Remember when Bitter Root launched and the buzz was just beginning (including my review of volume 1)? The follow-up is here, and it opens with more swagger than ever. There’s the golden Eisner Award ‘E’ on the cover, labeled “Best Continuing Series Winner 2020.” A note on the rear cover mentions that a movie adaptation is in development. The first page is loaded with four genuflective blurbs, followed by a Sangerye family tree and credits pages for the six issues within, including the Red Summer Special anthology. Can this golden series continue its winning streak, or has it reached a sophomore slump?

That family tree will come in handy if readers have forgotten any of the characters from volume 1, because the Red Summer Special that kicks off volume 2 is a cluster of short chapters from the Sangerye family’s past, going from 1850 to the story’s present in the 1920s. Among the lore is the introduction of Blink’s friend Wu. Wu and her family hunt guizi, the same monsters the Sangeryes call jinoo, suggesting each race has its own classification and means of handling the dangerous transformations of racism. Elsewhere, in a realm known as Barzakh, a multiracial coalition of warriors protects Earth from demons beyond Earth’s plane of existence. The inclusiveness of the campaign against bigotry invites readers of all stripes to feel like they can pitch in, too.

The diversity of skin color is exceeded by the color on the page, which is often bathed in warm yellows and oranges, with plenty of blues and purples used for shadows and nighttime. The vibrant palette fits the continuing supernatural conflict, as a new, more powerful avatar of hatred, Adro, crosses over to Earth. New York’s local leaders, a diverse group of men (I detected at least Black, Chinese, and Irish among them), debate the alliances needed to face it. Wu and Blink hunt monsters and defend neighborhoods against jinoo against the “old-fashioned” wishes of their families’ matriarchs who would rather they contributed from home. “You think Ida B. Wells could’ve done what she did from a kitchen?” Blink asks. Elsewhere, in an elongated flashback, a Black and Indigenous alliance discovers what appear to be Black jinoo, leading to questions of what varieties of spiritual corruption are possible.

Some things haven’t changed since volume 1. The Sangerye family continues to battle jinoo on multiple fronts. Berg, whose vocabulary marks him as “the smart one” in every scene, loves to say “indubitably” and “salubrious.” Now there are also monsters transformed by trauma called inzondo, and characters respond to their existence differently, right down to hunting methods and even empathy for them. The faith and community afforded by a Christian church represent sources of support. Berg observes as part of his own inzondo infection: “There is a grief that cries out so loud it drowns out all sound. But when the screams fall upon deaf ears, the soul becomes tormented.” Physical self-defense is as significant as reaching out and curing people before they attack anyone. The versatility of this condition as a metaphor for various social ills means the story has as many hooks as the reader brings to it.

The multiple perspectives from the first volume continue here, plus a couple more, leading to an overstuffed plot. It’s hard to summarize the juggling act of a story in digestible terms, not because it’s too complex, but because the context shifts a lot. Almost every scene takes place in a different time, place, and character perspective. Some readers may need to flip back and forth to keep the timeline straight as it bounces across years, days, and hours. Scenes do not always transition smoothly, with action left hanging and feeling disorienting upon return. The Tulsa race massacre, sunset towns, church burnings, and lynching are all salient plot points, and anyone who would object to such charged imagery would have to also reckon with the history behind them.

While the buildup in this volume is interesting and even compelling at times, it leads to an action-packed finale in which heroes verbally refute Adro’s hunger for hate and narrate their feelings out loud. On top of all this, little animals that had been used to sniff out demons make their own transformations and crowd out both the page and story. Sanford Greene and Sofie Dodgson’s talented visual work extends from the frequent martial arts action pages (there is no small action here) to heartfelt monologues. It seems like David F. Walker and Chuck Brown try to stack too many elements at once, resulting in a precariously teetering historical action / horror / mystery hybrid in need of greater focus. Big does not always lead to epic.

Hooray, then, for the back matter, where a multitude of scholars use the comic as a platform for exploring the Tulsa Race Massacre, Zora Neale Hurston’s speculative fiction, epigenetic trauma, creative resistance, oral tradition, Bitter Root’s logo design, whiteness, and power fantasies. Variant cover art pays homage to the films Do The Right Thing, Purple Rain, Boyz In The Hood, New Jack City, and Juice. There are also some process pages of roughs, inks, and colors to demonstrate how the book came together. This comic practically contains a whole class about itself, and the digging is fruitful. I just wish the story was as masterfully executed as all the lofty examinations extracted from it.

Is Bitter Root still worth collecting? Absolutely. This is a continuation and fulfillment of characters and settings established in volume 1, and should work fine for teens and up who can handle violence and some fantasy gore. There are plenty of story threads to pick up in the third arc, on its way in 2021. Language-wise, a character from Mississippi says “sumbitch,” and a sign outside a sunset town in Georgia uses the N word.

Bitter Root, vol. 2: Rage & Redemption
By David Walker Chuck Brown
Art by Sanford Greene
ISBN: 9781534316607
Image, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: M (17+)
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: African-American, Chinese-American Protestant
Creator Highlights: African-American
Related to…: Book to Comic

  • 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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