The Ballad of John Henry Part 1
Story by Greg Anderson Elysee
Art Walter Ostlie
The Ballads of Rawhead and Bloody Bones
Story by Greg Anderson Elysee
Pencils and Inks by David Brame
Colors by Lee Milewski and Kat Aldrich
Letters by Andworld Design
I frequently speak of the need for diverse voices in creative mediums and after the last review of Is’nana I believe Elysee has emerged as a leader in black and African Diaspora storytelling. The Ballad of John Henry is a fairly well known piece of African American folklore but I say fairly because I’m pretty sure a lot of folks like myself have never heard it. John Henry was a legendary steel driving railroad worker who races a steam powered rock drilling machine. The folklore is rooted in literature and music, and I’m not sure which of these Elysee gets the ballad because it’s anonymous, but it truly captures the feel of the days of railroads and slavery. Elysee is a very aware writer, he starts part one staying true to the folklore and time frame in which it took place, but then he has a twist at the end of part one that thrusts John Henry into a presumably future war like landscape. By staying true to the original in part one and adding his own flare in the second part Elysee adds a unique view of understanding the past and being his own architect of the future. I feel like Elysee is able to capture the essence of John Henry through the art of Walter Ostlie who is an Is’nana veteran and is familiar with both the character and Elysee’s writing style. Ostlie captures this story visually with small captions of the anonymous ballad and what Ostlie does with visuals is truly special. Elysee and Ostlie are clearly comfortable working together because the choice of panel layout and writing from Elysee fit so well. The execution of story through art is second to none and makes John Henry feel like a new tale for a new generation.
First let me start by saying that each one of these tales is a separate entity, each bring something different to the book, and each being stand alone. The beginning of the book starts with the Ballad of John Henry part one and gets us warmed up to the return of Is’nana but it quickly moves to the Ballad of Rawhead and Bloody Bones before finishing with John Henry part two. The format of stacking the stories works well because each of the John Henry tales are easily broken into two. Let me break down each of these tales and see how Is’nana comes to be a part of them.
Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a far stretch from the Ballad of John Henry and I’m surprised they worked so well together. Rawhead is a bit more on the horror side and has a different art team so the feel and look is much different. The story however, is similar in the fact that it’s based in southern African American lore. Again, Elysee captures the mood of the folklore while making it his own and inserting Is’nana into the mix. Both ballads are similar in writing style as they follow the other protagonists before revealing Is’nana but what sets Rawhead apart is that it’s more structured in traditional comic storytelling; dialog, character development through scenes, and the way that the ballad of Rawhead is sprinkled into the story of the protagonists as if it’s being told in context of their everyday lives versus captions of the actual ballad like in John Henry. In comparison to John Henry, Rawhead is more of what I would expect an Is’nana book to be like, it’s centered around a family of two boys and a dad moving into a new house. The boys and their father share moments and it’s revealed that their grieving from the loss of their mother. The story structure is set up very strong and completely convincing of loving yet grieving family. Brame, Milewski, and Aldrich have a solid rapport and do an exception job with character design. The character of Rawhead is very scary, just as he’s meant to be, and everything I wanted from his design. I enjoyed the story of Rawhead as it was told to the young boys and being able to see it come to life from the art team was exactly what I pictured.
I’m excited for Is’nana and I feel like reviewing and appreciating African American art is something that needs to happen more in the mainstream, not just indie comics, but everywhere in comics. I couldn’t have thought of a better comic to read on Martin Luther King Jr Day and I hope this review encourages folks to head over to Amazon or Peepgame Comix and pick up Volume One and Two or give their Facebook page a follow so you can stay up on all things Is’nana!