I don’t like to review the first issue of a comic series, especially if the story’s not self contained. It feels too much like reviewing the first chapter of a book, the first half hour of a film or the first episode of a serialized tv show. I’m never sure if any problems I have with the story or the execution will be resolved or disappear as the story progresses. Sometimes creators just need space and time to figure things out. I’ve read any number of disappointing comic series with transcendent first issues and amazing series that had a slow start. So why not wait? Because the analogy between comics and other art forms has a limit. The industry and culture of comics are fundamentally different from television, books and film. Movies and books are (mostly) produced and sold as singular objects. We might consume them piecemeal, but the only thing wasted by a ‘wait and see’ approach to the story is time. Although television episodes and comic book issues can be appreciated as discrete works of pop art or as components of a larger story, most people still buy TV shows via a subscription to a network or streaming service. Comics are different. While subscription services, stand alone graphic novels, story collections and free/ad-supported webcomics are growing in prominence, there are still an awful lot of comics produced and sold in the individual issue format at three to five dollars a pop. It’s hard to wait for things to improve if it’s costing you money. Readers can wait until an arc is completed, but the ‘Wednesday Warrior’ culture that has developed around the Direct Market also exerts social pressure on readers to read and discuss comics as individual issues. It’s hard to be patient and wait for a book to get better.
The first issue of J.G. Jones and Mark Waid’s Strange Fruit is the first chapter of a four part limited series. Although it feels more like the first chapter of a book than most comic series because of the short length of the series, the issue has already sparked some important conversations about cultural/racial representation in a corner of the comics industry historically dominated by white men. In Strange Fruit, the duo use the classic superhero origin story structure to explore race relations in early 20th century America. An alien ship crashes in a small American town. The ship contains an extraterrestrial who would be mistaken for a human being, if not for his amazing abilities. You know the story. Except that this time, it’s not a Kansas that’s eternally 29 years in the past, it’s Mississippi in the 1920’s. And the alien doesn’t look like a white baby, but a black man. It’s a idea reminiscent of M.D. Bright and Dwyane McDuffie’s Icon, but where Bright and McDuffie were interested in using the premise to explore ideological diversity and inter-generational tensions in the African American community, Waid and Jones are focused on how a Superman like hero would’ve disrupted the status quo in the Jim Crow South.
Strange Fruit arrives in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the #YesAllWomen response to the mass shooting at UC Santa Barbara last May, and as American civil rights movements emphasized the need to prioritize the voices of people who’ve experienced harassment or discrimination in discussions about social/economic justice. We were reminded that it’s important to allow individuals from oppressed groups to speak for themselves without any filters or interlocutors from more powerful groups. In this environment, it’s easy to understand why the cultural/ethnic background and identity of those who tell stories about oppressed groups has become a more meaningful part of the critical discussion. If we’re going to talk about Strange Fruit, we shouldn’t forget that both of its creators are white men or ignore the long legacy of stories about the struggle and experience of African Americans told by and filtered through the experience of white men. This is particularly meaningful when one considers that this story is in a genre that has rarely included stories by or about African Americans.
Strange Fruit is not published by Marvel or DC, but the choices that the two publishers are making (and have made over the last twenty years) fuel some of the concerns around representation. African Americans have historically been underrepresented in the American comics industry, particularly if one focuses on the superhero publishers. Although Marvel and DC have employed a handful of African American male creators over the last quarter century, neither has identified workplace diversity as an area of development. The publishers have opted for an ad hoc approach to recruitment that has done little to expand the talent pool. The absence of a diverse talent pipeline has resulted in a sector of the industry with few prominent creators of color. Although the number of successful comics publishers has proliferated over the last year, Marvel and DC are still the traditional entry points for people who want to work on superhero/adventure comics in America, so if African American creators aren’t recruited by Marvel and DC, the numbers at Image, Dark Horse, Boom and IDW suffer. Waid and Jones working on this book is a reminder that there aren’t enough African American creators working in the industry and even fewer who have the cachet to work on a project like Strange Fruit.
