REVIEW: Bitter Root #1 is a complex and fearless debut

Bitter Root #1 is out 11/14.

By Zack Quaintance — There’s a roadmap for success in creator-owned comics that’s becoming standard: a writer and artist collaborate at Marvel or DC, they build a fanbase, and they go on to drop a new series at Image, one that as a result of their past work together arrives fully-formed. It’s happened this year with Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s Gideon Falls, and it’s happening again this week with David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene’s Bitter Root #1.

Walker and Greene last teamed on 2016’s Power Man and Iron Fist, which despite being one of the major highlights of Marvel’s All New, All Different publishing initiative, was tragically cancelled before reaching 20 issues, apparently because higher ups at the company decided Luke and Danny needed to be separated. To me this remains a silly move, but I digress...

We’re here to talk about Bitter Root #1, a debut comic that, simply put, knows exactly how good it is. It’s a confident book built for a lengthy run, and, as such, its first issue is mostly interested in orienting readers within its world (the Harlem Renaissance era), introducing them to characters (a family of monster hunters with rigidly-defined roles), hinting at a central conflict (a rift in said monster-hunting family), and planting seeds for future developments. First issues can sometimes fall into a sensationalistic trap wherein the creators push copious or excessive twists into the story, coming off as a bit desperate to bring readers back for #2.

Not so with Bitter Root, an immersive comic that relies on strong art and storytelling more than narrative tricks. It’s also as thoughtful a new title as we’ve seen this year (and it’s been a strong year for thoughtful titles). Like Walker’s work on books like Nighthawk, oppression and abuse of power loom large in Bitter Root. WARNING POTENTIAL SPOILERS: The story being historical lets this issue draw a connection between institutionalized racism and injustices that continue today. In one scene, a jumpy police officer opens fire on black characters in a park (having his bullets deflected by the story’s imaginative steampunk monster-hunting tech) before a monster rips him to pieces. In the next, we cut to Mississippi the same night...where another character is saved by similar tech from a lynching by the KKK.

The placement of these scenes in Bitter Root’s first issue to me seems to hint at the story’s aspirations: to interweave family, duty, monsters, and systemic racism, thereby creating an imaginative and complex narrative, as rich with character growth as it is with elements of the fantastical. Phew. It’s a lot, but these creators are up for the challenge.

Greene is a phenomenal artist with a style entirely his own. I knew from his work on Power Man and Iron Fist he was capable of kinetic sequential storytelling, but working in creator-owned comics affords him increased flexibility here, the luxury of flexing his sizable and eclectic design skills on everything from the monster hunting technology to the aesthetic of the monsters themselves. His work is versatile, as interesting when applied to the fantastic as it is to the everyday scene of weekend dancing that opens our story. Colorist Rico Renzi’s palettes also do the always-important work of tone-setting, of lending mood and ambiance to book with horror themes. A story as well written as this one deserves singular art to match, and Greene and Renzi certainly deliver.

I’ve been looking forward to Bitter Root since it was first mentioned after the unceremonious end to Power Man and Iron Fist. It took awhile to get here and it sounds cliche to say, but if this debut issue is any indication, Bitter Root is well worth the wait.

Overall: There have been plenty of monster hunting comics launched this year, but none have been as confident as Bitter Root #1. This story is complex and fearless, steeped in fantastical monster hunting, family dynamics, and systemic injustices. Combine that with the stylishly singular aesthetic of the artwork, and this book is a must-read. 9.5/10

Bitter Root #1
David F. Walker and Chuck Brown
Artist: Sanford Greene
Colorist: Rico Renzi and Sanford Greene
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase. He also writes comics and is currently working hard to complete one.