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Strange Fruit’s complicated, controversial place in comics’ diversity debate

Mark Waid and J.G. Jones’s miniseries tells a problematic story about the Jim Crow-era South — and about modern comics diversity.

Strange Fruit
BOOM! Studios

The Great Flood of 1927, a biblical-scale event spanning more than 27,000 square miles, displaced nearly 700,000 people and killed 500. Occurring in the middle of America’s Jim Crow era, a period marked by deep segregation, rearticulated forms of slavery, and the height of white law and order — including but not limited to the Ku Klux Klan and local authorities (with members occasionally sitting in both seats) and the persistent culture of lynching — it was a horrific time to be an African American. Their fate wouldn’t prove any better after the Great Flood either, with nearly 200,000 black people relegated to relief camps, eventually forcing many Delta residents to move north as part of the Great Migration.

Against that backdrop, a graphic novel miniseries was created by longtime industry scribe Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, Impulse) and artist J.G. Jones (Final Crisis). Their miniseries, originally released in 2015 via Boom Studios and released this month as a collected volume, is set during the height of the Great Flood, as the small town of Chatterlee, Mississippi, is frantically preparing to battle the incoming tidal wave from the bloated Mississippi River threatening to consume the town. As the flood looms closer by the day, Chatterlee’s white residents cajole the town’s black residents into securing a bulwark against the incoming waters.

In the midst of this imminent catastrophe, though, something else gets added to the mix. At the end of the first issue of the four-issue series, an alien crash-lands in the town. When it emerges from the rubble, it’s revealed that the alien is a black man: large, silent, powerfully built, and naked.

And so begins the rest of the story; a Kryptonian-type origin story of a black superman with unclear motives but very clear strength — in a series called Strange Fruit.

Where to begin?

Strange Fruit attracted controversy with its first issue back in 2015

For starters, why this story and by these two men? Interviews that Waid and Jones did promoting and framing their project suggest some of it is rooted in personal history. In an Entertainment Weekly interview from 2015, the two creators talk about navigating the weight of history, race, and pain through their work. Waid states that as “Southern natives who grew up during the Civil Rights wars … we both feel like we’ve got something personal to say about the racial clashes we saw and experienced first-hand as boys,” and Jones talks about coming to the idea “when my mother passed along a book she read about the 1927 flood in the Mississippi Delta” — earnest, albeit problematic justifications for doing this project.

Aware of the potential pushback in taking this on, Waid also offered in a Newsarama interview that he’s “hyper-aware of my privilege as a white guy” and says, “I've no doubt our readers will let us know if we err.”

Plenty of readers did just that. In a scathing 2015 Comics Bulletin review of the first issue titled “Strange Fruit #1 Is an Embarrassment,” author Chase Magnett poses some provocative statements about the creators, offering that “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,” adding that ultimately, ”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.”

A panel from Strange Fruit.
Boom Studios

Noted comics critic J.A. Micheline, a black writer who focuses on race and gender, shared her perspective on the project on the blog Women Write About Comics. Micheline unpacks the issues around the on- and off-panel politics of Strange Fruit, offering that the last scene of the first issue alone shows that the creators have labored under a white gaze where they “spent a lot of time considering what white folks are or aren’t going to like without once stopping to think about what black folks really ain’t gonna like.”

It’s in her ComicsAlliance article on Strange Fruit, though, that Micheline zooms out a bit more, unpacking how the creation process and the industry itself allows for a project like this to come to fruition. As she puts it, it’s insufficient to suggest that Waid and Jones have erred simply because they’re white creators; instead, she implores creatives who are seeking to tell stories across lines of identity to “create responsibly,” because “[w]hen you choose not to create responsibly and get behind the wheel anyway, it’s marginalized people you inevitably mow down — even if you didn’t mean to.”

Many reviews and interviews have cited this dynamic; Waid and Jones’s project seems to operate under the assumption it gets a pass for the creators’ bravery to “go there” on (white) American racism, and there’s plenty of precedent in the industry of largely white creators tackling the nation’s racist history through comics. In 2003, the Marvel miniseries Truth: Red, White and Black used a Tuskegee-type backdrop to explore the “real” history and cost of creating a super-soldier vaccine that would eventually produce Captain America, and even a 1985 issue of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing (coincidentally called “Strange Fruit”) sought to explore the Jim Crow South, lynching, and racism.

Similar to those earlier works, the conversations about Strange Fruit are typically underscored with caveats that the story is well-intentioned and beautifully constructed, providing a soft landing of sorts for two respected creators. And it’s true that Strange Fruit is a heady, sometimes noble effort, beautifully drawn and colored, with plenty of immersive cinematic moments ranging from the bulging levees in the constant downpour to the constantly laboring black residents in the background of many panels to the wide-ranging facial expressions. Yet Strange Fruit tries to have its cake and eat it too, and ultimately falls under the weight of both artistic sanctimony and execution.

In its haste to make a statement about America’s racist past, Strange Fruit overlooks the nuance of that past

The litany of reasons that Strange Fruit is a deeply problematic story begins with its title, which is owed to a phrase popularized by Nina Simone and Billie Holiday in a song of the same name. The phrase refers to lynching (“strange fruit hanging in poplar trees”), one of the bloodiest aspects of the Jim Crow era, a murderous act that is connected to nearly 3,500 recorded deaths of black people for believed and contrived offenses.

