The third and final interview with the Bitter Root creative team is here. This one is with David Walker. You may know him from his work on Cyborg, Luke Cage, and Power Man & Iron Fist with Bitter Root artist Sanford Greene. He’s also got a book with Brian Michael Bendis coming out for DC in 2019 called Naomi. I did a broad interview with David about Bitter Root back in July for San Diego Comic Con. Check it out here if you’d like a wider look at what the series is about, and read my interviews with co-creators Sanford Greene and Chuck Brown here.
Black Nerd Problems: With Bitter Root being a week away from the hands of consumers, what’s an aspect of the book you’re really eager to engage with fans about?
David Walker: You know, that’s an amazing question. I don’t know if I’m—I’m ready to engage with fans. I don’t know if I’m ready to engage with the other people. The thing I’m most eager to engage with fans about is what I’m hoping will be the way they respond to, for lack of a better term, this new mythology. And it’s not necessarily new mythology. It’s just our mythology. I think that there’s a feeling and there’s a response that audiences have been having to certain types of material. The Black Panther movie is one of them. Get Out is one of them. And in comics, there’s been some examples too of, “Oh wow okay we can have heroes who aren’t your standard white guys.” And that’s the thing I’m looking most forward to. One of the main heroes of the series is Ma Etta, and she’s in her 80’s. She’s a little frail old black woman who by the time we get to issue two or three, we’re gonna realize she’s not as frail as she appears. I’m looking forward to that feeling that you get when you see something that is a little bit different than what you’ve seen in the past.
A great example of this is my friend Alex Simmons, who’s a writer. He has a series that he’s been doing now for coming up on 20 years called BlackJack. It’s very much this soldier of fortune set during the 1920’s and 30’s, and the first time I ever saw BlackJack was like ’97 or ’98. And I was at a convention, and I saw this poster for it. And I was like who is this? What is this book, and who’s the creator? This was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. And then I had that same feeling with the Love brothers. Jeremy and Robert Love with Chocolate Thunder. When your imagination is just captured and you realize that there’s endless possibilities for what can be done—and these were guys that I met when I was first getting started as a creator and part of me is like what would it have been like if I had discovered this stuff when I was a fan? When I was 15 or 16 years old? But even to discover it in my 20’s or my 30’s or my 40’s or dare I say in my 50’s, it’s still a great feeling. And that’s what I’m looking forward to the most is that interaction. And it’s always best in person. At conventions or at signings or places like that. I’m old fashioned enough that human interaction will always beat out the virtual interaction of the internet and social media.
David: I’m gonna be 100% honest with you. Men are boring. We’ve seen male heroes. We’ve experienced them. There’s heroes and characters that I still love and have a place for in my heart. But as a creator and as a human being I realize that there’s so much more out there. If we’re gonna blame anybody, the two people to blame are Chelsea Cain and Kelly Sue DeConnick. Both of whom are friends of mine. And Greg Rucka to a large extent. Because the three of them have always pushed strong female characters. And I love the work of all three of these creators as not just comic book writers but in the case of Greg and Chelsea, novelists. And you know I hit a point as a writer where I felt like where’s my strong female character? And if there isn’t one, I need to get one. I’m working on another creator-owned series right now and the main protagonist is a woman, and I’m having more fun writing that than I’ve maybe had ever in my career in comics. And once you become aware of it, aware of the fact that there’s no good female characters here, there’s no good characters of color, the representation of queer folks is missing, once you become aware of it there’s no turning back as a creator. And then it just becomes a question of how long before you can implement some of these changes that you want to see. And does it work? Is it appropriate within the context? And if the answer is no it’s not, then you have to ask yourself why are you telling this story? Is your range of thinking limited?
BNP: So, what would you say about the fact that we may be getting more representation on the page, but not as much behind the scenes? How do you navigate through writing a strong woman lead without being a woman yourself?
David: Part of this answer is gonna sound really dismissive and condescending, and it’s not meant to be, it’s just meant to be a fact. The basis of fiction is you’re writing about things that aren’t you or aren’t necessarily your experiences. And the example that I always use is one of my favorite television series of all time the original Star Trek from the 1960s. I guarantee you that there wasn’t a single Vulcan in the writer’s room. And yet Mr. Spock, the Vulcan, is the most compelling character on that show. So, you don’t have to be what you’re writing, you just have to be a really good writer. And that’s not to say that I’m a really good writer. But I think that argument that only women can write good strong female characters or only black people can write good strong black characters is a great argument but there are women who also want to write male characters. And if you try to apply that argument you have to be careful because then it can be applied against you. And that’s what happens as it is. Women writers are expected to write only women characters. Black writers are expected to write black characters. Trans writers are only expected to write trans characters. It just becomes another form of being pigeonholed. That’s the sort of condescending dismissive answer that’s poking holes in that theory.
