Mark Waid and J.G. Jones’s Strange Fruit tells the story of a massive colossus appearing in the flood ravaged town of Chatterlee, Mississippi in 1927. Based on a concept by Jones and scripted by Waid, there’s more to this historical drama than a simple sci-fi twist.
Drawing on their deep south roots, Waid and Jones have woven a tale of struggle, hope, and the power to make a difference. Newsarama spoke with the creators to discuss Strange Fruit, delving deep into the influences of the story.
Newsarama: J.G., tell us about the genesis of Strange Fruit. Where did this idea come from?
J.G. Jones: To be honest, this story sort of accreted from a jumble of loose things tumbling around in my head. For a number of years, I have been thinking about a larger narrative that spanned most of the twentieth century, but it was too much to bite off all at once. BOOM! and I were discussing another project that I would write, but they wanted me to draw something for them, as well. I took the larger story idea and pinched off a piece to form the genesis of Strange Fruit.
Nrama: Mark, how did you become involved in the project?
Mark Waid: J.G. and I have known one another for years and years and have been searching for something upon which to collaborate--and when he invited me in, I knew that our shared heritage as Southern boys who grew up in an especially racially charged era might really help us come up with something unique.
Jones: I love Mark's writing, and had been wanting to work with him for a long time. I thought that our similar background, growing up in the deep South during the very broad Civil Rights era would give us a shared perspective. I knew that Mark already had a relationship with BOOM!, so I proposed he write the story with me. Happily, he agreed.
Nrama: "Strange Fruit" is obviously a title loaded with symbolism. How does that relate to the story?
Jones: That Billie Holiday song is so haunting, dark, and powerful; seething with violence and injustice. It carries a lot of emotional baggage. The strange fruit is not only the black bodies swaying in the poplar trees, but also the fruit of the seeds of injustice, hate, and violence. Is the Colossus in our story a golem, created out of the dark Delta earth, come to bring retribution, destruction, a fiery sword? That song took me immediately to a time and place where I wanted to look at the landscape and see what was stamping over the horizon.
Nrama: Who are the characters of Strange Fruit, and what will we see them going up against?
Waid: The main characters cut a wide swath across race and culture, from the level-headed white Governor seeking re-election to the African-American engineer McCoy (sent from "up North" to tackle the problems of the flood but not welcome in Chatterlee, Mississippi) to the striding colossus who comes from a place beyond. I could go on all day about the nuances of the characters, but their common enemy is a simple one: the raging river, which threatens to claim the entire town.
Nrama: Obviously, Strange Fruit deals with some fairly sensitive issues. What steps did you take to make sure that you addressed these issues with a fair and honest perspective?
Waid: Speaking for myself--I wouldn't presume to speak for J.G. on this--I undertook this project hyper-aware of my privilege as a white guy. But, like J.G., I knew I could also bring to it a voice that's authentic for the area and for the era, having been born and raised in the Deep South. It's all in the delivery, and I've no doubt our readers will let us know if we err.
Jones: Fair and honest? Who's to say what that is? I grew up in a small, rural part of Louisiana where life was in many ways the same as it was before World War II. Issues of race and class were unavoidable, insidious, and always present. You can ignore them if you want, but they never go away. When I was choosing a new project, I wanted to do something that was more than just another job for paycheck. I wanted to look at some things that have never left me and maybe find a story that I could feel vested in. That's why I decided to paint the story, rather than just pencil and ink it. I wanted to fully inhabit the thing, and hopefully bring the readers straight into that time and place, as well.
Nrama: Strange Fruit deals with the consequences of a being of great power entering a town ravaged by natural disaster. Would you call it a nascent superhero story?
Waid: Not at all, and I'm still baffled why I get that question. It's historical drama with an element of science fiction that turns a small part of the world upside-down.
Jones: Agreed. We had in mind folk heroes, like John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Stagger Lee. Larger than life characters, but not guys in spandex and capes. Is the colossus a hero or a villain or a force of nature? It depends on who you are and how you perceive your own needs and desires. He is a tabula rasa, a Rashomon. Your view of the mountain depends on where you stand.
Nrama: What drew you to the setting of 1927 Mississippi?
Waid: History. The great Mississippi floods of 1927 were a very real event--up to that time, the greatest natural disaster to ever strike the United States. A perfect cauldron for drama.
Nrama: J.G., you developed this project, and then brought Mark on board to script. How much of the story existed before Mark came on board?
Jones: Like I said, this was to be a small part of a much bigger project, but as I was reading about the Great Flood of '27, it occurred to me that I did not need to worry about the larger piece right now. The seeds for this story were there, and we could tell it like a good fireside story. "Did I ever tell you the tale of the Flood of '27 and the Colossus who came to Chatterlee?…"
Nrama: Mark, you’re no stranger to these kind of projects, working with an artist to develop an idea into a full story. What makes you such an ideal collaborator for artists looking for a writer?
Waid: HA! That's not really for me to answer, is it? For all I know, I'm tolerated as much as embraced. All I can say is that I believe in collaboration and enjoy it. I never treat a job as "my story." Once you pull together with an artist, it's a shared story--and you play to one another's strengths.
Nrama: J.G., you’ve worked with numerous A-list writers. What made Mark the best collaborator for this story?
Jones: You've read Mark's stories, right? He has an amazing ability to humanize his characters. It doesn't matter if it's a story about a kid looking for his dog, or a giant space opera, his characters are always so well considered and not just pieces of the plot. They each have their own needs and desires, and that's where the conflict comes from. Plus, he cans turn an entire scene on the simplest dialogue note, telling in one sentence what I would have had to spend pages painting. The guy writes great dialogue!
Nrama: Why publish this with BOOM!?
Waid: They were fearless in the face of the very first promo image, which rankled a few others.
Jones: No question. I have been in conversation with Filip Sablik and Ross Richie for a couple years, looking for the right thing to do with them. We were finally both ready to go and the partnership has been great, so far.
Nrama: Mark, what’s it like working with the folks at BOOM! again?
Waid: Great. The two most spectacular hires in comics are Matt Gagnon and Filip Sablik. Together, they have embedded an unwavering ethical current in that company that would make me want to follow them anywhere.
Nrama: Final question: what are your ultimate goals with Strange Fruit? What is the overarching theme of the story?
Jones: Honestly, my goal is to tell a great story. To do work that I can be proud of. The overarching theme? Life is fleeting. Is it possible to make a difference?