June 9, 2015

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Strange Fruit Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History Vol 1 by Joel Christian Gill


Written and Illustrated by Joel Christian Gill
Published by Fulcrum

Stories from the vast (and often hidden) history of the African American experience come alive in the hands of a creator who wanted to use his art talents to shine a light on that history in this collection that's a must-read for anyone interested in non-fiction comics.

An odd quirk of my upbringing is that while I am woefully unable to tell you as much as I should about what it is/was like to be Latino in the United States, my mother gave me a strong grounding in African American history, something I've continued all my life. (I'm still working on catching up on my gaps in terms of understanding what it is/was like for other people of color.) So when I first ran into Strange Fruit back when it was a mini-comic only, it wasn't a hard sell for me. I want to say that was SPX, but I don't remember. I'm always happy when a zine or mini-comic person gets a book gig, but due to the nature of the material here, I was especially pleased to find out this existed--even if I had do so via the library instead of in the comics news.*

If you're unfamiliar with the term "Strange Fruit," I'll point you here rather than give my own imperfect explanation. Gill had used the term as part of a prior art project, and decided to keep the easily recognized phrase as part of his comic. Though it doesn't specifically cover the same topic, Gill's goal is the same: exposure of a history that's often ignored. And he succeeds brilliantly at it.


Leading off with the story of Henry "Box" Brown, who had himself shipped north during the pre-Civil War years via the Underground Railroad, Gill takes us into corners readers--even ones inclined to the subject material--may not have previously explored. There's the story of the first black basketball player, for example, as well as a pioneering cyclist who ran rings around others in his prime. I also grew up reading and watching Westerns, but did you know that there was a black lawman who captured 3000 outlaws, easily the most among his peers? Or that the first integrated school dated back to 1835?

Those are just a few of the tales recounted by Gill, all of which are given a nice mix of serious information along with a bit of humor. (For example, whenever a birth is mentioned, Gill uses a great running gag of showing the baby flying through the air.) He doesn't bog down in long text passages, preferring to give a brief explanation or scene-setting, and letting the visuals do the heavy lifting. It's the same kind of balance used by Andy Warner, Emi Gennis, and others to great effect. Writing non-fiction comics takes a certain style, and not everyone can manage it. Gill does a great job, and part of that is no doubt due to his passion for the project.



Gill's illustrative style is pretty much in line with most mini-comics folks. He's not going to draw intricate backgrounds, but there's enough for you to know the setting, whether that's a Victorian-era parlor or the woods of the Civil War South. We do have a fair number of panels where only the figure work is shown, but it's not like you can just swap the settings from one story to the other. The information we get from the backgrounds helps understand what is going on, and that's enough for Gill's purposes.

The focus is squarely on the figures and what they're doing, whether it's working for their freedom, trying to get an education, or vowing to reunite their family. Gill's linework isn't the most technical, but he does a great job ensuring that each person has a unique look that represents the real person involved as closely as his style permits. He's not a portrait artist, but there's nothing generic about his depictions. As we progress through the book, the lines loosen up a bit more, and by the time we're following the Deputy US Marshall, there's an increase in the sense of movement and action. I won't swear to it, but I believe the stories are listed in the order Gill wrote them, which would explain the evolution in style. (I'd have to dig up my old copies to be sure.) There's a definite sense of personality and expression in all of the art, which allows us to see the heroic figures persevering over their oppressors. (This is another recurring theme--drawing Jim Crow as a literal, menacing Crow who is often beaten back by the historical figure.) We can tell how they are feeling and when they speak--Gill often uses dialogue rather than captions--their looks and body language match the text.


I also enjoyed the variety of panel constructions. Gill doesn't worry overly much about traditional comics panel design. While he employs them--from splash pages to montages to tiny panel work--throughout the text, it's not as if he is tied to them. There's no rule that if he starts with 6-panel grids, he has to finish with them. That is another big selling point of Strange Fruit--the fact that it never gets tedious or boring. Gill understands that for art to work it must stand out--and his lines definitely do, thanks to ensuring that history is far more than just talking heads.

My only issue with Strange Fruit is that it's very male-centered. All of the featured people are male, with women off to the sidelines as wives and daughters. We see them--they're represented--but I'd like to have seen this include at least one female-lead entry. For a book that would make a great inclusion in any school library, that omission is pretty glaring. I hope that when we see Volume 2--and I really hope there's a second collection--that focus will shift to a greater sense of balance.

That problem aside, Strange Fruit is a wonderful addition to non-fiction comics. Gill's a talented artist who's working in a part of history that can use all the exposure possible. Learning of the struggles--and more importantly, the triumphs--of African Americans throughout history can only serve to help galvanize the many young men and women who are facing yet another wave of fear-mongering, hatred, and bigotry, as our country continues to try and silence those whose voices deserve to ring loud and clear.

*After all, there's moving casting news and option deals to cover!