Review time! with ‘Crossroad Blues’

“I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down”

So Ace Atkins is apparently a “Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist turned New York Times bestselling author,” which is nice for him. He published the book on which this comic is based 20 years ago, but I’m not entirely sure how this book came to be. Did Atkins also write the script for it? Prose books and comics are different animals, but Atkins gets sole story credit, so I’m not sure how it came into existence unless Atkins wrote the script as well. Let’s just assume he did, because there’s no reason to think otherwise. Crossroad Blues is drawn by Marco Finnegan and lettered by Troy Peteri, and it’s published by Image under their 12-Gauge imprint (12-Gauge was briefly a separate publisher before joining Image) and costs $14.99. Let’s take a look!

As you might recall, I dig mysteries, and while murder mysteries are always fun, I’m also keen on mysteries that don’t necessarily revolve around a murder. Murder is such an all-encompassing kind of crime that it tends to overshadow other aspects of the mystery, so I always like stories where the mystery is something different than “who killed that person.” People get killed in Crossroad Blues, but the mystery is not about who the killer is – we know who the killer is – but where are Robert Johnson’s old records? Yes, this book is about the lost records of Robert Johnson and the people trying to find them. Nick Travers, who appears to be a loose analog of Atkins himself, is the blues historian who is asked by a professor at Tulane to find another professor who drove down to the Mississippi delta and disappeared. Nick, being a helpful dude, does so, and gets caught up in a search for Johnson’s lost recordings. A collector is also looking for them, and he has no qualms about killing people to get them (they’d be worth quite a bit, after all). An albino man who was young when Johnson was still alive seems to know where the records are, but he doesn’t want to tell anyone. So the bad guys want him, Nick wants to protect him, bodies drop, and all sorts of things happen. Are there twists? You bet there are!

So there’s not much of a mystery as to who’s doing what. There’s not even much of a mystery about the records, because Atkins doesn’t want to go too far out of the realm of reality, so the solution is one used by many authors in the past whenever there’s potentially something that could change history about to become public. The book is still a pretty good read, though, because it’s much more about the attitudes of the various participants, what “the blues” means to them, and Atkins even touches on some of the racism inherent in the South in general and music in particular. The head thug looking for the records loves Elvis, so he sings Elvis songs and even looks vaguely like Elvis (the back of the book mentions that he thinks he is Elvis, but that’s not really in the book). At one point a black man tells him that Elvis sucks, and while he’s doing it as provocation, it’s interesting that the fairly racist white guy would pattern himself after a performer who’s almost emblematic of the appropriation of black music by white artists (I guess if the thug had looked like Pat Boone that might be too deep a cut) and would kind of get called on it. It’s not too on-the-nose, but it’s also not too subtle. When we find out why the albino has been scared his entire life, it’s also to do with racism and how a black man would always get treated worse than a white man no matter what the extenuating circumstances of an event were. The bad guy, showing remarkable insight, mentions to Nick that they’re both white trespassers in black culture (although he might have a better reason for “trespassing” than Nick does), but Nick does love the blues, and the girl he hooks up with, a white woman, is steeped in the blues as well. Atkins never answers the tough questions he brings up about appropriation and how deeply involved in a culture you have to be before it’s “okay” to be there, but they’re still in the book, and they make this more interesting than just a simple search for missing records.

Finnegan does a nice job, too, although his art can be quite rough. But it suits the kind of grimy style of the book, as most of the characters live on the fringes of society, getting by as best they can. Finnegan draws Nick with a world-weary expression throughout, which gives him a bit of gravitas, and neither he nor the woman he hooks up with are great beauties (they’re both attractive, just not drop-dead gorgeous), which makes it more believable, especially as they bond over their love of the blues. Everyone is normal-looking and a bit beaten down by life, which makes the Elvis-loving thug stand out more, as he takes much more pride in his appearance than anyone else in the book. Finnegan uses a lot of thickly brushed inks to give everything weight, which is good as this comic is about the past crushing the characters just a little bit. He draws the bayous nicely, but he doesn’t do as good a job with New Orleans, which doesn’t show up that often but which is largely nondescript. It’s a bit disappointing, because part of the theme of the book is the “real blues” being squeezed out by corporate mainstreaming, but we don’t get a good sense of the “old” New Orleans as opposed to the touristy New Orleans. It’s a minor thing, but it feels like the art missed an opportunity there to make Atkins’s point for him without being too obvious about it.

Overall, Crossroad Blues is a pretty good noir-ish story with the added bonus of being about a subject that hasn’t been done to death. Atkins evokes the feel of old Louisiana and how it has passed away, replaced by those who study the blues more than make it (there’s the slightest hint of tension in the book between those sides, but Atkins doesn’t do too much with it, relying instead on innuendo and the artwork), and the idea of a Holy Grail of Blues is a good one, as it gives the characters a solid motivation, even the bad guys. I missed the first “Nick Travers” graphic novel, which came out a few years ago, but I might have to track it down, as this comic, despite some flaws, is an entertaining read. And if you’re interested in it, you can get it through the link below. How handy is that?!?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

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