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Review- Bitter Root Vol. 1: Family Business

Entertaining audiences while challenging them to confront their worst fears, horror has been one of the most fascinating genres for Black creators. When combined with another medium such as comic books, the audience sees their nightmares within stunning visual art, thought bubbles, and panels. Such is the case with the first volume of Image Comics’ Bitter Root.

Created by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene (also one of the color artists and the cover artist), Bitter Root is set in the bustling cultural landscape of 1920’s Harlem. Jazz clubs abound, but so do Jinoo, humans turned monsters due to deep hatred, fear, and racism. Fighting those monsters is the Sangerye family, whose numbers have dwindled due to grave losses and personal rifts. When a new, unfamiliar threat arises, the Sangerye family must put aside their differences and come together to face it.

One of the first aspects of the book I enjoyed was the use of colors. Sanford Greene and Rico Renzi made the bright colors for the panels visually striking and meaningful by associating certain colors with different types of moments and scenes. For example, yellow is always used to represent the monsters, giving them a sickly hue. In contrast, red seems to enhance battles and the monster’s bloodlust.

From there, the characters won me over with their personalities, personal strengths, and weaknesses. Starting with the Sangerye family, Berge is a large guy with an even larger vocabulary. He is the cousin and mentor to Cullen, a young boy inexperienced with fighting Jinoo. Then, there’s Blink, a young woman who is skilled at fighting monsters but isn’t allowed to. The person not allowing her to is Ma Etta, a conjure woman and elder who is “old and tired but still got fire.” Ma Etta is knowledgeable about monsters and the Fiifnoo serum, a formula capable of curing the monsters & making them back into human beings.

While the immediate members of the Sangerye family alone are interesting, there are also others. Ford Sangerye, in particular, is compelling because he has a hardness about him that comes from killing the monsters rather than curing them. Rounding out the Sangeryes is Enoch, who is a scientist as well as a fighter. Last but not least, the antagonists Dr. Sylvester and Miss Knightdale are a brutal look at how great pain and suffering can change you for the worst.

In addition to the human characters, the Jinoo and other monster designs were well done. Some of the designs were down right chilling, especially given the fact that the fantasy monsters come from the real monster that is racism. A particularly haunting page shows a bunch of police with yellow Jinoo skin and red eyes, surrounding a Black boy they’ve beaten to death. They snarl, “What are you looking at?”, the words appearing bold and vicious thanks to Clayton Cowles’ wonderful lettering.

Providing a backdrop to the Sangeryes’ story is a setting inspired by historical events. The Harlem Renaissance is the most obvious, but beneath that is the grim shadow of the 1919 race riots of the Red Summer and the Tulsa race riots of 1921. During both events, hundreds of Black people were killed at the hands of racist white people. Through the Sangeryes and other characters, we see how these events result in grief and anger that is palpable through the dialogue and the characters’ actions.

All in all, Bitter Root: Vol. 1 is an unflinching and entertaining start to a family monster hunting epic. With vibrant & terrifying art and complicated Black characters to root for and pity, this comic will fit nicely alongside other Black speculative comics such as Victor La Valle’s Frankenstein retelling Destroyer. Since film rights were recently acquired for the comic, let’s hope that the film stays true to its gritty roots.

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Latonya Pennington is a freelance writer from the southern United States specializing in entertainment and pop culture. In addition to BlackSci-Fi.com, her pop culture work can be found on The Mary Sue, Black Girl Nerds, and Buzzfeed. When she isn’t freelancing, she can be found tweeting, reading, doing creative writing, or streaming music, shows and anime online. Find her on Twitter.

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