As someone who strives for perfectionism in everything – writing, playing instruments, sports – I know firsthand how my obsessiveness evolves into a complex mix of pride and pressure. But horror often coexists with the beauty found in music. After eight years playing the trombone as a school band student, competing onstage in group honor band and trombone trios, and leading chapel services for entire gyms full of people while playing guitar, I have experienced both terror and jubilation from musical ambitions. There’s the quiet horror coupled with solitude; sitting alone carving the notes, the rhythm, the glissandos, into a gleaming slab of excellence. Divots in fingertips, red imprints from weight on shoulders; these markings brand us musicians with visible demarcations. No one has to ask “How badly do you want it?” The evidence is pressed onto our bodies – and our souls.
The 2020 graphic novel Blue In Green is an amalgam of ideas about music and obsession. An outpouring of horror and beauty, of art and dreams, of ambition and perception, this musical graphic novel is synthesized through a phenomenal artistic collaboration. Written by Ram V, with illustrations by Anand Rk, colors by John Pearson, and letters by Aditya Bidikar, Blue In Green translates jazz into the comic medium. Their work makes the intangible tangible. Sound, both non-diegetic and diegetic, takes on a corporeal existence. Sound is as visual as it is audible through the melody of collaboration.
Rendering music, specifically improvisational jazz music, onto a physical page is nothing short of a transcendent feat of ingenuity. Blue In Green intersects prose, artistry, and music by tapping into the language of music itself. If music is the language of the soul, then Blue In Green works to define that language in visual terms.
The Visual, Circular Sound Of Jazz Music Through Art
Musical arrangements initially emanate from a structure. Composers follow basic rules, anatomy where key changes, beats, riffs, and harmonies are ordered on the page in a designated sequence. But what happens when jazz musicians, or any deviation from structure, rely on improvisation on stage? What happens when the soul conjures images, a thrumming deep inside, where aching memories and colors erupt in a kaleidoscope of feeling giving an instrumentalist or singer an impetus to proclaim the song stored inside themselves? Blue In Green experiments with artistry leaping outside conventional, structured boundaries, like jazz itself, to illustrate how music sounds.
For all its glorious improvisational atmosphere, Blue In Green adheres to artistic patterns. Circles appear as a recurring motif; at times, circles represent sound, denoting the sound of raindrops reverberating off surfaces. The most obvious circular motif appears in the book’s multitudinous renderings of spiral staircases. Circular movement becomes integral to the story, especially considering the circular movement found inside songs.
In the type of jazz called “modal jazz,” listeners hear circular movement underneath a rejection of functional harmony. Modal jazz incorporates musical modes — modulated, improvised modes take center stage while a repeated tonal chord progression plays underneath the modulation.
One key musical figure in this comic, Miles Davis, was one of the first modal jazz innovators; his 1959 track “Blue in Green,” which serves as the comics’ namesake, recalls the sound of a modal framework. In the background, the tonal center plays on a circular loop while Davis mixes improvised notes and static harmonic material, playing one chord for an extended time. Therefore, “Blue in Green” follows a semi-complicated time progression where the melody rings out as circular movement.
Whether intentionally echoing this pattern in the song or not, the graphic novel Blue In Green manifests this cyclical nature, illustrating protagonist Erik Dieter’s subjective outlook toward music and the sound of circular movement.
Akin to the songs’ time progression, the graphic novel plods along at varying frequencies: there’s the circular theme of Erik diminishing himself through wantonness and then diminishing himself again through a toxic musical resurrection. Yet, atop that circular movement, Ram V’s script interrogates the abyssal space between passion and obsession through Erik’s increasingly unpredictable – and unreliable – narrative voice.
Rk grafts concentric circles inside Erik’s world as graphing lines remain unerased, and watercolors — shades of violet tinged with blue — dribble down the page. Readers peer overhead as Erik ascends a flight of stairs when searching for the old woman who may yield answers to his search for the jazz musician in his mother’s photo collection; from this angle, the staircase looks infinite. Out of the open circles, the shape of music flowing through a saxophone’s tone holes or octave vents is rendered visibly. Here, circular movement reminds readers Erik is climbing higher toward an endpoint where he can never surpass his curiosity, his dissatisfaction over what ifs?
Circular record player illustrations are marked, scratched; nearly real objects floating on the page. Just as the characters seem to take on shapes paralleling impressions and shadows, the circular records act as a conduit for the musician’s soul. Stagnant records trap the musicians inside until they spin. Crossing over panel borders, notes dance through twofold spreads unrestrained by gridlines. Treble clef staff marked by panel borders symbiotically create a page of sheet music. The records spin and Blue In Green lets the music sing like typographic images rising off the page into the air.
Reality contorts through circular music imagery pushing themes around. The story’s illustrations meditate on how a measured tempo moves underneath the improvisation required to survive life’s harsh unpredictability; from V’s thumbnail input to Rk’s surrealist imagery, compounded by Pearson’s evocative colors and Bidikar’s seismically crucial hand-written lettering, all of the book’s creators inject the graphic novel with the idea of palpable sound.
The Devil’s Interval
An elusive figure, a devil-like character cultivates Erik’s obsession in Blue In Green. Ironically dressed in pure white, the evil creature manifests after a confluence of mental misfortunes befall him. Essentially, this antagonist is the throughline between the comics’ mystery and Erik’s quest.
