By Akira Hiramoto
Released in the US by Del Rey
Slugline: Don't base any school reports on Robert Johnson or the blues on this manga
This manga freely admits it is a dark reimagining of the early career of blues musician Robert Johnson known as RJ. In the rural south in 1930s America you can imagine life for blacks was not pleasant. But some made it less pleasant for themselves, since RJ had a tendency to oversleep and spend too much time at the local blues joint thinking he could one day master the blues. Local blues musicians tell him he is so bad he may as well sell his soul to the devil, since that will be the only way RJ he will gain any skill. RJ has a pregnant girlfriend and so he is reluctant to throw his soul away. One night after leaving the blues joint he finds a teacher who shows him how to play. RJ returns to the blues joint and tears the place with his guitar amazed at how much he has learned in just a few days. Too much to have actually been learned in just a few days, he has been gone for six months and his pregnant girlfriend and child died during childbirth. It is only through that tragedy does RJ becomes a true bluesman. And once he does, his travels get him mixed up with pre-Bonnie Clyde Barton and further aspects of his deal with the devil.
I looked up Robert Johnson on wikipedia, and surprisingly a lot of what is in the manga are already part of the Robert Johnson myth. The art is almost old school, far more seinan influenced than what is the norm in imported manga. It is not a true horror, nor J-pop influenced (though I understand that the blues is popular out of proportion in Japan) and not crime or slice of life. It does wander in amongst all of those genres, making it hard to categorize. But it does show a part of American life that is usually and purposefully forgotten, life in the American south in the Depression. This is a time when lynching may not have been open as is described in the book, but is still a fact of life and casual racism is part and parcel of human nature. There is also the desire to be meaningful and important that RJ is trying to work out through being a blues musician, which was perhaps was the only means a young black male at that time had to increase his importance and feelings of self worth in that environment. But the story also descends to genuine creepiness as RJ is confront by supernatural forces just as insidious as racism.
Me and the Devil Blues, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.