J.G. Jones and Mark Waid’s Strange Fruit takes its name from a poem by Abel Meeropol, made famous as a Billie Holiday song. Only twelve lines long, it was named “the song of the century” by Time Magazine in 1999, has been preserved by the Library of Congress, and allegedly moved record producer Milt Gabler to tears when Holiday first sang it, acapella, to him.
For any that don’t know, the strange fruit are the bodies of black men.
That’s where we begin with this series.
That’s the punch that Jones and Waid chose to follow.
Set in the heyday of the Klu Klux Klan in the only state that still flies the famous Confederate battle flag as part of their state flag, Strange Fruit #1 introduces us to the town of Chatterlee, Mississippi. With the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 on its way, the people of Chatterlee are forced to build levees. Unfortunately, some of them are literally forced to and, even more unfortunately, those select few tend to all be of African descent. We meet a handful of Chatterlee natives and a noteworthy pair of visitors, but the story primarily revolves around Andy and Sonny. The Chatterlee Sheriff says that Sonny stole from a local store. Sonny himself denies the charge, but Andy’s more than a little too interested in enforcing the law in this case. Of course, he has no qualms donning a white hood to go hunting after Sonny, despite his stated passion for the law and the safety of Chatterlee.
It’s a fairly simple set up and little effort is made to complicate it. Andy obviously isn’t a person so much as he’s the representation of a system that convinces people in a position of incredible privilege that they’re somehow not getting a fair share. He’s rude, short-tempered, and loves reminding people of the pecking order. For any simplicity, there’s no denying that Waid captures the unique sleaziness and formality of a bigot. As for Sonny…well, I’m not really sure.
You see, despite being much more likable than Andy, we don’t spend anywhere near as much time with Sonny. He seems to have a good humor about him, all things considered, and he’s neither too timid to speak up nor too stupid to run, but that’s about all I know about him. The story doesn’t even give us a sense of whether Sonny is innocent or guilty, save for the natural desire to side against a Klansman. I suppose it doesn’t matter in such an incredibly broken system, but its the kind of obvious short cut that can really rattle a reader.
And while I can forgive a series for using some broad strokes in its opening installment, it is odd how little we know about our primary characters when the supporting cast is fairly quiet as well. Two of the characters are known only by their occupations, particularly notable in the case of “the Senator”, who’s not only rather present this issue but quite wordy as well. In fact, our presumed protagonist, gets it even worse, being addressed only by racial slurs. The Engineer is largely a vessel for exposition, the Senator largely a way to establish an exceedingly loose limit on the Klan, and I’m not quite sure what function Andy’s son plays in this story yet. That’s not to say that I’m not kind of interested to find out more about them but, for the moment, they feel rather archetypal. The one character who manages to feel fairly specific is, unsurprisingly, the only other one to get a full name: Sarah Lantry. Lantry has some delightful fire in her belly and enough distinction in her character to help her feel like an individual. But, easy come, easy go; she quickly takes a backseat to the Senator and disappears from the book, resigned to be a interesting part of a subsequent issue.
There’s no denying that J.G. Jones is doing some visually stunning work. Beautifully painted and bathed in brilliant light, the art of Strange Fruit feels perfect for the time period. The subdued colors and realistic faces can capture the harshness and routine of the setting, but it can also give a taste of joy and vibrancy when necessary. And, of course, when Jones aims to awe, he succeeds.
It also might explain some of the weaknesses of this issue to mention that the last ten pages, a little over two-fifths of the issue, are devoted to a rather grand action sequence. Jones plays the drama, the key moments, beautifully. The colors of the sky are amazing and it’s incredible how detailed the backgrounds are without detracting, in quality or attention, from the players in the foreground.
Despite the impressive tableaux that Jones sets before us, it is worth mentioning that he can falter in his inter-panel storytelling. The motion of his panels tends to be limited to that one image, not moving cleanly into the next, and one of the most important moments of the story – one involving a falling tree – is a little unclear, lacking the momentum one would expect and failing to depict the consequences distinctly enough.
