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Trading Up: Bayou Volume One

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Zuda's inaugural winner sees print publication and it is a worthy introduction to those not hip to the website as well as all the awards it has taken home.

Lee Wagstaff is a young African American in Mississippi in the 1930s.  She has a loving father and plays with the rich landowner’s daughter.  When their normal childhood antics result in the abduction of the little white girl, Lee’s father is arrested and she embarks on a magical journey through the folklore of the South.

Jeremy Love does something remarkable in Bayou.  He takes the racist setting of the Depression era Bible belt and weaves it into a Wizard of Oz-like fantasy world.  The beginning of the story is steeped in reality.  The history of the Civil War and the difference shown to the former slave community is heavy in the background of the book.  However, Love is not proselytizing on the evils of the South.  It is easier to exorcise some demons be merely shining the light in their direction.  The author knows he does not need to beat the audience over the head with these ideas. Bayou Volume One

Lee is an analogue of Huckleberry Finn. She is an independent soul, good at heart but prone to trouble.  Instead of pure mischievousness, her problems stem from her inability to see the difference in skin.  Sure, her father has explained to her that being black means she has to be careful, but Lee can’t fathom why being friends with a white girl would be a problem, or even more to the point, why her truth should mean less than a white lady’s lie.

In the more tactile world, we are also given characters with dubious moral compasses.  Calvin, Lee’s father, knows what is right and wrong, but also knows that he has to balance that with the reality of his world.  He needs to survive and raise his daughter the best he knows how.  The more tragic moral figure, is the local sheriff.  He knows that Calvin and Lee are good people, but he must cater to Mrs. Westmoreland, the rich landowner, even if she is a bit misguided and prone to abuse the system for her convenience, despite what is right or its consequences.

Once Lee sets out to find Lily, her missing friend, and to also clear her father’s name; the reality of the piece shifts.  The book takes on a more fantastic quality.  In many ways it becomes a Southern Fried version of FablesBr’er Rabbit is very much real.  Cotton Eyed Joe is an actual person and the Bayou is personified as a mythic force of nature who is reined in by the ambiguous Bossman.  Bayou reaches out to Lee, but his appearance shocks her and he is left to overcome her fears through his compassion and care.  Then they become entangled with not only the real monster of this volume in Joe, but an even more ominous agent of a fallen Confederate General and his hooded henchmen.

Love works a magic realism that allows heady commentary on the South and its past evils.  He also shows off the wondrous nature of both the geological region and the heart of its people.  It is the kind of study that will go a long way to overcome the centuries old feud that causes the racial tension in the area to this very day.  As seen in Bayou, there is as much to praise about this culture as there is to condemn.  If we as a people were more open about it all, maybe real healing could occur.

This attitude makes the censoring of one notorious word all the more disturbing.  It is being used in a historical context, not unlike the use of “Nigger Jim” in Huck Finn’s story.  Of course, we live in a politically correct world where it doesn’t matter that the venom of the term has been curbed through its embrace in modern African American culture.  The people have refused to give it power and it has lost its offense, but it is possible that in a historical context it might still hold some bite.  It is then curious that the Uncle Remus stories should play a role here, given their own nefarious history.  Is it possible that years of subversive contextualization has overpowered the stories’ origins.

As smart as the script is Love’s playful illustration.  His character designs have a welcome similarity to Powell’s The Goon, but when the artist reaches further to butterfly winged spirits, living swamps, and anthropomorphic dogs - it is all just as real feeling.  That is the true magic at work here, the world both visually and conceptually are rich and just familiar enough to allow for the fantastic to seem reasonable.

Bayou is a potent mix of fantasy and cultural history.  It is an unflinchingly brave view of a maligned world.  Like all powerful literature, it extrapolates a powerful truth in a thoughtful manner while entertaining relentlessly.  Imagine if Alice in Wonderland were mashed with Mississippi Burning and you would be close to the feel of the book.  It is an important and unique voice in the world of graphic narrative and one this reader can’t wait to hear more from.

Bayou Volume One is available now.  It is written and illustrated by Jeremy Love, published by DC Comics and retails for $14.99.  Bayou can also be read at www.zudacomics.com.

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Comments

  • Defunkt

    Defunkt Jun 10, 2009 at 1:28pm

    Love the BF twitter updates otherwise I would have missed this review! Because I got Bayou last week.
    Anyway thanks BF and Lee for reviewing another great "out of the mainstream" graphic novel. Nice thoughtful review of Bayou and I hope reeaders will buy this book or surf to the link given by Lee.

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