Bayou Volume One trade paperback
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Jeremy Love
Colors: Patrick Morgan
Editors: Kwanza Johnson & Sean Mackiewicz
Publisher: DC Comics/Zuda Comics
Price: $14.99 US/$16.99 CAN
I don’t read webcomics.
It’s not that I think they’re inferior. Not at all, and I fully acknowledge that the medium has to adapt to new technologies, not to mention the sensibilities and habits of 21st-century readers. When it comes to webcomics, though, it’s just… I don’t have the time, to be honest. I don’t even have the time to read all of the printed comics and graphic novels I have lying around the house. To delve into the ever-expanding world of webcomics is something I just can’t make room for in my life at this point. Fortunately, several online projects make their way into a printed format, allowing those of us who opt only for old-school comics to enjoy them. I don’t know if I would have had the patience to experience Bayou in its original serialized presentation online, but collected in this landscape trade-paperback format, it makes for a fascinating read. Creator Jeremy Love offers up a dark spin on the Wizard of Oz that serves to remind us of a dark chapter of American history that’s not as far behind us as many would like to believe.
In the early part of the 20th century, black Americans may have been free from slavery, but certainly not from oppression. When Calvin Wagstaff is jailed and blamed for the disappearance of a young white girl, his daughter Lee sets out to prove her father is innocent before the people of Charon hang him for a crime he didn’t commit. Lee knows her father is innocent because she saw a monstrous figure emerge from the nearly bayou to swallow the missing girl whole. Lee dives into the murky waters only to emerge in a strange, distorted version of the real world, where she encounters a kind but powerful soul named Bayou, who ends up aiding her in her quest.
There are a number of influences at play in Jeremy Love’s artwork. One that comes to mind is Humberto Ramos’s hulking figures; there are definite similarities in the two artists’ exaggerated designs. I’m also put in mind of the art from classic comics strips, such as Little Orphan Annie and L’il Abner. Love is able to convey different extremes — power and vulnerability, purity and corruption — with seeming ease. The distorted look for Cotton Eye Joe is truly disturbing, and his design for the title character conveys his contradictory nature as a gentle yet fierce giant incredibly well. Love makes some shifting choices when it comes to illustrating the characters’ eyes, and it’s clear he’s trying to emphasize the power of particular moments with looks of horror or awe or kindness. The inconsistency in the presentation of the characters’ faces is a bit distracting at times, though.
Patrick Morgan’s colors are a big part of why this property is so visually engaging. His colors bring an airy, hazy look to the art, or at least, they reinforce that look established by Love’s loose, sketchy lines. He also opts for muted tones that enhance the darkness and tension that’s so integral to the story.
I find it interesting that Lily, Lee’s friend and the girl who goes missing, isn’t all that likable a character. The friendship between her and the book’s protagonist falls apart before long in this story. Love opts to have Lee’s quest driven purely by her love for her father. Lee isn’t trying to rescue Lily, but rather, she’s determined to save her dad. It would be simpler and more comfortable for traditional morality to take over, to have Lee’s mission driven by both goals. But that doesn’t appear to be the case, and I like the darker storytelling choice.
Though there’s a specific racial slur that censored in the dialogue, it’s still conveyed clearly, and that imbues the script with great power. The harshness of the term reflects the harshness of many characters’ attitudes and emotions, and that in turn has a jarring and unsettling impact on the reader. It’s difficult for some of us to fathom this kind of hatred, but it’s important for Love to remind us of it, even in an age when people are celebrating the progress that’s been made in race relations in the United States today as symbolized by Barack Obama’s presidency.
While the point of the storytelling is abundantly clear, the way in which Love opts to convey his meaning is darkly delightful. This is an African-American vision of such fabled stories as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. Southern and black culture factor, not to mention U.S. history, factor in heavily with Love’s character concepts and designs. He mixes the worlds of magic and the mundane incredibly well here. This unusual and mature take on the child’s quest into another world is mesmerizing. It’s clear why Bayou caught the attention of the Zuda editorial board early on and why it’s earned a number of awards. 9/10