A Monster Hunting Black Family During The Harlem Renaissance? Take My Money: A Conversation With David Walker

At San Diego Comic Con, I got to talk with David Walker, who you may know as the writer behind comics such as Luke Cage, Power Man & Iron Fist, Nighthawk, Cyborg, and Superb. We talked about his much-anticipated series Bitter Root with Chuck Brown & Sanford Greene from Image Comics out later this year.

The Story

Morgan: What’s your elevator pitch for Bitter Root?

David: Bitter Root takes place in 1924. Part of the backdrop is the Harlem Renaissance, although that world is gonna open up fairly quickly. It’s about a family — the Sangeryes (Sang-er-yay). They’re a famous family of monster hunters. For decades what they specialized in was curing monsters. In our world, monsters are essentially people whose souls have been corrupted. But now, there’s an ideological split between the family. There’s people that think they should cure, and people who believe they should kill. And most of the family is gone now. There was a huge tragedy. We don’t say what that tragedy is yet. But it’s about how America is about to be lost to hatred and racism and oppression in 1924, and they’re a dysfunctional family that is falling apart, and they’re the only people that can save America. And they happen to be a Black family.

And then as the story progresses, if sales permit and fans permit, and we go beyond that first story arc, we’re going to then learn the origins of the family and trace that family all the way back to Africa. And you realize that they are from a tribe in Africa, Western Africa, that has been fighting essentially the devil for many, many generations and part of that battle required family members to make the sacrifice to willingly be sold into slavery. In that journey, they go from Africa to Haiti, and then from Haiti to the U.S. They get caught up in the Underground Railroad. There’s a lot of heavy stuff but at the end of the day, it’s a lot of just action, adventure, and horror, and all that sort of stuff. It’s not as heavy-handed as people think.

Morgan: Where did it the idea for this story come from?

David: It started with Chuck. Chuck and Sanford were playing around with it for a while. For whatever reason, it didn’t seem to be developing the way they wanted it to. And then Sanford approached me after our Power Man & Iron Fist run and said “Hey, Chuck and I are working on this thing. Would you be interested in coming on board?” I had already met Chuck before, and I was like if Chuck is cool with it, I’d be more than happy to talk about it. They told me the idea, and then the ball just started really rolling from there.

I would ask Chuck questions like why are we doing this thing or why did the character do this. Sometimes he had really clear concise answers, and sometimes he’d just be like “Oh, it’s just an idea.” I’ve been teaching for several years. Teaching writing for comics at Portland State University. So part of my M.O. is sort of asking those questions. It’s what I do with my students. And I was doing that with Chuck, but then as a co-writer, it was more like bouncing ideas off of him. One of the things I like to do is dealing with subtext and layering and that sort of thing. So again, it was Sanford and Chuck’s initial idea, and then I just sort of came along and started spicing the gumbo.

The Process

M: So at this point in the writing process, how does the co-writing work? Is there someone who comes up with a broader idea, and then the other person gets more specific?

D: Right now, it’s a lot of Chuck’s broader ideas. And he’s actually writing first drafts of scripts. And then I’m looking at them both as a co-writer, and sometimes as an editor. But also thinking about it in terms of a business standpoint. Like okay, so Image has picked up this title. They’re gonna publish it. We’ve got X number of issues guaranteed. But if it doesn’t sell well, we’re not gonna get any more issues. So, how do we craft a story that is seemingly complete in X amount of issues, but if it doesn’t sell and X issues is all we get, it’s complete. But then if it sells well, and we get more issues, how do we move on? So, it’s a lot of stuff like that, the mechanics along those lines that Chuck and I are doing.

Right now, he’ll take the first pass at the script. He’ll hand it to me, and I look at his ideas. I look at the script, and I go through what works or what needs more. The first issue of the script initially had like 3 issues worth of comic material in one, and it was too dense. And I was like Chuck, we can decompress this, and I think for him a lot of it was like, well what if this is the only chance we get? And I was like if this is the only chance we get, we still want to be the best, not throw everything in the kitchen sink. So a lot of it is about me going okay, we’ve got too many characters right now, and while these characters are cool, we can take this character and get rid of them or combine elements with this character. It’s just me looking at a bigger picture, and now he’s doing more of that. And catching stuff and sort of bouncing off of each other. I think I’ve done a little bit more co-writing than he’s done, but it’s always a different dance depending on who you’re working with as you learn their style of writing. The things that they think, the ideas that they have.

And for me, it’s like I wanna write the best book I can possibly write, but I want it to be the best comic it can possibly be. And that means the art has to be on point, the lettering has to be on point, the coloring has to be on point. It’s a very collaborative thing. And sometimes that means letting go of something that you think is great, but is not working in service to the full story. It’s about walking that balance between keeping your ego in check and knowing how to make certain things work.

