Bitter Root #1: This Ain’t Your Great Grandparent’s Harlem Renaissance

Writers: David Walker, Chuck Brown / Artist: Sanford Greene / Image

Bitter Root has arrived! And it’s here to entertain, inform, and challenge you and your assumptions about race on the page and behind the scenes. The introductory issue to the series drops us right into the thick of things as we see a day in the life of the dwindling Sangerye family.

Issue #1 does a great job of tackling the task of setting up the characters and the rules of the world. What I was impressed with was how the comic instantly establishes its characters apart from each other in a way that not only makes them feel like individuals but living, breathing people. These aren’t adaptations or iterations of pre-existing characters, so Walker, Brown, and Greene had to work overtime to make them feel authentic. I think it paid off. Everyone has such strong characteristics that after just one issue, you can tell who’s who even if you don’t know their names yet.

The two main women of the story so far are Ma Etta and Blink, and they couldn’t be more opposites. Ma Etta is old, stern, and rigid. She’s seen it all, and for better or for worse, that’s shaped her into the hard-nosed person she’s become. Then there’s Blink. She’s young, determined, and impatient. She doesn’t want to conform to society’s rules. She just wants what she wants, and what she wants is all the smoke. Cross her the wrong way and you might find yourself on the ground before you know it.

Bitter Root #1

The two men are Cullen and Berg. Cullen is trying to prove himself too, but you get the sense that he’s not as into it as Blink. He’s timid and a bit fearful. This leads to him not being very good at curing Jinoo, the racist fueled monsters of the series. But the only problem is because he’s a man, he takes precedence over Blink. Even though she’s a hell of a lot better at getting the job done. I smell some conflict brewing between these two.

The last of the main characters explored in this first issue is Berg. He might be my favorite so far. He’s just a big teddy bear. Out of the four, he’s the most calm and collected. He feels like he’s content with life and his role in it. He stands out so much because he has a deep vocabulary. Every sentence he speaks has a word so unique, context clues aren’t necessarily enough to inform you of their meaning. My favorite from issue #1 was “Lugubrious.” The cool thing about him is that he doesn’t come off as an asshole or someone trying to impose their intelligence on you. He just seems like he’s a dude that likes words.

Bitter Root #1

None of these characters would be half as intriguing as they are without the art of Sanford Greene. There’s so much feeling conveyed through each character’s actions, whether they’re important to the story or not. Greene is bringing the Renaissance to life through the faces of the people who inhabited it. Every emotion is amplified through the ink from his pen. Happy is ecstatic. Scared is mortified. And annoyed is… bitter ?

Clearly, none of us were around during the Harlem Renaissance, but the saturation of Renzi’s colors coupled with Greene’s inks bring it to life in the best way possible. The sounds of Duke Ellington, the words of Zora Neale Hurston are reignited through the marriage of their craft. I feel like I’m in a real place when I’m reading this book. Harlem is the most important character of this story, so seeing so much care put into its portrayal is a true highlight.

Bitter Root #1 sinks a hook so deep that you can’t help but look up everything about the Harlem Renaissance until the next issue comes out. The characters are distinct. The art is striking. And most importantly, the renaissance feels authentic. If you’ve been looking forward to this series, it doesn’t disappoint.

10 Jinoos out of 10

If you wanna get some more background on some of the inner workings of the series from it’s inception to the release of this first issue, read my interviews with the creators here.

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