In comic book Twitter, a meme circulates every now and again about how, despite the Big Two’s push to constantly relaunch their titles to attract new readers, most comics readers started with issue 369 of (insert title), in the middle of some long and convoluted story arc, and perhaps without even the ability to read the words. But you get pulled in, you comb through the long boxes, you fill in the blanks; it’s a labor of exploration and discovery, and it’s fun. Another comic book analogy, this time the opposite of fun: the Big Two build up to (multiple) world-shattering events, such that the contents of any one comic book are bursting with exposition, brightly colored spandex figures, and a million non sequiturs trying to keep pace, until the weight of the thing becomes entirely too massive and the editors hit the reset button to collapse everything, streamline the continuity, reset the characters because who even knows what’s going on anymore. See Secret Wars (multiple times), Crisis on Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis (lots of crises in comics)—you get the picture. It’s the Event season, a push for sales by shotgunning your superhero catastrophes across every line you publish so that the sad Wednesday Warrior has to buy every issue to get the FULL story. And it’s not fun.
Alex Jennings’s novel, The Ballad of Perilous Graves (2022), sits somewhere between these two poles. It’s a beautiful kaleidoscopic presentation of New Orleans culture, a mythmaking adventure that invests the standard hero’s journey quest with superheroic jazz, songs that live and breathe fire, and a cosmicism to rival anything the weird canon has to offer. But the reader is dropped into this world at such a breathless pace, treated to so many fantastic changes of scenery and temporalities, distinct characters (with multiple names), and colliding motivations, that the whole enterprise starts to buckle under the weight. I found myself wishing desperately for those fantasy staples of an appendix, or a dramatis personae to help me track the characters, or even a map. There is a definite boldness to Jennings pushing the reader into the deep end of the world and characters, and the writing always feels fresh and urgent. The fantastical worldbuilding is compelling, and the love and passion that oozes off the page for Nola and music and art is infectious. However, amidst the dizzying spin of new concepts and/or characters introduced every other page, I began to feel the ground dissolving beneath me as my own grasp on the story became more and more tenuous.
The story follows Perilous “Perry” Graves, his sister Brendy, and their friend, Peaches, as they embark on a quest that slowly unfolds from the simple mystery of Peaches’s missing father to a cosmic imbalance that threatens reality itself. Perry and Brendy are (mostly) normal children with magical proclivities, but Peaches is akin to a superhero, able to leap tall buildings, extremely strong, etc. Perry and Peaches have a cute preteen romance that they work through as the novel progresses, and Jennings grounds all three of these characters in the subtle stresses and particularities of childhood, more specifically the childhood of three children saturated in Nola culture and history. Add to this cast Casey, a young artist who feels guilt over leaving the city after Hurricane Katrina and the death of his cousin, Daddy Deke, the grandfather who goes missing and spurs Perry and the gang onwards, and a variety of spirits and haints and anthropomorphic songs—Doctor Professor, Stagger Lee, zombies, and more. Jennings does a great job bringing these characters to life and allowing the reader to access the interiority of each, particularly Perry and Casey, who both feel conflicted, tragic, and genuine. Perry suffers from the cliche of the hero-who-denies-the-Call (and Casey does, too, the more I think about it), but Jennings seems less interested in casting aside the storytelling tropes he so clearly admires than he is in characterizing them through the distinctive lens of Black experience and jazz culture. The novel is bursting at the seams with pop culture references and asides, with everything from Batman to the Avengers to TMNT to Return of the Living Dead namechecked, with plenty more besides, and Jennings’s love for this material is evident and, importantly, earnest. The synthesis of all of these elements, which can range from a Dragonball Z-esque fight scene to specific details about New Orleans architecture all in one page, is often seamless and a real testament to Jennings’s ability to synthesize a broad range of subjects. A single paragraph is illustrative here:
Daddy Deke’s house sat around the corner on Brainard Street, a stubby little avenue that ran from St. Andrew to Philip, parallel with St. Charles. The low, ranch-style bungalow with the terracotta roof and stucco walls looked a little out-of-place for the Central City – it was the kind of place Perry would expect to see in Broadmoor, crouching back from the street like ThunderCats Lair.
In many ways, the novel feels like Jennings seizing the chance to play in the fantasy/superhero sandbox that he loves, to marry his adoration of Nola, music, and mythlore with a stack of pulpy paperbacks and single-issue comics riddled with spine ticks and foxed corners. The characters reflect that love back to the reader; in other words, it’s easy to identify with and care about Perry and his friends because they speak the same nerd/geek language we all enjoy. All this to say that the characters are a particular highlight of the novel.
But what are these characters doing? Fundamentally, the novel is a quest/hero’s journey story, with Perry and Peaches and Brendy tasked by Doctor Professor to find and capture wayward song-spirits that have gone missing. Then Daddy Deke goes missing, the stakes get raised, and Brendy and Perry become armed with mystical weapons: a stone and a sack, respectively. To be honest, the plot as such feels secondary to Jennings’s clearer interest in crafting wild scenarios and tossing his characters into the blender to see which way they spin and where they land. The world itself is brimming with ideas all delivered as matter-of-fact, but it leaves the reader a bit disoriented. Magic clearly exists in this world, but to what degree and for what purpose remains ambiguous. Zombies roam the streets, jazz-song spirits pop into existence and play a song or two, graffiti art moves around, and the children are transported to so many different worlds or universes or pocket-portal dimensions that the effect becomes dizzying, rather than immersive. Reading the book feels like picking up that issue of Thor #312 and feeling wondrously lost and swept up in the fantasy of it all, the bright colors and bold figures and heroic action; it’s fresh, exciting, and you feel like you stumbled onto a secret world that you can’t wait to tell your friends about, nevermind how confused you might be. But for all of its comic book references and storytelling sensibilities, The Ballad of Perilous Graves is a novel, not a comic book, and it would be unfair to ask of Jennings’s debut the same wealth of resources available to a reader of Thor #312; there’s no long box to go back through to get the context, no letters column to comb through for hints and shared grievances, no huddled gatherings on the playground as everyone pools their knowledge to arrive at the larger story. However, it would have been nice to have something, some legend to orient myself. Instead, I frequently felt frustrated and lost, with little sense of where or when or why the characters were moving through the different parts of the world. These problems become exacerbated when Jennings loops in different time periods and starts to have characters exist in two different realms (the physical and metaphysical) at the same time, or even have two characters speaking through the same mouth. It’s just a lot.
I wanted to read The Ballad of Perilous Graves because it sounded like a cool fusion of jazz and magic, and it totally checks those boxes. Jennings’s love for the arts comes through loud and clear, so much so that it can begin to veer too close to becoming saccharine rather than earnest. But the line between those two is so often subjective, and I’ve been beaten down by one too many graduate English courses. “Magic and music the same thing,” Doctor Professor tells our heroes, continuing to explain that “music is what keep Nola hummin’. It’s what makes her the city she is.” I think Jennings truly believes that, and he’s written a novel as a testament to that belief, that music and art and cultural expression keep the world turning, vitalize people to something greater than themselves, create communities of synthesis and contrast, spiritual and physical experiences. Jazz in particular, that innovative form, excels through its improvisational spirit, its specific connection to the personality of the player and their horn. But even jazz has its forms, an underlying structure to play from, to allow others to join in as they recognize the chords, feel the rhythms, remember the melodies. The Ballad of Perilous Graves plays a wild and explosive improv that left me feeling propelled and excited, even though I also felt left behind and unmoored, just carried along by every change in pitch, every furious tempo and key change. But it was a great tune nonetheless.