Talking Bluesman with Rob Vollmar

Talking Bluesman with Rob Vollmar

Arkansas, the 1920s, bluesmen Lem Taylor and Ironwood Malcott are in search of a hot meal and a place to play their music. One racially charged encounter later, Lem is on the run, hunted for a murder he didn’t commit.

Strictly structured in a twelve-bar blues rhythm (it’s explained below), Bluesman comes from the imagination of Oklahoman writer Rob Vollmar and Spanish artist Pablo G. Callejo. A moving piece of religious faith, racial persecution and powerful roots music, the original three-book serialization of Bluesman won notice from Entertainment Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and more.

Writer Rob Vollmar took time out to talk to Newsarama about the brand-new hardcover collection from NBM.

Newsarama: Rob, where did your thinking about Bluesman originate?

Rob Vollmar: At its most basic, I think Bluesman grew out of an impulse to tell an exciting story that would offer some interesting layers of interpretation for the folks inclined to dig a little deeper. Pablo and I had just finished working on Castaways, which is also set during roughly the same time period, so I was confident about our ability to expand on what felt was good work. I wanted to create something more ambitious than our first work in both scope and complexity. It was in thinking about how to fill that space that I latched on to the idea of writing a story about a blues musician and adapting the twelve bar blues structure for comics in order to tell it.

NRAMA: Your protagonist, Lem, blends music, religion and racial identity in the early 20th century. What made you decide to bring all those elements to bear on his character in this book?

RV: Music was necessitated by the decision to do a story featuring the blues. I've been a student of music for essentially my entire life. The only thing I know more about than comics is music, not that my grasp of either is particularly comprehensive. So writing about music and musicians is a type of autobiographical writing for me in the same way that writing about poor folks from southwestern Missouri (The Castaways) in any time period is autobiographical.

Taking that one step further, I elected to incorporate some of my own experiences with Christianity and blend that into Lem's narrative as well. The research I did on the blues suggested that considering blues outside of the contrast to the church experience that it represented to the people who played and consumed it would be an utter waste of time. How better to capture that complementing relationship in the story than to have it be embodied by one man struggling to make sense of the violent and nonsensical world into which he has found himself born? Once I started exploring those themes in the story, they began to shape its content as profoundly as the 12 bar structure that had given it birth.

Lastly, I don't know how one might go about writing an historical piece on blues musicians without dealing directly with the issue of race in America at the time. You can give ten intelligent, rational people access to the same one hundred books on a given topic and every one of them will develop a different picture of what that thing is. I took a hard, long look at the lives of blues musicians and the audiences they serviced from the period and this is what I saw. I make no claims to its veracity. It's fiction.

NRAMA: Fiction it may be, but to properly capture the era, did you do much historical research?

RV: It's kind of misleading in a way to call it research. I think of it more as immersion. I had already gone eyebrow deep into the Great Depression and the years surrounding while I was writing Castaways. I re-read all the landmark books on the blues and a few new ones that had cropped up. I did a lot of listening too and tried to use the music itself as an emotional counterbalance to the scads of information that were piling up in my head. For me, there comes a critical point once the scripting is underway where that anxiety about historical accuracy has to melt away and you are just thinking in period. Some part of you is there and, while it may not represent an authoritative voice on the period in the way a well researched history book can, it is authentic in its role as an interpretation. It says more about how I, situated at this moment in time, feel about that moment in time than anything else.

NRAMA: As a white man, do you feel any hesitation to tackle race as a subject?

RV: As a human being, I wanted to tell a story about human beings. If knowing that my skin is one color rather than another somehow magically changes someone's interpretation or enjoyment of the work, that will have to fall under the category of "Things I Can't Do Much About." It doesn't tell them anything about the people and experiences that have shaped my worldview, the voices and impressions that guide my hands when I sit down to write. I can't get anywhere acting on hesitations. I'd rather fail gloriously than shy away from something out of fear of potentially offending someone who doesn't have all the information.

NRAMA: When did the twelve-bar blues structure become part of the book's narrative?

RV: At the very beginning. In fact, just to be obtuse, I'd originally planned it on the more obscure ten-bar structure. Then, I figured out I had cheated myself of two chapters and immediately caved in to orthodoxy. A bar, for those wondering what the hell we are talking about, is another word for a measure of music. So a twelve-bar blues is a very common type of blues song that repeats its chord progression every twelve measures.

