Independently Well Done highlights completed and/or noteworthy story-arcs published by indie and small press creators.
Written By: J.G. Jones & Mark Waid
Art By: J.G. Jones
Published: July – Nov 2016, by BOOM! Studios
It’s not often that a comic can impact the thinking of an individual. For the most part comics are an escape from the often dreary reality of life. We can watch as super powered individuals overcome impossible odds to make things right and provide justice in an unjust world. They’re often fun and enjoyable with a lightheartedness and almost comical (pun intended) intent behind them. Then of course there’s Strange Fruit by BOOM! Studios, with all of its raw, uncensored storytelling, which leaves the reader in a place wherein thought and contemplation are required.
What we have in Strange Fruit is a comic, from my perspective, unlike any other. I’ve seen some people talk about this book as though it parallels other more mainstream characters, but to boil this down to such a thing really undersells what this comic delivers. This isn’t a story wherein the good guy defeats the bad guy. This is a comic that tells a story of self sacrifice, selflessness, kindness, and generosity to both those who need those things, and even those who might not deserve such.
It is that very thing that causes me to pause when I read reviews and opinions on this series where they pretty much dismiss the entirety because it didn’t follow some traditional pattern. I’ve seen people putting this book down because it didn’t deliver in a way that the reader/reviewer expected or wanted. Sure, we all can be disappointed, but to criticize a story because the storyteller didn’t do what you thought they should have completely defeats the purpose of storytelling.
Strange Fruit is the story of an alien come to Earth. He has super strength, a measure of invulnerability, and is physically imposing. This dude is ten different kinds of buff, and about a foot taller than everyone else in the book. He’s also a mute, and a black man, which is important because he lands on Earth during the height of racism and slavery. This entire story is set in Mississippi, in the 1920’s, and the backdrop to all of this is the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The levees are bursting, the town is threatened, and tensions are ready to break.
With that setup, it is at this exact moment when a behemoth of a man, specifically a black man, with crazy super strength, in the midst of racist slave owners suddenly bursts onto the scene. Suddenly, not only is the town threatened by this looming flood, but now a man with the power to free slaves is thrown into the mix. Two schools of thought arise, the first being that this superhero of a man has the power to stop the injustice of slavery nearly immediately. The second being, the slave owners seeing a cash cow and an incredible threat all rolled into one within this man. From this conflict our story arises, and within four issues, what takes place is nothing short of brilliant and beautiful.
Now, be warned, in order to write what I want about this series I am going to pretty much spoil the ending. I’ll warn you, but it is the ending of this series that set me on edge, and at first I didn’t know how I felt. I needed time to process what happened, why it happened, and whether or not it served the stories purpose. Without spoiling anything I will say this, the ending absolutely delivers on the purpose of the story. It might not feel that way initially, but if you take the character development from beginning to end, I think it’s clear that things ended up as they should’ve. If you haven’t checked this story out, it’s only four issues, the art is beautiful, and it’s available on ComiXology, making it easily accessible.
SPOILERS AHEAD – So what makes all of this so great? Well, it is in fact the ending of the story that justifies all the raw and flagrant obscenities that run rampant throughout. Our storytellers didn’t hold back in displaying the grotesque nature of slave owners in the 1920’s, nor did they shy away from the brutality of that time. They put on full display just how bad things were, and then offset that by introducing a character that had the ability to change things. Then, as the story progresses, and these moments arise wherein our mute superhero defends those in need, we find the truest of natures bubbling to the top.
As the threat of the town being lost to a horrible flood overshadows nearly everything, it is absolutely critical to note that the slave owners begin to view our alien man as a bigger threat. They begin to switch focus, leaving certain precautions unattended, caring more about stopping this man who may free their “property,” and even in the end try to stop him while threatening to hinder the people who might actually save their town.
In the end however, our alien hero becomes just that, a hero. He knows nothing of these people whom he is surrounded by. He’s not vested in countering slavery, stopping the injustice he sees around him. He isn’t attempting to usurp power from anyone. Nor does he have anything to gain from anything he does. Instead, his entire character function as a single man who puts others above himself. With nothing to gain by saving the town, and no profit to be had by helping the slaves, what we see at the end is our hero being washed away moments after saving everyone. The raging water having been misdirected away from the town, pulling our silent savior to its depths…then nothing.
That’s right, as best we can tell, our hero dies at the end of this series. For some, that might be angering because it doesn’t deliver full and total resolution. It doesn’t force those who did wrong to face the consequences of their actions. Both slave owners and slave are saved, meaning those who meant harm for our hero received exactly what the wanted. Their town was saved, and this threat to their livelihood was washed away. It is this very ending that sealed away this book as one of my favorites. Why? Because it showed a different side of being a hero.
Sure we see self-sacrifice in our mainstream heroes. Batman does his thing and takes a beating without reward. Superman, who was often used as a comparison to this story (unjustly I feel) is forced to live a life of mediocrity when the power to rule lay at this finger tips. However, in nearly all the sacrifice mainstream heroes face, they still come out as the winners. Yet, in Strange Fruit, the only person to lose anything…everything…was the hero, and the only motivation for doing such was that people needed him. With nothing more, and nothing less, our hero became the servant of all, and made the greatest sacrifice anyone could make. His gift to the people with whom he walked was that everyone was created equal in his eyes.