Pastoral scene of the Gallant South: Jones & Waid’s Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit #1,
Mark Waid, JG Jones,
Boom Studios

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“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit

This first collaboration between two highly respected creators, JG Jones and Mark Waid, caught my eye on the racks this week. Actually it caught my eye earlier than that, truth be told – I saw it the day before as colleagues were unpacking and preparing the new releases to go out on New Comic Book Day (best day of the week, of course!), and was drawn to it right away, partly because of the creators but largely that cover art and that evocative title grabbing my attention, the allusion to that darkly bittersweet song by the great Billie Holiday, oh so beautifully sung in her distinctive, sultry, emotional voice, yet the lyrics detailing a scene of horrific racism, violence, even lynching. Given some of the issues highlighted worldwide by the multitude of highly suspect police shootings of people of colour and the furore around them, and the backlash from certain groups against the Black Lives Matter campaign, some might say that race relations in the US have not improved as much as we had all hoped from Billie’s time, and it means Strange Fruit arrives laden not only with historical baggage, but with an awful lot of contemporary resonance (a scene with thugs in those ludicrous KKK pointy-headed costumes in a car festooned with Confederate battle flags feels like it leapt out of the newspapers of the last few weeks, although this art would have been painted long before those events).

Opening in rural Mississippi in 1927, the first of this four-part series offers up a setting drenched not only in relentless rains and floods, but with Jones’ use of colour, especially his background skies, all dark but pale blues and greens, or by evening bruised purples, giving the sense of storms gathering, his art even catching that reflective quality the puddled ground water takes on, even at night, moonlight or car headlamps bouncing off the standing water in silvery brightness. A group of cars full of very angry looking and armed white men pulls up outside a wooden shack cafe with a sign declaring it caters to coloured people, one man cautioning his young boy, riding in the back of the truck with his dog, to stay there or go play with his dog, but not to follow him because “this ain’t no place I ever wanna see you in.” Before they enter we see a flashback to the same man talking to a very dapper black gentleman in suit, bow tie and boater hat, epitome of 20s style. The black man is an engineer sent from Washington to help beef up their flood defences – the rains, he explains, have already breached many levees further up-river, flooding entire towns.

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The white man is less than impressed to be talking to a black man who is clearly far more knowledgeable and articulate than he is. The engineer’s explanation is interrupted by a single panel, wordless, of the white man glaring at him, until the engineer adds “sir” to any sentences addressed to him, a tiny moment but one which speaks volumes. As the engineer continues to outline possible contingency plans he also describes the problems they face. “Our problem is that we got too many n*****s ’round here wearin’ suits,” is the reaction of the white man. In a later scene we find that even though he is clearly a loathsome racist, he’s actually one of the more restrained of his group, holding back one of the others who pulls a gun in the cafe for coloured people as they force them occupants back out into the rainy night, insisting they continue with the levee reinforcements. As one black man in the cafe points out, this isn’t a job – sure they are paid for the work, but poorly, even less than on the plantations, and besides they were forced into it, coerced, slavery in all but name, “let that ol’ man River take this whole damn delta” is his response. Unfortunately this leads to exactly the sort of scene you might think, a bunch of angry, white redneck bigots grab their white sheets, shotguns and ropes to pursue him out into the rain-filled night.

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But something is about to happen – more than rain is falling from the skies (warning, possible spoilers), as a fireball streaks across the night, crashing, of all places, right into the already strained levee, causing a breach. As the men rush to try and plug the gap with sandbags, the lynch mob pursuing the black man who dared to stand up to them in the cafe are about to find out what that fireball contained, in a scene with obvious and heavy connotations to the origins of a certain much-loved comics figure, something that even their baying hounds will shy away from (you see why I warned of spoilers – I debated not mentioning this at all, but it’s an important part of the first issue so I thought it had to be covered, with appropriate spoiler warning alert first).

