Love in Vain: Robert Johnson, 1911-1938

Love in Vain: Robert Johnson, 1911-1938
Love in Vain graphic novel review
  • UK publisher / ISBN: Faber and Faber - 978-0-571-32883-3
  • Release date: 2014
  • English language release date: 2016
  • Format: Black and white
  • UPC: 9780571328833
  • Contains adult content?: yes
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: yes
  • CATEGORIES: Biography, European, Music

Has any musician been as mythologised as Robert Johnson? His short life produced very few recordings, and just the single bona fide hit record at the birth of the recording era, but his peers idolised his prodigious talents, and a whole generation of 1960s rockers worshipped at his altar. How much of a career would Led Zeppelin have had without Johnson’s pathfinding?

Johnson died in 1938, around twenty years before his rediscovery, and like much of his life, there’s no certainty as to the exact circumstances. Coping with contradictions and blurring is something J. M. Dupont handles adroitly, his trade as a rock journalist serving him well in cutting through bullshit to an essential truth that doesn’t necessarily have to be an actual truth. He supplies Johnson’s life through the Devil’s third person narrative, a cornerstone of Johnson’s legend being that he came to an accommodation with the devil to master the guitar. Dupont notes the story was one adopted by several other musicians both before and since, easier to do when music was always live and blues singers earned a living travelling from town to town playing in bars or on the streets. Dupont brings out the maxim that wherever Johnson laid his hat was his home.

Mezzo (Pascal Mesemberg) nails the itinerant lifestyle, placing Johnson in a succession of evocative steamy, sweaty places in the USA’s Southern states. His bold use of black in preference to white gives his art the look of woodcut prints, of people fixed in time and place, yet his most memorable pages revel in the movement music inspires. Several full pages depict the uninhibited joy of the poor people Johnson played to, and Mezzo incorporates the few photographs of Johnson into the pages effectively by drawing the poses and expressions with full backgrounds surrounding him.

For the narrative captions Dupont uses the structure of blues lyrics, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, calling for considerable creativity from Ivanka Hahnenberger’s English translation. Either she or Dupont largely gives up the format by midway, but the sardonic voice of the Devil remains consistent as Mezzo illustrates the events of the few dates that can be matched with Johnson’s whereabouts. His lifestyle was one of excess and indulgence, yet it’s presented non-judgementally in what’s an astonishingly fine meeting of text and art that’s both elucidating and expressive.

In 2022 Dupont and Mezzo reprised their partnership to produce a Jimi Hendrix biography. Let’s hope for an English translation soon.