Sunday, August 02, 2009

Review: Bayou Vol. 1 (and a little bit about its odd use of the N-word)

Jeremy Love’s online comic strip Bayou was chosen as the first Zuda feature, announced when DC Comics first rolled out their web comics contest initiative, which seemed to speak rather highly of it—it was, after all, DC’s idea of an ideal webcomic, right?

This past May Bayou won five of the ten Glyph Comics Awards, given to recognize work by, for and about people of color, including the awards for story of the year, best writer, best artist and best comic strip*.

This summer, DC published a print collection, Bayou Vol. 1, and received pretty rave reviews from Cory Doctorow, who called it “scary, beautiful and sad,” and Publisher’s Weekly, who called it “Extremely beautiful, scary and wonderful.” Blurbs on the back cover from Wired and the Kansas City Star call it “hypnotic” and “spellbinding,” respectively.

Adding that all up, I was expecting something pretty special from this first hardcopy version of Bayou, and was rather badly disappointed. Certainly some of that disappointment may come down to a simple matter of expectations, but I found Bayou to be distinctly unimpressive.

It’s admirably ambitious, it’s definitely well-drawn, and it’s certainly unlike almost everything else DC publishes on any of its imprints, but it’s also groaningly obvious and metaphorically scattershot, its production values are just this side of shoddy, and it’s very slow moving—I’ve now read the first 160 pages of it, and got the impression that the story was only just starting (The title character doesn’t even appear until around page 100).

The collection is a six-by-eight inch trade paperback, the dimensions reflecting the size of a single screen, and it’s printed on the cheap, pulpy, comic book-y paper stock that I love.

I don’t think the horizontal format flatters Love’s work at all, or necessarily makes sense for it. Because it’s a deviation from the more vertical norm, it seems the deviation demands some sort of justification from the content, and there is none. The pages of the Bayou hard copy collection are shaped the way they are because that’s the way Zuda’s pages are shaped. It certainly makes sense when looked at as a practical, this-is-a-paper-version-of-a-webcomic-that-had-to-be-formattted-just-so sort of way, but originally experienced as I did (as a graphic novel), it just seems random and unflattering.

The story is set in the year 1933, in a town with the unlikely name of Charon, Mississippi (See, Charon is the guy with the boat who rowed between the land of the living and the dead and this will be important! Symbolism!).

Here is my least favorite panel of the whole endeavor, in which a clean, perfect, computerized “Welcome To…” message seems to hover a half-foot in front of a very drawn and worn looking sign:
Ugh, it’s just so garish. It’s only the second panel too, so it’s a pretty important one.

One more page later, and we meet our protagonist, Lee Wagstaff, a little black girl with hair that sticks out in a couple of neat, twisted braids braids, narrating “The Bayou is a bad place. Ain’t nuthin’ goode ever happened around here.” Here narration will disappear a few pages later, although narration boxes will appear later on, sometimes to capture conversation between two characters not shown on panel and sometimes to capture conversation between two characters who are shown on panel.

Inconsistent narration, and inconsistent communication of narration in comics, is a pet peeve of mine, I’ll admit; the former can be a fatal problem in any work of fiction, although the latter is something that perhaps just bugs me more than it should (although it does convey a certain sloppiness of structure). I found a lot of things that were pet peeves of mine in this work, and I never found anything to make up for them, which no doubt goes a long way towards explaining my disappointment.

Lee and her father have been offered three dollars by the (white) sheriff to fish the body of Billy Glass, a young black boy who was lynched for whistling at a white woman, out of the bayou. Lee swims down with a rope to tie one end of it around the leg of Billy’s body, while her dad pulls him out.

While down there, she sees another Billy, this one still animated and sporting large butterfly wings from his back, and we know that there are strange things going on around the bayou.

Lee tells this story to her friend Lily, who is a white girl (Lily…white…Symbolism!), and the daughter of a mean rich lady. By the bayou, Lily loses her locket, and to try and spare herself a beating from her mother, she says that Lee stole it from her.

Later, Lily is devoured by a tiny-headed humanoid monster called Cotton-Eyed Joe, and, since folks don’t really believe in monsters, suspicion falls on Lily’s father, who is taken to jail, where he’s in great danger of being lynched for the crime before things ever get to trial.

In an attempt to clear her dad’s name and save him, Lee journeys into the bayou, encounters a sinister merman-type of monster in blackface (or with a face like blackface, I guess), to be saved by Bayou (with a capital B), a big, stuttering, swamp monster who seems like a cross between Jim from The Adventures of Huck Finn and Swamp Thing (only not really).

On Bayou’s side of the bayou, Lee finds herself in a weird Wonderland sort of place, populated with monsters, talking animals and dangers like “Jim Crows” (Symbo-Ah, you get the point by now). By this point the story has coalesced into something pretty exciting, as Lee’s quest takes on the tone and notes of a classic children’s adventure story, albeit one of Southern iconography and imagery, and accented by violence and racism. It would be a lot easier to enjoy if it weren’t trying so damn hard, however.

After a few short, scary adventures in this new land, Lee and Bayou learn a bit about each other, and the former convinces the latter to help her rescue Lily. With this new “might fine ‘rangement,” the two stride off toward the horizon on the last page.

I actually am eager to see where they go, and wouldn’t mind reading more—provided it’s in the form of a book as I can’t stand reading Zuda comics online, and that it’s a book I borrow from a library, rather than pay $15 for. Because for all it’s charms, Love’s Bayou seems to have faults to tain them.

It’s not a bad comic by any stretch of the term, but then, it’s pretty far from my definition of a good one too.

