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

Strange fruit…

Via Boing Boing a link to a great Billie Holiday rendition of the haunting Strange Fruit. First time I ever heard this song was back in the early 80s, being covered on a Souixsie and the Banshees album and back then I was too young to realise it has been around for decades. I’ve heard it by different artists numerous times (not uncommon in some films and documentaries dealing with the Deep South of the USA and racial prejudice) but I think this version by the great Ms Holiday is the best: