I’m really glad that Mark Waid chooses to write comics instead of attempting to dominate the world. At this point, I think my loyalty to his work surpasses that of country, family, and Macbooks, making me willing to try out any comic he’s involved in regardless of my level of interest in the actual premise. Along with artist J.G. Jones (with whom Waid shares script duties), the two have managed with Strange Fruit to create a comic that resonates on multiple levels, working as an exploration of Southern racial dynamics as well as a sci-fi story that’s entirely grounded thanks to J.G. Jones’ painted panels. Strange Fruit takes place in early 20th century Chatterlee, Mississippi, a town that’s threatened by floods thanks to recent heavy rains that will potentially breakaway the levees that protect the town from the Mississippi River. As the people of the town work to reinforce the levees and find another solution, with the aid of a black engineer sent from D.C., some of the white people in the town instead decide that it’s a good a time as any to track down and kill a black man named Sonny who no longer wants to work for them. On the run from this small group of white men, who turn out to be Klan members, Sonny finds refuge with Sarah, a wealthy woman who refuses to hand over Sonny when the KKK shows up at her door. Fleeing Sarah’s house, Sonny looks likely to be captured before a run-in with a muscular black man, who may or may not be an alien, turns his fate.
That’s a hell of a lot going on in this issue, and it speaks highly of Waid and Jones that the story flows smoothly from beginning to end in spite of the multiple storylines going on. The key to the success of the script is that Waid and Jones establish the larger ongoing conflict the people of Chatterlee are facing then close in their focus on Sonny and his pursuers. We get the stakes of all the groups involved without the chunky exposition that’s often used to get it all in concisely. Additionally, Waid and Jones do remarkable work to capture the language of the time and place, my disgust towards the racist whites further cemented by each casual use of a racial slur or condescending statement made by them. Besides Sonny, we’re not provided much insight, or even names, with the other characters, but the dialogue in this issue goes a long way to show what these characters think of each other.
Jones’ artwork on this comic floors me throughout. He does an exceptional job of rendering a period that’s only known to him through research of historical accounts. Everything from the landscape to the vehicles and clothing go a long way to ground this story. His paintings give the already dramatic story a heightened sense of weight and importance, and he manages a great variety of facial expressions across characters. Additionally, his use of realistic shadowing makes each panel feel only a few steps removed from a photograph. In the few instances where we get hints at science fiction aspects in the comic, Jones’ art allows these elements to meld nicely into the world of Mississippi and although we only get a few pages of action this issue, Jones pulls off some dynamic layouts. The standout page is when the unknown newcomer hefts a tree trunk and occupies the majority of the page, giving us a moment to admire him right before he hurls it at the KKK.
Right now I’ve got no idea where this story will end up. It’s a complete mystery what the newcomer’s intentions are, and how his presence will play into the impending flood. Waid and Jones have got me on for the long haul with this one. I could always do with seeing a few Klansmen get clobbered.