July brought news of a truly exciting new comic. “[Mark] Waid and [J.G.] Jones should make room on their mantles for some Eisners,” trumpeted CBR over the hit feel-good series of the summer, Strange Fruit, from Boom Studios.
Strange Fruit tells the story of white characters in a small Mississippi town, struggling with the effect of the historic and deadly 1927 flood on their community. Also: there’s a naked silent black man wandering around having flashbacks about spaceships. His sassy black sidekick calls him Johnson, because “white folk ain’t much gonna cotton to yo’ running ‘round with yo’ JOHNSON hanging’ out!” But mostly it’s about damp white characters. There’s the evil white Klansmen, and then all the other articulate white characters who all seem like swell folks and sure don’t like those Klansmen, no sir.
Yes, the first issue of Strange Fruit tells the gripping story of race in America: the noble battle between enlightened white people and less-enlightened white people. How exciting it must have been for black people to have been on the sidelines of that battle, and gotten to watch all that unfold for them, the lucky sons of guns!
The n-word gets used a lot for a Boom Studios comic, but not as many times as that comic where the Lumberjanes meet Lil Wayne. Who knew that Lil Wayne could tie so many different kinds of sailing knots? And who knew that those Lumberjanes were ride-or-die racists??
But as Waid explained to Newsarama, before the release of Strange Fruit #1, “It's all in the delivery, and I've no doubt our readers will let us know if we err.”
Oh but so hey, how’d that turn out?
The quick version is “err.” TLDR: muy “err.” It did not go 100% well, no, with reviews ranging from “Waid and Jones’ Strange Fruit seems ignorant of its place within American comics” to “any direction I see this miniseries going is disturbing. It’s not daring and it’s not ambitious and it’s not very interesting. At worst? It’s masturbatory” with a stop in between at “two white men are writing and drawing this book about racism and they have already decided that it is about them.” One review even blamed Strange Fruit #1 for causing public nudity, specifically a review I read in a dream I had where I showed up at high school naked and all my classmates were secretly werewolves.
CBR predicted Strange Fruit would win Eisner Awards, but they were probably just referring to the Eisner Award for Biggest Johnson in Comics. Which is a bummer— I thought this was finally your year, Lee Weeks, you elephant-dicked hoss.
After the release of Strange Fruit #1, Waid would have to tell CBR, “What I say about this is not what's important. What's important is what other people who don't have the privilege that I have want to say. That's what's important, and I have to listen. And I would be lying to you if I said it's easy, but I'm willing to try.”
But while that may not sound like a lot, at all, even a little, heck no, hecky-naw-naw, “I would be lying to you if I said it was easy, but I’m willing to try [to listen]” would end up seeming like downright radically progressive, hippie love-in, flower-power moonbeam chatter compared to what others in the comics industry had to say this year about race.
Marvel, for example, spent June angry, furious, that anyone would dare question it about race.
The context? Hip-hop-themed variant covers. Marvel had the idea, well, the idea was had of having artists pay homage to the great album covers of rap history, by replacing the rappers with Marvel characters. Michael Allred could draw an homage to Ice-T’s Gangsta Rap, except with Franklin Richards and Puck from Alpha Flight; Mark Bagley draws 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be, but with Luke Skywalker instead of, uh, Luke Skywalker; and so forth. They’d later collect the covers, add on a Killer Mike intro, get some press. Not the worst idea, except for Greg Land’s homage to Sweet P’s I Toast Myself but with Man-Ape. Great idea, but ugh, more Greg Land art??
As perhaps best articulated here, Marvel was apparently fine with profiting off one of many great contributions of black culture to the arts while simultaneously seeming to have zero interest in actual black people meaningfully contributing to the arts as writers of their comics. Not just fine, but not even having the sense in their heads when asked about it to just say, “We’re working on it-- all will be revealed,” like a child who’d been held back a few grades in junior high school would know to say.
This was especially hard to swallow after Marvel had repeatedly trumpeted their “exciting new minority characters,” all constantly written by bros whiter than a Noah Baumbach movie set during a snowstorm. At that point in time, Marvel was announcing their new post-Secret Wars lineup, and had not yet announced a single comic featuring black creators.
Later in the year, in September and October, Marvel would announce new series by David Walker, Sanford Greene, Brian Stelfreeze, and famous African-American journalist and “Genius Grant” recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates. The announcement of Coates, in particular, was lauded throughout the media, from The New York Times to Newsweek to Chunky Asses. So, in July, before those announcement had been made, Marvel just faced a simple public relations challenge, which a well-crafted response should have been able to elegantly handle.
Instead, Marvel came out swinging.
Speaking to CBR, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso began by stating he had expected a controversy and said, “So be it, that’s a good conversation to have.” Sure, sure, Marvel loves to have conversations. Then, Alonso himself even immediately mocked the word conversation! “But some of the ‘conversation’ in the comics internet community seems to have been ill-informed and far from constructive.” You know what’s a bad sign? When the person promising you he’s interested in a conversation puts the word conversation in SCARE QUOTES. It’s heartening to know Marvel was willing to take time away from the imaginary conversation they were pretending to have about skanky Milo Manara covers, to pretend to have a completely different imaginary conversation about race. AMERICA!
