A Bad Mother(watch yo’ Mouth) of a Comic called ‘Stagger Lee’
Those who pay attention to such things may have noticed that I don’t tend to write a lot here. Mostly because I’m trying not to wallow in cynicism and, to be perfectly honest, there really isn’t much in comics at the moment to really spark my interest.
That said, I received a review copy of Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix’s* ‘Stagger Lee’ published by Image Comics, and it would be churlish of me not to…
My initial impression was favourable. It’s an extremely well-designed and presented book. It seems like the creators were going for the sort of thing that could look good on a coffee table or in a reference library, and they’ve succeeded.
And now that I’ve done judging a book by it’s cover…
‘Stagger Lee’ is one of the classic American folk songs , starting with an actual event (the shooting of Billy Lyons by Shelton ‘Stag’ Lee) passing into widespread oral tradition, and then, into endless variations, permutations and renditions since by a variety of artists and in a variety of styles.
What this book does is (a) present a story which pulls together the known historical elements into a period legal drama covering the aftermath of the murder, while (b) detailing the different elements of the song and tracing its development from folk ballad to gangsta anthem, with a great many stops in-between.
It succeeds admirably at both of these goals. The characters in the drama are well-scripted, multidimensional and empathetic, if not always sympathetic. The drama itself unfolds gradually, with a measured, almost leisurely pace. The dialogue is crisp, and intelligently-scripted, however, while this results in a naturalistic style which avoids cheap melodrama, it may not hook readers looking for something a little more action-packed.
The art complements the story well, with Hendrix’s clean-line style making sure that each character is an easily recognizable individual, and giving a real sense of place, time and atmosphere. However, like the scripting, it remains pleasantly low-key enough that the story remains ‘about the story’, rather than becoming ‘about the art about the story’. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his more tonal work, which, used as chapter headings and for the cover, gives the book a classic, timeless, almost mythic feel.
With all that said, what I enjoyed most, though, were the interludes throughout the book detailing the history, elements and variations on the song. It’s here that you get to see some real flair, as McCulloch and Hendrix enjoy the freedom of not having to deal with a naturalistic narrative. There’s fourth-wall-breaking, a smattering of metafiction, and more than a little fascinating information delivered in an extremely entertaining fashion which makes great and knowing use of the strengths of the comic book medium.
It’s also intriguing from the point of view of being ‘about stories’. How they change depending on the teller, the audience and the times. How people change stories depending on what they want to take from the story, and how they relate it to their own lives, experiences and objectives. And of course, while this could easily become a dry discourse on folkways and narrative conventions and all that fooferah, the creators’ verve, wit and energy ensures that the reader’s attention never lag.
In fact, the entire structure of the work is designed to keep the reader consistently intrigued and entertained. The story and its interludes are well ‘paced’ so that, as the concept appears in the story, the interlude leaps into place, changing but never destroying the rhythm and pacing of the story.
In fact, in many respects, it’s almost the perfect project to do as a comic book. The only thing missing is being able to hear the songs the creators reference, however, a substantial bibliography at the end will surely help with that.
As far as negative comments, I have only one. On the back cover is a review from ‘Interview Magazine’s Griel Marcus. In that excerpt, one of the more striking scenes from the book is ‘spoiled’, which I found irksome. Like discovering Darth Vader is Luke’s father in the trailers.
So avoid the back cover by all means, however, if you find history, music, folklore, stories and how they grow and develop, I’d definitely advise against avoiding this book.
* – Damn, is this one of the best names ever or what?! I mean, maybe not Casanova Frankenstein good, but still…