The biggest initial draw of Bitter Root #1 (Image) is the creative team. David F. Walker and Sanford Greene worked together on the much-loved and far too short-lived Power Man and Iron Fist book for just 15 issues, and the announcement of Bitter Root at last year’s Image Expo was met with a lot of enthusiasm from fans. Regardless of the subject of their new collaboration, readers were going to show up to check out what they were making together without the constraints of working on other people’s intellectual property.
Bitter Root delivers on the promise of Walker and Greene’s previous collaborations by hitting the ground running. There’s a brief introduction to the world that they’ve built with co-writer Chuck Brown, but readers are dropped immediately into 1920s Harlem and the racial politics of the time along with the supernatural mythos the book is about. Brown’s name might not be as immediately familiar as his colleagues’, but he’s had a career of sharp urban fantasy comics from small press publishers that puts Bitter Root firmly in his wheelhouse, and he and Walker seem to have created a seamless partnership. Bitter Root begins with a sharp double-paged spread that’s all jazz, immersing readers into the Harlem Renaissance without preamble. Things take a turn for the monstrous and the rest of the book revolves around the Sangerye family, a group of black monster hunters that have established themselves as Harlem’s protectors from things that go bump in the night.
Greene has real skill with kinetic action scenes and panel layouts, but the character design and world building in Bitter Root really stand out. The visuals are firmly planted in the fashion of the time, but there are hints of familiar stories like Ghostbusters and Buffy The Vampire Slayer that feel fresh and revitalized thanks to the colors, which Greene did with help from Rico Renzi.It could have turned into stale steampunk if the aesthetic had been pushed too hard, but thankfully the team avoided that trap entirely, investing the characters and their weapons with a mix of magic and retro science that works well. Renzi has a penchant for neon that might seem out of place in the 1920s, but he works with limited color palettes and leverages the brightest shades to great effect for monsters and serums and the flash of gun fire. Letters by Clayton Cowles help keep the rapid, slang-filled script—characteristic of a lot of Walker’s work—moving quickly without distracting from the art. The dialog is sharp and snappy, and the character’s voices are very quickly established, each one unique in tone and motivation.
If nothing else, Bitter Root is a lively, beautiful comic about killing monsters. What elevates it beyond that are the visual and theme metaphors that Brown, Greene, and Walker are working with. Fans of Walker’s won’t be surprised to realize that Bitter Root is a comic built around the idea of exposing, naming, and combating racism; much of his work has at least touched on the topic, and Bitter Root confronts it head on. Like Bitch Planet and Monstrous, this book is a clear and explicit discussion of a real-world problem in comic form. The final three pages in particular make it clear that the Sangeryes aren’t just protecting people from external enemies, but also from humanity’s worst instincts, and the back matter includes a quote from Toni Morrison’s Beloved as well as an essay by Professor John Jennings on race and horror, even further linking it to Bitch Planet’s format. Bitter Root, like Get Out and Walker’s own work on Shaft, provide context to insert justice and social good into entertainment.