Ever since I saw the first advert for Boom! Studios’ Strange Fruit in one of my comics last year, I’ve been anxious to pick it up. So that’s why I made it a priority to stop by the Boom! Studios booth when I was out and about at Emerald City Comicon this past weekend. Yeah, I’m late, but that’s why we call it the Better Late Than Never review series…
I must have been focused on other things because I missed the drama that ensued online when Mark Waid came under fire for being a white guy who created a comic about the vast and endemic racism in the Jim Crow south during the 1930s. If you’re familiar with my review of Bloodthirsty, another comic about a black man that simultaneously focuses on black (and other disenfranchised people) in the south, then you know I don’t care about any of that until I’ve actually read the comic. It’s like literally judging a book by its cover… I’m not here for that. I’m here for the content of the comic. With that said, I have some mixed feelings.
Here’s the synopsis:
[blockquote cite=”ComicBookResources.com” float=”left” align=”left”]What It Is: It’s 1927 in the town of Chatterlee, Mississippi, drowned by heavy rains. The Mississippi River is rising, threatening to break open not only the levees but also the racial and social divisions of this former plantation town. A fiery messenger from the skies heralds the appearance of a being, one that will rip open the tensions in Chatterlee. Savior or threat? It depends on where you stand. All the while, the waters are still rapidly rising…[/blockquote]
The “being” in question is a giant black man who doesn’t understand English (or any other language on Earth, I’d wager) and doesn’t speak. He seems slightly confused as to what is going on in the small town of Chatterlee but doesn’t seem to care. He’s landed on another planet, picks up the nearest confederate flag and drapes his loins with it. Yes, he wears the confederate flag as a loincloth! I have to admit I was quite tickled.
He strolls around the town of Chatterlee while the white townspeople are aghast, at not only his physical stature but his bravado for going anywhere and doing anything he wants, like going to a whites-only library. The black townspeople don’t know what to make of him either, but he looks like them, he’s stepped in to help out on at least one occasion, and he’s a powerful ally. While this is happening, the African-American locals have to deal with racism, both from the townsfolk and the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, attacks, and being forced to work on a levee while their white counterparts sit and watch. An African-American engineer sent by the U.S. government to oversee and assist with building the levees is met with derision and condescension at every turn, despite his expertise, position, and qualifications. Throw in a missing white child and you have a recipe for a disaster of epic proportions.
Strange Fruit #3 hasn’t dropped yet (someone at the Boom! Studios booth told me that they are looking at something within the next month), so I’m not sure what’s ultimately going to happen. And to be honest, I am a bit concerned considering there are only four issues in this arc without a clear endgame. Will the town come together? If so, how will they do that when racism and the criminality that comes with it runs so freaking deep? Will the white townsfolk suddenly dismantle the effects hundreds of years worth of white supremacist doctrine and actions? Will the black townsfolk even trust them? Should they even trust them? I really hope that it doesn’t come to some Hallmark moment that doesn’t really make sense because the last thing we need in this country is more oversimplification and revisionism of our history.
That said that is a concern, and it hasn’t happened yet in Strange Fruit, so one cannot judge the comic by what could potentially happen. And Mark Waid pulled no punches in the way he portrayed life for African-Americans in 1920s Mississippi. That is something I respect because it was an ugly time in history and, as anger-inducing as it was to read at times, Waid did not sugarcoat any of the racial dynamics to soften the blow. The art, by J.G. Jones, was unique and reminiscent of Norman Rockwell but without all the cuddly, feel-good feelings removed. This is what makes Strange Fruit that much more powerful because the characters don’t come off cartoonish or comic book-ish. The art in Strange Fruit helps to envelop the reader into the story and the time period, adding a certain level of gravitas to an already serious comic. The added science-fiction aspect to the plot does lighten things up a bit, however.
All in all, I recommend Strange Fruit but don’t go expecting a ton of action. Waid is setting up for something big, whether it comes from the giant alien man, the storm, or both remains to be seen, but it is coming. And while I understand the misgivings about a comic named after an iconic Billie Holiday song about the lynching of innocent black people by a white man, the content speaks for itself. It is not pretty and it is not, thus far, going to make anyone feel comfortable about our past history.