I recently finished reading a 26-page comic by an indie creator titled Is’Nana the Were-Spider: The Ballads of Rawhead & John Henry. This one-shot comic is part of the “Is’Nana the Were-Spider” graphic novels series written and created by Greg Anderson Elysée. The series follows Is’Nana, son of Anansi the Spider, God of Stories in west African and Caribbean folklore. While searching for his father, Is’Nana unexpectedly releases creatures from his realm into the human world that begin to wreak havoc. Hoping to correct his mistake, Is’Nana finds Anansi and the two work together to fight and capture these “horrors” while trying not drive each other crazy in the process.
Is’Nana the Were-Spider: The Ballads of Rawhead & John Henry takes us on two of Is’Nana’s missions as he fights to eliminate one threat of legend and aid the other in finding his way back home. The book begins with the ballad of John Henry, racing against the steam machine, when suddenly he is sucked into a mysterious portal and whisked into another world. The ballad breaks and the reader is introduced to a family of three, a father and his twin sons, who have just moved into a new home. The boys learn about Rawhead & Bloody Bones for the first time and, unfortunately, become his prey. Is’Nana, working with his father Anansi, attempts to rescue the victims of Rawhead and end his reign of terror. Upon conclusion of this fable, John Henry returns and, as a bystander, chooses to use his strength to assist Is’Nana in his current battle.
Sooooo…Where do I start? Greg’s poetic approach to storytelling took me back to why I enjoyed reading in the first place.
My initial exposure to Anansi the Spider was in my 1st grade class during reading time. My teacher Mrs. Brown (now Mrs. Jackson, Hey!!) was determined to encourage us to read and write by introducing us to books written by and about people of color. Though I was creeped out about this cunning, human-like spider telling stories and meddling in his own “trickster” ways, it was one of the first books I can recall that connected me to my African roots. Culturally, it offered a sense of belonging that was missing in “mainstream” media. Creatively, for six-year-old Jeneé, it was about thinking beyond what was common to create something different and innovative. The story of Anansi became a favorite and one that would constantly be requested to be read in class. Reading time with Mrs. Brown was something to look forward to, and being the amazing educator that she is, created an environment conducive to developing young readers and writers with an enhanced appreciation for literary artwork. This is why I have an even greater admiration for this particular indie comic.
First, let’s talk about the artistry. The way the writer takes well-known icons from African-American folklore and seamlessly incorporates them into the world of Is’Nana is ingenious. Having read the entire Is’Nana series thus far, I can say that this comic takes a slightly different approach. The focus in these tales is not necessarily on Is’Nana and his relationship with other characters, but on those that Is’Nana is trying to help. Furthermore, the Ballad of John Henry is just that, the ballad of John Henry. Lyrics and all. Aside from a couple of panels that describe the machine’s difficulty processing data, there are no other additional texts or phrases from the author. The change of pace, however, doesn’t disrupt the flow or continuity of Is’Nana’s journey that is clearly depicted in the previous novels. There was no break in the storyline. No confusion or questioning the relevance of their existence in this series. In fact, putting these characters together just made sense. Is’Nana is still on his pursuit to end calamity and protect others and Anansi is still the “God of Stories” (and behaves as such!). Mr. Elysée successfully maintains the integrity of John Henry and Rawhead while giving readers a new fable to enjoy. It transcends generations and can easily spark multi-generational conversation around African and Black-American lore and oral tradition.
Now, the visuals. The art for John Henry’s story was done by Walter Ostlie. Artist David Brame provides the pencils and inks for “Rawhead and Bloody Bones”, colors by Lee Milewski and Kat Aldrich, and the letters were completed by Andworld Design.
One of the benefits of comics and graphic novels is the amazing art work. The illustrations are crucial in telling the story and often provide information that we may miss if we’re not paying attention. In this book, the art definitely participated in forming a connection between the reader and the story. The artists involved in drawing, coloring, and also lettering these panels did not hold back. There is a clear distinction in the art style when transitioning from the Ballad of John Henry to the story of Rawhead and Bloody Bones. This switch actually adds to the overall impact of reeling the readers in and teleporting us to another time and place. At the same time, the two different styles complement each other, delivering a cohesive flow of visual storytelling that does not interfere with the purpose of the book.
With the Ballad of John Henry specifically, I was impressed by Greg’s ability to take us on such an adventure without writing a single word. The imagery tells the tale, and the details, the message, and the story conceived by the writer was very well expressed by the illustrator. As I am reading the ballad lyrics written amongst the beautifully displayed images, my mind immediately translates the pages as if I’m watching a television screen with the song playing in the background. All the action the visuals convey flows through my head with sound effects that connect me to every move the characters make. The writing of this comic is very intentional. It tugs on your imagination, forcing you to see what the writer wants you to see, and once you’ve caught the vision, you can’t un-see it. In fact, you feel it. The emotional attachment is subconsciously formed as I almost shed a tear myself seeing where John Henry is headed next.
Reading this work was refreshing. I look forward to what’s next on Is’Nana’s road and I commend the author for capturing the reader’s attention so eloquently. Mr. Elysée’s goal to remember our stories and keep them alive for us and our posterity is definitely being achieved. In the words of Tay Money…He understood the assignment!
I encourage you to check out the “Is’Nana the Were-Spider” graphic novel series here!
P.S....A new book was recently released, "Is"Nana the Were-Spider: Drums of Ogoun".