Publisher: BOOM! Studios
Creators: Mark WAID & J. G. JONES
Writer: Mark WAID
Artist J. G. JONES
Strange Fruit #1 is the first part in a four part miniseries from industry greats Mark Waid and J. G. Jones that takes place in the state of Mississippi during the Great Flood of 1927. At a time where lives, houses and livelihoods were at risks from the huge river bursting its mighty banks communities living within flooding distance were wrought with tension. The US government invested huge amounts of both time and money into creating the largest system of levies and slipstreams known to man. Men were called to help from both sides of the chasmic racial divide at a time of great stress and strife. Strange Fruit #1 is set in the small town of Chatterlee situated on the dangerously high banks of the river. Strange Fruit takes its name directly from the poem by Abel Meeropol -later made further famous by Billie Holiday when she set it to music- about the lynching of Black Americans around this period. It should be made clear then that Strange Fruit #1 aims to tackle this issue head on as it deals with the horrendous injustices that were perpetrated in this era.
With such an emotive topic Strange Fruit #1 is likely to come under some close scrutiny; especially with recent events surrounding the Confederate flag and its uses. It seems right then that Waid and Jones choose to tackle issues surrounding racism and persecution head on when they chose to set their story in this time. Rather than try to pussyfoot around the topic we witness direct and mostly unchallenged racism and violence towards members of the Black community that local Klan members do not feel are pulling their weight. While not all members of the white community share these directly intolerant attitudes it is made clear that few stand directly against the force of it. When our young black protagonist Sonny is spotted by a particularly angry Klansman it is only the local Governor and the lady he is courting who stand in the way of the hooded men as they try enforce their own form of intolerant mob justice. At no point do the events of Strange Fruit #1 feel like they are played for shock value or for cheap political points but they do not make for comfortable reading. Nor should they. This is not a period of American that should be sugarcoated or ignored as to forget terrible moments in human history is to allow them to go unchallenged. The language of Strange Fruit #1 similarly does not pull any punches and is rife with racially charged words and phrases. Again while this does not necessarily make for pleasant reading it would be untrue to the period to omit them. The reader is never made to feel like the use of the derogatory terms that litter these pages are acceptable and they are not overly used which prevents it descending into some Tarantino-esque parody.
It is important to note however that Strange Fruit #1 is not a comic dedicated to the documentation of historical events and rather a work of fiction that takes a swift turn to a place that comicbooks are far more familiar with towards the end of the issue. Throughout the story we are shown the trail of a comet heading towards Earth. With the arrival of the comet Strange Fruit #1 makes it clear that this is not the story that the first half of the book may seem like it is building itself to be. That is not to say that this event undermines the scene setting that has been done however, just that readers may wish to be aware that this series is not dedicated to historical accuracy. While this review will not directly spoil what the comet contains it will mention that it is more than just a space rock. What emerges promises to cause a great deal of problems for the local community. Strange Fruit #1 is a passion project of both Waid’s and Jones’ so it would seem that the time period and setting are integral to it thus the various social issues needed to be approached correctly. As the turning point of Strange Fruit #1 is not until the later pages of the issue it is too early to tell if Waid’s use of this particular setting is justified for this particular story.
Strange Fruit #1 introduces a large number of characters and social dynamics prevalent in this particular era in one issue but due to its limited page space over four issues does not linger long on any single point for too long. This is to its detriment to some extent as it means that many parts seem a little too rushed or simplified. While we are given a basic overview of the situation with the river far more work is dedicated to showcasing the extremely intolerant attitudes of the local Klansmen. In fact at many points it feel like it assumes more knowledge of the history period and events than perhaps some UK readers have. At times the various attitudes and basic motivations of the characters can even overshadow their distinct personalities. Due to the limited work put into character development many of them feel little similar to those readers may have met in other stories set in the same location or time period. We have some of the familiar players for a tale such as: a hot headed racist with an itchy trigger finger; a young black man who has found himself unduly persecuted over a misunderstanding; a Governor with his heart in the right place. All these archetypes are introduced rather quickly without any time to get to know them past their basic role in the story. It is perhaps because a great deal of work has been put into creating the right tone for this story and ensuring that racist attitudes are portrayed but not glorified in any way that the characters do not feel like they have had the same attention. Unfortunately Strange Fruit #1 seems to rely a little too much on events rather than characters to drive its plot.
The artwork in Strange Fruit #1 is beautiful with Jones’ style creating a very realistic effect which adds a much needed layer of connection to the characters. The characters themselves are not only unique and distinctive but are also portrayed as very human. Jones captures the mood and emotions of even the background characters with apparent ease. From the raw hatred dripping from the white supremacists to the fear of their arrival we bare witness to the visible tension of various situations. In a book that relies on the believability of the characters actions and reactions this ability to capture such abstract concepts help push this story forward. Jones’ colouring is similarly sublime with a dark blue, brooding palate broken only briefly by artificial lights in buildings and by the arrival of the burning comet.
Overall Strange Fruit #1 is a very well constructed comic. Perhaps the characters are not as fleshed out as many would wish them to be but where they are lacking the tone certainly is not. The reader is never given a moment to stop and breath comfortably, the palpable tension and looming threat for young Sonny does not allow for it. In fact it is testament to the tone, pace, and artwork that the reader is drawn to care for the fate of a character we know so little about. With the apparent change in direction occurring so late in this issue it is hard to judge this early whether or not this series will live up to the hype but so far so good.