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The atmosphere here is beautifully handled, the entire issue is permeated with that sense of the time, the place and the issues, to the extent you can almost feel that uncomfortable mix of humidity and heat as the rains keep pouring down on the land, and as I noted earlier the colouring is especially effective in helping conjure that scene, used as diligently here are a cinematographer would frame and light a scene for their camera. Jones once more employs fully painted artwork, and it is gorgeous to behold, even when depicting scenes of awful events unfolding, detailed, realistic, beautifully posed, lit,coloured, just wonderful to look at, and it doesn’t hurt that Boom have decided to publish this with a card cover instead of paper, adding to the quality feel. I’m interested to see where this goes in its four-issue run, and also interested to see if it helps plant more thought in readers’ heads about the issues it confronts, issues which should damned well be in buried in the overgrown cemetery of history but which sadly still keep raising their ugly heads even in the supposedly more enlinghtened, advanced society of the here and now.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Review: the Hartlepool Monkey

The Hartlepool Monkey
(buy from Forbidden Planet / buy from Amazon)
Wilfrid Lupano, Jeremie Moreau
Knockabout

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There is something rather appropriate about this tale born of the Franco-English wars of the Napoleonic crossing la manche from its French publisher to a British one. This is a tale born out of those seemingly interminable cross-Channel wars, based on a reportedly true event (although it is just as possible that this is a local myth that has acquired the legality of truth across the last couple of centuries). Not long after the decisive sea battle at Trafalgar a French warship is cruising just off the coast of Britain. Her captain, a very unlovable character, a virulent bigot and former commander of a slave ship, has a monkey (named Nelson) as his mascot, dressed up in a small French uniform to amuse the crew.

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The ship also boasts a young cabin boy, who bursts the captain’s good humour at Nelson’s antics when he sings an old sea shanty, a song the captain considers to be “an English song”. His furious bigotry is stoked to boiling point when the innocent lad ventures that it was just a song he picked up from his nanny, who was a Cornish woman, so he learned English as well as French as he grew up. This naïve confession tips the captain to violent action and before he knows it the young boy is being forced to walk the plank. But with all attention focused on this event the crew fails to notice the weather turning on them rapidly, as it can so often in the Channel…

The storm is upon them, the crew caught unawares, as the lad is sent into the gray waters the ship itself is suddenly floundering, then taken by the tempest. As she starts to break in the teeth of the storm the crew try to abandon ship; the mast snaps and Nelson the monkey clambers onto it, clinging on for dear life as the few crew who get off the ship flounder and drown, the captain disappearing below the waves right in front of his little mascot. Locals on shore watch through a telescope, unmoved by the loss of life, laughing at the fate of the “Froggies”, just as bigoted and vulgar as the French captain.

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However, as they always do the storm passes, the wreckage washes up upon the shore by Hartlepool, among it two survivors, Nelson and our young cabin boy. Only Nelson is spotted by the locals, provincial yokels, profoundly ignorant, so much so that they take the unfortunate simian for an actual Frenchman from the ship, and decide to capture him then try him as a spy. Fortunately our cabin boy wakes up on a sheltered part of the beach, and with his excellent English he passes himself off as Philip, a native from another town to the local kids who are excitedly playing among the debris, pretending to round up the ‘Frenchies’ and protect Great Britain’s shores from invasion in a playful fit of patriotic fever. Meanwhile a doctor travelling in his coach is forced by the storm to stay overnight in the local inn, and it is largely through the eyes of his young son Charlie, who runs off to play with the local kids, that we witness the events which unfold.

Lupano and Moreau take these events and spin them artfully into a tragical comedy of the highest order of the Absurd, as the trial is planned and carried out by the locals, from the major on downwards all pumped up with a hugely inflated sense of self importance – this isn’t just a ragged survivor, this is a spy, perhaps the vanguard for an invasion of the sacred soil of Albion itself! And they caught him! They will try to pry his deadly secrets out of him and save the entire kingdom! But blast, his French is just gibberish to them! And as for his looks? Well, of course they all know those damned French are ugly, inhuman brutes! The town’s one veteran, the only one of them who has ever seen a Frenchman, a legless old soldier, utterly mad, testifies that yes, the monkey is actually a Frenchman. A child’s suggestion that he is actually a chimp is laughed off by the locals. Unable to understand his ‘language’ they give up on the idea of interrogating him for imagined invasion plans and move instead to try him – in a very improvised, cartoonish version of a proper trial.

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As I said at the start, this is an event which has been oft-repeated as historical fact, and it may well be, but it may also be in inflated myth from centuries long gone. Or, one theory holds it may be a story to hide a much more horrible truth – the young boys, like our cabin boy shipwrecked with the monkey, were sometimes referred to on ship as “powder monkeys”. Did those thuggish townsfolk once string up a hapless cabin boy who had survived the wreck of a French vessel then mythologised it as the monkey incident to hide the truth? We’ll probably never know, but it’s a theory that lends the reader a different view of the character of the surviving cabin boy, now safely passing himself off as English and playing among the local kids, able to view the proceedings, obviously knowing Nelson is a monkey, but unable to interfere to save him, unable even to speak up in case these ignorant locals turn on him too.

