Reviewed by Taylor Hoffman // @taylorcheckers
So much amazing analysis has already popped up on the internet in in-depth reviews, reactions, and outrage over Strange Fruit, the new BOOM! Studios title by Mark Waid and J.G Jones. Strange Fruit reads like an uncomfortable and failed attempt to make Django Unchained into a serious science fiction drama, and it’s just as weird as that sounds. In short, a strange, and black, visitor from the stars lands in segregated Mississippi and nothing surprising happens. The comic leaps rapidly from the relatively mundane racial horrors of 1927 Mississippi to the exaggerated prejudice against a flawless black alien, but what really changes? Of course he’s attacked as an Other. Aliens representing races is nothing new and the reaction from the racist white townsfolk is hardly different than their treatment of black Terrans. It’s something we’ve seen a million times over, and any direction I see this miniseries going is disturbing. It’s not daring and it’s not ambitious and it’s not very interesting. At worst? It’s masturbatory, with Tarantino-esque bravado in two white creators reveling in writing the n-word as often as possible.
WRITTEN BY: Marc Waid
ART BY: J. G. Jones
PUBLISHER: BOOM! Studios
RELEASE: July 8, 2015
Actually, Strange Fruit does read like an uncomfortable and failed attempt to make Django Unchained into a serious science fiction drama, and it’s just as weird as that sounds. The story takes place during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the residents of the fictional city of Chatterlee, Mississippi are in trouble as the water and racial tensions rise while apparently no one wants to do the work to save the town. Loosely historical, the real setting is racism of the south in the 1920s in general, but it takes a sharp turn out of that reality when a meteor crashes onto the banks of the river and a mysterious, perfectly sculpted black man appears. This is the introduction of the idea of a folk-lore that the creators have mentioned numerous times, but it’s unclear what it’s trying to really evoke. Is this a “modernized” version of Stagger Lee, which represents an all too common and damaging misconception that a “strong black man” must always someone who must be sly, lawless, and physically aggressive to the point of superhuman ability? The unnamed, silent, perfectly hairless, super buff alien with a very dark complexion is a mystery. Is he a black man, is he human? Is he from another planet or the future? Well, if he’s not Green Lantern or Superman, is he a threat or a savior and to whom? Why? What statement is this making? This random alien/person appears out of nowhere and automatically the majority of the town, aka KKK members, threatens to lynch him and tries to kill him to no avail. Is he a Black Space Jesus in a few panels like where Jones takes Christian imagery of Jesus and applies them to this new character. Why is he naked and why does he ultimately end up wearing the Confederate flag to cover up? Is that a big fuck you to the confederacy? Is that supposed to be empowering? How? Why does it matter? Why is he here? What is the point? Why?
What is Strange Fruit really about? It’s not exactly a historical drama, it’s not exactly science fiction, and the creators have adamantly stated that it’s definitely not a superhero story; however, it is about power. There’s the overt and prevalent racism of the setting and characters is just distasteful. It is an ill-timed book given the highly publicized hate crimes of 2015, and is there ever a a good time for a sermon on racism from the majority’s point of view? This may not wind up being so, but it certainly feels that way so far.
Overall, the lasting impression I have after reading this first issue is mostly asking why this comic exists. Particularly why the creators tout that their southern heritage that makes this story “personal,” when in fact, it’s not related to their lives at all. It’s not that white men can’t write about anything except white men; rather, the problem is when white people appropriate black experiences and voices and try to make them their own. This manifests in the comic in many ways, but some of the major points are that black characters are not given names –– Sonny is maybe the exception –– and they are either silenced or stoically silent. The majority of the dialogue throughout is actually spoken by different KKK members, unabashedly referencing or addressing any black character by the n-word or as “boy.”
Now let’s be clear, Waid is an excellent and ridiculously prolific author and Jones is a very talented artist with a special craft for capturing a period’s style. The deeply problematic issues with Strange Fruit is not an attack on their previous work or their personal characters, but there is a lot to talk about in terms of privilege and comics.
People can write whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful to others along the way. The problematic elements begins with the title alone. “Bitter Fruit” is a poem by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish man known under the pen name Lewis Allan, and it reflected upon the lynchings of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930 based on a photograph of the two hanged by the KKK. Meeropol empathized with the victims of this crime due to his own minority status, and soon he put it to music. It’s especially important that his wife Laura Duncan, a black vocalist, was intentionally the first to sing it. From there, it became a national and controversial hit when Billie Holiday recorded it, singing and sharing the sad truth of lynchings and the all too casual encounters of racism and violence in the South: “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze /Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.” Despite its author being white, from the recording onward “Strange Fruit” has always been a black reflection of black pain – the pain of slavery and ongoing prejudice. One strikingly recent example of this use in comics is Joel Christian Gill’s comic Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History. Published last year, it examines the experiences of African Americans suffering from slavery and prejudice and maintains their unique voices through a black creators. The decision for Waid and Jones to appropriate this title with no recognition of the true narratives that immediately preceded it is an undeniably disrespectful one, innocently made or not. If so much research had been done before releasing this comic, using this title was certainly one of the biggest mistakes.
So, what is Strange Fruit? It’s a comic, the first of four issues. Are you racist if you buy this comic? No. Are you perpetuating the racism that is presented in this comic? Not necessarily. Is it a good comic? It’s pretty, even though some of the children’s faces look very disfigured, but the writing is nothing spectacular, and it’s a total waste of Jones’ and Waid’s talent. Going into this comic blindly, I was shocked by how much I didn’t like it, but more annoyed that I want to know where it’s going. There are three issues left and as many problems I have with it, I want to know why this exists. I want to know what’s in store, I want an explanation, and I want it to be good. I’m prepared to be disappointed; however, I’m going to read them. It’s important to read source material before critiquing it too much, but it’s completely valid to have strong feelings about something problematic, so if you’re so inclined, try to get your hands on a copy somehow and then write about it. Become part of the discourse because that’s the only way that these things will change. Not all comics need to have a reason to exist, not everything needs to be thought about in-depth, but if creators say that their comic is about important truths about race, then it absolutely must deliver something.