I got rather egg-headed in my desire to fully incorporate this form into Bluesman. Blues music is most often played in 12/8 time which means that there are twelve beats in each measure with each beat being measured in eighth notes. Every chapter of Bluesman is twelve pages long, except for the fourth in each section, which doubles in length as some blues musicians will do with the final measure of each stanza to break up the pattern a little. Also, 12/8 time is thought of the imposition of a triple meter over a double one, leading to its distinctive "One two three Four five six…" rhythm. To emulate this, I broke all the scenes in every chapter up into increments of three pages.

I know to some folks that this all might seem a little…well, unnecessary. What I discovered after having invented all of these ridiculous rules was, like the blues, it made the work itself incredibly easier to write. I always knew how long a scene was going to be. I always knew when the chapter was going to end. All the writing, at that point, became almost reductive, chipping away at everything that didn't fit into the structure until we got to the book itself.

NRAMA: It’s a successful format, I thought. Are you a blues fan?

RV: I'm a music fanatic. Blues has been an important part of that mix since I was about fifteen but I was exposed to music deeply indebted to the blues as long as I have been an active listener.

NRAMA: Bluesman was originally published as three paperback books. Is this new single-edition hardcover book how you always wanted it to be seen?

RV: The three volume serialization was an important part of my vision for this book so to say that this version is how I always envisioned it would be a little misleading. I do think of this edition as one that essentially replaces those. It features the best printing job, the least amount of typographical errors, and minor tweaks to the art and story that improve upon the first editions of the book. I don't think that reading it in one form or the other will necessary change someone's appreciation of it. The story is designed to be consumed either way.

NRAMA: What is the working process between yourself and Pablo?

RV: It's pretty conventional by today's standards. I write a script and e-mail it to him. We discuss any specifics in that section that might not be completely obvious from the script. Once the art is prepared, we look at it together and see if we were taking the some things away from what was written. Sometimes I would suggest things for the art and sometimes he would make suggestions as the story evolved. There was actually a first ending I wrote the book that we agreed, after looking at the script, was just too bleak. He made a brilliant suggestion for the ending and I took it. Every original work I create is a financial and creative collaboration with my artistic partners and I choose those partners by filtering for people who have storytelling chops of their own to bring to the table.

NRAMA: Has your collaboration evolved since your first book, The Castaways?

RV: Yes, but in ways that are hard to quantify to an outside observer. I've been playing music with essentially the same group of guys for going on twenty years now. After that many hours together in rehearsal and on stage, we communicate now in glances and half-grunts. Anything else is superfluous. The same could be said with working for one artist over the course of six years. With The Castaways, I was still developing my craft as a scripter, not to mention as a storyteller so I had to learn how to listen to my instincts and then how to funnel that down to a page of scripted comics. I have some specificities that have developed over the years that have been shaped in a big way by my comfort in telling stories with Pablo. I don't do much in the way of framing the images verbally in the script as I learned that the artist is nearly always more qualified to make that decision than I am. I try to focus my attention to structure, pacing, thematic development, and dialogue and leave the visual sculpting to people with gifts in that particular arena.

NRAMA: What's next for Pablo and yourself?

RV: Well, we've got a solid year of promotion to do on Bluesman before I'm going to be satisfied that we've done what we could to get it out there in front of folks. I'm launching a fairly substantial regional bookstore tour starting in August. I'll be performing some old-school blues and gospel tunes and showing off artwork from the book. I'm planning one more scheduled convention appearance in APE 2008 in November.

Presently, I've got a number of comics in various stages of development. Inanna's Tears, another historical piece but set in ancient Sumer that I did last year with artist mpMann, is presently on hiatus until our publisher, Archaia Studios Press, gets their rudder righted. The last thing I heard was that we might still get a hardcover edition of the whole thing out by the end of 2008. It was a real disappointment to me that they weren't able to finish the serialization because Marvin and I put a lot of ourselves into it. Inanna's Tears deals with some of the same issues of faith and power inequities as Bluesman but using an entire different, and somewhat alien, value system.

I know Pablo is working right now on a book with Ted Rall called the Year of Loving Dangerously. Ted showed me a good chunk of the book at MoCCA this year and I was just amazed. It looks incredible. As good as he was when we started Castaways, Pablo hit this new level about mid-way through Bluesman and shows no signs of dialing it back now. I think people who have read our work together and think they have a pretty good handle on where Pablo is an artist will be really surprised by the shift in style that he makes for Ted's book.

Bluesman is now available. For more information and a preview, visit www.nbmpub.com

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