The events play out their course with an awful inevitability, but in some ways this story – which to this day has left the locals to be called ‘monkey hangers’ – is just a framework Lupano and Moreau use to hang up there highly effective examination of the dangers of rank ignorance, delusion, nationalistic bombast and jingoism run rampant, the mob mentality, the nature of unfounded bigotry and the sheer stupidity that humans are so capable of. And before we settle back in our smug, 21st century, media-rich, highly educated, literate world and laugh at how stupid our dim ancestors were, that they could mistake a monkey for a foreigner and act in such a ridiculous manner, all whipped up by half-understood propaganda about ‘the enemy’, let’s just consider how this historical tale has much resonance to our modern world.

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We may all be aware of the difference between a person and a monkey, but that unreasoning beast, The Furious Crowd, or worse, The Mob (which can be as unruly and stupid even when made up of highly educated people – somehow mobs seems to atrophy our reasoning skills and revert us to bestial nature, it seems), is alive and well, still stoked by half-truths and outright lies from certain parts of the media and some groups only to happy to use them to exploit a mass moral panic, be it wild tales of mass Satanist cults in remote towns abusing children or painting caricatures of immigrants, asylum seekers, someone who wears a hijab, someone who has different skin colouring or different religion, or no religion – the number of differences perceived to differentiate ‘them’ and ‘us’ is endless and there are always those exploiting them. We all see that right now in our own supposedly more educated and enlightened era, just look at the growth of xenophobic hate groups. These people are the spiritual heirs of the monkey hangers, prepared to hate without real reason (but convinced they have solid reasons, of course) and all wrapped up in over the top , and Moreau and Lupano are, while telling their tale in an inventive manner, also offering a warning of how easily we can descend into mob mentality and commit some awful act.

Moreau’s artwork is splendid throughout, a perfect match for Lupano’s changes from high drama to absurdist farce, from laugh out loud comedic silliness (shaving a monkey so it looks more presentable for the court) to the sad and tragic. Lupano crafts some memorable characters and dialogue (also huge tip of the hat to the translation by Frank Wynne, which rather skilfully substitutes not just French for English but some great and believable vernacular terms), while Moreau seems equally at home with close up character-filled studies (giving us some wonderful close ups of their characters) as he does with large, dramatic scenes, and his skilful use of elements such as light quality to help convey scenes (such as the storm wrecking the ship). And I also have to say something about Moreau’s clever us of the quality of light, especially notable in the opening scenes where the storm clouds literally gather over the ship, panels becoming darker, grayer, colours more muted, to the following morning, and the warm light of a sunny dawn after the storm passes, or the flickering, copper light of a bonfire at night on the character’s faces. It’s the sort of delicate touch which many reader may not notice consciously but it will register subliminally, helping to create the atmosphere for each scene. It’s a lovely bit of craftwork.

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Moreau also takes Lupano’s memorable creations and gifts them with equally memorable appearances. There was also, for my money anyway, something of the Steadman about some of Moreau’s panels, especially some which showed the characters in a more grotesquely foolish fashion (and naturally I mean this as a high compliment). It’s a fascinating read, by turns comedic, dramatic and bizarre tragedy, with artist and writer working perfectly together to bring this unusual historic gem to life. As we blogged just a few days ago one of the major French historical conventions conferred an award (the Rendez vous de l’Histoire – see here) on the French edition of this tale (as with the win of the Costa award earlier this year by the Talbots this was not in some comics category, making the win all the more remarkable and laudable), and it’s not hard to see why.

It’s an astonishing story and you will find yourself both upset with injustice and anger and yet at the same time laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of so much of it and many of the characters, and the sheer absurd nature of it all – although no less absurd than many of the reasons present day people find to vilify anyone they consider ‘different’, which is, I think, part of the point here. This makes it more than a tale of a historical curiosity, making it, as history so often is for those who read it, applicable also to our modern day world. Hugely recommended reading and kudos to Knockabout for bringing us an English language edition so swiftly.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Blaspheming

Walking home earlier this week I passed a group of religious protestors outside Saint Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile. Not sure what they were doing there in the dark but one banner read “god save Scotland from blasphemy”, which makes me think they are one of those religious groups who think it is alright to try and restrict and control what others can say if it annoys or offends them in any way. The same sort who try to use ancient blasphemy laws and concepts to try and restrict what someone can say, what plays or films can be show or performed – while of course demanding the right to say what they want (newsflash, if an article, play, book or film says something that offends your little religion and your relationship with your invisible magic friend then don’t read or watch it – but don’t tell the rest of us we can’t). I despire blasphemy laws, they have no place in a modern society, they are an afront to free speech and they contravene the human rights legislation on the freedom of expression. Besides which, is what a non-believer says or does in a book or film or satire or whatever threatens your belief system so much I can only conclude your faith must be pretty weak or nothing could affect it.

