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‘Bitter Root: Omnibus Book One’ HC (review)

Written by David F. Walker and Chuck Brown
Art and Cover by Sanford Greene
Published by Image Comics


Bitter Root is a marvelous gumbo, a wondrous collection and amalgamation of storytelling. Like gumbo, its elements are numerous but can’t quite be measured, and under the right heat for the right amount of time, yields deliciously magical results.

And, like gumbo as I know it, steeped in Blackness and the story of America.

Walker, Brown and Greene poured Black history into this tale that feels a bit like Ghostbusters, Lovecraft Country, the works of Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. duBois, so much more.

At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, we meet the Sangerye family, who have dedicated themselves to protecting the world from monsters born of hate and racism.

The horrific historical events of the “Red Summer” – waves of white supremacist violence and anti-Black riots in some three dozen cities across the USA – and the Tulsa massacre of 1921 spin out into the main action taking place in Harlem, 1924.

And the story uses the supernatural to explore the monstrosity of hate by the oppressor, and the burdens of grief and loss for the oppressed.

Yet the storytelling takes the wheel first and foremost to guide the action, filtered through the Sangerye family’s own drama.

I know, this all sounds very heavy. Furthermore, in less talented hands, this all could come across as didactic and like homework rather than entertainment. At times, Bitter Root is heavy. However, the story also enjoys itself with lots of action, adventure storylines, steampunk weaponry, monster fights, and more.

Plus you get sticky characters such as: Blink, a young woman who’s the best fighter in the family against their wishes; Berg, a hulking genius whose heft is matched by his voluminous, sometimes inscrutable, vocabulary; and Johnnie-Ray, a white southerner who quickly learns the errors of his ways.

But let’s say you didn’t take Afro-American studies in college, or you’d like to let Bitter Root’s themes and sources marinate in your mind a lot more. That’s where the Omnibus truly shines.

In addition to collecting issues 1-15 and the Red Summer Special, this hardcover edition is filled with essays from Black cultural critics and scholars who shed more light on the material and its communion with other Black literature and art.

As the story progresses, the lore around the Sangerye family and its many tragedies unfolds in exciting fashion. We meet other families who hunt jinoo – human beings turned into monsters by hate and racism. These other families of Indigenous, Chinese, Irish and Ashkenazi Jew heritage each call the jinoo by different names, sometimes comically so. (Not for nothing, there’s enough for a Bitter Root universe of various stories/families.)

And there’s something poignant about seeing this family process its traumas and meditate on the collective psychological weight of oppression, given the current wave of legislation to whitewash history.

Any version of Bitter Root is worth picking up, but this hardcover is the best yet.

Grade: A


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