Strange Fruit #1 is a Boom Studios comic by Mark Waid and JG Jones. I missed its release due to the craziness of Comic-Con and its aftermath, and then the just general craziness of what should be the slowest time of the year. But in the past few days I have discovered it and oh boy. It seems that when nobody was looking some real life evil villain built a Bad Idea Ray and shot Mark Waid and JG Jones in the face with it. Multiple times.
Strange Fruit on its surface is about a black super alien crash landing in Segregation era Mississippi. In reality it is an impressive exercise in tone deafness, hubris, and really, really bad judgement. It’s a book that is supposed to be making a statement against racism and it ends up doing the exact opposite.
Even if you were to ignore how spectacularly tone deaf the story is on race, it is still generic and poorly written, especially given a writer with the talent of Mark Waid. The art provided by JG Jones is quality but for the most part is made up of stock images from Hollywood movies about the South during the Depression(the story takes place just before that).
Mark Waid also did not reach far in creating the world in which the story takes place. The Mississippi presented here is straight out of the Hollywood/Mississippi Burning History of the South. Everything that everyone in the story does is a generic composition of ideas, tropes, and stereotypes that we have seen elsewhere in entertainment related to this subject. It’s kind of insulting.
When you tell a story about a black alien in Jim Crow era Mississippi, you are going to have quite a few black characters surrounding him. So you might want to try to not make them cringe-inducing stereotypes or maybe, you know, give them a name. The two black characters that are fortunate enough to speak are Sonny and Washington Engineer. While Washington Engineer would be a cool name, it’s not his name but it is what I have to call him because we never get to learn his name. Washington Engineer is the smartest person in the book, there to save the town from being washed out by the Mississippi River, but his only real purpose is to be there for Racist White Guy to be racist at.
The character who “drives” the story, Sonny, is not just one stereotype but two! He is the lazy black man that won’t work, and also the black criminal dodging the law. Waid tries to spin this by allowing Sonny to lay out what is really going on, but in the end he is still a black man running from work and the law. He runs the plot forward, giving the real heroes of the story the chance to be heroic. The real heroes not being the black super alien or our nameless engineer but an old senator and the Widow Lantry. They stand up to the KKK, give a speech about how totally bad racism is(in relation to the economy not something crazy like human decency), and allow the hapless Sonny to continue running.
Despite the efforts of our
saviors heroes the KKK catch up and it looks like it is over for Sonny, until he runs into a massive, naked black man. Unlike Sonny and the engineer, who are made to appear small and weak compared to the white men that appear in the story, the alien is freaking HUGE. He never speaks, and his entrance into the story, instead of being heroic, is straight out of a horror movie. Bad guys chase good guy into secluded area, then get torn to pieces by vicious monster. If you have seen a horror movie with that scene, this is that scene(or at least the imagery, the alien does not kill anyone).
And once the danger has passed, what does Sonny do? He comments on the size of our alien friend’s manhood. The alien just saved his life, ripped a tree out of the ground, and generally batted aside a mob of armed men like they were nothing. And all Sonny wants to talk about is the alien’s large penis. I imagine this was supposed to be funny, but instead we touch on another stereotype and I kind of want to stick my head in an oven. We end with the alien wrapped in the Confederate battle flag. Something people far smarter than me have written about.
Strange Fruit #1 is a bad comic for many reasons, but mainly because it reinforces a shallow understanding of discrimination and a narrow definition of racism. It paints Jim Crow as being primarily enforced by the KKK but in fact the reality was far more complex and rooted in the rule of law. Violence was a prominent feature of Jim Crow, but it was not the foundation. The scholarship relating to Jim Crow is comprehensive and if Mark Waid had taken a week to just skim through some monographs he might have come up with something original to say. Or maybe decided that making this comic was not the best idea.
Some people will say that this is just the first issue and I don’t have the full story. And I guess they would be right, but Waid and Jones decided to take on a sensitive topic in a 4 issue series and slap an incendiary title on it. They then filled the first issue with stereotypes and took time to make sure the audience knew that not all white people were racist. This is unacceptable from two creators with the experience and talent of Waid and Jones. The expected to be patted on the back for saying “racism is bad” and maybe win an award for saying SOMETHING IMPORTANT. But the reality is they created a comic that has at best a simplistic understanding of Jim Crow era racism while perpetuating some of the most subtle and insidious forms of modern racism.