Superstition and science come together in the bright lights of the Harlem Renaissance as darkness falls across the land in Bitter Root from Image Comics. November's debut issue introduced readers to the Sangerye family, who aren’t your regular demon hunters, but rather researchers and healers of those who have been infected with demons or people who have been turned to monsters using advanced medical and highly-technological procedures.
With Bitter Root #2 coming out this week, Newsararama spoke to writers David F. Walker and Chuck Brown, along with artist Sanford Greene, about this ghoulish creator-owned series, the importance of creating black heroes, and the differences of writing solo and as a group.
Newsarama: Chuck, you and Sanford are coming together again after Rotten Apple and 1000, how long has Bitter Root been in the works?
Chuck Brown: Sanford and I have been tossing around ideas and designs for Bitter Root for a couple of years. We both did work with other companies while Bitter Root sat on the shelf for a while. When Sanford and David’s run on Power Man and Iron Fist was over we were ready to bring it to the world.
David F. Walker: Chuck and Sanford started developing Bitter Root a while back. They dusted it off and brought me on about a year and a half or two years ago.. but it feels like yesterday.
Nrama: Can you talk to us about why the Sangerye prefer healing monsters over hunting them? That has to be a new profession for sure.
Brown: Well I love classic movie monsters and monster hunters. But I wanted to tell a story about redemption and how anyone and in the case of Bitter Root “anything” can overcome the evil in their lives and within themselves.
Walker: I was raised on the adventures of monster hunters, and I think we’ve all seen plenty of those stories. Hell, I actually have a novel I wrote several years ago about a family of monster hunters, and as much as I love that stuff, it felt like we needed to do something different here.
Nrama: What can you tell us about the Sangerye family? The surname suggests something blood-related.
Brown: I’ll let David Walker fill you in on this. He did some research and created the word “Sangerye."
Walker: The name is a mash-up of two different Haitian Creole words – blood and warrior. We combined the two because it sounded kind of cool. As for the family, they have roots that go back to both slavery in the United States and Haiti. The Sangeryes have been fighting and curing monsters for many generations. We’ll be getting more into the deep history of the family in the second arc.
Nrama: What does the term "bitter root" actually signify here? Where did it get its meaning?
Brown: It has several different meanings. The bitter root or “wickedness” that’s inside of all humanity. It also refers to one of the cures used to heal the creatures in our story. Moreover, when you ask David and Sanford they probably have a slightly different definition for what “bitter root” means to them. And it’s all relevant to our story.
Walker: It signifies several things. Literally, there is a root that is used by the family to create a serum that cures monsters. But there is something symbolic going on as well, as we are exploring the roots of oppression and hatred that have grown deep in this country.
Nrama: I was trying to find more information about the Jinoo monster, but the results were very limited. What can you say about the type of monsters they're hunting and healing?
Brown: Well I don’t want to give away too much but one of the things that can create a Jinoo is a human whose heart is filled with hate, strife, and rage. They are a new kind of monsters dreamed up by Team Bitter Root.
Walker: Every culture has its monsters, and names for its devils. As we were developing the idea of Bitter Root, and building the world, we wanted aspects of the world to be connected to Africa. The thought being that some of the language, beliefs, and practices of the Sangerye family are tied to Africa. The term “jinoo” is taken from a specific west African language, and it essentially means “devil.” The idea here is that this is a word that has been passed down and becomes part of their everyday language.
Nrama: Right out of the gate, you guys have a lot of variant covers, even a Mike Mignola one, which I think Sanford now owns. When deciding on the type of covers you wanted, what did you want to be represented?
Sanford Greene: We were looking with intention to pay homage to some legends, especially creators of color and also feature some exciting women artist of color!
Nrama: Sanford had mentioned that you guys are going to be doing a lot of college visits and conferences, why was that important to you?
Greene: I think I mentioned we will be visiting Historical Black Colleges and Institutions mainly because we are dealing with a unique story surrounded by the Harlem Renaissance along with some other significant moments in Black History.
Nrama: Tell us about both of your writing styles and how they mesh together. This first issue felt strong without too much exposition.
Brown: My writing tends to have lots of action and larger and life characters. I try and make the dialogue and scenes flow naturally and make it something people can relate to. I hope that contributed to making issue #1 more organic.
Walker: Chuck and I are still learning each other’s dance moves. We throw around ideas, send emails and texts back and forth, and then start to craft outlines, followed by scripts. We ask each other questions – “Why is this happening?” “How is this serving the story?” Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is difficult, but we both are committed to making this a great story.
