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The Sour Taste of Strange Fruit

Posted On Thursday, October 22, 2015

Diversity.  Within the last 3yrs, its increasingly become a hotbed issue, drawing scrutiny to the practice of representation in the American comic book industry.  An altruistic campaign in its onset, its taken turns here and there (IMO), losing sight of its goal to educate mainstream publishing houses and readers to the desire for characters of multi-ethnic/gender/sex-preference archetypes.  Instead, becoming this hardened finger pointing at the industry for where it has failed (yet again) to include a specific market or readership, in favor of more traditional (white/male/straight) characters. 

I say losing sight, because though many strides could still be made to include ALL walks of life, there have been many efforts already achieved that get quick shelved in favor of the continued condemnation: 1.) Miles Morales Spider-Man, 2.) Cyborg and Black Panther have upcoming feature films, 3.) the long awaited return of the Milestone imprint...just to name a few.

And then we have Strange Fruit.   

Published by Boom Studios, a mid-level mainstream publisher on par with IDE  and Dynamite Ent., Strange Fruit carried credits for two of comics most well-known names J.G. Jones and Mark Waid.  Upon seeing initial blurbs and previews of the project, there was a resounding simplification of the concept: these guys were (re)telling the story of a black Superman, arriving in the racial imbalance of the segregated South.  I say retelling, because it looked like a thinly veiled, but more in depth attempt at the origin of Icon, the ebony-hued "super-man from space" of the Milestone universe.  

Now, both men have had significant works involving that Last Son of Krypton.  J.G. handled some of the art duties on the Morrison-helmed, Final Crisis, while Waid's work (Kingdom Come/ Super-man:Birthright) has found footing in media beyond the page, including the 2014 release, Man of Steel (WB).  So, from that stand point, I had no doubt of their ability to render this tale of a prolific super being here on Earth.  

But there was a tinge of something...I don't want to call it doubt, but for lack of a better word...  It was a curiosity of possibly trivial conceits: Why this coming out of Boom (an imprint that Waid chaired as EiC before putting his name and efforts behind ThrillBent) and NOT DC or even Milestone?  And despite their professes southern heritage, aren't both these guys white...?!  What would this mean to their take on this story?  How would they do it?  Mind you, the question wasn't COULD THEY, but simply what would it turn out to be.

When Strange Fruit #1 came out mid-summer, I eagerly consumed it, reading it for review for Black, White & READ All Over, the weekly review series I do with comic retailer, Ryan Seymore (Watch us on!!!).  The story had attitude --  It was quick,  gorgeously rendered and the ending of the mysterious space-god draped in the Confederate flag was easily iconic!  I was certainly interested in where they were going to go with the rest of the series!

Just a few weeks ago, issue #2 hit the stands and that excitement petered off into boredom, confusion and ultimately concern.  For a series now halfway completed (It's slated for only 4 issues), I couldn't find the point of the tale.  The story flow had slowed tremendously and the character's actions didn't fit what had previously been implied before (In the previous issue, the alien being hid his nakedness after being instructed to do so by his new compatriot.  But in this issue, he couldn't understand human language, even finding the written form cryptic and indecipherable).

I was lost.  Truly and without a sense for where the story was heading, I had to be honest with myself that it was dangerously close to an excuse to use racial epithets and bigotry on the page.  But that didn't seem right -- to condem the whole project as well as its creators, without giving a bit more effort to understand it.  Having met Mark years ago, I felt constable enough (hell, I roasted the man and made innuendos of his partner, Christine -- who is a helluva writer in her own right!) to ask him for some insight and a bit of relief from my own judgement.  

Via Twitter, through direct messaging so Mark could speak freely without interruption, he shared parts and pieces that truly did fit to explain the whole narrative.  He even offered to send me scripts, I'm sure a gesture built on our familiarity and mutual respect, but so declined, not really wanting the story spoiled, but sincerely seeking guidance on its intent and to sum it up, its this:

       In the early 1900's, racial tensions were extremely high -- what would happen if a black super-man ACTUALLY showed up?  

A seemingly simple concept, but with a multitude applications if real world tendencies were applied: Would he stand with his presumed people?  Would they even let him?  Would he be an enemy of oppression?  Would he be feared, loved, etc?  

The goal is SUPER meta-textual, with easily made allegories: How Black Amaricans view and define the presidency of Barack Obama, how Black, independent comic book creators perceive the return of Milestone...even the story of Christ.

At its core, it's a story of harsh reality, but I think the most sincere showcase is towards the creators themselves.  Black comic readers, intellectuals and critics have bashed them for their involvement and execution, almost mirroring the underlying story beat of "Yeah, I wanted it -- I even asked for it -- but not from YOU!"  We've asked for more characters of color and here its given, but the context of who's offering it overrides the offering itself.  It reminds me of the sudden firestorm in response to  comments made by Matt Damon during the recent Project:Greenlight (where he declares diversity behind the camera isn't as important as choosing the right -- as in skilled -- technician(s) for the job).  I stood behind Damon and right now, I'm choosing to stand behind Waid, Jones and Boom.  At least until the story ends...only then can the project truly be judged as a success or failure.

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