Meet the Sangerye family: Ma Etta is the matriarchal grandmother, guiding her precious grandchildren after the untimely deaths of several of her children. She’s especially protective of Blink, whose folks died due to a terrible accident involving Uncle Enoch. Among the boys, Berg looks like a powerhouse but is more of an intellectual—readers will learn the word “indubitably” by the end of the book, along with a bunch of other SAT words. The young, scrappy Cullen wants to prove himself. Ford is a black sheep, doing things his own way, but still respecting the family. The family business, by the way, is fighting jinoo—monsters created by the violent corruption of people’s souls. A white cop beating a black person for no reason could sprout horns and razor teeth, for example. It’s 1924 in Harlem, New York, and there are plenty of people in need of curing.

Bitter Root explodes off each page with thoughtful plotting, unique character designs, thematic color palettes, and shape-shifting lettering that always fits the bombastic and gentle moments alike. These storytelling techniques come in handy throughout the book as it balances four narrative threads that eventually converge. The center of the story focuses on Ma Etta, Blink, Berg, and Cullen as they seek out jinoo and purify them back into humans by injecting them with specially prepared “fiif’no serum.” They run into jinoo-like creatures that pose a considerable challenge to classification and defeating. Ford takes a separate approach to the jinoo, choosing to “amputate” or kill them instead. The first chapter ends with him murdering the members of a Ku Klux Klan rally as they try to lynch a black man accused of touching a white woman. They revive as monsters and must be killed all over again. One white survivor at the rally does not turn into a jinoo because he has not engaged in racist violence, therefore sparing his soul. He tags along with Ford to find more jinoo. A couple seemingly on the fringe of the story, Dr. Sylvester and Miss Knightsdale, are using serums and demons for their own ends. A pair of police officers, Sullivan and Samuels, repeatedly collide with story beats and are generally bewildered by the supernatural action.

Rico Renzi and Sanford Greene’s coloring helps distinguish scenes, which comes in handy when different characters are fighting demons at the same time. Palettes for scenes seem to focus on violet/blue, yellow/tan, and pale green against black, with plenty of color motifs such as glowing green serum and blank red eyes. Greene’s illustrations are barely contained on the page, with action scenes leading to tumbling panels and page-filling perspectives that can feel like the storyboards to an animated feature. The Sangeryes are skilled combatants, and Greene renders their fighting styles with respect for how each of them moves. Cullen’s wild fighting style is vastly different from Blink’s exacting strikes, for example, and Ma Etta can lay the smack down when needed.

Bitter Root isn’t all martial arts and demon hunting, though. In one scene, the Sangeryes serve soup to people who escaped a jinoo attack. Ma Etta says, “The Sangeryes don’t turn their backs on folks in need. That ain’t the way we do things. We gonna fight the fight. But we also gonna feed the hungry, we gonna comfort them that’s scared… and we gonna heal the sick.” Historical references ground the story in 1924 and Harlem; Dr. Sylvester references the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, and a theater marquee advertises George Gershwin’s “Sweet Little Devil.” The opening spread of the book depicts a club named Sweet Pickin’, packed to the brim with black people dancing to joyful music.

There’s still a lot to unpack about the themes and influences of the book and how they’re reflected in the characters’ decisions and dialogue. The Sangeryes are a black family exorcising and fighting what is essentially a contagious spirit of racism, after all. Luckily for us, the trade edition includes essays written by black academics such as Regina N. Bradley, Qiana Whitted, Stacey Robinson, and Ceeon D. Quiett Smith. To quote a couple of selections:

“How do you unmake the harmful stories of race and ‘difference?’ By making our own.”—John Jennings

“Representation matters and the efficiency and directness of the graphic image is a powerful conjuring tool.”—Kinitra Brooks

A plethora of variant covers are also included and serve as an additional proof of how fully formed this concept is right out the gate. The story and artwork hold up even more on a second reading, and all the moving parts of the converging plot lines beg for a second (third, fourth…) volume to continue them and their rich influences. This comic is perfectly appropriate for teens—tell them it’s the supernatural hunt of Ghostbusters mixed with the family dynamic of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by way of the parts of their schools’ history books they’re not assigned to read. If March is the nonfiction shot, Bitter Root is the fantastical chaser. However, there’s also plenty of food for thought that adults would enjoy, plus Greene’s artwork is a treat in and of itself. This is an absolute must-have for your library, though violent scenes including decapitation and blood might turn away the squeamish.

Bitter Root Vol. 1: Family Business 1
By David Walker Chuck Brown
Art by Sanford Greene
ISBN: 9781534312128
Image, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: M (Mature)

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Character Traits: Black
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

  • Thomas

    | He/Him Teen Services Librarian, Richland Library

    Features Writer

    Thomas is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. While studying for his MLIS at the University of South Carolina, he won an award from Thomas Cooper Library for his curation of the works of “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. He has spoken about manga, graphic novels, teen programming, and podcasting at NashiCon, DragonCon, ColaCon, New York Comic Con, and American Library Association conferences. He has been on on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels For Teens selection committee, written articles for Public Libraries, The Hub, Book Riot, and Library Trends, and reviews for School Library Journal and Kirkus.

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