First, I want to thank Two-Headed Nerd for giving me a space to write. Second, I want to provide context for what and for why I’m writing. After all, there’s tons of crap to read, so why read this crap? I’ve been reading comics for more than 30 years. In fact, I learned to read with comics, and they were what hooked me onto reading. So in that respect, I bet that you (the audience) and I are a lot alike. I went away from comics for a long time — part of it was that the ’90s were a dark time for comics; part of it was that I was “growing up” and didn’t have time or money for them (silly, I know). I came back to comics with my children, and I came back to comics as a teacher and a scholar. Comics helped my kids learn to read, connected us culturally and gave us a mythos through which to discuss values and lots of other things (no, I’m not kidding). And comics have been one of the most successful things that I’ve ever used in getting my students to read and think critically. Comics have been transformative for my students. In fact, there are books, conferences, and journals dedicated to emerging comics scholarship and teaching — it’s one more way that we can look at the medium being taken as seriously as it should be. I was the first to use comics at my college, and now there are four or five teachers using a graphic novel every quarter. I feel like it’s a win for the students and for comics.
So, I am using the lens of the fan, father, and teacher/scholar to read comics and to write about them. I hope that’s interesting to you. I’ve promised one head (Joe Patrick) of the two-headed monster, that I would write about graphic novels that I like. More than that though, I’m going to write about graphic novels that I think are important and that I think should be read more. This column won’t criticize things (usually); instead, it will be a review of a title and my pitch for why it should get more attention. And then it’s my hope that you go to your local shop and pick up a copy and then tell me what you think. I look forward to it.
The first title I want to talk about is Bayou, written and drawn by Jeremy Love. Bayou began as a web comic in 2007, with the first paper imprint published by DC in 2009. The story follows Lee Wagstaff, a young African-American girl who faces life in the Jim Crow South. Lee’s father is imprisoned — wrongly, of course — and she embarks on a quest to free him. All of this sounds like standard stuff, but Jeremy Love’s story is much richer than that. The reader knows this as soon as she sees that the setting of the story is Charon, Mississippi. The reference to Charon is important because he is the ferryman who takes the newly dead across the river Styx to the underworld. I read this immediately to mean that the story would deal with boundary crossings between those worlds, and the tale does not disappoint.
The author uses magic realism and intertextuality to tell a counter narrative of the time period. The graphic novel in some ways echoes the tropes of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison in its ability to dig into the diseased heart of America’s racist history. Because Love’s novel uses the 21st century medium of the graphic novel, which is a blend of the visual and the textual, the work becomes one of the most accessible, smart, and evocative ways to enter into African-American literature and into the history and art surrounding this world. Of course, this book would be banned from a high school classroom in a second, but I heartily suggest smuggling copies to 16-year-olds anyways.
I long ago fell in love with magic realism’s ability to present the fantastical as part of reality. The genre is especially well served in the visual arts. Here, Love’s protagonist Lee encounters swamp monsters and a world beneath the swamp that is a sort of horrific wonderland where General Bog and Cotton-Eyed Joe rule in an awful fantastical racist parody of the world above. Love’s work is well researched and all of the monsters have historical antecedents from our world. The work of looking up golliwog and dozens of other layered references allows the novel to shape its story using history that goes largely untaught and unremarked upon by the dominant culture. I see Intertextuality as more than just a text-to-text connection; I would argue that it is the shaping of texts and narratives using other texts and narratives. In a way, it shapes the author and our reading experience. When the monster Cotton-Eyed Joe consumes Lee’s white friend Lily Westmoreland (don’t miss the significance of the names, either) and the reader can access the history of the song, then that consumption takes on a dire meaning … in my reading, at least.
Both the text and the composition of the drawings are often evocative in this way. The reader begins to understand that Love is dealing with African-American folklore, myths and tall tales like John Henry and Br’er Rabbit as well as more contemporary works like Disney’s Song of the South. In fact, the cover of Vol. 2 is a recreation of a frame from that film that turns the story on its head. Love is a trickster, using a fantastic counter narrative that is visually stunning and, at turns, horrifying. The scene with the strange fruit of the lynchings and other scenes viscerally manifest just how brutal this era was.
I don’t want to give too much away. Both Vols. 1 and 2 of Bayou are available, and Jeremy Love told an audience at the University of South Carolina late in 2013 that Vol. 3 would emerge. If this is a graphic novel that you missed, I highly recommend it. It is a well-told quest story, but it is more than that. I think this work is an important bridge to the kinds of audiences who need stories like this. Bayou is beautiful and haunting, it is sad and wonderful, and it is great art.
Darin Jensen is a teacher, a scholar, a comic fan, and the smartest person Joe Patrick knows. For more of his writing, visit his blog Teaching the Work.