I don’t think that this disqualifies Waid and Jones from telling a story set in the Jim Crow South. They could have dealt with the representation issues by collaborating with an African American creator to ensure that the book reflected the perspectives and experiences of African Americans. They could have consulted with some African Americans within their personal or professional networks to get their feedback or engaged in a lot of research about the people and cultural and political dynamics of the era. I can appreciate why they might not want to formally partner with another creator on this project – after all, it’s their vision – but anyone who tells stories about other cultures has a greater responsibility than people who tell stories about their own culture. If you’re from the outside, you have a responsibility to learn about the way the other culture works, plays and talks. You have to know the differences and similarities between the various tribes that constitute a ‘race’ – specificity is crucial. If you’re telling a story about African Americans, folk from Alabama are different than those who live in Illinois or Louisiana. This is particularly important if your story is about events that are meaningful to people in that culture. If you want to tell a story set in postbellum Mississippi, you don’t just need to get the details of the period right, you need to convey an understanding of the people who lived in it. They need to feel like more than archetypes. The comic doesn’t need to perfectly accurate or read like a sociology text, but it should feel thoughtful. We should get the sense that it was informed by your knowledge about the subject. It’s possible that Waid and Jones had some behind the scenes consultations or did a ton of background research before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I just wish that this work (if it happened) was visible in the final product.
The problem’s not that Waid and Jones are white men, it’s that their reach exceeds their grasp. Put another way, their storytelling choices are too conventional for 2015 and don’t do justice to the book’s subject. The first issue shows us the kind of cartoonish racism that was easy to condemn sixty years ago – angry, snarling white men in white hoods calling black folk buck and nigger. Many bigots would feel comfortable calling these guys racists. There’s a lot of truth to this depiction, but these guys are the low hanging fruit of white supremacy.
Waid includes a brief comment on the low wages paid to sharecroppers in the deep South (during an early conflict between Sonny (the main character of the story so far) and Pickens (the primary antagonist of the first issue)), but I can’t help but feel that the scene would’ve been more powerful if it referenced the rampant petty wage thievery and scams that always reminded African Americans that they were in a brutally unjust system. We’re all familiar with the brutal side of American racism from that era, but I think that we need to see more of the elegant racism that systematically disenfranchised black people and destroyed black wealth.
The more significant problems with the first issue are rooted in Waid and Jones’ depiction of African Americans, which evokes memories of films and books that tell African American stories from an outsider perspective. We see their suffering but aren’t shown their lives. Jones’ panels depicting African American life are skillfully executed, but reminded me of the stock images that you’d find in a middle school history textbook on the Jim Crow era. We see African Americans engaged in manual labor, at a local bar/club, working as maids and butlers at a mansion and being chased by the Klan. The cliches might be excusable if there was some hint of nuance or some indication that the individuals pictured had inner lives.
Jones’ paintings are more realistic than the art in most adventure comics, but he doesn’t depict conflicting emotions. There is no ambiguity in the facial expressions of his characters in this book, which is a problem for a book set in this era. If you’re telling a story set in the Jim Crow South, you’ve got to address the acute sense of double consciousness felt by African Americans in that era, especially if oppression is central to your story. We need to see something hinting at that internalized conflict between how white people viewed them and how they saw themselves. Without this added tension, the exchange between Sonny and Pickens feels less painful, less uniquely American. The dispute feels like it’s more about class than race. We only see indignation on Sonny’s face in that moment, but I expected more. When another white character dismisses the recommendations from an African American official with an ugly epithet, we are whisked away before we see the impact of his words.
Jones’ paintings evoke Norman Rockwell’s work, but lack the sense of intimacy that made Rockwell famous. The image of African Americans at the cafe (below) doesn’t make me feel like I’m watching people blow off steam at the end of a long day. I just feel like I’m looking at a snapshot of an event taken by a tourist.
The lack of conversations between African Americans in this issue contributes to the sense of distance between the reader and the African American characters. There are two conversations between white and black characters in the first issue, but almost all of the other conversations (save a one-sided one between Sonny and the mysterious alien) are between two white characters. Even a few exchanges could have given the reader some insight into a rich culture that thrived in spite of institutional racism. It could’ve signaled Waid and Jones’ interest in telling the story from the perspective of more than one culture. The complete absence of conversations between two characters of color sends a message. It indicates that this will be a story about the oppressors, not the oppressed. It’s clear that Waid and Jones are on the right side of history (the racist guys are clearly the bad racist guys), but the focus on the white folk aligns the reader with their perspective and makes the black community feel as distant and foreign as the mysterious alien who shows up at the end of the issue.
Some of Waid and Jones’ choices work. Jones’ final page, featuring the towering image of the muscular black alien clad only in the Confederate flag, is particularly effective. Jones shows the alien in a pose that readers of superhero comics would associate with the classic hero while tapping into stereotypes and fears about hyper-masculine black men and giving a middle finger to Lost-Causers that would do blaxploitation fans proud. I also love Jones’ decision to depict all of the other characters in this issue with ordinary proportions, which helps make the appearance of a man who looks like he belongs in a superhero comic an incongruous and cool moment.
