I first came upon this title when researching the contemporary legend of blues musician Robert Johnson and his alleged meeting with the devil at the crossroads to obtain his musical talents and short-lived fame. And although neither Robert Johnson nor the meeting with the devil at the crossroads motif were referred to in this graphic novel for mature readers, there was a strong emotional identification with the Johnson story when reading about Barnabus Benjamin Wolf’s tragic adventures with the Littlepig family. BB Wolf, a Mississippi farmer, father, husband and innovative and pioneering blues man was not the ruthless and deranged killer the media and the general public thought him to be. This tale sets the record straight, relating the story of racism, murder, revenge, and the blues through the lens of a classic folk tale set in 1920 in the Mississippi delta. The Littlepigs set a terrifying force into motion when they decide to apply a minute legal loophole to seize the farms and lands of the oppressed wolf class.
This is not a tale for the faint of heart or for those looking for a friendly reworking of a traditional children’s tale. For example, in one explosive page, BB Wolf, angered beyond control with the beating and callous treatment of one of his friends, makes his way to the office of one of the LittlePig brothers where he softly utters the well-known refrain “Little Pig, Little Pig, Let me in…” before he screeches “… cus I’m gonna take off your head right at your chinny, chin, chin!” And he does.
BB is first presented with some empathy. Yes, he is a heavy drinker and stays away from his family at night so he and Molly, his guitar, can sing the blues, but he is a loving husband and father at the same time. It is only when the LittlePig family creates chaos and condones murder that the nasty side of the Big Bad Wolf rears its head permanently. His need for revenge and his actions in obtaining it are less sympathetic but, at the same time, very comprehensible.
The story is divided into three separate sections corresponding to the three houses of the traditional tale that this story is so effectively reworking. Each section is introduced by a small sketch of each of the houses, accompanied by an appropriate quote from song lyrics: InMemory’s “Our House of Straw,” Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks,” and “Brick House” by The Commodores. The three miniature black and white drawings of the houses and the accompanied quotes in white are situated on a stark black page, successfully defining a change of scene and tone. All of the other illustrations, surrounded by black frames, are also rendered in black, white and grey tones, effectively echoing the sombre tones of the tale, the era and the misery of the blues material, if not the music. The illustrations do not shirk from the bloody violence but do not glorify it either. All of the animal characters are individualized and easily to recognize while at peace or angry. The illustrations are filled with power, pathos and some humor. There is great variety in perspective, viewpoints, panels, and poignant close-ups that combine with the text to deliver a satisfying, but not comfortable, read.
Musical and popular culture references are scattered throughout adding a supplementary delight on further readings – too much happening for this reviewer to take everything in at one reading. The narrator changes at the end of the tale, offering details that BB could no longer provide and JD Arnold’s afterword provides even more information enabling the reader to understand the miscarriage of justice that surrounded the legend that BB Wolf became in subsequent years. Also included are the lyrics to three songs that were considered “lost” until the publication of this book. Accompanying my reviewing copy was a cd of the lost recordings done both by BB Wolf (1919) and contemporary blues musicians (2010), aptly demonstrating the variances in musical tastes and interpretations in the intervening years. The lost songs offer further retellings of the traditional folktale as Delta blues magic. Three drink blotters (coasters), each one representing one title of the songs recorded by BB Wolf and the Howlers, rounded out the package.
Well researched and effectively told in text and illustrations, this graphic novel is highly recommended for young adult and adult readers interested in American history, blues music, issues of racism and corruption, and darn good storytelling. Nominated for FOUR Glyph Comics Awards and now available in digital format and in a limited exclusive BB Wolf Box Set which includes: the BB Wolf and the Three LPs graphic novel; the BB Wolf & The Howlers cd with 7 original songs; 2 shot glasses; 3 coasters, and a signed and framed BB Wolf print!
And for my initial connection to Robert Johnson? I suggest one mosey on over to the website and watch the book trailer.
BB Wolf and the Three LPs
by JD Arnold
Art by Richard Koslowski
top shelf, 2010
Publisher Age Rating: Young Adult