Now here comes the part that totally agrees with that theory. Yeah, there does need to be greater representation on the creative side, and that’s a hard thing to do. Like, let’s talk professionally. If someone offers me a gig and the character is a trans person of color, I’m gonna do my best to write that book and learn as much as I can about trans people and make sure that I’ve created a really good character before I go and say you know what I’m not the person to write this book, let me give this to somebody else. Why? Because I’ve got to pay my bills. I’m a writer, and I can do this. So, the struggle becomes how do we get more people into these positions? How do we get more folks outside of the “norms” or the dominant paradigm? And that’s part of where someone like myself talks to editors and says you know, I know someone who would be good for this other gig you were talking about. And as a writer looking for an artist, I try to look outside of the box. So, I feel like I’m constantly keeping a list and I’m always sharing that list with different editors that I know. And I’m reaching out to different artists and writers. And hopefully, at some point, I’ll be in a position where I’ll have the financial resources to hire some people and to actually get them jobs. But it doesn’t always work that way and I think a lot of people have this perception—I mean I’ve had people say to me, “Man, you screwed me over, because you didn’t get me a job drawing this book.” And I’m like how do you know I didn’t do that? That doesn’t mean I didn’t try. An editor will say, “Hey do you have any suggestions for artists?” And I’ll give them my suggestions, and they never hire those artists. So, it’s a difficult thing. It’s a really difficult position. In order to break those barriers down, each of us has to do our own part while at the same time balancing the reality. Like I’ve gotta pay my bills. If I get work, I’ve gotta do this. It becomes an interesting balancing act. Because you can get caught up in trying to help other people that you don’t necessarily take care of what you need to do. And then when the time comes, who are you gonna turn to? A lot of it’s about that balancing act.
— DONTBOOVOTE (@sanfordgreene) November 1, 2018
David: I think all the characters have changed a little bit. There’s a couple characters that we cut. And there’s one character that we added that we really don’t get to see until subsequent issues. More than anything, I just tried to develop what we had. And become a little bit more clear and in that regard, everything was in the kitchen sink in that initial arc. And part of what I did was say, “Well let’s just trim some of this stuff out. Or push it back to a later story arc.” And I think maybe one of the biggest—I wouldn’t say it was a huge argument between Chuck and I but it was something I felt really strongly about– Initially, the series had first-person narration. And I was just like I don’t wanna do this. Not that it doesn’t work. Sometimes it works really well. But I was like why is this character narrating? I felt like in the original draft of the first issue, it was Cullen who was narrating the book. A lot of it was written by Chuck, some of it by me. But there was not much that it was telling the reader that we can’t already see. I was like let’s just strip it out. Let’s just get rid of it.
One of the things that’s lost that’s something that we can get into deeper as we move forward is that Cullen is very artistic in nature. We kept going back in forth between does he want to be a poet or does he want to be a writer or a musician? What is it that can tie him into the Harlem Renaissance? I was like that’s great, but we have this big story that we have to tell and so some of that stuff—you know only time will tell if it was a good move or not. But I think that one of the philosophies that I have, that I share with my students, is the economy of space in comics, in that there’s different economy in comics than there is in say prose or even film and television. Everything has a certain amount, but comics is super restrictive. For the most part, you’ve got something between 20 and 30-32 pages to tell your story. You can only fit so many panels onto a page, so many words in a balloon. All those sorts of things. And there comes a point where you’re just like okay this has gotta go. And is it in service to the story? Even if it is, it’s like if you’ve got a scene in your comic that’s seven pages long—a single scene, that’s pretty rare. And you’ve gotta be a really damn good comic creator to pull off a seven-page scene you know? I constantly say that to my students. I tell it to myself. And I was telling it to Chuck. Like, if Cullen has a love interest–if he really wants to be a poet, how much of that really impacts the baseline story we’re trying to tell. If we were to cut out that Cullen has a love interest, or someone that he’s pining over, is that going to change the main story that we’re trying to tell? If the answer is no, then maybe we should cut it. Because do we want an extra page of our heroes fighting monsters or do we want a page of a guy going, “Oh I’m so in love with this girl and she doesn’t notice me.” But if the book becomes a hit, we could always go back and start exploring that stuff later. Right now, we’re basically dope dealers. We’re trying to get the reader hooked on what we got. And that’s sort of my thinking. So, yeah there’s some stuff that got cut for sure. My philosophy is—and this is what I try to show Chuck and Sanford, is that there’s nothing that we cut that will diminish the main story that we’re telling. And there’s nothing that we cut that we can’t put in later on down the road. Right now, when we’re talking the economy of comics, we’re also talking the literal economy of comics. If the book doesn’t sell well, and we only get 5 issues to tell a story, a story that we really need 15 to 20 issues to tell, then we’re in serious trouble. We need to think about what we can do with these first five issues. We have to be very, very careful with that.