religious protestors outside St Giles

One of the other banners had re-worked the lyrics to Flower of Scotland but now had something about the Church of Scotland and ‘arrogant popery’, so I have to assume as well as being humourless zealots who want to restrict what others can say if it offends their religious views they are also bigots, because that is the language of sectarianism. So these people demand an end to blasphemy (at least whatever they call blasphemy) but think it is okay to hold up bigoted, sectarian slogans in a public place? No, no double standards there at all.

A religious tryptich

A form of tryptich on the art board from the always interesting lot at the Saint John’s church on Princes Street, with three things the Roman Catholic Church has had problems with over its history (if they had picked everything the church has been prejudiced against, let alone violently opposed to they’d have needed a canvas longer than all of Princes Street), placed right in full view of where the Pope would go past in his recent and most unwelcome visit (why is the taxpayer funding a trip from a religious figure? It’s not a ‘state’ visit since the Vatican isn’t a real state but a religious theocracy holdover from medieval times. Why are we paying for a homophobic, bigoted, mysoginistic, anti-science, intolerant former Nazi to come to our country and then to insult us?).

Saint John's Church mural for Pope's visit to Edinburgh

All at sea

I came to this story by Johan Hari of the Independent via Boing Boing – Hari joined a regular cruise organised by the ultra right wing National Review in the US, a cruise ship full of rich, white, right wing Americans. I have no problem with the fact that people hold different views from what I would consider reasonable (not to mention humane and moral), but these people are off the scale for willful ignorance, arrogance, bigotry, stupidity and an ability to tune out real events in a manner that would make even Fox News blush in shame.

If they lived in their own little warped world that would be fine, but cry for the world because these are the sorts of shagwits who have urged on the foreign policies of the current US administration and if anyone disagrees they are obviously communist-liberal-muslim-sand-nazis out to destroy The American Way Of Life (TAWOL), which obviously for them includes freedom of expression as long as you express nothing but agreement with them. Warning, reading this article may make you very angry and demand the public disembowelling of Rush Limbaugh.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Mark Twain.

Twain/Sam Clemens has been a favourite author since I was a boy. In the bus to work a few days ago I looked up from my book when it was picking up passengers and saw someone had written this quote on the window of their flat facing out into the street two stories up where only the occasional person in a double decker bus would be high and close enough to read it. How lovely. Of course, I tend to include reading as ‘travel’ because it is travel for the mind…

Christian bigots

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (well, he’d be hard pushed to be a Calvinist minister with a name like that, really, wouldn’t he?), head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is demanding that legislation which makes it illegal to discriminate against gays is not applied to church organisations, a law which makes it a crime for people like the narrow minded B&B owner who refused to give a double room to a gay couple to do so again, just as it is illegal for businesses, organisations or public services to discriminate against people on grounds of colour, ethnicity or religion. In fact new laws are going alongside this to ensure equality protection for Catholics, ironically, while the head Catholic demands the right for the church organisations to be exempted and practise bigotry. Specifically he is threatening to close down the successful Catholic-run adoption service if the law goes through without an exemption because they will not want to give a child to a gay couple to adopt.

There are two huge things wrong with this request. First of all, the minute we start making exemptions for one law like this for one religious cult (and all organised religions are by definition cults, be they tiny fringe groups or huge ones like the RC church) then we open the floodgates for a slew of religious groups and others to demand they are allowed to pick and choose what they want to follow, which is useless. This is one of the reasons we base law on reason today and not on religious dogma, as most civilised countries do. The second is simple and plain bigotry – I don’t care how much the Cardinal and his chums say it isn’t, it bloody well is, they are bigoted bastards and that’s it. If an ultra protestant or Muslim adoption agency refused to let Catholic couples adopt the Cardinal would (rightly) kick up a stink. And the fact he is prepared to shut down the agencies rather than comply with the law, in other words to put his prejudices ahead of the kids needing new homes shows that his argument that they are principally interested in the welfare of the children is utter hypocrisy. Imagine a man in charge of an organisation run entirely by men who dress in what looks like dresses and have a reputation for interfering with choir boys being worried about placing kids with gay couples, what a nerve…