Chuck Brown, David F Walker & Sanford Greene (creators), Rico Renzi & Sanford Greene (color artists), Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sanford Green (cover artist), Heather Antos (editor), plus backmatter by John Jennings, Kinitra Brooks, Regina N Bradley, Qiana Whitted, Stacey Robinson, Ceeon D Quiett Smith and fan artists, Bitter Root Volume One: Family Business (Issues #1–5, Image Comics 2020)
Chuck Brown, David F Walker & Sanford Greene (creators), Sofie Dodgson & Sanford Greene (color artists), Clayton Cowles (letterer), John Jennings (backmatter), Shelly Bond (editor), Joe Hughes (editor), plus Daniela Miwa, Lisa K Weber, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Daniel Lish, Chris Brunner, Rico Renzo, Khary Randolph, Matt Herms, Dietrich Smith and Anthony George as artists and color artists for individual stories, Bitter Root Volume Two: Rage & Redemption (Issues 6–10, plus Red Summer Special, Image Comics 2020)
You probably have to be a horror fan to enjoy this Eisner Award winning comic series. I’m not one. I find the award-winning art by Sanford Greene repulsive, as I’m meant to, but I’m also meant to enjoy it, which I don’t. I’m not the target audience.
But there’s a lot to appreciate. The storytelling is richly complex.The opening spread shows a nightclub in Harlem, 1924, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, where a crowd of African Americans are dancing exuberantly to jazz. A young couple head home across a park. In the final frame of the spread they are terrified by a pair of nasty claws looming over them. And we’re away.
If you plan to read these comics and prefer to let them unfold the story for you in their own intriguing way, stop reading now.
In this world, when people are infected by greed and hate, especially race-based hate, they become monsters called Jinoos. The central characters, the Sangeryes fight them, try to subdue them and where possible use compounds prepared by Ma Etta to cure them. There are other monsters, perhaps even more dangerous, created by pain and misery, and demons that come outside this world. We have no doubt of the goodness of the Sangeryes, but they too are vulnerable to infection, and one of them, a huge man with a penchant for big words, is flicking back and forth between being a monster and a decent human by the end of this book.
So there’s complex play of good and evil, characters you can feel for, plenty of violent action and horror gore, and underlying it all a non-too-subtle perspective on racism. Then there’s the ‘backmatter’. John Jennings, a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside, kicks it off with a learned article on Afrofuturism and the EthnoGothic, placing this comic in a context that includes Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. There are articles on African American history, folk traditions and popular culture, and on key figures from the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke and Zora Neal Hurston. Some might find this serious discussion to be awkwardly inappropriate for a comic – you know, ‘Can’t we just enjoy a bit of gore without being told how worthy it is?’ Tastes will differ. For me the backmatter made the gore almost enjoyable. John Jennings’s first piece ends:
The Bitter Root team should be very proud. Not just because they’ve created this ‘cool’ cultural artefact but because they’ve created a new thread in the ever growing and evolving tapestry of the American story, as told through the veiled and weary eyes of the black American citizen.
I find it reassuring that among the fan art that proliferates on the back pages is a powerful image of the matriarch Ma Etta by the scholarly John Jennings. He’s not writing from arm’s length.
I persevered with Book Two mainly because I’d been given these books as a birthday present and felt a kind of obligation to the giver.
I’m still not enamoured of the story, and I still find the artwork and colouring almost unreadably horrible. (The awards that these things have won indicate that my distaste says more about me than it does about the books.)The back cover informs us that there’s a movie in development with Ryan Coogler and Zinzi Evans, who have Black Panther in their show reel. Maybe the movie can transcend the horror genre just as Black Panther pretty much transcended the superhero genre. Maybe I’ll even go to see it.
Again, this volume has copious backmatter, thanks to which I know that the fantastical world of this comic has its basis in historical events: the Red Summer of 1921 and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. These events included not just lynching, arson and general violence against African Americans, but the destruction of 35 city blocks in Tulsa when incendiary devices were dropped from planes. The unleashing of hideous demonic forces makes a lot of sense as a metaphor for those events, and the struggles of the Sangerye family to deal with the consequences. (In this volume, Chinatown in New York City has a similar demonic invasion.)
I can imagine a horror devotee picking up these books and being launched on a journey of discovery by the historical and literary information packed into the back pages. They might explore rootwork and conjure; Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Hamilton and W E B DuBois; the Harlem Renaissance and the Tulsa Race Massacre. That can’t be a bad thing.