BNP: That leads into my next question a bit. So how far do you have the story plotted? Do you know the ending already? Is it concrete or more fluid?
David: Yeah there’s more a fluid ending. We have the equivalent to about 15 issues mapped out. It’s a solid three-story arc. But there’s a lot more stories that we want to tell. One story I can’t tell you because that’s a huge spoiler, but so like Ma Etta is old and she’s an ex-slave, and she was part of the Underground Railroad. And all three of us want to tell the story of how she basically becomes a monster hunter. And that’s not necessarily a full story arc. That’s maybe a one-shot or a backup story or we can tell it in flashbacks. And the main villain of the story, Dr. Sylvester has a fascinating backstory that we’re only hinting at in the first arc. There’s plenty of stuff—I mean I could easily see this series running a solid 40 to 50 issues. Now the question is, do we as a team have it in us to do that, do we have the interest, and is the market going to bare that? And that’s just my thinking. There’s a whole storyline that I have in my head that ties into the Haitian Revolution in the late 1700s, and it’s like yeah that’s—I could probably squeeze that all into the equivalent of a single issue. And there’s some interesting stuff there. Are we gonna get around to doing it all? I don’t know to be 100% honest with you. But for people reading this, yeah there’s plenty material there. The question again is are we able to stick it out?
BNP: So then how do you structure a story to be a beginning middle and end in those 15 issues? Do you particularly structure it between each arc or does each arc build upon each other almost like acts in a movie? Or is it different than that?
David: It’s a little bit different than that. I think the easiest way to describe it is—the first arc to me—the comparison that I use is it’s the first Star Wars movie. It’s A New Hope. And, you know, I’m old. I saw that in the theaters when it came out when I was a kid. And the thing is that when it first came out in the summer of 1977, nobody knew for sure there was gonna be another Star Wars movie. We watched it, and it felt like, well this is it. Darth Vader may or may not be dead. But we really didn’t know there was gonna be another Star Wars. And that’s the thing I keep pushing with Chuck and Sanford. And it’s the thing that I push with other creators when I talk to them. I think the way the industry is right now, the way the market is, your first arc of your series needs to be Star Wars: A New Hope.
BNP: That’s a great analogy.
David: And then, and it’s not to say that your second arc needs to be Empire Strikes Back, and God knows your third act should not be Return of the Jedi. But the thing is—you know this all goes back to my childhood, and then I saw Empire Strikes Back in the theaters and it was like my mind was blown. Then the third one was a bit of a disappointment, and that’s the thing. How do you avoid that third act disappointment? I think that because this is a story about a family, and it’s a world that’s worth exploring, we can spin and go other directions. We can do a story about Cullen’s parents or Blink’s parents or we can jump ahead 40 years and then it’s a story about Blink’s granddaughter and we see Blink has become more like Ma Etta than she wants to be, and so there’s always endless possibilities. But your first arc, and your first issue—I think that that first issue—I’m one of those people whose mentality is that your first issue should be written as if that’s the only issue anyone’s gonna buy. If they’re only gonna buy the first issue, and maybe the trade paperback. If you don’t do it that way, you’re in trouble.
— DONTBOOVOTE (@sanfordgreene) November 5, 2018
David: Oh, you want me to rat out my partners. I will be honest with you. I feel like there’s—I’m the king of research and that research for me is my favorite form of procrastination. I feel like we haven’t done nearly enough research. As a team? No. That ain’t gonna happen. Because as a team, we’re just three very different individuals. We definitely need to do more of it. We’re all working on this title, but we’ve all got other things going on in our lives both professionally and personally. We definitely need to up our game. The thing is—I’m the bad guy. Sanford had done some initial designs and the Apollo Theater was in the background. And I was like the Apollo Theater wasn’t around in 1924, and at one point Jack Johnson was supposed to make an appearance. It was supposed to be at a championship fight for Jack Johnson. Well, Jack Johnson wasn’t fighting in 1924, he was done. He might have done some exhibitions, but he wasn’t defending the title. And both of them get upset with me and I’m like look, it’s one thing if we’re gonna incorporate elements of truth and reality in our series, but if we get it wrong? We look really stupid. And so, we need to think about these things really carefully.
