This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 4, 2015.
Strange Fruit is a much-hyped mini-series coming from two top comics talents, Mark Waid (Daredevil, Kingdom Come) and J.G. Jones (Wanted, Final Crisis). It addresses issues of race in America, something that has been played up to show the comic as being “challenging” and “provocative”. Rave reviews have continued to roll in as the release approaches, which makes the reading experience of Strange Fruit #1 all the more baffling. It is a plainly unnecessary comic book, one that serves no purpose in existing and, due to that, borders on being offensive because of its own heightened sense of importance.
The story is set in Chatterlee, Mississippi during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Chatterlee is a small farming community divided along lines of race. Racial tensions in the town are only increased by the ever-rising river that threatens to wipe away the entire community. Despite its historical setting, Strange Fruit is not a history. The conflict within Chatterlee is altered at the end of the first issue by the arrival of a meteor carrying a massive, silent black man.
Strange Fruit is a comic about race in America created by two white Americans. You can Google images of Waid and Jones, but it’s clear from the first issue who this story was created by. Their perspective and politics are the source of the many problems that weigh down Strange Fruit on a purely functional level.
The alien arrival may be the central figure of the mini-series, but the two most well-defined characters in Strange Fruit #1 are both white. Andy is a farmer who is introduced at the beginning of the story trying to round up black citizens at night to combat flooding. When this plan does not work, he dresses up in his Klan regalia and goes to lynch one man he believes to be a thief. Andy’s evil is cartoonish, without a hint of humanity or depth to make him seem like a real person. He is a caricature meant to represent one side of an equation.
If Andy represents racism, the other half of this equation is not tolerance or justice, but a good white man. The Senator is the most heroic character in Strange Fruit #1; he is educated, well-mannered, and moneyed. Waid makes sure to have him use the most progressive lexicon for African-Americans available in 1927, using slurs as shorthand to define which white folk are good and bad. He is the great white hope set to stand up against the poor, uneducated Andy and his ilk. Not only is the Senator another caricature presenting a #NotAllWhiteMen argument, but he reinforces the narrative where rich, educated Americans are morally superior to poor, racist farmers and hillbillies.
Of the two most significant black characters, only one is even given a name: Sonny. The other is an engineer sent by Washington to help solve the flooding (and reveal how dangerously ignorant Andy and his cohorts are). Sonny is put in the position of being targeted by Andy and his flight for survival drives the action of the story. He is never the force behind the action though. He flees Andy’s wrath and is rescued by the Senator, until he must run again. While Sonny appears sympathetic, he hardly stands out as an actor in the story, being characterized entirely by his responses to others.
For all of the flaws these characterizations may contain, their positions and attitudes are never in doubt. Jones’ is a master of composition, bringing detail and purpose to each individual panel. Faces are constantly in motion, informing characters in the background and foreground alike. There’s more detail to be discovered in Jones’ panels than in the dialogue that flows through them. This only helps to outline the obvious dichotomy between Andy and the Senator, and their emphasis within the story.
Jones’ painterly style, as rich and lush as it may be, also contains a static quality slows the pacing of panels. While individual shots of characters may stand out as being masterful in quality, most lack a sense of motion. Landscapes and shots of the night sky are all the more stunning though, as they encourage the eye to linger.
His presentation of the alien is powerful, but also serves to highlight a problem in Strange Fruit #1. The black man at the center of this story is a symbol of strength and power, but lacks a voice or identity. Like Sonny, who is posed at the end as a sidekick, he only responds to the actions of white men, standing silently until he is attacked. He feels every bit as alien as he appears to be, further exposing the distance between this comic and the experience it aims to depict.
The kindest thing that can be said of the politics in Strange Fruit #1 is that they are well-intentioned. It is clearly opposed to racism. Praising this message is like praising a comic because it is opposed to child molestation: It’s simply too fundamental to be anything more than expected. Ultimately Strange Fruit has no insight or message on race in America outside of basic tenets that ought to be professed by most grade school children.
Instead, the comic reads like an apology by a couple of white men. They think racism is bad. They’re really upset that it’s still so prevalent. And they want to be sure that you know they think racism is bad, because they certainly aren’t racist. It ultimately reveals that this comic isn’t really about race at all, but about the beliefs and worries of the two men creating it.
The real question at the core of Strange Fruit has nothing to do with an alien or a flood. The question is: Why are two white comics creators considered the best voices to comment on the black experience in America? This question only becomes all the more damning when you consider that there was already a comic titled Strange Fruitillustrated by Joel Christian Gill and published last year, created by black Americans.
Waid and Jones’ Strange Fruit seems ignorant of its place within American comics. Not only does it taking the title of a recent comic by black creators, but the title itself is incredibly charged – stemming from lyrics in the Billie Holiday song of the same name, where “strange fruit” refers to the victims of lynchings hanging from Poplar trees. It is not that white people should not address this setting or these themes (Abel Meeropol who wrote “Strange Fruit” was a white songwriter), but that if they choose to do so, they ought to have something worth saying. Waid and Jones have nothing to add. Their narrative is filled with heroes and villains constructed from the conscience of two white Americans eager to prove their irreproachability.
The subtitle of Gill’s Strange Fruit is “Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History”, and it is a phrase that illustrates both what is wrong with Waid and Jones’ Strange Fruit and much of American comics. From the blockbusters at Marvel and DC to creator-owned endeavors at publishers like BOOM! and Image, these comics are almost entirely populated by white creators. Despite the surge in diversity within these books, it is not matched by those making them. It is a problem so endemic that the mainstream comics community is more likely to celebrate a graphic narrative about being black in America by two well-known white creators than one by a man who has actually lived it (and received praise from sources not so singularly focused). Strange Fruit #1 is simply a continuation of a white narrative in a predominantly white medium by white creators that purports itself to be about the black experience.
On its own Strange Fruit #1 isn’t offensive. It’s boring, bland, and entirely unnecessary, but it isn’t filled with hate. However, it highlights a broader problem, one that is truly offensive. If this mediocre effort is embraced as being “challenging”, then what hope do comics that actually reflect black history or experiences have? Strange Fruit isn’t a comic to be praised; it’s an embarrassment.