Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<em>Bitter Root </em>returns for more action-horror excellence in 1920s Harlem

Bitter Root returns for more action-horror excellence in 1920s Harlem

Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.

This week, it is Bitter Root #6. Written by David F. Walker (Power Man & Iron Fist, Luke Cage) and Chuck Brown (The Quiet Kind, On The Stump) with art by Sanford Greene (Power Man & Iron Fist, Secret Wars: Runaways), colorist Sofie Dodgson (Tank Girl: All Colour Classics), and letterer Clayton Cowles (Pretty Deadly, Mister Miracle), this issue expands on the book’s central themes by introducing a new threat that preys on victims of trauma. Note: This review reveals major plot points.

When you live in a world of endless suffering, is it possible to stop hatred from corrupting your soul? In the reality of Image Comics’ Bitter Root, the Sangerye family has spent centuries fighting off Jinoo, humans transformed into deadly monsters by their hatred. Creators David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene use the Jinoo as a metaphor for bigotry and racism in Bitter Root’s first arc, but there’s a new breed of violent creature emerging in response to the Jinoo—one shaped by grief and trauma. Set in Harlem at the height of the Jazz Age, this action-horror series explores post-World War I race relations in the U.S. via fantastic circumstances, pulling from folklore and a tradition of Black speculative fiction to create a story as deep as it is exciting.

Illustration for article titled emBitter Root /emreturns for more action-horror excellence in 1920s Harlem

Walker and Greene previously worked together on the outstanding Power Man & Iron Fist series, where they developed strong creative chemistry by telling a street-level superhero story with a lot of style, personality, and heart. Greene’s bold expressions and distinct character design work brought Walker’s dialogue to life, and they made great use of the titular pair’s contrasting body types and fighting styles to inform the action. All of these strengths play a major role in Bitter Root’s appeal, and now they’re applied to a story the creators built from the ground up, adding more of their unique perspective plus a greater level of personal investment. The presentation still maintains a lot of superhero spectacle, but there’s greater attention given to how cycles of violence impact communities over time.

Illustration for article titled emBitter Root /emreturns for more action-horror excellence in 1920s Harlem

The Bitter Root logo design captures the book’s central themes in one evocative image: a gear train growing from the roots of a tree. It’s a fusion of the natural and the mechanical, the gears representing a new industrial age of innovation while the roots symbolize family legacy and a connection to the past. In Bitter Root #6, trees become an especially ominous visual motif via the new big bad, Adro, with her craggy tree bark face and hair that wraps around her in thick thorny branches. She strips Dr. Sylvester of his supernatural power and cradles his weakened body in a panel evoking a pietà, channeling the tender benevolence of Mary holding Jesus and contrasting it with Adro’s inherently sinister nature, which visually manifests in the swirl of branches closing in around them.

At the end of the issue, Adro takes Dr. Sylvester to Georgia, where they find a young black boy lynched and left hanging in a tree. Here we get another interpretation of tree imagery, tying it to the trauma that devastates black communities. Standing underneath the tree as residents of the town slowly discover the harrowing scene, Adro tells Dr. Sylvester: “Pain and anguish claws at the souls of all who loved that child hanging from this tree.” Each person in town is profoundly affected by the trauma of this lynching, leaving them vulnerable to an evil force that grows stronger from their suffering. These people have no avenue for justice, so when someone comes offering them retribution, it’s hard to see them rejecting her offer.

Illustration for article titled emBitter Root /emreturns for more action-horror excellence in 1920s Harlem

Colorist Rico Renzi played a huge part in establishing the vibrant, energetic aesthetic of this series in its first arc, and Sofie Dodgson steps into Renzi’s shoes with a firm understanding of the established look to maintain continuity while applying some new rendering techniques. Dodgson retains Renzi’s full-spectrum palette and high-contrast lighting with thick, sharp blocks of color, but also finds fresh opportunities to reinforce specific aspects of the narrative with color application. A small coloring detail in Adro’s arrival accentuates the character’s chaotic spirit—a simple pale green squiggle at her legs, adding a new texture to the page that creates extra visual noise for the villain’s debut.

Illustration for article titled emBitter Root /emreturns for more action-horror excellence in 1920s Harlem

This issue’s big fight scene is an exceptional example of how layouts and coloring intensify action, starting with the issue’s first two-page spread to emphasize the size of the threat faced by the Sangerye cousins Berg, Ford, and Blink. An explosion of pink and purple establishes the dominant palette for this brawl, and the low angle of image makes the trio look more imposing while also revealing that they’re surrounded on all sides by ravenous demons. For Berg and Ford’s attacks, long horizontal panels are punctuated by smaller panels with different shapes and colors depending on the fighter. Berg’s panels are slanted rectangles indicating his loss of control as rage unleashes a beast within, each panel zooming into his frenzied face with a deeper shade of green. Ford’s panels are perfect circles on an unchanging peach background, each showing his gun firing. He’s focused, efficient, and not flashy, finding his target and taking the shot.

Illustration for article titled emBitter Root /emreturns for more action-horror excellence in 1920s Harlem

Blink’s page breaks from this layout in favor of a circular page design, arranging action beats in panels surrounding a larger overlaid image of Blink jumping into a horde of demons. So much of Blink’s arc involves her seeking respect as a female fighter rather than being stuck at home mixing roots with her grandmother, and this page spotlights her prowess in action as she leaps through the throng, taking out opponents with each swipe of her staff. Greene makes great use of layered visuals to create mayhem while still having clear moment-to-moment storytelling, and every page in this fight offers a different way to tie design to character.

Each issue of Bitter Root includes backmatter expanding on the book’s themes and its connections to literary history. Collections typically leave this kind of bonus material out, but the first volume of Bitter Root includes a selection of these essays, providing readers with valuable context to enrich their engagement with the story. In Bitter Root #6, Reynaldo Anderson writes about how Bitter Root continues in the Black speculative legacy of Zora Neale Hurston, and two “Rooted Reviews” direct readers to a book (Darkly: Black History And America’s Gothic Soul) and documentary (Horror Noire: A History Of Black Horror) that might appeal to them if they enjoy this comic.

Bitter Root functions as an accessible entry point into a wider world of genre fiction by black artists, and it has the potential to reach a significantly larger audience. Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler is co-producing a Bitter Root film for Legendary, and as a nod to the series’ Hollywood future, the second arc features variant covers paying homage to classic films: Do The Right Thing, Boys N The Hood, Purple Rain, and My Neighbor Totoro. These covers reflect the sense of fun this team brings to the series, and the book balances its heavy subject matter with a cheeky sense of humor and plenty of crowd-pleasing action. Bitter Root is an exhilarating read that recognizes the value of wrapping a powerful message in sensational genre trappings, using horror fantasy to examine the legacy of U.S. racism and the resilience of black Americans fighting against the hatred.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter