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Blue In Green reads the way jazz sounds

<i>Blue In Green</i> reads the way jazz sounds<i></i>
Illustration: Ram V, Anand Radhakrishnan, John Pearson, Tom Muller, and Ryan Brewer (Image Comics) (Fair Use)
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Blue In Green is a comic book without traditional SFX, which already sets it apart from 99% of its fellow titles. But more unusual still, it screams jazz on every page. Much as the videogame Ape Out captures the ludic sensation of jazz, Blue In Green lets you read jazz, through the language of sequential images—comics.

The narrative is a familiar one, told to us by our protagonist and narrator whose narration is rendered in a haunting handwriting, each letter scripted by letterer Aditya Bidikar’s own hands. Erik, a washed-up saxophonist who showed great promise as a child but is now a music essayist and Sunday school teacher, returns home after his estranged mother’s death and uncovers her past. In doing so, he meets a demon—the Devil, or some such entity—with the key to musical genius. Erik is at a crossroads, perhaps the same one at which Robert Johnson mythologically sold his soul for guitar skills, and must choose between his soul and life or musical apotheosis.

Such a traditional narrative contrasts with the book’s unconventional visual achievements. The vividness and immediacy of the colors might remind some readers of artist Charles Demuth’s iconic painting I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold, the title of which was taken from William Carlos WilliamsThe Great Figure—thereby connecting a book about such an innovative American musical form as jazz with a similarly innovative American poet. One feels the book echo with sound; raindrops are represented by concentric circles, evoking the sound made by the droplets exploding against wet ground, that overlay the page, even when characters are indoors. A window in a house, from where the narrator tells us sound is emitting, is painted neon-red against calmer blues. Readers may find themselves experiencing a phantom audio-visual synesthesia after reading Blue In Green.

Equally as brilliant as the coloring is the manner in which the narrative is conveyed. As the story utilizes elements of detective fiction, collages—evoking evidence boards—feature throughout the book. Their specific style is reminiscent of the jazz album covers of Romare Bearden, who was a musician in his own right. What comes through most with Blue In Green is how the creative team did their jazz homework: The words of luminaries like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus can be found in the book, offering readers a not-too-shabby primer on jazz history.

Where Blue In Green becomes truly transcendental is in how it allows those who are not musically literate, but might be visually literate, to appreciate jazz through the comics medium. (If we keep with Eisner’s definition of comics as sequential images, sheet music becomes a comics form.) On one level, the book induces the feeling a reader might have while listening to the blare of Pharoah Sanders’ saxophone on “You’ve Got To Have Freedom.” On a higher level, the reader may get the sense the book is begging to be turned into ekphrastic music, so deafeningly loud is its visual rhythm. So much so, in fact, that some of Blue In Green’s pages can be played on an instrument: Essentially, the book’s team recreates a treble clef staff on certain pages. Panels act as the FACE notes and horizontal panel borders as the EGBDF notes, and an actual treble clef staff is in the background of these images. A time signature is missing but, this being comics, the reader can choose how much time to devote to each visual note. When this comic-musical notation is first introduced, the resultant grid is strict. However, when brought back later, like a leitmotif, the grid is in flux—appropriately in accordance with the free-form nature of both jazz and Blue In Green.