Mark Waid and J.G. Jones preview powerful historically based comic, Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit may not be the comic you expect — and that’s what makes it stand out. Written by J.G. Jones (Y: The Last Man, Wanted) and Mark Waid (Superman: Birthright, Irredeemable) and illustrated by Jones, the book explores a famously historical time in American history: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Strange Fruit is a comic that is sharp and provocative, and examines the themes of racism in culture through a process that is, as described by Waid, “equally thrilling and terrifying.”
EW spoke to Jones and Waid about how the project came about, collaborating, and what the pressures and challenges are of writing a comic that deals with the intensity of real life events.
EW: How long has this book been in the works? I remember rumblings at Comic Con last year, although at the time, no one knew much about what the project would be.
J.G. JONES: I think we started the actual plotting of Strange Fruit about a year ago. Mark, is that right?
MARK WAID: In one sense, it’s been in the works about a year. In a larger sense, it’s been in the works over a decade, because that’s how long ago J.G. told me his basic idea for the story and got me sharing his passion for it.
JONES: That’s right. It took a while to get the project together and get contracts finalized, but that actually gave us time to ruminate on what we wanted to do with this story. The pitch to BOOM! probably came about six months earlier, so it’s been a couple of years trying to get this just in a position where we were able to script it and begin the art process.
Talk to me a little bit about working together and how that collaboration came about.
WAID: J.G. and I have known one another forever and we’ve been trying to find the perfect collaborative project for years. We’ve talked about doing a lot of things, but this one made the most sense because of our shared heritage as Southern natives who grew up during the Civil Rights wars. We both feel like we’ve got something personal to say about the racial clashes we saw and experienced first-hand as boys.
JONES: Working with Mark on this story has been a high point in my comics career. No doubt. To be able to bat ideas around, craft the story and pare down the nuances of the narrative with such a skilled and passionate storyteller has been a real growth experience. It’s also brought us from being old acquaintances to a point where I think we developed a real bond of friendship. As far as how it came about, I knew that Mark had a prior working relationship with BOOM!, so I somehow convinced both Mark and BOOM! to throw us into this project together. It was really just my sneaky way of getting to work with one of my favorite writers.
The subject matter of this project is obviously proactive and different. And yet, it also seems that right now, with everything going on in the world, it’s a perfect time for a comic like this. How has your experience been putting together this project so far?
WAID: Obviously, when we began, we had little idea exactly how much of the national mood we’d be mirroring in our little historical drama, but we embraced that rather than shy from it. It’s a tough story to tell, but BOOM! has backed us all the way with a tale that, in order not to whitewash the past, involves its fair share of rough imagery and triggering language.
J.G., I know you came up with the idea for this story, but how did that ultimately come about? What inspired you?
JONES: Strange Fruit is set in 1927 in the Jim Crow South, so I actually think that it is utterly sad and infuriating that this should be considered topical nearly a hundred years later, and yet, when I see the news, it doesn’t seem that we have traveled so far down the road as one might hope. What inspired me to germinate this particular tale was reading history. I had been thinking about a larger narrative spanning the entire 20th century, when my mother passed along a book she read about the 1927 flood in the Mississippi Delta. A little light went off: “Oh, there’s how the larger story begins.” In the end, I pinched off a portion of the larger idea, and we sculpted it into the narrative that became Strange Fruit.
This book isn’t your typical comic fare, but it’s important and it speaks to something deeply personal for both of you. As someone who reads almost everything, I’m happy that you’re taking us on this journey — because I love superheroes, but these are the books that people need to discover and connect with.
JONES: I can’t speak for Mark, but I have enjoyed the change of pace from working on books with capes and spandex. I was more inspired by the old tall tales—John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and the like—than I was thinking about traditional superheroes in this book. But in a real sense, our superhero tradition comes straight out of those old tales, so I don’t think that the two are all that far apart, really.
WAID: Agreed. It’s certainly not a superhero book, though there are science-fiction elements woven throughout.
I’d imagine you both did a fair amount of research, maybe in different ways, to write and draw this book the way you wanted. I know you’re both from the South, but was that process daunting at all? Or was it fun to get deep into the history and pick out the pieces you wanted to explore?
WAID: ”Fun” isn’t the best word—it’s a tough patch in American history. The Mississippi Flood of 1927 was, up to that time, the greatest natural disaster ever to strike North America. Fortunately, there’s existing film footage of the era, and many great books have been written (chief among them John M. Barry’s RISING TIDE) that J.G. and I have mined heavily. That said, I know J.G. and I are having a lot of joy with the language of the time and the place. It’s not often that I get to remember and use phrases like “on out my farm” or “powerful ugly” in modern scripts.
JONES: I love painting the setting, clothes and buildings of the ’20s, but the level of research I do to draw each panel is enormous. I have to check on the simplest things, like the type of lamp I need to have in a room or what style of hat was current at the time. It’s exhausting to be honest, but the final product will be worth the effort.
I know this story is important to you, personally. As creators, what do you hope readers take away from it, when they pick it up for the first time?
JONES: The first order of business is to tell an interesting tale. We aren’t here to force feed you spinach, but are really lucky to work in a medium in which you can tell almost any kind of story. I hope the readers find this a compelling read, and I am trying to make it interesting to look at, as well.
WAID: A sense of unrest. Of unease. Of wondering how much we should hope for solutions to be presented to us and how much we need to dig down and find them in ourselves.
Preview an exclusive sneak peak of Strange Fruit below (please note the warnings for language in some of the pages.)