July 27, 2015

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Boom!'s Strange Fruit #1 is Bitter


Written by Mark Waid and J.G. Jones
Illustrated by J.G. Jones
Published by Boom! Studios

I realize that this combination review and commentary piece is a bit late, but that's because I didn't want to just jump in with a knee-jerk reaction, though it turns out that my first impression is still my lasting one--this is a bad comic that probably should not have been published.* Normally, I'd just leave it to others to talk about (and I'll be pointing you to some of the best commentary I read shortly), but I did not want this one to slide or walk. It's a comic that claims to be a passion project on a hot-button issue, but ends up actually showing just why the racial problem in America is so damned deep: Instead of attacking the real problem-white folks who refuse to look at the sty in their eye while boasting they don't have a log like those other white people over there-Mark Waid and J.G. Jones opt to ensure they don't offend any of their white audience.

When the comic was announced, with no people of color involved, I had reservations. This was not allayed by early reviews, which tripped over themselves in being both as positive and generic as possible. (Usually, this means that there's going to be a problem with a big-name book.) When I read the issue (and full disclosure, I am on the BOOM! Press List, and have been for some time), it was basically every single possible fear I'd had brought into life.

I wasn't alone in this. Here's just a sampling of commentary from others, all of which I encourage you to read in full. There was also a lot of talk about the book on Twitter, but I'm not sure how easily that's searched.

J.A. Micheline makes it clear that this book wears white privilege on its cover, despite whatever good intentions were involved: "The reason why this comic was, amongst other things, A Bad Idea is because two white men are writing and drawing this book about racism and they have already decided that it is about them."

Chase Magnett's excellent full review of the issue was the first review I read, and he really nails the problem: " It is a plainly unnecessary comic book, one that serves no purpose in existing and, due to that, borders on being offensive because of its own heightened sense of importance."

Shea Hennum discusses his struggle with talking about the book but why he ultimately decided to write something on the comic: "It felt disingenuous of me to speak on the book in a big bad way, because I became increasingly convinced that that would’ve made me hypocritically culpable for the same behavior I was lambasting."

Dominic Griffin condemns a passion project with so little passion: "but for me, the biggest issue wasn’t that two old white dudes decided to tell a story principally concerned with blackness as much as the laziness with which they executed said story. Passing off something as fanfiction-y as “black Superman lands in racist South” as a passion project feels even more off kilter when you recall J.G. Jones refering to the book as “an edgy little piece.”"

Like Shea Hennum, I was reluctant to post my own feelings on this comic. I'm still not sure if it is the right thing to do, but here's the thing: If you don't tell a white person they're wrong about racial issues, they assume you agree with them.  So I'm going to add mine, because I want to make it very clear to the world of comics that I think Strange Fruit is a poorly constructed comic that doesn't actually address America's race problems at all. You'll find my views have a lot of similar themes to those posted above. 

Taking out the problematic nature of two white men writing a story that climaxes with the appearance of the "Magical Negro" trope, the final scene is just one last cliché added to the vast pile of them that mar this comic from beginning to end. Every character looks like they walked out of stereotyped casting, with the vast majority of white characters spouting racist gibberish, save the one man of authority who lectures them almost to the point of farce. There is seriously a scene where it feels like he's quoting Wikipedia's entry on the Great Migration of the early 20th Century, telling the good old boys who confront him about how their racism is hurting the economy.

Let me tell you, that's some tension-building pages in a first issue, right there.

You'll thrill to the good white man lecturing the bad ones!

The blanket condemnation is furthered by having a somewhat naïve black man from the North show up to contrast his education with the racists who are too lazy to save their own town and won't listen to his good advice. It's not that this isn't plausible so much as the fact that since it lacks any subtlety and nuance, the reaction is eye-rolling instead of righteous anger against the bad guys of the piece. With no power or agency, the smartest figure in the comic, an African American, in a book that's supposed to take on racism, is powerless while the white folk talk all around him, a recurring theme in the comic.

All of this might work if the plot itself was stronger or more original, but it's not. Despite the hype of it being a passion project, there's no life in this comic at all. The storyline is one we've seen over and over again: Smart people come to tell dumb people they are screwed if they don't listen. A force of nature is an uncaring enemy. Complicating matters is a magical/alien presence in the form of being/object that may or may not save the day, if only it's understood. An ordinary man/woman gets caught up in the middle, while extremes on both sides rage against each other.

"Is this where the Depression-era cosplay line starts?"