*For whatever a Glyph award is actually worth. The same set of awards named DC’s superhero Black Lighting “Best Male Character” for appearance in the terrible one-shot tie-in to a DC event/story,Final Crisis: Submit. I know the Glyph awards, like most awards, don’t necessarily exist to reflect my own personal tastes or aesthetic judgments, but the Submit recognition really stands out, as that was one of those occasional "I can’t believe DC Comics even published a book of this quality" level of terrible.


One of the many little things that bugged me about Bayou was Love’s use of the N-word. Specifically, that he used it, but only in the way that I just used it in the previous sentence.

“You threatenin’ us n****?” one of three big, beefy white guys asks Lee’s dad while punching him in the gut during his arrest. (Hey, they’re missing an asterisk).

“I say we take this n***** to the nearest tree right now…” another says as they drive him off in the back of a pick up truck.

“That evil little woman want some n***** blood, and she for damn sure gon’ get it!” Lee’s aunt shouts about Lily’s mother, while arguing with her husband. He responds, “We go down there raising cain and it’ll be open season on every n***** in town.”

Later, an anthropomorphic dog in a confederate army uniform calls Bayou a “yammering swamp n*****.”

What gives? This is the sort of half-assed self-censoring of swear words that drives me crazy when I see it in superhero comics, as everyone knows the word the character is saying, but the writer refuses to actually use it himself, resulting in something worse than actually just saying a swear word—saying a swear word and looking like a child afraid to get in trouble for saying a swear word at the same time.

And there’s no reason not to use the word, or swear words at all (in the arrest scene, one of the white guys always says “S$%&” instead of “shit” because…because why exactly? This isn’t Comics Code Approve, it’s not a Johnny DC book, it’s not even a DC Universe book. It’s a web comic that was later re-published as a graphic novel. There’s no reason why Love or DC would conceivably “get in trouble” with anyone.

And if Love or Zuda or DC think simply using the word “nigger” (or “shit,” for that matter) is simply beyond the pale, then maybe they shouldn’t 75% use it by covering up most of the letters. Given the subject matter of the book—Lee fishing out a lynched little black boy, striving to save her father from being lynched for a crime he didn’t commit, the dream sequence visions of black people hanging from trees, the racial injustice, the fucking Civil War, Lee being called a “little nigra” and her dad a “big buck,” etc—it’s downright bizarre to produce a comic that refuses to use the N-word.

Is there some concern that readers won’t be able to distinguish the fact that just because a character in a DC comic book is saying it that doesn’t mean that DC comics approves calling black people “niggers?” Because those characters are fucking lynching people, and they give their audience enough benefit of the doubt that they’re not worried people will think DC is pro-lynching.

Or is it a this-word-is-just-too-powerful-to-use-ever kind of thing, and that by using it at all a writer or a comic only naturalizes its usage and somehow perpetuates it?

I can’t imagine that’s the case, given the context of the story and the way it’s used within it. I think it’s simply a matter of DC publishing this comic from a position of fear (which is too bad), and looking juvenile in the process (which is also too bad).


RELATED: If you don't mind reading long-form comics online in general, or Zuda's less-than-ideal formatted ones specifically, you can read Bayou online here.


Anonymous said...

Very honest, and forthright review, as is your forte.

Regarding the use of the N-word:

"Or is it a this-word-is-just-too-powerful-to-use-ever kind of thing, and that by using it at all a writer or a comic only naturalizes its usage and somehow perpetuates it?"

I run a webcomic called "World Of Hurt" ( has a Blaxploitation theme. I use every other swear word in the dictionary, but I won't touch that one, despite its fidelity to that particular film movement, mostly for the reasons you stated above.

As a Black man with a diverse readership, I don't want to lend the word any credence by using it myself. I think the success of Chapelle's Show demonstrated the danger of this phenomena, because the popularity of the show, and the quotability of the dialogue brought a minute, but troubling, degree of acceptability to the word in certain contexts.

- Jay Potts

Pedro said...

I don't agree that you can never use the word "nigger". No word should be forbidden. I just feel that there is a proper place and context for a word like that.

Having racist characters in 1930's south utter the words to Black characters is one of those places. I am always sadden when it's replaced with asterisks because it really dulls the punch of the word. It's supposed to be a hateful disgusting word uttered from the worst parts of our humanity. It's a reminder of when we fail as a group of people.

If a writer decides they don't want to use the word in their vocabulary, like Jay Potts does, I understand. They find different ways to have their characters interact but get across their statements. It may not be exactly true to time period, but that's the writer's choice.

But I feel like asterisks force the word into the reader's head, and it feels like a cheat. I'll bring the ideas up in your head, but I won't say them myself. It makes the discussion of racism feel taboo.

I understand that the word is censored for commercial and social reasons, but because of that I can't take a work like Bayou seriously.

TS Rogers said...

I was very fond of the book. Though I did find the censorship bothersome. In fact I felt it pulled me out of the story. I get the feeling that the omission was a choice made by the writer. Some people just refuse to use the word. Though I'm not very fond of the word, it does exist and feel that it's censorship grants it more power. But I do respect the choice to not use it.

Vanja said...

"Bayou" is a great example of a comic-book written and drawn by the artist. Those kind of things are usually very ambitious, but end up switching from design to design without really exploring all of the details it introduces.

I think that Love means to evoke a "Pan's labyrinth" kind of sensibility that you see in a lot of Neil Gaiman's work too. A kind of an adult fairy tale, juxtaposing fairy tale imagery with the harsher truth of the children's reality at the time.

It's just that from reading the first two chapters I didn't get a sense that it's a story thought-out all the way through, but a work that spends more time teasing the reader with the artist's imagination.

It strikes a familiar tone and hopes to exist in a half-way between genre and art comics, ending up much more like "Mirrormask" than a more thoughtful "Tale of one bad rat".