Review of Zuda Comics’ Bayou, Volume 1

bayou_coverBy Katie Knowlton

What do you think would happen if you mixed Alice in Wonderland, American folklore, and early twentieth century racial politics? The combination has the vast potential to be god awful, or, in the case of Jeremy Love’s Bayou, one of the best comics of the year.

The first volume of Bayou is the first trade paperback from DC’s webcomic division, Zuda Comics. Zuda allows writers and artists to submit comics, which are voted on by the readership. Winners of these competitions are allowed to continue their comics on the website. Every so often, a creator is given a contract without having to go through this competition. Bayou was one of those comics, and it’s easy to see why.

bayou-1Bayou takes place in the fictional town of Charon, Mississippi in 1933, the height of the Great Depression. Mississippi was historically one of the most racist and segregated states, and this provides an interesting backdrop for Love’s story. The comic revolves around Lee Wagstaff, a nine year-old African American kid who is the daughter of a sharecropper. The story opens with Lee having to help pull up a boy’s body from the bayou that resides within the town borders. The boy, Billy Glass, was lynched after whistling at a white woman, a case nearly identical to that of Emmett Till in the 1950s. While underwater, Lee sees something that looks like Billy Glass, but with butterfly wings and glowing yellow eyes. Little does Lee know that she isn’t hallucinating, but that the bayou acts as a sort of door to the parallel, surreal world of Dixie.

Lee is forced into this world after a white friend of hers, Lily Westmoreland, is taken by one of the monsters of Dixie, and her father is charged with the crime. She is determined to find Lily and clear her father’s name because he is the only immediate family she has left, her mother having died when Lee was younger. After diving into the bayou, she is almost taken by a creature of the water, but is rescued by a relatively friendly giant, Bayou. Bayou serves as Lee’s guide and protector though Dixie, a dangerous land filled with talking animals, giants and large, insect-like creature that want nothing more than to consume Lee.

Bayou is beautifully written and drawn. Jeremy Love has done a fantastic job of creating both Charon and Dixie, one grounded in the very real life of African Americans in the 1930s American South, the other a world that takes its cues from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, as well as uniquely American myth. One could say that this tale is, in its essence, a more modern interpretation of Caroll’s famous tale, but Love works hard to make it more than a mere rip-off. What really sets it apart is not just the world of Dixie, but the world of Charon, which is in some ways more surreal than the parallel universe. In our modern age, racism of the type displayed in this comic is rarely seen, which makes it somewhat of a shock in scenes such as Lee’s father Calvin being taken away, Lee being hit hard on the head by the butt of a rifle, or during a supposed dream sequence where she happens upon multiple bodies dangling from trees with nooses around their necks. Both these images are very powerful, and the evil in Dixie acts a good metaphor for the evils that take place in Charon.

Dixie is a very American wonderland. The monster that consumes Lily goes by the name Cotton-Eyed Joe and resembles in some ways Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men. He is mentally slow, large and incredibly strong, and he hurts people without really understanding the consequences, although the consequences – unlike Lennie, do not seem to bother Joe. In this first volume, we don’t see too much of Dixie; a lot is held in the unknown. Love gives many hints of the expanse of Dixie, but much like Lee, the reader is privy to only a bit at a time. There are brief glimpses of the hierarchy that rules the land, and a few references to “The Bossman,” the presumed leader of Dixie of whom even the intimidating Bayou is scared.

The character of Bayou is perhaps the most interesting within the comic. He is a menacing presence, but with a seemingly good heart. He has a complex relationship with “The Bossman” and his henchmen, hence his fear, but we aren’t given much more than that in this volume. On the surface, Bayou is fairly simple, a giant who lives with his dog on the bayou.  But as the comic goes on, I expect a lot more of his backstory, and for Bayou to become the most complex character within the Bayou universe.

bayou-2Jeremy Love has done an amazing job not only with the story, but the artwork as well. It’s a unique style that’s rough around the edges (literally, there are a lot of sketch lines left in) with enough exaggeration that it, like Charon and the bayou, is connected to reality.  But there’s something surreal and a little off about it. It fits perfectly with the tone of the story, which is a relief.  This comic could’ve easily been done with a much more realistic hand, but that would’ve caused some disjoint with the tale.

Patrick Morgan’s colors are a beautiful compliment to the art. Both Charon and Dixie are almost muted on the surface, because his focus is first on the characters, who dress in the rather drab clothing of the period.  Most of the characters are within the normal range of human skin tone, except for Bayou, who is gray-green. But the backgrounds are stunning, full of color and life. The skies are particularly amazing, whether it’s the deep orange-red of a sunset, or the bright blue of a cloudless day. The contrast to the characters is a little jarring once its noticed, but without it, the comic would’ve been too drab, and would not have given the life necessary for a comic with such a mystic element to it.

Bayou is one of the best comics of the year, hands down. The melding of the surreal with the real politics and situations of the day is not a new concept, but with Jeremy Love, it feels that way. Not enough comics take on American folklore, and few have done it as well. This first volume collects the first four chapters of the comic, but the Zuda comics website has, as of the writing of this review, two more chapters available. All of Bayou can be accessed from the website for free, so there’s really no reason for you not be reading one of the best comics being created right now.