Racism And The Roaring Twenties: An Advance Review Of Bitter Root #1

by Oliver MacNamee

Bitter Root, superficially, could be pinned down as a supernatural slug-fest set in the Harlem during the roaring 20’s, but that would be doing this new book from creators David F. Walker, Chuck Brown and Sanford Greene a huge disservice. The setting is specific, for a reason. Yes, there are supernatural going-ons ,and through these dark and diabolical dealings we come to get to know the African-American Sangerye family and their ongoing generational commitment to combating the great evil that preys on the hatred within people. And, in 1924 USA, there was plenty of that, especially aimed at the African-American communities of the country.

It is all too easy to compare the events informing the story of Bitter Root with contemporary issues dominating and dividing America today. In fact I’d argue it’s positively encouraged by the comic’s creators having chosen Harlem as their backdrop because of the vitality and creativity emerging from the Harlem of the 1920’s. A place that spawned the Harlem Renaissance and that saw the ‘blossoming of black creativity, political thought, and social progress‘, as I learnt from a compelling essay accompanying the main story in this first issue, written by John Jennings, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California. This inclusion alone should tell you that this ain’t your average horror-themed comic book.

While the relatively inexperienced Cullen tries out some killer moved on a demonic ‘Jinoo’ above the rooftops of Harlem, below the usual routine racism rears its ugly head via the usual authoritarian means. Cops on the beat shooting first and asking questions later, and the KKK, being the two of the biggest threats to African Americans then as now. And yet, the Sangreye family continue to do what’s best for all, despite their standing in society at that time. It’s very clear who the better people are in this tale of race, horror, and family dynamics.

It’s one of the few books out there at the moment dealing with such contemporary issues well, and these are the kind of books I am immediately drawn to. While other companies seem to shy away form such politically charged narratives, I for one am glad to see comics like Bitter Root come out, especially with a story that is clearly such a personal one for all the creators involved, and the Paul Pope-esque artwork can’t hurt either. Harlem is a world of rooftop rendezvous for the Sangreyes, and sidewalk showdowns with a family, things ripe for exploration as the series unfolds in further issues.

I’m not asking you to consider this because of it’s political sensibilities, but because it is genuinely an intriguing concept and something a little bit more than just your usual Ghostbusters type affair. Bitter Root is a compelling, informative and entering read that cleverly uses horror as an allegory for the true horror in America then, as today.

Well worth checking out when it drops November 14th from Image Comics.

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