The phantom is the pull, the obsession, the physical need galvanizing musicians who seek a stratum of recognition for their talents. And how recognizable this possessive phantom appears. How often do we musicians make a Faustian bargain with Him? Selling our souls to aspiration, we sell the very language composed inside said souls to seize an unrelenting Idea.
Upon my research, I stumbled into a relevant chord found in music theory. Blues music, a contemporary of jazz music, sometimes utilizes three blues scale notes known as The Devil’s Interval. These flattened minor key notes devote themselves to tension in a musical composition. Again, The Devil’s Interval is more formally recognized as the aforementioned tritone.
Like the devilish being conjured by Erik during Blue In Green, The Devil’s Interval sounds like an incongruous anomaly. The demon disturbs the graphic novel’s musical language. Again, we might question analogous deliberateness. In the end, the correlation only strengthens my connection to the comics’ virtuosity.
Connoting the ‘Blue in Green’
Whatever meaning a reader chooses to attribute to the Blue in Green, whether based upon the Miles Davis-performed song or the graphic novel’s associated interpretation, additionally aids an interpretation of how Blue In Green displays musical understanding. For musicians who have spent any amount of time staring at sheet music, the connotations are evident from the first reading.
Music yokes itself to color quite frequently. Many musicians, for instance, often exhibit symptoms of synesthesia, where joined senses invoke alternate sensations. A person might hear a musical note and register it as a color alongside the sound. Blues music literally invokes the color blue in its name. Davis worked to facilitate feelings and color in the album Kind of Blue.
So, how can we define the Blue in Green in relation to the graphic novel? The lyrics to the jazz ballad, written by Bill Evans, read:
*“Hues of blues and greens surround me Knowing you have found another love Has turned me world to sorrow
Green with envy for another Fearing she may be the one to soar Through life with you, can’t lose these.”*
If you listen to “Blue in Green,” the song provides the musical tonal framework for the comic. In Blue In Green, Erik wades through life bogged down by melancholia. This melancholia could connote the Blue.
Hues of longing, contemplative blue overwhelm – surround – the once-promising jazz musician. As Erik flies home to attend his estranged mothers’ funeral, purple imbues the panels. Blue and red, a color that ominously creeps upon the pages in greater mass as the story progresses, combine to create a violescent hue. In the beginning, Erik wanders through limned spaces bathed in perpetual twilight. These are striking colors to witness during the first few pages. Here, Erik exists somewhere on the periphery of blue and red as he ruminates about ambivalent dreams of death. The Blue shimmers in the air, taking an unhurried stroll akin to Davis’ long whole notes resonating in the “Blue in Green” opening trumpet solo.
The Blue then merges with another hue, the malicious green. Upon returning to his hometown, his family house, and reconnecting with his long-lost love, Vera, nostalgia overwhelms the jazz teacher. Envy, the green-eyed monster dapples the pages when Erik recounts how his unrequited love for Vera colored his outlook on any romantic endeavor over the years. The Green occupies meaning as both envy and nostalgia through Blue In Green. Nostalgic green paints itself in broad, careless strokes, juxtaposed against ruminative blue when Erik lies in his dead mother’s bed imagining her body decaying. Rk and Pearson illustrate this by manipulating the image of his mother’s face in three successive panels until only scratchboard lines and nebulous shapes inhabit her form in the final panel.
Thus, the Blue equates to longing and the Green equates to fresh envy or nostalgia for that longing. But Erik wants more. The moment before walking on that stage, instrument in hand, we musicians feel colors and emotions and all that we’ve worked for settling into place. It’s the wistfulness battling against the calling. Do I deserve praise? Am I good enough? Here, we find the Blue in Green. Erik hungers for this war; to achieve his potential, to soar high into that blissful Blue in Green as the renowned jazz musician he wishes he could be until the wave of longing nostalgia for contentment brings him back down to Earth.
A memory regarding a staircase haunts Erik. When he finally comes to understand how he fell down the staircase, ghostly white and red lines twist to give the idea of tumbling down those stairs. The mismatched sizes the horizontal boxes take summon the musical sound of piano keys playing an inharmonious scale.
Staircase imagery invites a rhythm, where each step toward some great unknown could sound like a note’s timbre. Rare panels confined by borders in the comic regularly come in groups of three, which may reference musical tritones; the piano-adjacent and tritone imagery deftly recreate the sound of music.
Although suppressed within his head, Erik views the harsh memory through a musical lens. I can hear the thuds like thunderous booms as he hits each step, suddenly rendered immobile on the floor in a triad of panels where the Blue first began. The Blue, melancholic nostalgia, relays the color Erik links to his traumatic experience.
The story coalesces its thematic content with a visual representation of jazz music. Tension arises from the dissonant notes, the blues notes, in jazz. Music grasps the soul, and this comic stirs the soul. A musical interpolation depicts Erik’s journey through these dissonant notes as his obsession for perfection entices him to reach the Cyan, or, the Blue in Green.
Blue In Green crafts sound from the details, both evident and blurred. Music magnifies through frantic lettering and imagery stretched into connotated shapes. And if we look closely enough, we can hear the soundtrack emerge from the soul of Blue In Green.