Waid’s writing is perfectly fine. He is really good at telling stories that appeal to people who enjoy superhero comic books published by Marvel and DC. Waid knows all of the narrative tricks, the art of making hoary cliches feel original and rough outlines of characters feel like fully realized human beings. He knows how to write the first issue of a comic book series. In Strange Fruit, Waid deftly orients the reader to this world with glimpses of struggles that we associate with the Jim Crow South. He quickly establishes stakes for the story, lays the groundwork for future conflict and introduces our hero in a final scene that’s equal parts evocative and cornball. By the end of the issue, the reader has a clear sense of the major players and their motivations.
I found Strange Fruit disappointing, but I could easily imagine the book working for some, particularly those who are less familiar with superhero comics or who expect less from stories featuring African American characters. Reasonable people can differ and we don’t all have to share the same priorities. If you want your comics to provide a few moments of diversion and entertainment (and that’s perfectly understandable), this comic will fit the bill. I just need more.
Well, most of the time.
Sometimes a well-executed genre comic like Fiona Staples and Mark Waid’s first issue of the relaunched Archie series hits the spot, and I don’t spend a moment thinking about authenticity or character depth.
The obvious reason is that although Archie and his world are rooted in series creator Bob Montana’s experiences in Haverhill Massachusetts, they are also owned by a publisher that needed to genericize the characters to appeal to a broader audience. Riverdale is always Anytown USA, and Archie Andrews is the eternal boy next door. It’s one of the reasons why stories featuring the Archie cast have been successful for over seventy years. It’s okay if Archie doesn’t behave like a young man of Scot descent from Haverhill, Massachusetts circa 1936, as long as he seems like an authentic teenager. Waid appreciates that there’s something timeless about that phase of life. The clothes, music, slang and technology change, but the fundamentals remain the same. We all remember what it feels like to be a teenager confused by life and love. I don’t think that Waid and Staples are giving us a note perfect depiction of the lives of post-Millenial teenagers, but the teenagers in their story feel plausible. It would’ve been fascinating to read something that was informed by the experiences and perspectives of people who are (or who were recently) teenagers, but this is not a creator owned romantic dramedy set in high school. This is Archie. I’m happy with the nods towards realism – the diverse (race, ethnic background, hair color, body type) cast, the naturalistic dialogue, Staples’ less cartoony style – but I don’t need this to be as nuanced or complicated as the real world.
Archie also feels different because Fiona Staples is the artist on the book. Staples came to prominence through her work on Saga, the popular creator owned sci-fi adventure book written by Brian Vaughan. Saga is many things, one of which is a dirty space opera in which Staples has the freedom to depict graphic violence and nudity in inventive ways. Archie is… well, it’s Archie. The flagship title for a family friendly publisher aimed at a broad audience. It is a book with conventional looking humans who never commit violence and are never naked (don’t even think about the s-word, because that’s completely out of the question). We only expect (or want!) something provocative or formally innovative from an Archie book if it’s exploring another genre and clearly branded as an alternative to the main book (like Afterlife with Archie). Staples fulfills this expectation by giving us a completely conventional Archie story that just happens to showcase her skill at storytelling and expressing emotion through her art.
It’s all the simple moments like the the frustration, anguish and anxiety experienced by Archie and Betty or the use of background musical notes to show Archie slowly building his confidence during a musical performance that leave an indelible impression.
These moments feel honest in a way that helps the reader forget about some of the weirdly artificial elements of the Archie narrative (such as the fact that these stories take place in a world where sexual tension doesn’t exist).
The first issue of Archie succeeds because Waid and Staples successfully incorporate the conventions of a modern teen romantic dramedy into the formula of an Archie book. The duo paid due respect to the past while recognizing how the genre (and storytelling in general) have evolved in recent years. Strange Fruit may improve (the two can easily address almost everyone’s concern over the next three issues), but in the first issue, Waid and Jones fail to account for the shifts in audience expectations for stories about underrepresented groups of people. Telling a story filled with images of black people isn’t enough. You also have to incorporate their perspectives and do their stories justice.
- black webcomics, a selection, by David Brothers
- Growing Talent As If Your Business Depended on It, by Jeffrey M. Cohn, Rakesh Khurana and Laura Reeves
- Diversity as Strategy, by David Thomas
- Stakes Is High: Drake Ghostwriting Accusations Matter More Than You Think, kris ex
- The White Privileges, White Audacity and White Priorities of Strange Fruit #1, J.A. Micheline
- On Wyatt Cenac, ‘Key & Peele,’ And Being The Only One In The Room, Gene Demby
- Marvel’s Mutant Metaphor Massacre, by Chris Eckert (It’s still FBB for Life….)