This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 27, 2015.
The first thing that struck me upon finishing Joel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit was just how much I do not know. As someone who prides himself on being both well read and a minor history buff, I’m always astonished at just how much I recognize about the topics I care about. Reading through Strange Fruit made my lack of knowledge on the historical Black experience in America exceedingly clear though.
Strange Fruit Vol. 1 is a collection of true narratives each focusing on Black Americans over the course of more than two centuries. It is a tremendous comics anthology underlined by its subtitle “Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History”. Much of the strength in this collection comes from the lack of recognizability for each story. While each story is groundbreaking in its own right, filled with notes of courage, determination, and various other strains of the human spirit, they cannot be found in standardized textbooks. They are significant chapters in history that have almost fell to the wayside, only to be picked up by Gill.
In addition to the expansive scope of characters and an adherence to historical fact, Gill also brings a surprising all ages sensibility to these tales. This is a little surprising considering the title of the volume, Strange Fruit, which is a metaphor for victims of race-based lynchings in the south. Yet the broader approach works well for readers of all potential ages. Rather than eschewing the darkness found in many of these stories, Gill embraces it, but also highlights the joys and victories so the alternatives are never overwhelming.
Gill’s cartooning helps to blur the various lines that might separate historical fact, oppressive darkness, and approachable storytelling. Like other classic cartoons with a political bent, Pogo and Bloom County for example,Strange Fruit tackles its subject by applying a universal style to scenes requiring levity and pathos. This less detailed style also fits Gill’s storytelling emphasis, as he distills complex narratives into only 10 or 20 pages. The most significant portions of each story are selected and conveyed through a balance of words and images, excluding any potential redundancies. As a result, Strange Fruit becomes a surprisingly quick and enjoyable read, one that is allowed to gain weight as it rests in the reader’s conscious.
While there are various disparities in time and palce that separate the stories of Strange Fruit, Gill’s vision transforms them into a coherent, singular vision, one which celebrates American history and the unsung black lives which populate it. These stories always begin with a hopeful start. An air of innocence surrounds babies flying through their mother’s womb across three panels or being dropped off by a stork. Even a broader narrative about a Maine colony starts with optimistic tones and visuals. Gill is invested in the innocence of beginnings, one that pervades both people in places.
Darkness is discovered in images every bit as clear. Jim Crow is presented as literal crows with sharp feathers and needle-point beaks. This figure is used to represent the faceless crowds of hate that confront various people throughout the anthology. They are an ugly collective that only grow more frightening in pitch black color as they accumulate.
Gill’s style of storytelling weaves his narratives together just as well as his visual style. Even when a historical personality disappears without clear resolution, Gill manages to construct his stories with a beginning, middle, and end, even when they don’t always conclude in “happily ever after”. He utilizes structural elements familiar to fairy tales and jokes with a repetition of elements in 3’s and 4’s. This structure helps to not only make for an accessible experience, but a memorable one. When you leave behind cyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor or chessmaster Theophilus Thompson, their stories linger with you and can be easily recalled to share with others.
And so it is through Gill’s storytelling that Strange Fruit finds vitality. His clear understanding of history and ability to pick out what is most important both to the record and readers, makes these selections matter. The wide variety of choices made in assembling Strange Fruit paint a mural of black American history that feels alive. Together they create a diverse portrait of so many forgotten people and places that built the America we know today. It is Gill’s perspective that provides so many other forgotten points of view new life.
Upon finishing Strange Fruit Vol. 1, I don’t feel overwhelmed, but inadequate. Seeing all of these blind spots in American history spun together into a singular anthology of such memorable tales and power makes me wonder why they are only now being summoned. Strange Fruit is a testament to the contributions and incredible journeys to be discovered in American history and reinforces Gill’s own words about the study of black history that “28 days are not enough.”