The comic Bayou follows a time honored fantasy tradition of young girls exploring other worlds — think Alice and her journey into Wonderland, Wendy traveling to the stars with Peter Pan, Dorothy being swept to Oz in a tornado, and more modern incarnations such as of Helena from Mirrormask and Ofelia from Pan’s Labyrinth. Lee is another young girl in that tradition, swept into another world to compete with supernatural forces she knows little or nothing about, but Bayou carries an additional socio-political layer.
Lee is a little black girl in American South in 1933. Her life is complicated by the huge social and political problems of her time. Her world is one of pain and prejudice, of being unfairly accused because by virtue of her skin color she’s considered less than human, a world where black boys are hung while grown white men gather to watch him swing, a world where a little girl is the only hope is saving her father from that same fate. The ongoing webcomic is hosted and free to view, along with many others, at Zuda Comics, the online branch of DC. Bayou has gotten so much commercial and critical praise that DC is releasing it in print form — the first trade paperback is due in June.
The story starts with Lee being sent underwater to retrieve the body of Billy Glass, a young black boy hanged for supposedly whistling at a white woman. While under the water Lee sees his spirit fleeing his body and from that point on has a crippling fear of the bayou by her home. The fear is completely justified. There are things living in the swamp and the world it can lead to — things we might call spirits or gods, demons or fairies, or any number of names. Lee would love to never have to enter that world again. But if she doesn’t go into the bayou and find Lily, the daughter of the woman whose land Lee and her father live upon, her father will end up lynched for Lily’s supposed murder.
Lee knows her father had nothing to do with Lily’s disappearance because she saw what happened to her: a creature emerged from the murky waters of the bayou and devoured the girl whole. Lee has to push past her fear and confront supernatural forces that have been feeding and forming around the hate of the south for decades or she may never see her father alive again.
Bayou’s stunning artwork doesn’t shy away from the harshness of life for African-Americans in the south during the 30’s, creating a disturbing effect that leaves the reader in awe of the visuals while recoiling from what they can contain. The blending of the mundane racist world of the time with the spirit world and the influences they have on each other is an extremely important part of the work. This is evidenced early on by the appearance of a water creature that attempts to drown Lee in the bayou — it has features that coincide with racist imagery still used today: coal black skin with round yellow eyes and thick bright red lips — and by the fact that the spirits that attempt to warn Lee are lynched African-American men and women that call down to her from the trees they still hang upon.
Epithets for African-Americans are spouted without remorse by characters. Though the n-word is styled n—– within the work, other insults such as “nigra” and “pickaninny” are used freely. Part of me rails at this censorship of the n-word, especially if one of the goals is to expose the horror of being African-American at this time period. Even though I can understand why it was done I feel like the censoring of that word means that some of the potential emotional impact in the story is lost. I don’t want this to be interpreted as my saying I approve of the use of the word in general or even in fiction in general, but if you’re trying to portray a period where that word was part of the basic vernacular I see the starring of it as somewhat of an issue. Anyone raised in America tends to have such a visceral reaction to the word, it’s a part of history that makes people uncomfortable and it would have added to my experience to have been forced to sit in that uncomfortable space periodically. But I understand why they may have felt the censorship necessary.
Bayou is a comic that challenges not only our expectation of comics but also our relationship with the history of America. There are no punches pulled when dealing with the racism and that’s where the genius of the piece lies. Below the beautifully crafted pages of art and words, below the original storyline, and below the themes, there’s a raw emotionality that’s being explored. An open wound on the psyche of many countries that were involved in the slave trade that goes ignored or unacknowledged in most situations. The fact that Bayou addresses those issues and doesn’t gloss over the horror of it while at the same time not being sensationalized puts it in the realm of one of the best comics I’ve ever read. It’s certainly one of the best I’ve seen that deals with race in the early south. Add in the enticing story, the tension filled adventure, and the fantastical creatures lovingly rendered, and it’s easy to see why DC comics decided to have Bayou make the jump from web to print, if only to spread it to those not aware of Zuda.
Unlike those mentioned above, excepting Ofelia, Lee does not leave behind real world troubles and encounter more fantastical problems. Instead, the two blend and the racism and hate of the real world follow her into this new world. The horror of her world is never far from her mind, and if she returns home she won’t be safe in the arms of her uncle and aunt. There’s not even a guarantee that locating Lily will stop the mob that’s gathering from lynching her father; they may still kill him simply for the crime of being a large black man.
If she returns to her world, Lee will continue to live with the prejudice and hate that surrounds her. But like most of these “young girl in otherworld” stories, she will change on the inside. We already start to see it in the 174 pages that are up right now; her courage, her strength, and most of all her knowledge that she’s not what other people think she is. I don’t know where the comic is going to end up but I do know I’m going to be there for the whole ride.