Nrama: Your story is split up between a few narratives, how long down the line are they going to meet up if at all?
Walker: Right now, what is left of the Sangerye family is split up, but they are separated by more that physical location. The family is also split ideologically. As the story works to reunite the family in the same physical space, we are also going to have some of them cross something of an ideological path. All of this is going to bring narrative together, but just as some stories will be crossing paths, others will be going in different directions.
Brown: Everything is connected. The divided Sangerye family, violent monsters and the scourge of racism will all meet up. You will all see it come together before the end of the first arc.
Nrama: How did you both feel about co-writing? What makes it so different than doing your own solo work process-wise?
Brown: For me, I had to put my ego in check. I also had to be open to new idea and open to having my vision altered and enhanced by David ideas and drafts. It was a great experience and I hope to do it again someday.
Walker: I know that I’m not that easy to work with, and I worry about steam-rolling over others. I also worry that I might slip into “teacher” mode a bit too often (because I’m actually a teacher). To his credit, Chuck has been great about putting up with me, and both of us share the same goal of making Bitter Root the best it can be, which means putting the book ahead of our egos. Co-writing is a challenge because you have to check yourself. You have to make sure that whatever idea you’re throwing out or shooting down is not motivated by self-interest, but rather motivated by service to the story. For me, when I’m writing, I’m at service to the characters and the story, but when I’m co-writing, I also have to think about my collaborative partner.
Nrama: Do you have characters you enjoyed developing the most?
Brown: I love a good villain. Dr. Sylvester was a lot of fun writing and developing. I think David and I really started working together as a team while we were developing Sylvester.
Walker: I like all of them, but I think Ma Etta is my favorite because I’m realizing how complex she is, and how much she can bring the thunder and the lightning. But that can change at any given moment. I have a lot of fun writing Berg, though Chuck handles much of Berg’s dialog. We’ll work out a moment with Berg, and then I’ll ask Chuck to script his dialog – to find really big, ten-dollar words – and he kills it every time.
Nrama: Both of you have worked on books that are black-centric with Shaft, Cyborg for you David, and Chuck you did Black Panther: Soul of the Machine and even a deeper cut would be Godstorm with Hercules Payne. but Bitter Root feels like an entirely new beast of its own. What was something you wanted to put in Bitter Root that you might not have been able to put in other titles before?
Brown: With this being, a creator-owned book the sky was the limit. There was nothing holding us back from telling the story we wanted to tell. With Bitter Root, we had a chance to touch on racism and gender roles. And the characters being black wasn’t the only thing that defined them. They are heroes keeping evil from consuming Harlem.
Walker:It’s not so much about what I wanted to put in Bitter Root as it is the things I don’t have to explain or justify. I can think of at least a half dozen times where I wrote something-something that I guess you could call “culturally specific” – and it wasn’t understood by an editor. I then had to explain it to them, and in several cases fight to keep it in the story.
The best way to describe is if I’m writing a scene where a character makes a reference to something like hip-hop, but I have an editor who doesn’t listen to hip-hop, so they don’t get the reference, and then they think it shouldn’t be in the book.
This happens from time to time, and as creators are trying to craft stories and characters that help speak to them and for them, they often run into a barrier with editors and publishers who don’t get what they are saying…and sometimes don’t care.
Nrama: The first issue sold out and went to second printing, were you ready for that kind of reaction?
Greene: We were confident that we had something fresh and exciting and we appreciate the support from the fans.
Walker: Honestly, not at all. I've been focused on the work, and if I've learned one thing from the past it is that you never know for sure how things will be received. I just hope for the best, keep my fingers crossed, and push through to the next issue.
Brown: I really wasn't expecting to sell out and go to second printing. I was really just focusing on putting out a quality product and hope that readers would enjoy it. It very cool and surreal but know it just time to focus on future arcs and just keep grinding.
Nrama: Was there something you learned about yourself while working on this? Not just from a business standpoint, but more of a creative one.
Brown: I’m going to refer back to your question about co-writing and being a co-creator with David and Sanford. I had to put my ego in check as well be confident in my abilities as a writer. When you open yourself up to new ideas, experiences, and opportunities, you can create something pretty awesome.
Walker: I’ve discovered that I prefer writing original characters and that I like the freedom that comes with doing a creator-owned book. I’m hoping to do more projects like this.