The Crew

M: I know you’ve mentioned at some point that the writers, artist, letterer were all black—

D: That was originally how it was gonna be. It’s not like that now. There’s been some shifts. Our letterer is not, he’s a white guy. Our editor is a white woman. But our colorist is a Black guy, and obviously Chuck, Sanford, and myself. That’s originally what we wanted. We wanted that so bad. But then a lot of it was scheduling. A lot of it was finding the right fit. And then there came a moment when it was like okay, we want this to be the best book it can be. And if this person over here that we’re trying to get isn’t available, we’re not gonna get a letterer whose Black just because they’re Black if it’s not a right fit. It just sort of was what it was.

We’re trying to make the best damn book we can make. If all we’re trying to do is have that little crust bite, that “oh it’s an all-Black team,” but it’s not the best book it can be, then it defeats the purpose of what we’re trying to do so that’s my philosophy. If you talk to Chuck and Sanford, you might get a slightly different answer. At one point, I was just gonna letter the book, but I realized that I’m not a good enough letterer and so it was like, again, I wouldn’t hire myself to letter this book. I would hire this person or this person. Clayton Cowles, who we got, is one of the people I would hire. So, I was like okay this is it. This is perfect.

M: You and Sanford have a pretty funny relationship, at least from the outside looking in. And your tandem on Power Man & Iron Fist was a really refreshing take on those characters. Talk a little bit about how it is to work with him on a book that may not have as much editorial oversight as you had at Marvel.

D: I don’t want to speak for him, but I think that one of the things I’ve learned in a very short amount of time is that working on a creator-owned book is—there’s a lot of things that you don’t realize until you’re there. And one of the things is like, yeah there isn’t much in terms of editorial oversight because you are the bosses. You hire an editor to help out with certain things and it’s like you have to learn how to communicate in a completely different way.

So the little things like where Sanford is big on posting little videos on Instagram, process pages, and stuff like that, I finally said to him like, yo dude, the first time I’m seeing some of your art is when you’re posting it on Instagram (laughs). Chuck and I need to see this before that. Because he’s not turning stuff in to an editor, who’s then showing it to us, he’s just off doing his own thing. And it’s kind of funny, but then there’s moments where it’s like okay as a team we’ve got to get on the same page. And the key thing with a creator-owned book is that you’re a team, but you don’t necessarily have a captain. If you’re working at Marvel or DC, you have a team, but the captain is essentially your editor.

M: So an editor at Image has a different role?

D: Yeah, and I mean we found our own editor. Image has editors that they can assign to a book. We had somebody lined up and for scheduling reasons, it didn’t work out. The big problems came very late in the game, like after the first issue was done but before we were turning all the materials over to Image. Then I thought maybe I can do this on my own, then it was clear that I couldn’t. Clayton actually suggested somebody to me. So, I got on the phone with her. We’d never met personally, but I knew her work — Heather Antos.

I was like the Heather Antos? The one who a lot of the trolls hate? I was like hey I hear you’re an uppity woman, I’m an uppity Black guy, let’s make some uppity comics (laughs). Honestly, at this point, she’s been the most amazing person to have on the team. That’s what we needed. We needed somebody who knows certain things that you don’t know, that I could learn, that Chuck could learn, that Sanford could learn. But we’re trying to focus on creating a great book. And not everyone’s cut out for some of these things. Some of the scheduling stuff. That’s the stuff nobody tells you about. And that’s why you see certain creator-owned books go off the rails or they don’t ship regularly. A lot of it is because, left to our own devices, a lot of us stay in bed all day long, or we don’t shower on a regular basis. So we’re learning along the way.

The Background

M: What’s been your favorite aspect of developing this whether it’s in research, fleshing out characters, or those crazy little moments behind the keyboard?

D: It’s the crazy little moments. Chuck will throw out an idea. He’ll throw it in the script, throw it in the outline. And I’ll look at it and go why’d you do this Chuck? And he’ll go, well I thought it was cool. And I’ll say yeah it’s cool, but is there more of a story to it than that. And sometimes he’s like yes, other times he’s like no. But then my wheels start turning, and I’ll be like well what if— So we knew that there was a split in the family, and we knew what the split was, but we couldn’t quite figure out how the split occurred. That ideological split. And I was like, well what if it’s this, and then Chuck was like, well that if it’s that, and then I was like well what if it’s this and that (laughs). And that vibe is just great. When we’re firing on all cylinders. But we’re still discovering stuff all along.

