The World of Bitter Root

On Monday at noon, the Fan Track channel featured a panel about the Eisner Award-winning comic book Bitter Root. Moderator Van Allen Plexico interviewed David F. Wilson and Sanford Greene, two of the book’s creators.

Plexico opened the discussion by asking his guests to explain what Bitter Root is about. Wilson replied that the series opens in 1924, during the Harlem Renaissance. It features the Sangerye family, who are monster hunters. The monsters they hunt, however, are not the usual vampires, werewolves, or zombies. Instead, they are people who have become monsters because they’re infected with hatred and racism that have festered. Some in the family want to cure them while others think it’s best to go ahead and kill them. When the story opens, a new type of infection has bred monsters born of oppression and the resulting trauma.

From a visual standpoint, Greene wanted to highlight the importance of the Harlem Renaissance period, which he described as a magical time that gave birth to various forms of art and culture. It came on the heels of oppressive events, especially in the South. He wanted to show how that suffering and trauma led to this magical era.

Sanford said his research into the period was exhilarating and yet overwhelming. He wanted the result to be both unique and authentic, with the visuals both highlighting and tying into the era to create a fantastical Harlem.

Wilson said he looks at the art first when reading a comic. He believes it’s that way for most readers, that the art draws them in, but the story is what brings them back or fails to hold them.

For both Greene and Wilson, Bitter Root isn’t just another job. They wanted it to be intentional, to make people aware this was the first comic from Image in more than twenty years with an all-Black slate of creators and Black central characters. They also wanted readers to know the book had teeth. At a big company like Marvel or DC, the creative teams have to answer to many other people. With this book, the creators answer only to each other. They can say and do things that wouldn’t be possible at the bigger publishers.

They’re also aware that launching the book would’ve been more difficult, possibly involving delays, had they not put it out before the pandemic. Their second arc, encompassing issues six through ten, started in February. The March issue was released, and then distribution shut down. Launching a new series, especially a creator-owned one, would have been much more challenging during the pandemic. Greene noted that creators who have successfully launched projects, such as Matt Fraction and Jeff Lemire, have well-known names. For teams lacking that name recognition, a launch would be much more problematic.

Greene hopes that once people see something like Bitter Root can be substantial and gain opportunities, it will open the door for more such projects. The book not only won the 2020 Eisner (full title, Will Eisner Comic Industry Award) for Best Continuing Series but has been optioned by Legendary Pictures, with Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther, on board.

Plexico asked where the title Bitter Root came from. Greene replied that the team was bouncing around ideas and hadn’t hit on one they wanted to use at the time of the shooting at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. He watched the sermon and eulogies, one of which referred to not letting the bitter root grow to defile many others. The quote stuck with him, inspiring the origins of the book’s monsters and evoking something that festers over time and infects people. The Sangerye family use alchemy, herbal medicines, and serums to inject monsters, either to cure or to kill. The book uses history to show why some of the family would rather kill the monsters than try to heal them.

Greene added that the series will dig into the root component more in its third arc, which is just starting. They’ll also lean into the Harlem Renaissance more and heighten the fantastical elements. He shared a memory of a willow tree on his grandparents’ property toppling one day and his grandfather explaining that willows didn’t have strong roots. Strong roots grow and damage what’s around them, like a tree root buckling the sidewalk. Trauma and grief also grow and cause damage. He’s fascinated with what roots can do on multiple levels.

Wilson and Greene said they didn’t want the book to become a soapbox, which would turn off readers. The message in it is woven through the story under the surface. At the same time, though, a story must have truth in it. It must earn the big moments.

The Sangerye family’s split over whether to try to cure monsters or just kill them reflects the attitudes of those oppressed by racism, sexism, and homophobia. Some want to show the oppressors a better way while others believe they’re not persuadable. Much of this is personal to the creative team, who have had similar experiences but not identical ones. The differing approaches offer a range of readers a chance to connect.

When asked what lay ahead for the book, Wilson said that changes regularly and it’s now going to be necessary to see where the industry goes. Some comics shops will never be able to reopen, and many people have much less disposable income. Will there be fewer monthly books and more graphic novels? If so, that’s an entirely different approach. Greene said that if they have to stop doing Bitter Root, he will be forever grateful for having done it and would’ve been whether or not it won any awards.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.