Last post, I wrote about some of the Gothic elements in issues #41 and #42 of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and the repetition of the “unsuccessfully repressed.” Today, I want to continue that discussion some by looking at the conclusion of issue #42, “Strange Fruit.” Rather than breaking with the past by burning the roots of hate and prejudice, the space shifts from Robertaland to cultural productions. The closing panels highlight this movement as they show Alice’s father, the zombie who gives the speech earlier in the issue, encased in a ticket booth at a theater surrounded by Grind House and Blaxploitation posters.
At the end of “Strange Fruit,” Alice’s father, a man who has risen from the grave and seeks freedom from the past, comes to a movie theater and asks for a job. The manager tells him that he needs someone to work the ticket booth, but he also lets the man know that it will be cramped. Alice’s father accepts the position and enters the booth. Once inside, he asks, “This. . . is my box and my own little window?” Even in the enclosed space, he feels at home. This is a call back to the beginning of the issue where we see him in a coffin, underground, watching time pass by and thinking about his inability to sleep.
Surrounded by Grind House and Blaxploitation movie posters, Alice’s father reenters a world that is not much different from the one he left when he died. He becomes, in essence, trapped within the same confines that limited his opportunities and movement while he was alive during Jim Crow. While the focus of the Zombie walk is on the antebellum period, Alice’s father would have died during Jim Crow of shortly thereafter. This aspect is important because it shows the changing methods of white supremacy to maintain power and control over Black bodies.
When Alice encounters her father earlier in the issue, she begins to cry and tells him, “I remember we couldn’t afford no proper plot, so Momma had you buried in the ol’ slave graveyard.” His burial plot connects slavery and Jim Crow together. What we do not get, however, is the history of Alice’s father. While we do not get this information, the mere facts that we do receive causes “Strange Fruit” to take on more meaning than the surface level destruction of Robertaland and a burning of the past.
Even though Robertaland burns, the past remains. On his way to confront the image of Wesley Jackson, a man who died in 1845 probably before he was born, Alice’s father tells his daughter that he could not rest because there was “too much left unsettled.” Likewise, Swamp Thing notes these lingering effects of slavery when he sees the zombies walking across the field and says, “even though. . . its design is long since buried. . . it still guides the footsteps. . . of those who tread. . . the world above.” The burial of the “design” does not bury the lingering effects or vestiges of the past. They become “unsuccessfully repressed” and arise in differing forms hoping to achieve the same goals.
After the destruction of Robertaland, panels show Swamp Thing rejuvenating amongst the remains of the plantation and a charred corpse. Abby Holland walks up to him and tells him about the contemporary actors who experienced them and took part in the events: “I think most of ’em will be okay. I found Alice and she only remembers it as some kinda dream. They’ll block out what happened here and get on with their lives. They’ll be okay.” The eradication of Reobertaland, according to everyone in the issue, would also lead to the end of the buried design, but that is not necessarily the case. Alice and the others, while trying to “block out what happened” may be able to move on with their lives, but the roots of the caustic tree will remain. The burning of Robertaland serves only as a symbol to the end, not the end itself.
Sadly, no end actually occurs because the ideas that buttressed Robertaland also buttress the contemporary world of Abby, Billy, Alice, and the other characters. The television series, while appearing as nothing more than a plot device, serves to show that the cultural representation through the form of films and other media have taken the pace of the slavery as a means of subjugation. I would even go so far as to argue that some of the one-dimensional aspects of characters such as Billy and Alice play into this. Writing about the overall arc, Qiana Whitted notes that it relies on somewhat “stereotypical images of the angry black militant [Billy Carlton] and the mammy figure [Alice].” While possibly not intentional, the reliance on these images in the arc plays into the overall theme that the past manifests itself in the present because instead of breaking free of stereotypes Alice and Billy play them in a multilayered cultural production. On one hand, they are both characters in a comic book, Billy is the Black militant and Alice is the cafeteria worker at a school. On the television set, Billy becomes the lynched slave and Alice becomes the mammy.
Whitted continues by pointing out that the ending, and specifically Abby’s comments, highlight the changing means of oppression: “Such is the all-consuming power of the master narrative that enslaves generation after generation.” This master narrative gets replicated on screen and in other forms of media, and the conclusion of “Strange Fruit” brings this aspect to the forefront. The majority of the posters on the walls of the theater are for zombie films such as Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and Orgy of the Living Dead. These posters did not really catch my attention because they essentially reinforce the narrative arc of the issue; however, our first view of the theater shows a poster for Africa: Blood and Guts(1966), an Italian “shockumentary” that chronicles the Zanzibar Revolution and the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. The trailer for the film paints Africa as a savage and barbarous continent that “looks you straight in the eye and spits” (also the tagline of the poster). In his review of the film, Robert Ebert called the film “racist” and mentions the film’s opening narration, writing, “‘Europe has abandoned her baby,’ the narrator mourns, ‘just when it needs her the most.’ Who has taken over, now that the colonialists have left? The advertising spells it out for us: ‘Raw, wild, brutal, modern-day savages!'” This language, and the accompanying images, perpetuate stereotypical views and attitudes, and as a ticket taker, Alice’s father works within the same structure of the “master narrative.”
There is more that could be said here. For example, I could go back and look at “Southern Change” and discuss Richard Deal’s, Billy Carlton’s, and Angela Lamb’s thoughts about portraying antebellum characters. However, I do not have the space at this time. Instead, I want to leave you with a song by P.O.S. that always comes to mind when I think about the media’s perpetuation of stereotypes. “Safety in Speed (Heavy Metal)” calls upon us to question representation in media. Perhaps it can best be summed up by P.O.S.’s verse, which in and of itself deserves a critical examination:
You ever feel like you’re being tricked
Tricked-out, dicked, dicked around with or flat out lied to?
Welcome to Hollywood D.C
Where Reagan youth grew up cowboys off Ronnie’s westerns
That shoot em up and steal the bucks
Tell ’em what’s love and giddy-up, yeah off into the sunset
Years later we watched the Running Man and two of ’em ran and won
Too star-struck to stick with the plan, huh
I shoulda switched to Marlboros, them cowboy killers
‘Cause cowboys are killing Camel Lights
And some mustache punked the evil Jafar
But for a middle eastern guy, I think Aladdin looked kinda white
We open wide and catch a bite of villain image
We swallow it and feed it to the kids if the song’s alright
That’s just the way it be, eyes wide shut up and sit down
Put your hands up for your turn to speak
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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