Bitter Root—by writers David F. Walker and Chuck Brown, artist Sanford Greene, colorist Rico Renzi, and letterer Clayton Cowles—tells the story of the Sangeryes, a family living in Harlem circa 1924. This era marked significant shifts, both social and economic. In New York City, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. The period witnessed African-American music, art, and culture defiantly exploding from a long period of oppression, persecution, and violence. The Sangeryes aren’t artists, but they certainly practice an elaborate art: monster hunting.
New York City has played host to all manner of monsters, ghosts, and demons in genre fiction, but Harlem—located from 110th street to 155th street in north western Manhattan—is perhaps one of the most underutilized locales for a historical genre story set in the Big Apple. But according to co-writer/co-creator Walker, this neighborhood during the roaring ’20s is a perfect backdrop for their tale.
“For me, much of the gold of that era is in what it represents and the creative and intellectual stamp it placed on American culture,” Walker says. “For black people, it was a time of creative expression that helped change how we represent ourselves. At the same time, it was still very close to the era of slavery and the Underground Railroad and the horrific post-Civil War oppression of blacks throughout the country. This particular era is perfect because we can have a character who was a slave, and has memories of those times, but still have them in a time when jazz was coming into its own, when great literature and poetry and philosophy were emerging from within a community that, less than 60 years earlier, had been slaves.”
The dichotomy between the emergence of the Renaissance and the still very real oppression of black people in America is more than just context. As the nation was healing its fractures, the Sangeryes are similarly a house divided. While most of the family members live in Harlem when Bitter Root begins, at least one Sangerye lives in Mississippi. And while northern Manhattan may be enjoying a creative and intellectual movement, Mississippi is still mired in past sins. “With all of the amazing creators that existed in the Harlem Renaissance, there was still hatred, racism, and lynchings,” Brown elaborates. “Switching to the scene in Mississippi snatches the reader back into that reality.”
“Back in 1924, there were some very distinct contrasts between the lives of black people in the northern states and the southern states,” Walker says. “We wanted to explore these differences in a way that relates to the story and in a way that addressed the conflict within the Sangerye family. The Sangeryes are our heroes, but there is a rift within the family, and we needed to show the divergent ideologies that are keeping them apart. In the first issue, we show how the Sangeryes in Harlem deal with the monsters that are created through hate and racism, and in Mississippi, we show how Ford Sangerye deals with the same problem. And in these two contrasts, we see not only the regional differences in the manifestation of prejudice but also the stark differences in how different family members handle their business.”
However important the time period and various locations are to Bitter Root’s story, Walker is quick to point out that it is the characters—the Sangeryes specifically—who drive every aspect of the book’s plot. Making sure that readers get a sense of the shared history between rookie Cullen, eloquent Berg, and wisened Ma Etta in a direct and informative way is the team’s biggest concern. But making sure characters feel three-dimensional in a book where the worldbuilding requires a considerable amount of page space can be a challenge.
“We have a lot of characters in Bitter Root, and to make sure they get a moment to shine and define themselves is not easy,” Walker explains. “A lot of it is about the economy of comics—you’re always limited by the number of pages in a book, and the number of scenes in an issue, and the number of panels on a page. My philosophy is to give the reader enough information to get a sense of what is going on without revealing everything. You have to let the story unfold. If you give the reader everything all at once, they have no reason to come back.”
A group of heroes are only as good as their enemies, so when it came time to design the Jinoo (the term used to describe monsters in Bitter Root), the team dug deep into various myths and folklore. “The Jinoo and other creatures we introduce in the books are drawn from classic monsters,” Brown says.”They are the werewolves, vampires, demons, and ghosts we all know. But our creatures have a twists from their design to their origins. On a deeper level, they represent our inner demons and hate.”
“We looked at different cultures, their myths about monsters, their deities, and their concepts of Hell,” Walker expands. “We looked at some West African cultures, with the notion that some of the mythology we’re dealing with in the series would have come to America by way of the transatlantic slave routes and would have become altered over time. For example, Jinoo is a Mandinka word for devil or spirit. We took that word and imagined how, in our world, it passed down through generations of slaves until it became the popular term for monsters within a culture of those descended from slaves. Even the name of our family of heroes, Sangerye, comes from two different Haitian Creole terms for ‘blood’ and ‘warrior.’ The idea being that this family name has some cultural and historical meaning, which will eventually be revealed in the series.”
Creating a comic like Bitter Root is no small feat. Blood, sweat, and tears have gone into reimagining Harlem as the epicenter of a new kind of battle between good and evil. As for the characters who live there, the Sangeryes may be fictional, but to Walker, Brown, and Greene, they feel real and alive. “With every character I write, I try and put a little of myself into the creation and development of them,” says co-creator/co-writer Brown.
In 1924, things are changing in Harlem. Artists, writers, musicians, thinkers, and doers leave their mark, on readers and Jinoo alike.are leaving their mark. And after Bitter Root drops in November, the Sangeryes will too, on readers and Jinoo alike.
Bitter Root #1 released in comic book stores on November 14, 2018.