Sanford Greene’s ‘Bitter Root’
Those who claim, as a friend recently did, that comic books are created by and for “white geeks,” should talk to artist Sanford Greene and the crowd that showed up at Greensboro’s Acme Comics last Saturday.
Greene, a major industry talent who’s drawn such heroes as the Black Panther, Luke Cage, Shaft and Superman, was promoting the launch of his co-creation Bitter Root, a fantasy-adventure set during the Harlem Renaissance. On it, Greene collaborates with writers David F. Walker and Chuck Brown and the Charlotte-based colorist Rico Renzi. The first issue, out last week from Image Comics (popular and prestigious publisher of Saga and The Walking Dead), is already in its second printing.
The diverse crowd greeting Greene belied my friend’s dismissive description, but comics have always been read by people of color (and women). While artists like the Forsyth-born pioneer Matt Baker (whom I wrote about last year in YES! Weekly) once seemed exceptions to the white (if often Jewish) talent who created the characters so many black kids read, recent decades brought a black talent explosion that included artists like Denys Cowan and Brian Stelfreeze.
Unwilling to distract Greene from his fans (not to mention his sons, who’d accompanied him on his drive from South Carolina), I waited until the next day to call him at his hotel and ask him about his real-life heroes.
“Oh, man, Denys Cowan and Brian Stelfreeze, black men who are not only great comic book artists but worked with great black writers!” Cowan worked on the Black Panther with filmmaker/comics writer Reginald Hudlin, while Stelfreeze illustrated Ta-Nehisi Coates’ acclaimed recent run on the character. Greene called Cowan’s co-founding of Milestone Media inspirational. “That a major backer like DC would trust African-American talent to create their own characters and imprint, that really meant something.”
Greene was born in Charleston and lives in Columbia, where he teaches at his alma mater Benedict College. He said it’s important to keep doing that even as his rise in the industry increases demand on his time.
“Graduating from an historically-black institution, I realized we don’t have the resources of places like UNC, and that black and brown students need these opportunities. My own road was arduous, and if things are better now, they’re only slightly so in terms of resources and accessibility for artists of color. I decided to invest and pay it forward, which is why I mostly teach at Benedict.”
Greene told me that his first professional work was on a “very, very independent” comic called Black Arrow. In 1987, he worked briefly on Superman, but by his own admission, his Man of Steel did not take flight. “I was the wrong guy at the wrong time, not so much in terms of the character, but because I hadn’t learned to buckle down, do the work on time. They fired me, which I deserved, and which taught me an invaluable lesson.”
In 2001, he worked on Planet of the Apes for Dark Horse Comics. “Unfortunately, it was the Tim Burton version, but at least my mother had heard of it.” For Marvel, he drew Deadpool, the X-Men and the Avengers. In 2016, he collaborated with writer David F. Walker on Power Man and Iron Fist.
He’s now reunited with Walker on Image’s Bitter Root, which they created with co-writer Chuck Brown, and is based on their research into African-American root magic and the Harlem Renaissance. Root magic, or Hoodoo, is derived from West African spirituality and Christianity, but unlike such similarly-derived Afro-Caribbean religions as Vodou (Voodoo), is distinctly North American. Bitter Root is about the Sangeryes, a once-great family of monster-hunters now divided by tragedy and conflicting moral codes, who must unite to save New York from supernatural forces.
When asked about his period research, he teased me with something I’m eager to learn more about by reading his comic. “I don’t want to spoil our story, but there’s this true event from right before the Harlem Renaissance. