The Silent Lessons of Strange Fruit #2: A Review That Isn’t
October 4, 2015
Though Strange Fruit #1 was published in July, the BOOM! response to criticisms lodged about its racial insensitivity in the following weeks and months has been relative silence.
I tried very hard not to blame them, as it’s a public relations rule: the best thing to say in the midst of a crisis is nothing at all.
I have to say, though, that it’s a rule I’ve never understood. Social media moves at an impossible pace, but once a serious issue has been brought to your attention, I can’t imagine how acknowledging that the criticism has been heard can do anything but improve your reputation. In any industry, comics or otherwise, consumers want to feel as though their concerns are met with respect and careful thought.
That kind of respect and thought is neither impossible nor unprecedented. Though there are still a number of imperfections with how the transphobia in Airboy #2 was handled, this single tweet from writer James Robinson comes to mind. While I don’t think every narrative problem (or maybe even any narrative problem) in comics necessitates a statement from an advocacy body, what strikes me about the tweet is its framing of the writer’s silence. Robinson could have said absolutely nothing. He could even have remained totally quiet before smugly dropping his statement with GLAAD as though to say: “See?” But something else happened instead.
Earlier, I framed silence as an adept public relations technique, but it’s actually part and parcel of something bigger. Silence has certainly been used as a method of civil disobedience by the disenfranchised, but when used by powerful institutions, it is more often than not a method of maintaining the status quo. Silence as used by a corporation or government entity–or more widely, by a system of oppression–is sometimes employed in hopes of a short public memory. Starve the critics out, so to speak, until the news cycle moves along. More often, though, the silence becomes something a bit more insidious and, perhaps, the ultimate weapon. Rather than contending with whatever problems critics point out, silence makes it such that those problems simply…do not exist. A response bestows some level of legitimacy, indicates that a query is worthy of discussion, while silence communicates the opposite. Comics has no race problems. Comics has no gender problems. Comics has no problems at all. Move along, everyone. There is nothing to see here.
You might understand, then, why I found Robinson’s tweet a profound move within the bigger landscape. Rather than remaining silent in hopes of starving them out or, perhaps, even refusing to acknowledge that their concerns were real–Robinson made it clear, a mere two days after the transphobia discussion began, that he was not speaking because he was listening. And that’s a different thing to silence wholesale.
Mark Waid, J.G. Jones, and BOOM!’s executives let their silence persist for two to three weeks before any statements–official or otherwise–were made.
[pullquote]“What I say about this is not what’s important,” he says. “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.”[/pullquote]Waid’s first public statement came in the form of a CBR interview about two weeks after the issue’s release. He specifically notes that he decided not to make a prepared statement and displays a clear understanding–an understanding which I wish had been applied before the project’s conception–for how white voices have dominated the narrative on race. Though the message is, really, too little too late when we look at what was possible, it’s hard to fault Waid for its actual contents:
“What I say about this is not what’s important,” he says. “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.”
It’s what we all wanted to hear–despite it being about two weeks after we wanted to hear it.
The week following, BOOM! and Waid eventually each gave a statement to writer, editor, and critic Laura Hudson as part of her piece at Wired on racial diversity in comics. The wait was long, but, to their credit, both statements, combined with Waid’s first, seemed to reflect that BOOM!, Waid, and presumably Jones were actively listening to the critiques and intended to integrate this feedback into future endeavors.
Looking back now, though, the language in both of the Wired statements is interesting and something of a forewarning. Both clearly refer to handling racial problems going forward–Waid in particular notes his coming work on All-New, All-Different Avengers, a comic prominently featuring characters of color–but both are also careful not to indicate that any changes will be made with regards to present issues on the present project.
I was somewhat hopeful when the comic started to face delays. The next issue had been solicited for August, but the month came and went with quiet delays and no release. September passed in a similar fashion and I wondered whether the series was just going to fade away, or at the very least, be massively re-worked to address the narrative problems. With a publisher like BOOM! and a creative team like Waid and Jones, it seemed possible for positive steps to be taken.
A huge part of white privilege is that it allows white people to live in ignorance with regards to racial issues, racist tropes, and racist narratives. One of the things I emphasized in my examination of Strange Fruit #1 was that the creation of this comic was never about bad or hurtful intent. Indeed, my guess is that Waid, Jones, and the BOOM! execs simply didn’t know or realize the true impact of their creation–which is why it is actually Strange Fruit #2 that represents their true measure.
Especially given the two months of delays, I hoped–perhaps naively–that everyone involved had learned from the mistakes made and were working to make sure that mistakes of the same ilk were not made again. Friends warned me that a publisher would never back down from a book once it was announced; others told me that Waid and Jones wouldn’t want to lose face; still others mentioned that it was just a matter of money–now that Waid and Jones had done the work, it had to be seen through.
Still: I hoped anyway.
Those hopes came to an end last month with Laura Sneddon’s piece, “How Can Comics Be Better At Race?” Writing for The New Statesman, Sneddon discusses many of the issues of race discussed in the last few months and gets a brand new quote from BOOM! indicating something absolutely baffling. According to the publisher, the comic “was originally scheduled for September per its bimonthly release” and that while while they are aware of the conversation sparked by the first issue, the delay was caused by “production-related issues beyond [their] control.”
You hear it, don’t you? It’s almost there, if you listen closely–a quiet chant underlying all of their words: There are no problems with BOOM!’s comics. There never have been and there never will be.
Those of us checking solicits and noting the delay on the advertised monthly release had taken the delay as a sign that, potentially, our concerns had been heard. BOOM! taking the action to deny the comic ever was on a monthly release added baffling insult to injury. A slightly different tune to the active listening that Editor-in-Chief Matt Gagnon claimed earlier in the summer–but then again, I suppose they never claimed to be listening and improving their current material. All of this active listening is for nebulous future projects, not what they’re doing wrong today.
It’s not shocking, then, that Strange Fruit #2 is just as racially insensitive as Strange Fruit #1. And yet my visceral reactions to them both were strikingly different.
[pullquote]I really felt strongly that Strange Fruit couldn’t sit on shelves or in people’s hands without some kind of firm opposition existing in the world.[/pullquote]I wrote my piece about the first issue in basically one sitting, with the Mad Max: Fury Road soundtrack on repeat, the day before the comic’s release. On the day in question, I rushed it over to my editor and through to copyediting because I really felt strongly that Strange Fruit couldn’t sit on shelves or in people’s hands without some kind of firm opposition existing in the world. I did a lot of apologizing to my editors that day, but it felt absolutely crucial that I respond on the same day the comic dropped.
By now you’ll have noticed that this piece is about two weeks late.
After I finished reading Strange Fruit #2, I sat for a while and wondered if there was any point to writing about it at all. When it came down to it, the reality was–to use an Internet tautology–tone deaf comic is tone deaf. By now, a reader should know what they’re getting into and declaring the second issue as “tone deaf too” doesn’t quite have the same impact as addressing the book’s opening salvo. I could do it, certainly, but to what end? I looked at the comic, examined what was fresh to discuss, and to be perfectly honest: I got bored. I don’t mean that the comic’s contents were necessarily boring–some may think so, others may not–but instead, I was bored by the very idea of doing a second critique. Still, I had to, right? I am a black woman reading and writing about comics and if such a #2 exists, surely I must respond to it using the same critical eye with which I approached #1.
I started writing about the specifics of what new things went wrong with this issue–a black man nicknaming the black alien “Johnson” thereby reducing him to his genitalia and encouraging the overall hypersexualizing and dehumanizing of black men; McCoy rhetorically distancing from the other black people in the town as a result of his education, suggesting education can somehow negate his blackness; McCoy, again, a black man, proposing that the black alien be used as an object to achieve white people’s ends–and I was bored.
Writing about Strange Fruit #2 is boring and if you stuck with this article so far in hopes that I’d do a similar breakdown to the last issue, well, I’m sorry, but not this time. I did actually write a whole thing discussing each of those above points and contextualizing them with regards to their consequences for black male youth–and then promptly deleted it all. It was boring. I was bored. And, I’m guessing, you would’ve been bored too.
[pullquote]Writing about this comic is boring because nothing has changed. It’s essentially all the same problems we saw in the last iteration, with a few new ones sprinkled in.[/pullquote]Waid, Jones, if you’re reading this, I have done creative consultations for two of your colleagues and would be happy to avail my services to you on this project and others, but not for free. Not anymore.
Writing about this comic is boring because nothing has changed. It’s essentially all the same problems we saw in the last iteration, with a few new ones sprinkled in. Maybe Waid and Jones thought they’d fix a few things by showing that the alien can read advanced mathematics books and carve equations into the ground for no reason, but well, they didn’t. Nothing has changed.
For all the active listening and learning and pushing comics forward and feigned allyship and Waid was friends with Dwayne McDuffie and honestly how dare you absolutely nothing has changed.
Except one thing.
When it came to the first issue, I could happily live in a world where Mark Waid, J. G. Jones, and BOOM! Studios had done what they’d done without realizing their work was promulgating and participating in anti-black racism. That is no longer the case with issue #2.
The message is clear: “We heard you and we do not care.”
It’s more important to Waid, Jones, and BOOM! to make money, to save face, to do whatever the latest excuse for not making significant revisions or cancelling the book entirely is, than it is not to continue to publish anti-black messages and ideas.
White Privilege. White Audacity. White Priorities.
I pinned those three on the work last time, but now I think enough has happened where they can be extended to the creative team and publisher as well.
[pullquote]White Privilege. White Audacity. White Priorities.[/pullquote]It is Waid, Jones, and BOOM!’s white privilege that will allow this book to continue in an identical vein to where it started with little consequence. It is Waid, Jones, and BOOM!’s white audacity that allows them to think they can look black readers in the eye while claiming to be positive forces in an industry after completely ignoring criticism of one of the most blatantly anti-black comics in a long while. And it is Waid, Jones, and BOOM!’s white priorities that allow them to put other things first, to think that there is some justifiable excuse for not just continuing to publish a racially tone-deaf work, but continuing to publish it with basically no attempt to improve upon its problems, regardless of its anti-racist intent.
Strange Fruit #1 may have been a lesson about race and narrative for a lot of readers, but Strange Fruit #2 was a bigger lesson for me. Mark Waid, J. G. Jones, and the executives at BOOM! Studios are not ports in a storm, are not who I can look to for change, are not who I should trust. They’ve heard me and they do not care. And I’m tired of talking to people who aren’t listening.