Page 45 Review by Stephen
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
'Strange Fruit' - Lewis Allan, Maurice Pearl, Dwayne P Wiggins
Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
That jaunty little lynching song has to contain some of the finest lyrics ever composed. The extraordinary control and restraint are part of why it works so well, along with its plantation and harvesting connotations.
This sumptuously painted graphic novel, on the other hand, has to contain the finest - in fact, possibly the only decent ever - use of the confederate flag which is regularly hauled out as a public, repugnant, celebratory display of racism. Its reclamation through repurposing had me grinning from ear to ear with vicariously vengeful glee. It could not have been better placed, but I know you're a delicate crowd so I will save everyone's blushes.
Although I have just found the interior art and it is so exceptionally beautiful that I cannot resist. I hope it intrigues.
In the spirit of similarly saving steaming hot welts of shame I should warn you that this graphic novel also portrays the horrific levels of overt, verbal and brutal, physical racism which the use of that song's title suggests. I'm not going to be typing those words myself because in a review that would constitute an unnecessary normalisation of them, but I disagree vehemently with anyone decrying their replication in this comic for we are in Chatterlee, Mississippi, April 1927 and that was the hateful language so casually bandied about around there back then, and we shouldn't bleach history of its most disgusting elements lest we forget how fetid they were.
Brilliantly, script-writer Mark Waid juxtaposes that absence of any racial goodwill with the higher priority of the day, that of good manners by not swearing in front of women. Cussing meant taking a fictitious God's name in vain by the way (I don't think He'd have minded much); it did not extend to ethnic slurs about actual living, breathing, individual human beings.
Right, I think it's worth reprinting Mark Waid's brief post-script here to set the scene:
"The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was no fiction. It was, at the time, the worst natural disaster ever to strike the United States. Uncharacteristically heavy rains up and down the Mississippi transformed the river into a raging buzzsaw up to 80 feet wide that cascaded over riverbanks and levees, flooding an area the size of Connecticut.
"In most communities, the levees, man-made, were all that held that river back. They were built and maintained almost exclusively by African American plantation workers who received little or no pay while their white superiors hoarded provisions and allowed little rest for their labourers.
"Ultimately, nearly 250 flood-related deaths were reported, and over half-million men, women and children were displaced by the floods.
"You can guess what colour the vast majority of them were."
"Reported": you wait until the two final pages. They will make you seethe.
But everything in the promise of that post-script is delivered here: the desperate fight to save Chatterlee from the floods, the reliance on harangued, conscripted, black slave-labour to do so; and the baiting of that so desperately relied-upon black, slave labour by the Ku Klux Klan, driving the work force away.
By "baiting" I mean hounding at the point of pistols and shot-guns.
Only one soul here treats her workforce with any consideration and Sarah Lantry's surprisingly cooperative plantation is the one that's going to be drowned if an old spillway is reopened to divert the alarmingly swelling waters from swamping the town.
Although I notice the contextually exemplary widow Sarah Lantry doesn't carry her own umbrella.
Little details like that, un-signposted, make for a much meatier book than you might expect, and it's certainly the work of artist and originator J. G. Jones' comicbook career. If you already loved him from WANTED, you will weep in adoration at the glory within.
For a start, he's a superb portrait painter, especially of Mr Fonder McCoy, the initially dismissed and resented, bespectacled engineer sent from Washington, with his intelligent eyes and double chin.
The first few pages are meticulously painted with ridiculous attention to denim detail and ever so lambent they are too, but even they are completely outclassed by the thrilling compositions of the first chapter's final nine pages and their raw, physical beauty.
On top of the impeccable, muscular neo-classical physique, the weight of a hefty tree trunk, the folds in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan and a purple stormy sky crackling with lightning, there are two perspectives of phenomenal power shot from below then a double-page spread split into radial panels worthy of Neal Adams (except these actually work better - *cough*) to present a monumental sense of movement.
I don't believe I have ever seen it done quite like this: a first panel whose figure is super-imposed upon its successors without in any way contradicting the explosive, sequential-art narration of what happens next.
What you might infer from the above is a distinct change of pace and perhaps even genre, for this wasn't what I was expecting when I first read it.
I was expecting straight historical fiction - and for the most part, it is - but what I'm trying to imply is that there's more than one reason why fans of Mark Waid and Alex Ross' KINGDOM COME will love this.
My first clue was the comet streaking across the sky.