The Webcomic Overlook #118: Bayou
If there’s an American mythology, most of us would point to the era known as The Wild West. Fueled by Hollywood imagery, dreams of wide open plains, and memorable gun-totin’ badasses played by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, the Wild West imagines a world that is dangerous and tough and yet adventurous at the same time. The truth of the era — which is probably more mundane and not quite as perilous for most prairie settlers — gets glossed over. Part of this mythology is evident in one of Zuda Comics’ most popular efforts, High Moon (reviewed here).
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Deep South in the era of the Great Depression and beyond. This time period is often regarded with utmost seriousness, since it’s highlighted by one of America’s darkest dilemmas. The entire region was gripped by fear. White people were still smarting over their loss and humiliation at the hands of the North in the Civil War. They saw their old world of plantations as a modern day Camelot, and the greedy Northerners took it away.
But for every aristocrat, there are about 100 serfs. If the Whites thought they had it bad, the Blacks — their serfs under the system of slavery — had it worse. Blacks were specifically targeted by angry White Southerners who saw “darkies” as inferior and dangerous. The blockbuster movie of 1915, The Birth of A Nation, didn’t do much to help matters: it’s portrayal of the Ku Kux Klan as heroes and Black people as immoral villains was one of the big reasons the Klan’s meteoric rise in popularity during the 1920’s.
So when it comes to romanticizing any aspect of the Deep South in that era, there’s a very real caution in taking any risks deviating from the real life hardships. Fantasize events, and you run the risk of inspiring the wrong kinds of people to do horrible, dishonorable things. (The Birth of a Nation‘s director, D. W. Griffith, seemed horrified by the reaction to his movie. His next film, Intolerance, tried to teach audiences a lesson about prejudice.) Maybe imagination has no place in real world trials and tribulations, and everything should be taken with the same stone-faced seriousness as To Kill A Mockingbird.
Which is why I was rather astounded when Jeremy Love’s Bayou, a Best Digital Comic nominee for the 2010 Eisner Awards, proved that notion wrong. The author doesn’t gloss over the horrors of that era. There are lynchings. Black people are denied the right to a fair trial simply due to the color of their skin. Police turn a blind eye when white people inflict harm on black people.
However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for flights of fantasy. Sometimes, that’s jus the thing you need to survive.
Now, despite having heard many good things about Bayou, I’ve never really felt that compelled to read it. Part of it was the fact that it was hosted on Zuda. Again, I do enjoy Zuda content itself, but that reader is painfully slow. However, a bigger reason is that it’s quite difficult to try to make Bayou sound like a must-read without making it sound like a rather depressing read at the same time. When the AV Club reviewed the print version, they had this to say:
It’s hard to know what to make of Bayou: Volume One (DC/Zuda) in its present form. The breakout offering from DC’s webcomics experiment zudacomics.com, Bayou reads like a story designed to fill unlimited space. Even at 160 pages, it feels like the mere beginning of a story, an impression only reinforced by some sketches of characters and locations not to be seen until later chapters. It also feels unsatisfying in its present form, but mostly because there isn’t enough of it. Set in Depression-era Mississippi, where the white establishment keeps racial restrictions in place with violence and miscarriages of justice, Bayou focuses on a black girl named Lee whose father is arrested after her white playmate disappears. Lee knows he had nothing to do with the event, however, and she goes searching for her friend in a world populated by helpful-but-cowardly monsters and malevolent forces straight out of an Uncle Remus tale. It’s a captivating, frightening environment, and while Bayou’s story sometimes suffers from poky pacing—or at least it feels poky, with so little of the story available so far—it makes for a provocatively sideways look at an ugly slice of American history…
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to find anything enticing or gripping about Bayou in that particular review. And yet the reviewers ultimately gave the comic a decent “B” rating. I’m at least coming from a better position in the story. Bayou has reached 265 pages. In an interview, Mr. Love mentioned that the story is set to end at 500 pages, so I’ve at least read more than half the comic.
I think part of the hesitation, too, is the title. In the comic, “Bayou” turns out to be the name of one of the characters, a big, strapping, and somewhat green-tinted African American. However, the first impression you get is probably that of a dank, mossy swamp. One where you’re either incapacitated by the humidity or languorously sitting by the shore, waitin’ for some catfish to bite while swatting at the skeeters and the no-see-ums. Personally speaking, my mind drifts to a Hank Williams song … as it often does. The affable chorus of “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” managed to work its way into my mind while reading through Bayou:
Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and-a filé gumbo
Cause tonight I’m gonna see my machez a mio.
