"Bitter Root" is a frighteningly topical steampunk horror comic set in the Harlem Renaissance

A few years ago, writer David F. Walker and illustrator Sanford Greene worked on a run of Power Fist and Iron Man for Marvel Comics that was utterly delightful. I loved Greene's gritty cartooning, and I loved the unapologetic Blackness of the story (and, for me, the embarrassingly relatable idiocy of Iron Fist's whiteness). So I was excited when I learned that they were working on another new creator-owned comic at Image (now with Chuck Brown joining the team as a co-writer).

Here's the official blurb for Bitter Root:

In the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance is in full swing, and only the Sangerye Family can save New York-and the world-from the supernatural forces threatening to destroy humanity. But the once-great family of monster hunters has been torn apart by tragedies and conflicting moral codes. The Sangerye Family must heal the wounds of the past and move beyond their differences… or sit back and watch a force of unimaginable evil ravage the human race.

But that doesn't really do the story justice. When I started reading the first volume, Family Business, I was honestly a little confused — it was obviously a clean beginning, sure, but it almost felt like I had picked up a random volume of a long-running comic book. The world building was incredibly natural; the large cast was full of richly fleshed-out characters with long, shared histories, despite the limited space available to commit to each of them; and the only real exposition was in the academic essays at the end of the book that delve into fascinating aspects of Black American folklore and other cultural inspirations on the comic. (These essays are written by a variety of notable Black guests scholars, and while maybe not essential to the plot of the comic, should be considered required reading nonetheless.)

I don't mean this to sound like a back-handed compliment. I actually think it's a testament to the incredible talents involved in the book, who make it feel like you're picking up in the middle of a larger spanning generations (which, you are), and who are quickly able to get you caught up and ready to join the action. It's a genuinely impressive feat, and I'm more and more impressed with it every time I've gone back and re-read these comics.

So Bitter Root is fantastic. But that's not the only reason I'm re-reading it. It's certainly neat to see a horror story with Black characters set in the Harlem Renaissance; and I love the combination of steampunk teach with traditional Black American roots medicine, and the way that reminds you just how deep the roots of Black Americans go in this country.

But I also keep revisiting it because it makes me think. Bitter Root is set in the 1920s, sure, but the horror element is frighteningly relevant to right now. [Mild spoilers ahead] The Sangerye family has been hunting the same "Jinoo" demons for hundreds of years, and the way these demons work is that they're able to infect the souls of humans with hatred in their hearts. In other words, this is basically a family of Black witch hunters who are fighting the literal manifestation of racism, in the form of monsters that take over human bodies. It's one of those metaphors that's so simple, but so clever, and it gives the creator a lot of opportunity to explore pressing issues about how we deal with racism: do the roots of it go all the way to core? What do you do when most white people have at least an unconscious bias that still leaves them vulnerable to possession by the Jinoo demons — and thus, they could be a literal risk to your life? And things get more complicated when [Slightly less mild spoilers] the family learns that there are other demons out there, who can possess the pain and bitterness in people's hearts — like the Black scientist who lost his family in the Tulsa Massacre. His anger may be understandable; it may even be righteous. But it also leaves him vulnerable to becoming a literal monster himself.

Bitter Root gets at a lot of pressing, important issues, without ever slipping up on the action-packed monster hunting and the wacky family dynamics. It's both topical, and timeless, and also just a really cool comic. Bitter Root, Vol 1 — Family Business is available now; issue #10 just came out today, which completes Volume 2, Rage and Redemption, which will be available as a collection in the end of October.

Bitter Root [David F. Walker, Sanford Greene, and Chuck Brown / Image Comics]