Gill’s collection, Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narrative from Black History, provides us with another opportunity to raise questions about the figurative modes of expression that today’s comics creators use to represent race and racism. Readers of the short stories in Strange Fruit quickly learn to appreciate the playful succinctness of Gill’s iconographic language. He knows when to use humor and sight gags to advance the story. (On the experience of enslavement, Henry “Box” Brown remarks: “This stinks.”) But Gill knows when more serious cultural cues are needed too, as in the two-page spread where Brown’s body, shown curled inside a wooden box, silently tumbles from slavery to freedom.
Strange Fruit goes a step further in completely depersonalizing white supremacist ideology by representing angry white people literally as (jim) crows. In stories like “The Noyes Academy” about the destruction of the nation’s first integrated school or “The Black Cyclone” about one of the fastest black cyclists in the world, outraged whites are transformed into belligerent red-eyed birds that chase and poke their wings into black faces. They speak only in blank word balloons, pictograms, and the occasional “caw!”
Last month, World War Z writer Max Brooks and artist Caanan White published, The Harlem Hellfighters, a graphic novel about an all-black infantry unit during World War I. It shares with Strange Fruit an interest in recovering details about African American life and culture that have been overlooked (and both are helpfully endorsed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.). But in contrast to the more conventional heroic narrative and mimetic style of The Harlem Hellfighters, I think that Gill’s experimental choices result in stories that are not just aesthetically richer, but that also illustrate a wider range of interpretive possibilities for remembering the past.
The way in which Gill represents racist speech in Strange Fruit is just one example of these artistic choices. What do you think about his strategy? I’d be interested to hear if you’ve seen similar approaches in other comics too.