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh.
Son of a gun, well have big fun on the bayou….
But — and if you’ll allow me to go on a bit of a tangent here — it turns out that, not only does that Hank Williams ditty match the overall Depression-era mood, it’s actually a good thing to have upbeat honky-tonk music on your mind while reading Bayou. Comics are a visual medium, so auditory experiences are left to the imagination. Yet music pervades the comic, an integral aspect to the entire experience. Even if you don’t know the tunes (and I don’t), Love conveys the music through body language. A sequence that takes place in a juke joint called Tarry Pin’s shows anthropomorphic animals dancing in a fevered frenzy, and my mind goes to ragtime. Critters in a chain gang sing with their shoulders slumped over while they’re breaking rocks, and my mind turns to the mournful melodies of the blues. It does a lot to get you in the right frame of mind musically.
Or you could just have Hank Williams playing in your brain on repeat, like I did.
The hero of our story is a little girl named Lee. Life in 1930’s Mississippi is tough for a Black girl. She had to grow up fast. Lee helps her widowed dad with unpleasant jobs, like the one that starts off this story where she has to swim down to the bottom of a lake to recover the dead body of a murdered boy. It doesn’t take her long to realize that strange things are going on, though. When Lee reaches the bottom, she notices someone’s watching her. It’s a naked boy. First of all, he shouldn’t be able to hold his breath for so long at these depths and look so nonchalant about it. Second of all, he’s got big butterfly wings growing out of his back.
It’s just the first of many things that tell Lee that things aren’t quite as they appear. Later, when Lee and her White friend, Lily, play on the shores of the bayou, an unseen hand rises from the water and snatches away Lily’s locket. The locket’s loss gets Lily into trouble. Not fully realizing the racial politics of the era, Lily puts the blame solely on her friend Lee … like annoying kids do in real life. Unfortunately, this little white lie gets Lee in heaps of trouble, and she has to work off her debt by working for Lily’s stern, abusive mother.
Feeling guilt stricken by what she did, Lily goes down to the bayou to try to find the locket. The thief, though, finds her first. He’s mentally retarded fellow by the name of Cotton Eye Joe. He’s a very large man with very large hands and a very large mouth, and what he does sets Lee on edge. Joe swallows Lily whole… and after a wave goodbye, he disappears by sinking into the depths of the bayou.
The locals blame Lee’s dad for Lily’s mysterious disappearance. They found Lily’s shoe was found on his property, and being a Black man, he’s apparently guilty before proven innocent. When Lee tries to protect her dad, one of the captors smack her face with the butt of his gun … a really despicable thing to do, but it emphasizes how the racists don’t see her as a little girl, let alone human.
Lee’s distraught. Unless Lee finds Lily, she knows that likely he’s going to be hanged by lynch mob. Her uncle, sensing Lee’s mission, bequeaths her an axe, and he tells her the story behind it:
A runaway slave married a Choctaw warrior. They had a child. That child was my great-grandfather Enoch. Didn’t sit well with the U.S. Gub’ment though. Back then, Florida was a Spanish Territory. All them runaway slaves and Injuns holed up in that for vexed ol’ Uncle Sam terrible… A Choctaw warrior got a few women and children out just before the thing blew. Enoch was with them but his mama and daddy died in the fort. Enoch’s blood was boiling. He wanted revenge. The warrior gave him this blessed axe. Told him it was for chopping wood and killing men. Now was the time to be free. Chop wood. Build a new home. But when it was time to fight he would be ready. And that’s what ol’ Enoch built him a home with the Choctaw tribe. His family never saw bondage.
This heroic war story seems out of place with the fairy tale world that Lee finds herself in. However, it’s absolutely essential. Blacks here aren’t going to be portrayed as simple noble victims or angry young people. Instead, they’re people that have their own legendary history, and a clearly defined goal: to live in a world where they don’t have to be afraid anymore. Also, in the same manner Lee’s fable parallels the real history of the South, you get a sense that there’s a forgotten history, like the story of the axe, that parallels the “official” account of things taught in schools.
Bayou is structured as a fairy tale adventure, the kind where a little girl finds herself lost in a bizarre new world. It’s drawn many comparisons to Alice In Wonderland. Frankly, some of them are on the nose. Our little girl, Lee, does go looking for a rabbit and she does enter a magical world by going through a hole. There’s also a touch of Sam Keith’s Maxx here, too, both from the standpoint of the exaggerated artwork and the metaphysical nature of the world.
