New comic book series tackles race and monster hunting in the Harlem Renaissance 

Bitter root and strange fruit

click to enlarge Co-creater of new comic series Bitter Root, Chuck Brown says that he’s always viewed the Harlem Renaissance as a “magical time”

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Co-creater of new comic series Bitter Root, Chuck Brown says that he’s always viewed the Harlem Renaissance as a “magical time”

When Claude McKay, Jamaican immigrant and prolific poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote about race in America, he wrote of monsters and kinship: "If we must die, O let us nobly die, so that our precious blood may not be shed in vain; then even the monsters we defy shall be constrained to honor us though dead! O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!"

Now, almost a century since McKay penned those words, a new comic book series revisits this period of American history, showing a family of monster hunters as they contend with supernatural forces and the evil that lurks in the hearts of their fellow man. This is the world of Bitter Root.

click to enlarge Chuck Brown - PROVIDED
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  • Chuck Brown

"To me, the Harlem Renaissance has always been such a magical time," says Chuck Brown, co-creator of Bitter Root who works on the series alongside fellow writer David F. Walker and artist Sanford Greene. "I've never seen anyone set a story in this time period. It represents empowerment and people of color doing the impossible while facing so much adversity and racism."

Published by Image Comics, Bitter Root follows the adventures of the Sangerye family. For generations, the family has fought to save the souls of humans consumed by hate and transformed into unrecognizable creatures. In 1920s America, the Sangeryes find their numbers running low — as a new threat emerges to test their powers and their family bonds.

Although Brown considers himself somewhat of a history buff, his research behind Bitter Root forced him to dig deeper into the nation's past and the twists, turns, and hardships that fill African-American history. According to Brown, he and Walker worked to weave these aspects of American history into the deep supernatural lore of Bitter Root. In doing so, they've created a story set in the past that feels especially poignant and vital in today's racial climate.

"David and I have created origins and motivations for our monsters that are based on hate, violence, and racism. In addition, Sanford Greene's monster designs are nothing like you have ever seen," says Brown, who will be joined by Greene at Captain's Comics and Toys in West Ashley on Sat. Dec. 8 from noon to 4 p.m. for signing, sketches, and a discussion of the new series.

The pages of Bitter Root are brought to life by the "gritty and kinetic" illustrations of artist Sanford Greene - PROVIDED
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  • The pages of Bitter Root are brought to life by the "gritty and kinetic" illustrations of artist Sanford Greene

With highly stylized artwork that maintains a touch of realism, Greene's illustrations and page layouts manage to convey a sense of high energy and inventiveness without losing readers in all the action. One of Bitter Root's particular strengths is the striking palette used by Greene and color artist Rico Renzi. Dance halls and city skylines are bathed in rich pinks and purples. The woods surrounding the scene of an attempted lynching take on a sickly green hue. Combined with Brown and Walker's incredible ear for dialogue, the artwork further establishes Bitter Root's lush world.

"David brings decades of experience, and his love and knowledge of African-American heritage and history has been a great asset. Sanford's gritty and kinetic art style literally brings the pages of Bitter Root to life. It's like the characters are leaping off of the page," says Brown. "I feel I'm in touch with what comic book fans want and love in a book. In addition, I love making a unique amalgam of ideas, characters, genre, and making something new."

Moving from 1920s Harlem to the Deep South, Bitter Root shows the dehumanizing effect of hate in a number of ways — some subtle, some less so. While the story finds some characters quite literally transformed into towering beasts robbed of their humanity, the distorted snarl of an enraged Klansman is just as effective in demonstrating the ugliness of racism. And in the middle of it all is one family and their love for one another.

click to enlarge PROVIDED
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Perhaps the most important step taken by the series' creators is forcing readers to recognize that racism isn't solely some abstract notion meant to be debated on talk shows. It's not a passing fad or holdover from a fading generation soon to die off. It's a tangible thing. Meant to be combated, as real as a beast swiping at your throat. It crosses generations. But as seen with the Sangerye family, it's not something that we have to face alone.

"Even though this story takes place in the 1920s, I'd like people to really relate to it. The Sangerye family is split and somewhat dysfunctional. However, it's also filled with love and characters that will do anything for one another," says Brown. "They are a reflection of many families today. Our characters also deal with racism in a way that's affecting the world in reality. Finally, yet importantly, I hope readers enjoy the book and fall in love with this story the way I have."

Chuck Brown will be joined by Sanford Greene at Captain's Comics and Toys in West Ashley on Sat. Dec. 8 from noon to 4 p.m. for signing, sketches, and a discussion of the new series.

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