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Review: Bayou, Vol. 1

Katherine Dacey

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

Bayou Review: Bayou, Vol. 1Lee’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.

bayou2 Review: Bayou, Vol. 1

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.

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Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

Comments

  1. SCOTT ROBINS says:

    Hints of violence, Katherine? I think that’s tiptoeing around it a bit. I’ve told many people that BAYOU is probably the best comic I’ve read this year but the material is VERY dark…that’s a good thing. My only issue with the book is how certain historically offensive words are ‘bleeped’ out. You wouldn’t see these words censored in other adult books published on this subject let alone kids books like Elijah of Buxton or Underground to Canada. I’d probably challenge your 13 & up rating and raise you a 16 & up. :-)

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    Given the strong feelings that certain words evoke, Scott, I understand why Zuda didn’t spell them out in full, especially since it’s obvious what the characters are saying. There are many communities here in the US where such language might result in a direct challenge to the book’s inclusion in a library or an English class. The fact that these words occur in a graphic novel — what most Americans consider kids’ fare — makes such challenges more likely. So while I’m sympathetic to your complaint, I don’t think it compromises the book’s integrity.

  3. Katherine Dacey says:

    By the way, Scott, I edited the review to say simply “violence.” I wasn’t trying to tiptoe around the subject, just trying to say something about the way the violence is presented in the story. Obviously my word choice wasn’t very good, as it seemed to downplay what you rightly observe is a major element in BAYOU. Thanks for the pointer.

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