Bach and the Blues: Pablo Casals and Robert Johnson

Gary Kelley. Ice Cube, $19.99 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-948509-34-3

Kelley (Moon of the Snowblind) retells the life stories of musicians Pablo Casals (1876–1973) and Robert Johnson (1911–1938), who serendipitously both recorded albums in late November 1936, in this invigorating dual graphic biography. The comic opens with cellist Casals recalling his early love for Bach. When he flees Spain during the fascist rise, he relates, “I can accept the personal gloom in some of Bach’s music, but not this ‘pandemic’ of gloom infecting us here.” Kelley then counterpoints guitarist Johnson living in the Jim Crow South and draws the infamous myth of his encounter with the devil. In a haunting image, the devil plays the guitar as Johnson’s voice is drawn across the page: “Dark dude step outta the shadows. Tunes My guitar....” Throughout, Kelley’s thick black ink line work, which appears as if printed from woodcuts, marks emotional moments as the musicians create lasting music within periods of historic change. By linking their stories and scratching them into the page beside portraits of other notable figures (such as Bach, but also Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics), the comic defamiliarizes familiar images, compelling readers to reflect on the historical period afresh. It’s a concise package with deeper meaning that will appeal to vintage vinyl as well as art comics collectors. (May)
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