In this first of a four issue special series, strange happenings have begun in the town of Chatterlee, Mississippi. Is it good?
Strange Fruit #1 (BOOM! Studios)
It’s 1927 and the small town of Chatterlee, Mississippi is facing some major problems. The mighty Mississippi river is flooding and Chatterlee is in direct line to be swept away like many of its neighbors upstream. However, some people in the town aren’t taking the warning about the danger well, considering it’s coming from a black Northern engineer.
Every free hand is working to build up and secure the levees — well, every free black hand that is. As a band of white men enter the local “colored cafe” to round up more workers, they spot a wanted man, Sonny, who pushes back against the posse, accusing them of paying low wages and forcing the black men into the levee work.
As the rest of the men in the cafe move out to be trucked back to the levees, something bright and huge streaks through the sky and crashes into the levee. The cause of the crash is some kind of space ship.
Some of the white men from the bar posse have other business for the night: Klan business. Sonny flees the cafe and is hiding at the Sarah Lantry’s house, who appears to be one of the few employers in the town to pay a fair wage (at least as she says).
Sonny flees again, and as he runs from the Klan mob, he runs smack into what arrived from the ship, a massive, impressively built naked black man. The man fights off the Klan group, but never speaks, not even when Sonny hands him the Confederate battle flag to cover himself with.
Is It Good?
I was intrigued by this book because, like both the creators, I grew up white in the Deep South. As white collaborators, choosing to tell a story with race so central to the plot presents a tricky balancing act and could very easily have gone wrong.
Before we get into the race issue, let’s address the basics first: the writing is very solid. The dialogue is written in a light dialect, which sounds authentic to the location and time period, but is also easy to read (not an easy balance). The pace is excellent, with the story moving along at a brisk clip. We get a good look at the dynamics of the town and the central conflicts that will shape the story.
In interviews, Waid and Jones have stated that they fully realized the responsibility of being two white men taking on this story, and that part of what they wanted to focus on was creating fully-fleshed, multi-dimensional characters before all else. Since this is a first issue of a completely new story, we get a lot of world-building and establishing of conflicts, which doesn’t give a lot of room for in-depth character building. It’s also a large story with multiple conflicts, so while we got the building blocks, we didn’t get the depth of character that I think they wanted. But I definitely think that will come in the next issue, as the story really gets rolling.
Jones made his job even tougher by choosing to paint every page, rather than the traditional comic method of penciling, inking, and digital color. That work absolutely paid off – this art is breathtakingly gorgeous. Not only does the style fit the feeling of the book, but it also feels like paintings of the period. Each character’s face in every panel is expressive and unique.
The paintings have a Rockwell feel, and also remind me of other fine art painters of the period. It’s very effective, and was an incredibly ambitious challenge that truly paid off.
Okay, so now let’s address the race question. Jones and Waid aren’t afraid to hit it head on – you don’t name your book Strange Fruit without knowing every implication that that title brings with it. Racial tension is at the forefront of the story and impacts every thread. Going back to a point I made earlier, since there so much being set up in this first issue, we only get the top layer of this story. We know that the town survives off the fruits of black labor, who are underpaid and overworked for that labor. We see that some whites are trying to be fair, but the vast majority of whites we meet are perfectly content with the status quo. These are the bones, and I’m hoping that in the coming issues, we’ll get the meat of who these people are, white and black.
Keeping that limitation in mind, there were a couple of things that felt a bit problematic. There are far more white people with speaking roles in this issue than black people – in fact, we only hear from the black engineer (we never get his name), and Sonny, the man fleeing from the Klan posse. Also, some of the black faces felt less realistically painted than the white ones; this panel in particular felt dangerously close to a caricature to my eye.
This book is coming out during a time when race is back at the forefront of our national conversation. Part of this conversation is a call for greater diversity in pop culture, especially in comics, and there have been projects lately that are trying to address that. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s graphic novel memoir, March, which details Lewis’ experiences in the Selma-Montgomery march is a particularly strong example. Books like Strange Fruit are needed and wanted, but I think the expectations for these books are higher than ever. However, with books like this, missteps are bound to happen, and while this book does have a couple, it seems like Waid and Jones make every effort to tell this story in as honest a way as possible.
There are many things in this issue that feel ripped from current headlines. Let’s take the issue’s final image:
A comic featuring a black man wrapped in the Confederate battle flag coming out the same week that the South Carolina senate votes to remove that same flag from the state capital? So very meta.
Overall, I think this is a very promising book. Four issues isn’t a lot of time to cover the many facets of the story they have set up in this issue, but I’m hopeful that they can accomplish it. I can see this as an on-going world, and I’m definitely looking forward to read the rest of the series, and especially can’t wait to see what our mysterious man from the sky is going to bring out in this town on the edge.