Early in Jeremy Love’s comic series, Bayou, the murder of a black child named Billy Glass awakens the supernatural southern landscape that surrounds the story’s young female protagonist, Lee Wagstaff. Lee is forced to swim into the bayou to retrieve Billy’s body and afterwards she describes the experience to her white friend, Lily. Stunned by Lee’s description of the bloated corpse, Lily blurts out, “My mama said Billy Glass deserved what he got. She said a n***** boy got no business whistlin’ at no white woman.” In the wordless panel that follows, Lee’s hands drop as a dismayed expression crosses her face. Beside her, Lily’s eyes lower, her shoulders slouch back, and she lets out a small whistle of her own.
Readers familiar with the history of the Jim Crow South know that this two-toned whistle once belonged to Emmett Till – the fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.* What we hear, then, in Love’s visual rendering of Lily’s whistle interests me greatly, for those tiny eighth notes generate a tremendous sound. We hear echoes of anti-miscegenation panic, a fear that reverberates unease even as the conversation hastily resumes. We hear the sense of white privilege that attends Lily’s ability to whistle freely, carelessly one could argue, in spite of her naïveté as a child repeating her mother’s words. But I believe that what Love also wants us to hear in this sequence is the “wolf whistle” of a murdered black child, along with the memory of just how much that sound costs. Perhaps what resonates most deeply in the white girl’s whistle are the sounds that Billy (and Emmett) are no longer able to make, were never free to make at all.
The interplay generates another compelling moment in Paolo Parisi’s comic biography, Coltrane. (Originally published in Italian, the English translation appears to only be available in the UK.) This scene focuses on the song that the jazz saxophonist created in memory of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, simply titled “Alabama.” The stirring eulogy that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered for the four girls killed in the bombing may have even inspired the song’s melody. Words transformed through song, now mediated once more through image:
Whether or not the reader has actually heard “Alabama,” the soundtrack to the Birmingham church bombing is here on Parisi’s page. Coltrane’s saxophone glides over the piano’s opening rumble and plunges into the percussive crescendo at the close. The scene facilitates an elegy of a different sort through stillness and motion, and in the pacing and symmetry of iconic images from the era. Its composition brings to mind a passage from the collection, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs:
Anyone familiar with the musical characteristics of Negro folk style in spiritual and gospel singing, in blues and rock n’ roll, will know that these transcriptions represent only a bare skeleton of what is actually being sung. Good singers will subtly vary the tune – bending notes, delaying or anticipating the beat, and adding their own vocal decorations. (6)
Graphic narratives take an analogous approach with some comics choosing not to venture too far beyond transcription, while others vary, decorate, and bend. Indeed, Bayou and Coltrane are not the only texts that improvise among the sounds of the Jim Crow South. Examples appear throughout The Silence of Our Friends, written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos, and illustrated by Nate Powell. The music of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave unfurl like plumes of smoke amid the racial turmoil of a segregated Texas town. The lyrics to “Soul Man,” in particular, acquire a rich significance as they are repeated at pivotal moments in the narrative. I’m very interested to see the sounds that will shape Powell’s art in March – a forthcoming comics trilogy co-written by Congressman John Lewis.
Most of the songs from this era in American history are celebrated for their capacity to uplift, restore, and persuade on collective registers, but I believe that the comics featured here are most effective in highlighting the introspective qualities of music. The artists and writers go beyond the sounds of “We Shall Overcome,” to transform something as small as the tones of a whistle and as quiet as a photograph into critical instruments of contemplation and mourning.
* The appendix to volume 1 of Bayou notes that Billy’s original name was “Emmet,” but the circumstances of Billy’s death differ slightly from Till’s in the comic which takes place in 1933, not during the 1950s.