BIN SIFTIN’ with Rene LeClair: STRANGE FRUIT #1 (of 4)

BOOM STUDIOS – Writer/ Mark Waid    Artist/ J.G. Jones

I just finished reading this and I must say that I am simply stunned by J.G. Jones artistic skill. This comic is fully painted. The story takes place in 1927, rural Mississippi and the colours really give it an “old timey” feel. It’s easy to get lost in the details of each panel. Couple that with a story by the fantastic Mark Waid, and you can’t go wrong.

Speaking truthfully, I grew up in the outskirts of a small town called Dalhousie, on the north shore of the province of New Brunswick. The pulp and paper mill has been Strange Fruit #1torn down and the place is having a hard time keeping a pulse as folks move away for better opportunities. That’s what I did. I attempted to get an education, but in the end I found debt and a love of music.

Whatever. The point is, my town was pretty much represented by white folks. There’s the Eel River Bar Reservation next door and a bunch of small villages in the immediate region, and it always seemed like everyone was getting along, but there was always some underlying racial tension between the whites and the natives. Go figure. I was a kid, so I never really took notice, but years later, you remember things; how people interacted. I’m fortunate that my parents have always been, in my opinion, accepting and understanding folks. We all have biases, prejudices and preconceptions of others, but hanging out at a family friend’s house on the Bar brings back fond memories. Natives have a rich culture and I’m happy to have been able to experience at least of little bit of it.

All this to say that, if that was my upbringing, I can only imagine what life was like for black people in the deep south of the United States in the 1920’s. It’s so far removed from what I know. I have read some books and have watched TV and movies, so I know what’s what superficially, let’s say.

Strange Fruit brings us to in Chatterlee, Mississippi. Life is tough and it has been raining for many, many days. The levee has been sandbagged and propped up, but is about to break and ready to wash away the small community. Engineers are working to find a solution to this impending catastrophe, but there’s scarcely enough men to keep the sand bags secure.

A truck of white men arrive at a local juke joint and the place is full of activity. Black folks are dancing, singing and drinking, but at gun point they start rounding up black men to forcibly have them work on securing the levee because “it don’t make no sense f’r good white folks t’break themselves when they’s so many bucks c’n put a back to hoe”.

Warning. This story is racially charged to. The. Max.

Guns are drawn when they spot Sonny, whom they blame for a recent theft.  Sonny gives them hell because they aren’t being paid nearly enough to work sun up until StrangeFruit_001_PRESS-9sun down, so why not let the river take it all. Things get out of hand and, in the scuffle, he takes off out the back door. We see a streak across the sky as the black men get into the back of trucks at gun point and what appears to be a spaceship smashes into the levee. It ruptures.

Sonny makes it to the farm of a wealthy woman who employs him, but the white men, now donning KKK robes and hoods, have given chase. It appears Sonny is about to meet his end as he runs into a field, but then he comes face to face with a tall, muscular and fully naked black dude. The good ol’ boys are ready to string them both into a nearby tree, but the naked man easily knocks one of the assailants to the ground. Shots are fired and the bullets simply bounce off his chest. The naked man proceeds to rip a tree out of the ground and throws it at the hooded fools, gravely injuring one of them.  As the Klan runs away, yelling threats, Sonny names his rescuer “Johnson” due to “white folk ain’t much gonna cotton to yo’ running ’round with yo’ johnson hangin’ out”.  Johnson goes ahead and wraps a confederate flag around his waist and stands there stoically and godlike.

From the outset, it seems like Mark Waid is setting up a Superman falls to earth in the roaring 1920’s in the southern states and is black, but you know what? I’m ok 5qca65with that. We’ve been told Superman’s origin story so many times and in so many different ways that I thought I would be sick to my stomach at the though of having to read yet another version, but there you go. I’m actually surprised at how much I really enjoyed this book. The characters I’ve met so far are interesting.

Mark Waid and J.G. Jones have put together the beginning of a story that will see me reading the next issues for sure. The pages are alive and electric. The unfolding events are sure to thrill and dazzle, but even if the racial tension between blacks and whites as depicted in this story is far removed from my experiences, it doesn’t mean that I can’t relate to it in one way or another. White vs. Native. French vs. English. Racism and bigotry still exist. It doesn’t have to be that way forever. We’re better than that. Read a book. Be nice to each other.

Strange Fruit #1 is out now. – RENE

(Rene LeClair is an avid comic book reader and works at Comic Hunter in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, spreading the word to all who love comics as well.  He is also a fantastic musician who currently plays with a great band called FEAR AGENT.  Rene has been at his music for years, including stints with Longtimers, Four Frames, and the amazing Dead City Rebels.  At the Comic Hunter (Moncton/Charlottetown) they easily have the biggest selection in the Maritimes for all your nerdy needs. They specialize in comic books w/ over 250k back issues, an immense library of graphic novels as well as a seemingly endless selection of board/card games. Whether you find yourself that side of Quebec or not, they’ll ship anywhere. Visit their website and contact them here.)