And what a strange world it is. The best fantasy worlds are populated with characters that are so alien that they make you feel uncomfortable. Well, you just can’t feel any more uncomfortable when some of the critters are based on embarrassing Black stereotypes. There are a few characters that look like mutated versions of the big-lipped caricatures from early cartoons like “Little Black Sambo“. It doesn’t come off as offensive, though. First of all, it’s a caricature whose impact is out of date. Second, the lazy, dull-witted stereotype is re-purposed into something evil and demonic … which effectively dovetails into the revulsion of seeing the caricature.
The world is also populated by anthropomorphic critters. It’s an homage to the Uncle Remus tales starring Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear — you know, characters from that banned Disney movie Song of the South that somehow still live on in the Splash Mountain ride. (Jeremy Love, by the way, freely admits this influence from both Disney and the original source. In Graphic Novel Reporter, Mr. Love says, “I never really felt connected to African mythology until I started reading Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales. Seeing how elements of African mythology were interwoven with American folklore was the spark. What led me to the Uncle Remus tales was Disney’s Song of the South, a film I’ve always had mixed feelings about. I felt I as an African American creator could reclaim that mythology.”) While those characters have been driven into hiding, they’re not ashamed of who they are here. And why should they? Despite hardships, they live their lives, love, joke, and dance. They’re also singers, pastors, thieves, and con men. In short, they’re human. Perhaps even literally: they may be the spirits of the dead.
Lee travels the world with her bodyguard, the big green fella himself: Bayou. With his pleasantly smiling face and his full curly beard, he could stand in for Uncle Remus himself (the fuller Disney version, anyway, as played by James Baskett). Lee’s baffled that the big guy doesn’t stand up for himself. He could easily overtake his tormentors with his raw strength, but he doesn’t. But the reason is simple: he’s a nice guy, and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone.
It isn’t all fun and games for Lee, though. Throughout the story, she’s stalked by a frightening killer named Stagolee. Bayou and Lee have not crossed paths with him yet. In fact, he’s only been seen in perhaps eight pages. Yet his menace is undeniable. He stalks the gothic world of the Deep South like a suave lothario (he’s sporting a sort of young Cab Calloway look) and a cold, heartless demon rolled into one. What I loved most about Stagolee’s introduction, though, was its similarity to how villains are introduced in Wild West ballads. You’ve got to admire how Bayou is securing the Deep South as American mythology.
The art, with its muted tones of orange, yellow, green, and brown, really give you a feel of the world of the bayou. If title didn’t immediately leave you with an impression of stagnant air and insect bites, the illustrations and, most impressively, the coloring (excellently rendered by Patrick Morgan) will seal the deal. You may just find yourself fighting off the urge to fan yourself. It’s a muddy waters and sticky sweat, a world both alien an familiar to anyone whose ever lived through a humid summer.
Is there anything I didn’t like? Well, I thought that naming a flock of birds the Jim Crows was a reference that was a bit too obvious. Plus, sometimes the art isn’t cleaned up to well. The raw pencils does provide a unique style, but at times they seemed a tad sloppy. Still, those are relatively minor nitpicks, especially when there’s so much about this comic to love.
Is Bayou a story about the brave perseverance of the Black people in the face or racial segregation?
Is it an attempt to reclaim old stories originated by Blacks that have been declared taboo by the politically correct?
Is it a thinly disguised allegory about Southern attitudes that still linger to this very day?
Or is it a children’s fairytale and a rip-roaring adventure?
Bayou, as you can imagine, is all these things once. It’s up to the reader what he or she wants to take away from this modern day Alice in Wonderland. However, even if you decided on one aspect, it’s impossible to ignore the other aspect. Bayou becomes a very rich and very deep story. It succeeds in being entertaining, yet it also succeeds at being fulfilling. Its a comic with a strong heart and a sense of justice. And while Love never turns a blind eye towards the darker elements of history, he has an enthusiasm of Black culture that’s so infectious that you can’t help but be wrapped up in the wonder of it all yourself.
Before reading Bayou, I’d pegged either Sin Titulo (reviewed here) or The Abominable Charles Christopher (reviewed here) as the only true front runners in the race for the Best Digital Comic award. However, now that I have read Bayou, I can confidently say that Jeremy Love’s comic is my favorite to win. It’s already taken home five Glyph Awards, including one for Best Comic Strip. Is this a sign of things to come? It’s among the best of Zuda’s roster of comics, and one of the best webcomics around.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Posted on May 1, 2010, in 5 Stars, adventure webcomic, fantasy webcomic, historical webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Bayou, Zuda Comics. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.