There was a scene that Chuck was really upset about that we cut. It was in the Cotton Club. And at the time, part of the point Chuck wanted to make, which I get, was that the Cotton Club being the most famous club of black entertainment at the time, it didn’t allow black people in the club. I was like we can bring the Cotton Club in later, but we don’t want a scene that’s really preachy right now about that. And Sanford was constantly saying that we need to have recognizable landmarks in this series. And I was like there are no recognizable landmarks in Harlem in 1924. That’s what I kept trying to explain to him. The heated discussions between us were always there. We’ve gotten over it, but I’m definitely a firm believer that we need to be careful with who we show and how we show it. And you need to be able to back it up. Especially if you’re trying to get some level of historical accuracy.
BNP: What about working on this book has inspired you outside of writing?
David: It’s definitely inspired me to a certain extent within the business context. Doing a creator-owned series is not easy. Doing any comic is not easy. But I come from a background in independent creation. And I would love to do more. I’ve discovered that I find this far more rewarding and far more exciting than a lot of the other stuff that I’ve done. It’s making me think about all kinds of things, and amongst that are what my next moves are career-wise. So, it’s really got me excited on that level about exploring new things, testing things out, and pushing myself as a creator. I think also it’s getting me to a point where the comics that I’m looking at aren’t necessarily comics I would have looked at three years ago. Not to say that I wasn’t looking into comics, but if you’re working for Marvel or you’re working for DC, you spend a lot of your time just trying to keep up with what’s going on in those particular universes. The moment you’re freed up from that, and unless you’re just a die-hard completest who needs to know what’s going on in every X-Men book, suddenly you’re freed up to go well what’s going on in the indie world? And you go to conventions or you go on Comixology or you talk to other people. I’ve discovered some amazing talent out there that I might not have discovered otherwise. I say discovered like Columbus “discovered” America. It was already out there.
I just met several creators from Chile, like a month ago at a convention in Columbus, Ohio and NYCC. Like 4 or 5 creators. So, I’m like wait hold on a sec, what’s going on in Chile? Do I need to go to a convention there? I’m taking the time to really look at that stuff and think about who are some people I can potentially collaborate with in the future and what are some series that I can support and what can I turn other people on to? And are there things in this medium I can do to help it grow? Business changes everything, man. For better or worse, it’ll be interesting to see what this does. I mean you gotta be careful—it’s like dating someone. Dating somebody is one thing but marrying them is another thing. And then having kids with them is something else altogether. So, what do you do? The business side of things can be brutal, but part of me also loves it. And it’s why I know I’m going to be moving in certain directions I never necessarily thought I’d be moving in or more importantly leaving behind things I never thought I’d leave behind.
BNP: What have you learned about yourself while working on this book that you maybe wouldn’t have learned if you didn’t work on it?
David: This might be me being a little too hard on myself. And it’s almost like you need to talk to other people, not just Sanford and Chuck. Talk to our editor Heather or our letterer or our color[ist]. I think I might be a lot more difficult to work with than I realized. And part of that also comes down to I think that maybe this is so personal. This isn’t me doing work for hire. It’s made me realize that maybe I might not be the best business partner to be with. Part of me is like yeah sorry we can’t have a scene set at the Apollo because it didn’t exist in 1924, but then there’s also the side of me that’s like no I’m not flying out to do a signing with you guys in Georgia, because it’s coming out of my pocket and from a financial standpoint that doesn’t make any sense. Yeah sure, it would be fun. But do I really want to fly out to Georgia the week of Thanksgiving or the week after? It’s stuff like that.
And so as much as I realize that I want to do more of this stuff, more creator-owned stuff, more projects that I’m one of the bosses if not the boss, I also realize that, you know, there needs to be a lot more dialogue and a lot more conversation between myself and whoever I’m working with to let them know that this is sort of what I expect of you. I just had somebody do some work for me on another project. And I paid them. And I said send me the invoice and when they sent it, I said just so you know, you’re probably not gonna get this money in 30 days. But you’re gonna get the money. And if you haven’t gotten it within 60 days, then please just send me a gentle reminder, don’t yell at me. And it turns out I got a paycheck that let me turn around and pay this person in 10 days as opposed to 30 or 45 or 50. But it’s like, yeah. I like being the boss. I’m the one in charge of paying everybody on this one particular project whereas with Bitter Root, there’s essentially three bosses and it’s like we’re so used to doing things our own individual way, that sometimes we don’t communicate well with each other.
This brings our interview series with the creative team behind the upcoming Bitter Root comic to a close. Bitter Root comes out a week from today on November 14th, 2018. Check it out and let us know what you think on all our social media links below.
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