There’s a scene where I was like you know we need to add another element of peril to what’s happening to the family and I was like, how many Black cops were there in New York City in 1924? And there was only like one. And it was like okay well so how bad was racism in 1924 in New York City? And were the cops beating people and killing people and it was like, oh yeah, stuff that is going on now was going on then. I was talking to Chuck and I was asking him how we could incorporate some of this stuff into the story. Again not having to be heavy-handed but having it be sort of organic. And thinking about 1924 and the Harlem Renaissance, it was like although Black people were present, New York was super segregated back then. And it wasn’t just Harlem. As Chuck had written it, a lot of stuff took place in Harlem. And I was like we should have some stuff take place in San Juan Hill, and he was like what’s San Juan Hill, because nobody knows what San Juan Hill is.

M: Yeah. I don’t know what San Juan Hill is.

D: Before Blacks migrated to Harlem, most of them lived in San Juan Hill, which is sort of central Westside, more Midtown where the Lincoln Center is now. Westside Story took place, basically in what was San Juan Hill. It’s gone now. It was the worst ghetto in America. But that’s where most Black people lived in the earlier part of the 20th century, up until the 20’s when they started migrating uptown first on the Westside, and then cross town in Harlem. So, it’s little things like that, where one idea sparks another. And a lot of it is about learning to put your ego in check enough for the sake of the story. It’s not just I’m writing this or Chuck is writing this, or Sanford is drawing it, it’s like no, we’re doing this as a team.

The Music

M: So, this last question is something I like to ask people working on creator-owned comics. What music would you suggest people listen to while reading Bitter Root to enhance the experience?

D: You know, that’s a great question. And Chuck and I have been talking about putting together a playlist. And what we’re both realizing, is our understanding of Jazz doesn’t go back far enough. And so when we’re talking stuff from the 1920’s, most of my stuff is like late 30’s, and so it’s like oh, yeah I have a bunch of Count Basie stuff and Duke Ellington, but that stuff is after (the 20’s). So, I need to really sit down and figure it out. And that’s the embarrassing thing to admit where it’s like okay, like I know some of the best poets from the Harlem Renaissance, but a lot of the better-known poets are from later in that era. That’s one of the things I keep saying to Chuck is that yeah this is stuff we need to know more about. And so a lot of it is like learning along the way.

Even elements that aren’t making it into the first story arc which go back to the 1850’s with the Underground Railroad, it’s like, you need to understand how the Underground Railroad works. Most of the slaves that were escaping, a lot of them were from like the Maryland area, and the Virginia area. You didn’t get too many that were escaping from Georgia and Alabama and Arkansas because it was too far south, it was too deep. It was too long of a journey to go. If someone escaped from Maryland, they weren’t escaping from a cotton plantation because there weren’t any cotton plantations in Maryland.

This is the stuff a lot of people don’t understand about basics of US History, geography, economy, all that sort of stuff, so a lot of it is you have a great idea, and then you have to do the due diligence. At one point, we were talking about incorporating real-life people into this series, and I was like we can do that as long as it’s appropriate for the time. Like, can we have Marcus Garvey in the story? I don’t think so? Because I think Marcus Garvey was before this, let’s look it up. You know, we talk about stuff like that.

M: It’s an interesting dichotomy because on the one hand, the people that don’t know the history and these important figures of the time would benefit from seeing them and learning about them, even if you get the timing or the geography wrong. But it’s the people that do know the things that are accurate, and where things should be placed, that’s who you have to write for.

D: And that’s what the back matter of the book is going to be for. There’s going to be essays about what the Harlem Renaissance was about and this character right here, this is who they were inspired by. You wanna read some poetry, listen to some music, here are the ones to check out. We’re gonna be doing all of that stuff. We’re essentially stealing what Bitch Planet does at the back of their book and we’re gonna incorporate that into ours and John Jennings is gonna be the editor of our back matter.

When Can You Buy It?

M: Do you guys have an official release date for the book?

D: It’s November 2018. I think it’s the second Wednesday in November. The week before Thanksgiving if I remember correctly.

So here’s what you can do to support Bitter Root. Go to your local comic shop. Hell, go to your local comic shops and ask them if they’re ordering Bitter Root. If they are, great. Buy it when it comes out. If they aren’t, and ask you if you want them to order it, say yes. They can’t just order one. This is essentially how comics make their sales. And this is why it’s important to go to your local comic shop as opposed to getting it online.

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  • Morgan Hampton

    Staff Writer

    Morgan Hampton is a writer--OH MY GOD I CAN ACTUALLY SAY THAT NOW. *ahem* Excuse me, sorry for that outburst. As I was saying, Morgan Hampton is a writer currently living in San Francisco with an obsession for all things nerd (except Medieval stuff. Get outta here with that mess), and a passion to represent the underrepresented. He's an aspiring comic book writer so catch him in the funny pages some time before the apocalypse. He holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from SFSU so he's broke.

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