Rob Vollmar and Pablo G. Callejo’s first two volumes in this “twelve bar graphic narrative in the key of life and death” put their character, a bluesman named Lem Taylor, on the track toward potential success but also great risk to both himself and his longtime friend, ‘Ironwood’ Malcoot.
Taylor and Ironwood find themselves wandering into the town of Hope, certainly in search of some, as their funds and resources have run out and they have nothing but their musical capabilities to keep them from starving or freezing to death. When they land a successful gig at Shug’s, a black saloon run on the periphery of town, they have reason to hope. Their playing catches the attention of a producer who invites them to meet him at a studio in Memphis to record their first album. Excited, the two bluesmen party hard throughout the night. Their partying unfortunately comes to an abrupt and deadly end, and Taylor finds himself fleeing the murder scene of a well-known local white man.
Vollmar and Callejo put a lot of work and thought into this series. Their effort can be found both in the consistency and style of the art. The second volume lacks any exposition, but the first volume’s exposition are all quotes from various historical and academic texts which are footnoted. Both the footnoting and the direct use of such sources are very rarely used; its absence in the second volume is certainly felt.
Though it uses solely black and white, very little white color is used in these graphic novels but instead, various levels of grays and blacks. Symbolically, this evokes and emphasizes race relations and the lowered position of African Americans, particularly during the early twentieth century when this story is set. Impoverished conditions, restricted mobility, and lynchings plagued the lives of African Americans throughout the United States during this era, and this graphic novel goes to great lengths to emphasize the realistic aspects of their lives.
The use of gray becomes more evident in the second volume, where backgrounds and even skin color becomes hard to differentiate. This creates an interesting statement on the authors’ behalf. Often the gray is used so much that it can be hard to determine white characters from black. In doing so, the authors may be hinting or emphasizing the lack of difference between races beyond color.
The use of music in a graphic novel also proves intriguing. Whenever Taylor is playing away at his guitar, entire borders and pages stream with musical notes. Since this reviewer cannot read musical notes, it is unknown whether they actually sound anything out; however their use makes for interesting atmosphere within each panel it is invoked.
Only two bars into this “graphic narrative,” Vollmar and Callejo have proven their capabilities to draw and to tell a tale. They have set the standard high and can hopefully follow through with future additions.