Alonso continued: “A small but very loud contingent are high-fiving each other while making huge assumptions about our intentions, spreading misinformation about the diversity of the artists involved in this project and across our entire line, handing out snap judgments like they just learned the term ‘cultural appropriation’ and are dying to put it in an essay. [...] I’m a first-generation Mexican-American...” Marvel wanted to definitely have a conversation but just not with any of the people already having a conversation because man, fuck all those people.
After hearing Alonso’s response, Wired would praise Mark Waid and Boom as being “unusually receptive” to discussions about race. Alonso had gotten great PR, just for “anybody but Marvel.” But maybe that’s being unfair. Maybe Axel Alonso actually was trying to convey that he cared quite a bit about having a conversation on race in the comics industry. Anyone saying otherwise sure wouldn’t have any evidence to go on -- not unless they could somehow cast their memory back all the way to the distant mists of March 2015.
In March 2015, the Nib had published #Lighten Up, Ronald Wimberly’s short comics essay on race and comics, in which he tried to open up a discussion about how race got treated in comics by referencing an occasion where he’d been asked to “lighten” the skin tone of a character with a Mexican father and an African-American mother. Wimberly’s comic was hardly a shrill broad-side on Marvel, but rather a meditation on the absurdity of race persisting as an issue in comics that frequently feature DayGlo characters, Wimberly’s alarm as to comics’ unspoken narratives on race and their toll, and his anxieties about his work.
Alonso’s response to #Lighten Up? Briefly: “Ron posed a question, ‘Is this racist?’, casting a shadow over his editor and, by extension, Marvel. [...] We are home to Storm [...] I am Mexican-American.”
It’s hard to believe you care about having a conversation about race in comics if you keep insisting that their having any conversation on the topic at all is somehow “victimizing” you. But what else could Alonso possibly say? “We think there was an innocent miscommunication between Ron and his editor, and I’m eager to reach out to him to discuss it and make sure he understands that while we disagree with the details of his comic, we’re taking the larger issues he raises seriously?” He couldn’t possibly say that! If he said that, armed men would murder puppies they’d kidnapped from the president’s daughters! I assume!
Question: does Marvel really have a PR Department, and if so, do they get paid in U.S. currency or just leftover half-eaten ham sandwiches? Please — serious responses only.
So, summing up the rules of the imaginary “conversation” about race that Marvel wanted to have in July 2015: (1) it couldn’t be with anyone who wrote an essay because they are part of a small but loud contingent of horrible fucks; (2) no one could mention racism during the conversation about race, (3) no one could use the phrase "cultural appropriation" because they probably only just learned it recently which invalidates the entire concept, (4) any attempt to describe the anxieties of black creators would be considered a personal attack on Marvel editors, and treated only and exclusively as that, and (5) if there was ever any lull in the conversation, Axel Alonso would lean very close to you and softly whisper, “I’m Mexican American” in your ear and then stare meaningfully into your eyes until things got awkward and you looked away.
Race is an easy thing to want to have a conversation about, but a damned hard one to actually pull off. Because people misperceive racism as always being caused by moral failure, by the cartoon KKK villains of cheap Mark Waid comics, and react as though they are under the most heinous of personal attacks when people seek to discuss racism in a real way, meaningful way, instead of just tossing glib “minority variant covers” on top of the usual super-white nonsense.
Race doesn’t need outlandish villains. It can just as easily become a complicated issue because of broken default settings, unspoken assumptions that have gone too long unchallenged, schlubs-in-fedoras not spotting the issues because they don’t want to bother to look hard enough or to risk admitting their flaws.
The comics industry’s dealings with race will likely not be resolved in any one conversation, or solved by hiring any one writer, however much these small steps in the right direction may mean to us in the moment-- dealing with race will likely be an ongoing process of attentiveness, humility and inquiry, a process without finish.
BUT on the other hand, I’m probably 100% wrong about ALL of that because I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I have it on good authority…
RACISM IS OVER EVERYBODY! YEAAAAAH! HE DID IT!
(Soundtrack swells with Queen’s "We Are the Champions"; fireworks explode all around us; balloons drop from fighter jets that fly over us in formation; Ford trucks start gently fucking super-intelligent dolphins until dolphin guts explode all over Skittles rainbows; pregnant teenagers rush to the bathrooms of their senior proms to give toilet-birth to star-babies whose eyes are supernovas; Girl Scouts clobber Beelzebub with their cookie boxes and also switchblades; we all just get to hold a bunch of puppies for a while, and it’s just nice because they’re very affectionate puppies! But then at the end of that, one of the puppies hands you some money and is like “thanks, I needed that” and at first you’re like “holy shit a talking dog” but then it’s like “wait, why did I just get paid? Did that dog think I was some kind of human-dog stripper or prostitute?” But you’re in such a contented place, you just let it roll off you, and spend some of that money treating yourself to some gelato, and you know, just chalk the whole thing up to it just being of those crazy nights that you get to have because you’re young and this city is yours forever! AMERICA!)
NO TIME FOR LOOOOOOOOSERS BECAUSE WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS… OF THE WORLLLLLLLDDDDD!
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