It’s the 1920s. We’re in Harlem. Joy radiates through the crowd, as music sets a lovely atmosphere. A couple steps outside to walk in the park. That’s when tragedy strikes.
Bitter Root is a fascinating book, set in an important setting in a key period of American History. Following the Sangerye family, who run an apothecary and also deal with “Jinoo” aka demons or monsters, the book packs a lot of fun action while being a period piece. But that’s very much the bare bones conceit of the book. Underneath the simple, “they fight monsters” action adventure pitch, there’s a whole lot more. The book is fundamentally about the greatest of evils, racism. It’s about the effects of it, both on those consumed by it and also those who’re victim to it. It’s about the terrible nature of it and what it really does to people, all from a creative team full of people of color. It delivers all that meaning, all of its big thoughts and messages through the lens of a dark fantasy. It’s heroes fighting monsters, there are other worlds, fantastical ingredients and more, but all cast anew in this context, bearing this context. It’s an inspired decision.
Horror is a useful tool tool to examine human nature, to literalize or draw out human fears and awfulness, allowing people to grapple with them head on. And so the decision to use this unique approach and blend to tackle a key issue makes a lot of sense. At the root of the series is the idea that hate turns people into monsters, something barbaric, cruel and less than humane, reduced to nothing but a ball of hatred, ready to bite away anything that comes across it. That’s what the Jinoo are. These people can be “cured” or salvaged by the Fiif’no root, which is what the Sangeryes family are masters of using. But there are also other types of monsters, which is what the Sangeryes in the book really have to contend with. The monsters that look and seem humane but are just monsters. The ones that cannot be cured or salvaged, the ones who cannot be saved from their hatred, venom and cruelty, because that’s all they’ve ever been and it’s too late. That’s horror.
In a devastating sequence featuring the KKK trying to murder a black man, we’re shown that the men under the masks are very much monsters. And in similar fashion, when the scene of joy and expression, the dance floor, eventually turns into a scene of police brutality against black citizens (justified by the death of two white cops who nearly shot and killed two innocent, kind black men), we’re also given a peek and it’s monsters once more. It’s a terrifying and deliberate contrast, wherein the joy of the black people is beaten out of them until they’re made to suffer, not for any reason other than racism. The book literalizes in the way that only horror can and in the way that comics are best able, to really showcase the eternal struggle of people of color in a world with such evil, one that seems never-ending.
The creative team of David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, Sanford Greene, Rico Renzi and Clayton Cowles pack a great deal of ideas into this intro volume , building a wide web of characters, all with strong beliefs, struggles and conflicts that fit the period but also have something to say for the now. Greene’s kinetic and over-the-top artwork, full of expression, dynamic angles and perspective is really the perfect fit for the story here. He delineates the lines between the humane and the monstrous and does a fantastic job. Also coloring his work alongside Rico Renzi, the art team really sets the book apart from anything else out there by giving it a strikingly unique visual identity to suit the story. 1920s Harlem shouldn’t look like anything else you might see and so it doesn’t. Dipped in purples and generally darker hues, the book hums with the potential of horror hanging in every shadow or black, casting suspicion. There’s a roughness to the art that is really fitting here and letterer Clayton Cowles does a great job matching that sensibility and aesthetic, landing every key line perfectly.
Walker, Brown and Greene clearly have a lot to say and that really, really comes across on the page. But never is it didactic, it flows very naturally and works with the story, engaging the reader and providing the message exactly as it means to. That’s good horror. The series is loaded with great characters with their own stories, from Berg, the gentle giant full of eloquence who struggles with what’s been done to him, to Blink, the young woman trying to break the norms to be on equal footing with the men, to Cullen, the young man who isn’t able to handle the struggle that haunts his family, Ma Etta the matriarch who’s lost so much but is too stubborn to give up now and Ford, the gun-toting “amputater” who slays rather than heal, because he just can’t be bothered at this point. There’s a whole lot more, too, but really, everyone stands well on their own, but when brought together, they’re even better. The dynamics really work, even with an estranged uncle. The Sangeryes feel like a real family, complex, messy and close.
But to counter them and to expand the book’s core struggle and ideas, there’s another type of monster as well, a rarer kind. One that is born not of hatred, but great pain and suffering. Doctor Sylvester is a survivor of the terrible Tulsa tragedy, an act of awful racism and venomous hatred, a vile horror that can never be absolved, forgotten or redeemed in any shape or form. And so we have our antagonistic force, a black man that’s borne of the one of the greatest cruelties against the black people. Invoking Moses and how he saved his people, Sylvester hopes for violent, immediate revolution to free his own. It’s a very real anger, emergent from a heart that’s been broken far too many times and patience pushed too far to last anymore. And in almost Killmonger-esque fashion from Coogler’s Black Panther, he rages on.
It’s Ma Etta, the old matriarch of the Sangeryes and really the symbol of the family and their beliefs, that counters his view. Sylvester’s solution is brutal violence in response to brutal violence, immediate rage in the face of immediate rage. Turning one self into a monster to fight monsters, which is a common horror trope, but is given new life and context here. Ma Etta and the Sangeryes aren’t about that. They’re not about violence. They run an apothecary. They hand out free food, serve the community, help build it, maintain it and cherish it. They take care of anyone who comes to them, they nurture and help. They’re not just monster fighters. They’re healers, caretakers and more. While Blink is ready to go out there and fight, Etta speaks of things that matter more than just the fighting. Salvation isn’t brought about by violence in response to violence; it’s not immediate. It takes time, it requires kindness. Monstrous rage won’t bring back Tulsa, but tirelessly building a community again just might. It isn’t easy. It’s hard. It takes a lot of pain, patience and a powerful, powerful heart, to be able to endure despite everything and keep going. It’s a potent message and Ma Etta embodies that, ever inspiring, despite being a person of her time. The struggle against racism is eternal and the Sangeryes struggle with it just like so many people of color do.
Bitter Root is one of the most important books out in the market right now, telling a powerful story that needs to be told now more than ever. The first collection, dubbed “Family Business,” is a great, imaginative and strong look into a key period that’s been incredibly well realized by a great creative team. The collection is packed with writings by black writers and professors, discussing historic figures, American history, racism and diaspora amongst other things. This back-matter is not only insightful and informative but genuinely touching, inspiring and beautiful. This is such a labor of love and intense care that it shows. And the story and struggle the work reflects is so important and means so much to so many, proving to resonant, that it’s a book that everyone should absolutely check out. In the spirit of works like Get Out and Black Panther, Bitter Root is an incredibly standout piece of storytelling.