The Harlem Renaissance. Black life. Root work. Jazz. Diesel Funk (shout out to Tim Fielder) Monsters and monster hunting. Family. Action. Challenging of gender stereotypes. Camaraderie. Mysterious villains. A world adjacent to the world of the normals. Bitter Root delivers all this, and more. It also asks some very good questions.
One of the problems I’ve always had with horror and horror-adjacent material is that very few things are more frightening than being Black in the world. If we can’t be safe in Kroger’s, in church, being stopped by police, walking with our loved ones, going to school, where can we be safe? This book tackles this head on, without flinching, without apology.
In one of the most breathtaking comics I’ve read in years, Bitter Root follows the Sangeryes, a family that has a history of hunting monsters on two fronts: root work (folk magic) and direct confrontation. They are tight knit, loving, but not above the affectionate insult.
How these characters are written is a testament to the creator’s understanding of family dynamics. The dialogue, though inflated, rings true. There is a rhythm between the characters that so many other comics fail capture.
In the book’s primary action set-piece, Burg and Cullen Sangerye are on a Harlem rooftop attempting to capture a Jinoo, a kind of demon that possess humans. Burg is watching Cullen do his best — and failing — to secure the Jinoo. The dialogue and art deftly informs us that this is a “making bones” moment — Cullen has to prove that he belongs, that he can earn his monster hunting keep.
While this is happening on the roof, matriarch Ma Etta and Burg and Cullen’s cousin, Blink, are mixing roots in the apartment below. Blink wants to help, but Ma Etta is firm, “In this family, men do the brawn work. Women do the brain work. Women only fight when we ain’t got no other options.” If we were mapping Joseph Campbells’ Hero’s Journey onto this story, this is the ‘call to adventure.’
Blink defies Miss Etta and lends a hand, a foot, and a staff to her cousins. Very few artists can illustrate effective (and coherent) fight scenes, but Sanford Greene and Rico Renzi do a masterful job of taking us into sweat and bad breath range. The fight scenes are dynamic, intense, and I know precisely who was hitting whom, and where the hits were landing. So many other artists can take a cue from these folks on how to render a fight scene.
The last thing I will say about the first issue of Bitter Root is that it feels real. Despite the fantastic elements, this particular Harlem feels as if it existed — the world-building is top notch. The opening two pages set the jazz-age mood perfectly. From the clothing, the musicians, the angles of the bodies as they dance — rarely has a couple of pages said so much. This is what happens when you get to represent your culture, your way, with little to no interference from outside powers.
I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I will not go on any further. I’ll leave you with this: This comic is the reason that the comic book form exists.
What: Bitter Root #1
Who: David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, Sanford Greene, Rico Renzi, Clayton Cowles, Jarreau Wimberly, Heather Antos
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: November 14, 2018
Rating: Full and unequivocal endorsement.