While the transition from one panel to the next is occasionally jarring, the complete pages tend to be gorgeous. Jones makes some great choices when it comes to layout, selecting which images exceed their boarders and how big to make each panel. There are some really cool arrangements in this issue and that really builds on the sheer beauty of the art.
The last consideration I have is for the context of this story. There’s been a lot of ink put to page, or at least pixels to screen, over this series being put together by an all white creative team. Honestly, from my seat of considerable privilege I’m not terribly bothered by it. At no point did I feel like this story was made to be about Jones or Waid and I didn’t feel like the book touted its own importance. That said, I think there are many decisions that likely would have been made differently if someone with a more personal investment in the material had been a part of its production.
There is something awkward about a series with this premise opening with an issue that’s largely focused around white people. Andy is definitely the character who gets the most screentime and the Senator gets a good deal of the dialogue. Just as with the creators I think that there are stories worth telling about white people in these eras, but I don’t know that I can find a justification or even an implication that the writers intended for writing this particular story that way. The black characters are heavily reactive and our mysterious protagonist is both naked and silent, essentially lacking any means by which to communicate, rendering him literally and figuratively voiceless.
What’s more, the use of the black body is somewhat troubling in and of itself. Massive and heavily veined, our alien – yes, that is uncomfortable out of context – follows a long and sad history of essentializing black men down to the strength of their muscles and the power, both desirable and frightening, of their sexuality. Throughout history the, debunked, idea of black men as inherently physical and strong has been used to justify all kinds of abuse, from the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade to modern day issues with application of medicine and anesthetic. You can’t say that Jones and Waid weren’t aware of that, either, as the characters in this very issue allude to it quite plainly. This is one of those moments where there is nothing innately wrong with what was done, there are clearly tropes at play that work just fine in other cases, but the parallels are too unfortunate to ignore. Even the title that Waid and Jones have used in interviews to refer to the character, the Colossus, is somewhat dehumanizing, making him seem like an object. There’s also just a little too much pointed attention laid on our new friend’s crotch. Admittedly, he’s naked, and logically so and, given our standards of decency, there was going to be some tension, but having the first word Sonny speaks to the Colossus, potentially just as he turns to face him, be “JOHNSON!” sends a weird message. I mean, I’m not sure, but we might actually be able to see his dick on the last page.
You also can’t really call this timely. There are a lot of issues at play today that were hidden away from large swaths of society just a few short years ago, but not only have they always been there, but there isn’t really any commentary to be found in the issue. Sure the Confederate flag is explicitly connected to the Klan, but a basic google search can remind you that that’s just history, as they were the ones who brought the current design to prominence during that period. Likewise, the attention paid to the Klan has potential to be interesting but it neither highlights the essential paradox of supposedly good men hunting African-Americans like animals nor confronts us with the fear and horror of the KKK, abandoning the secrecy and institutional immunity that made them such a powerful and dangerous organization.
- One thing that interested me when I heard this series pitched is that, in many ways, it’s essentially identical to the origin of Dwayne McDuffie’s Icon. Having missed that series by a decade or so, I was interested to see what another talented writer would do with that set up, but it looks like we’ll have to wait for next month to see how the Colossus handles his arrival on Earth.
I opened by discussing what the title Strange Fruit meant outside of this comic, but, in truth, it’s a fairly apt descriptor for this book itself. I was very excited for this book. What story did the man behind Kingdom Come and Superman: Birthright have to tell in the beating heart of American racism? Well the first issue has come and gone and I’m still not sure.
Strange Fruit #1 is a beautiful book, written in an attractive southern key, but, as of yet, I’m not sure why this story needed to be told. The art will be enough for some, but those looking for an honest look at the racist history of America or even a story of the same natural magnetism as much of Waid’s work may be left wanting. It doesn’t crash and burn, it doesn’t offend, but Strange Fruit needs a shot in the arm next month if it’s going to live up to its lofty pedigree.