A beautiful, poetic book, Bayou focuses on Lee Wagstaff, an eight-year-old girl living in Depression-era Mississippi. When Lee’s father is falsely accused of murdering a white neighbor’s daughter, Lee sets out to clear his name — a task complicated by the fact that Lily Westmoreland was, in fact, kidnapped by an honest-to-goodness bogeyman. Though the story feels sadly familiar in the first pages, artist Jeremy Love uses elements of horror, magical realism, and Southern folklore to bring Bayou to life. The result is a visceral, spooky tale that unsettles more than a conventional novel about the injustices of living under Jim Crow.
Bayou, Vol. 1
By Jeremy Love
No rating (Recommended for ages 13 and up)
Zuda Comics, 2009, ISBN: 978-1401223823
160 pp., $14.99
Lee’s father warns her to be polite to, but wary of, their white neighbors, a lesson quickly brought home when Lily wrongly implicates Lee in the disapperance of a Westmoreland family heirloom. Humiliated by the dressing down Mr. Westmoreland gave her, Lee resolves to avoid Lily, relenting only when Lily suggests that they search a nearby swamp for the missing necklace. Their expedition goes awry, however, when a hideous creature bursts out of the water, seizes Lily, then disappears into the swamp, emerging after dark to plant evidence incriminating Lee’s father.
While combing the swamp for clues that would exonerate her father, Lee encounters Bayou, a powerful but gentle giant. Bayou’s world is a topsy-turvy vision of the Jim Crow South, with bloodhounds standing in for white landowners and various woodland creatures playing the part of everyday folk. Though physically powerful, Bayou is reluctant to oppose the bloodhounds and their hooded minions; Lee persuades Bayou to help her with several awe-inspiring displays of grit, as she thwarts an attempted kidnapping and confronts a voracious golliwog.
All of this would seem hokey – or worse – if Love weren’t such a first-rate artist. He draws inspiration from a variety of sources — trickster tales, Southern folklore, John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations for Alice in Wonderland — to create a memorable assortment of characters, human and otherwise. Lee, in particular, is a fine example of how design can play an important role in revealing character. As Love draws her, she’s a small, wiry girl with a fierce glint in her eye; her stride, her stance, and her gestures all exude purpose and courage. Love’s layout is straightforward – even a bit square – but conveys the action effectively with a minimum of dialogue, while Patrick Morgan’s sepia-toned coloring sets a suitably somber mood.
Parents and teachers should know that Bayou contains strong language, violence, and images of lynched bodies. There’s nothing gratuitous about this material; the harsh words and haunting visuals play an important role in establishing the story’s setting, and in documenting the kind of routine humiliations that Lee and her father endure in a segregated community. Still, Bayou is better suited for teenagers, as younger readers may find some of its images too disturbing or puzzling to appreciate what Love is trying to do: use the South’s own mythology to make the horror of Jim Crow palpable to contemporary readers.