploitative or offensive to modern ears is an assignment worthy of not all manga translators. Uly pulls it off with a dialectical but cringe-free translation.
That being that, this is a very visual tale that grows in violence and sexuality the further RJ makes it from home. Whether or not this is the nature of the deal he made with devil, the second half feel more surface and less thoughtful than the opening half. At the same time, this is where the "adventures" happen that build on RJs skills. A bluesman is a storyteller, and these are some dark tales.
As much as I enjoyed this imperfect but impassioned work, I can't help but worry that Me and the Devil Blues will be missed by so many potential readers. To be blunt, the price tag and subject matter are not going to move this title of big-box manga shelves. This is a mature title not directed to manga aisle-squatting shoujo readers. It should be read at night in the dark by candlelight with a shot glass and a bottle of Jack Daniels as you hope and fear for the dawn to come.