The threat of lynching was a tool used to intimidate and corral black behavior and mobility in social and political situations. Waid and Jones, though, seek to re-appropriate the term here, thinking that a clever intersection of this phrase is to use it as the title of a Jim Crow-era story where an alien black man drops out of the sky, tumbling from on high.

There’s much to be unpacked with this character, too. In interviews with the creators, he’s often referred to as “the colossus,” yet his “given” name after he emerges from the rubble completely naked is “Johnson,” a name too on the nose to be considered an oversight by anyone involved in the creative process.

Perhaps equally astounding is that Sonny, a local black farmhand who spends the series being chased, beaten, and shot in literally every issue, gives Johnson a Confederate flag to drape himself in, and little of Johnson’s attire changes over the course of the series — meaning he spends the story half-naked and voiceless, a characterization that’s laden with the type of fetishizing covered by Wesley Morris in last year’s piece on the taboos around black male sexuality.

Boom Studios

Strange Fruit’s desire to make big, albeit familiar, statements about America’s sinful past and do justice to both the subject matter and history often comes at the expense of considerate or even dimensional characterization. There’s no denying that Waid and Jones did their research on the era; the clothing, appearances, and language all reflect the story’s early 20th century setting. Yet that also means the series is steeped in the language and behavior of the time, and so the endless stream of racial epithets hurled at or uttered in reference to the black characters in nearly every panel can feel especially grating in a series called Strange Fruit that’s centered on a half-naked black super-being called “Johnson.”

Besides a flood, racial tension, and a government employee dispatched to help with the flood and the Klan, the series also adds to the plot a missing white child, and the burden of trying to do it all forces some uneasy characterizations and plot choices. The attempts at humor also confound; there’s a clear nod to the KKK scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, where Waid and Jones spend a couple of panels with some Klansmen fussing about their costuming. Too many details like the above pull an attuned reader out of the story too often, and the resultant story, as put by Publisher’s Weekly in its review, “ends up feeling too self-congratulatory to make a strong statement.”

In a great summation of this story’s direction, Waid positioned Strange Fruit in an “all lives matter” sort of context, noting “the common enemy: a raging river which threatens to claim the entire town.” It’s an odd assertion that feels tone-deaf to both history and its own story, one that quite accurately showcases that in times of national distress, minorities like African Americans must hold the water of the national concerns of the time while still fervently fighting for their own equal citizenry.

Sure, the town may be flooded, but that may hold less urgency for black characters who spend the series being threatened with lynching, being beaten by the cops and citizenry, being jailed without merit and shot on sight. Troubleshooting the flood may be further down the list when you’re fighting and fearing for your life on the daily, and that the story overlooks this frank reality feels essentially like ironic whitewashing.

Strange Fruit reflects the comics industry’s difficulty reconciling traditionalism with a push for diversity

Strange Fruit arrives at a time when the comics industry is in turmoil over issues of diversity and representation, with comics behemoths Marvel and DC exploring how to diversify their respective output. At a recent press panel about their upcoming event “Dark Matter,” the publisher’s heads, Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, discussed the importance of diversity in the company’s line of titles, stressing that their approach to diversity can’t be “[worrying] about servicing the same existing audience.”

This “existing audiences” conversation has been at the core a series of blunders around Marvel’s diversity moves. Marvel’s strategy to date has centered on updating the ethnic and gender identities of existing characters — like Thor (now a woman named Jane Foster), Spider-Man (biracial Miles Morales), the Hulk (Asian-American super kid Amadeus Cho), Iron Man (African-American teenage girl RiRi Williams), and Captain America (African-American Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon) — some of which has been met with furor from a longstanding fan base most comfortable with the established white identities of these heroes.

This consumer reaction has led to a rather predictable conclusion for Marvel, which has announced two upcoming events — “Generations,” which sees classic versions of the aforementioned heroes meeting their new-generation counterparts for single-issue stories, and “Legacy,” which promises to “honor and restore” the company’s iconic names — that read as a not-so-subtle placation to that traditionalist griping.

In an industry where no one stays dead, what truly won’t die is comics’ adamantium-clad sense of tradition. In order to reengage the diehard fan base that drives their sales numbers, both publishers have used winking language about getting “back to basics” and distinguishing between “comic book readers” and “casual readers” in a way that positions diverse characters and titles (and their readers) as the “other” within the industry.

All of which brings us back to Strange Fruit’s problematic placement in this landscape. Strange Fruit’s publisher, Boom Studios, is a smaller imprint than Marvel and DC, with a mission of publishing a wider array of non-superhero stories since setting up shop in 2005. But while it’s smaller in imprint, Waid and Jones’s project fits into the wider narrative of creating and maintaining stories and voices that are speaking to a predominantly white mainstream audience — which isn’t inherently a bad thing so much as a limited one.

The result of this limited view of a work’s potential audience can mean that sometimes stories, even ones striving for racial diversity, end up being created with a white gaze in mind. This is where Strange Fruit’s execution ultimately suffers; not just on the page, but also in the process of an industry still struggling to understand how to hit nuanced, inclusive notes for a changing audience.

Creators and publishers often maintain that it’s ultimately the story that matters, and that these thornier issues of representation and diversity will whisk themselves away as long as a good story is told. The problem is that without maintaining the high ground on pushing for more diversity in both stories and storytellers, the industry risks regressing back to its more whitewashed days. Pivoting the diversity discussion to being about telling a good story feels like the equivalent of Waid’s own Strange Fruit defense: focus on the flood, not the racism.

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