It's a cut-copy-paste job, with some dialogue added to ensure we know that racism is bad, and we know that because an educated white southerner tells us so. There's nothing in this first issue that indicates we're getting anything more complex than the above plot summary. That's what I might expect from a lesser writer, but Mark Waid is capable of much more. It's almost as if he's afraid to push his white readers into anything but the safest, "Look at those awful Klansmen, cluck cluck" territory. Worse, without any indication that he and Jones are going to subvert expectations, we're left with an ending that features a gigantic, mysterious black man draped in a Confederate flag to ensure we don't see he's naked, which the ordinary dude he saves helpfully tells the reader the white characters won't like. 

Gee, ya think?

Clearly it's because Klan members don't like men with too many muscles.

Beyond the racial problems with the Boom-published Strange Fruit, it's really just a terrible comic. Nothing about it is surprising, and while that can often be saved by amazing art or dialogue, Strange Fruit's first issue features neither. I discussed the dialogue above, and while Jones paints a pretty picture, he never tries something different or daring. There's no comics code, and Strange Fruit certainly isn't an all-ages book, so why not just let that Johnson fly free? Wouldn't it have been interesting if the visual portrayal of the racists were as suit-wearing, normal-passing upscale white folks who you see everyday instead of Dukes of Hazzard extras while the man trying to stop them was barely clothed at all? What if the mysterious creature had been portrayed as colorless, then changed into a black man to show which side he was on? What if you really depicted what nearly being hanged was like?

See the thing is, doing any of that would have required Waid and Jones to move past the white folks who pat themselves on the back for voting Obama and step into the grimy world of actual racial issues, where no one cares when CNN and other media outlets try to destroy the lives of black victims who are murdered daily by police, assuming they cover the story at all. Or possibly upset the folks who are happy to cheer Marvel's diversity ("Look at that Avengers line-up!") while the company announces dozens of new titles-and not a single solitary black writer. Not even one.
The problem with Strange Fruit from Waid and Jones is not so much that two white guys decided to write a comic about a sensitive subject for millions of Black Americans (though I'll completely back anyone who feels that way), it's that they did it in the most White Northern Middle Class way possible. There's still time for that to change, but honestly, the comic itself gives no indication of this. 

For what it's worth, I don't think Waid is racist. Quite the opposite. I'm not personal friends with him, but he's not a wallflower, so his feelings are pretty public, and I believe him to be a well-intentioned man who thought he was trying to help show how awful racism was in the south in the early part of the twentieth century. Jones I don't know at all, but again--there's no reason to think ill of him in this regard. It's just that they've ended up with a work that's basically anti-racist, but in the self-congratulatory, "I'm so much better than those folks waving a Confederate Flag" sort of way that white folks use to allow themselves to ignore when their friends discuss "bad neighborhoods" or tsk tsk a college-educated black athlete for showing pride in his abilities.

That's the real issue here. When racism is shown in an almost Looney Tunes comical manner, it's very easy for white folks to distance themselves from it. I'm not immune to this, either. But I try my damnest to think about and listen to what people of color are saying and experiencing. It's difficult, lifelong work, looking critically at yourself and the world around you, and trying to make it a better place for those who weren't born white in America. I fail at it every day, and sometimes I don't like it when it's pointed out to me. But I try to listen and improve myself, all while knowing tomorrow might bring another failure.

However, that's honestly not true of many white people. Plenty are happy to pretend racism is something that happens only in obvious ways. This is a comic that fits right into that mindset. At no time would any right-thinking person ever see themselves in the villains here. They'd identify with the speechifying dude. That's not moving racial politics forward. Of course overt racism is bad! If you are going to tackle racism, you need to get into its more subtle forms, and that's something that Waid and Jones don't do. 

Rather than bothering with the new single issue copy of a comic called Strange Fruit, I highly suggest instead that you read Joel Christian Gill's excellent nonfiction collection of hidden Black American history by the same name, published by Fulcrum. I wrote a lengthy review of the book here. You'll be much happier, might learn about some new, real-life heroes, and will be supporting actual diversity in comics. It's a win all around, and shows that discerning comics readers are too savvy to fall into self-congratulatory traps.

*If you're going to start down the "that's censorship" road, please just do us a both a favor and stop reading. Saying someone should have thought better before publishing something isn't censorship, it's commentary. Yes, they had a right to publish Strange Fruit, and lots of folks--myself included--have a right to say, "That was a bad idea."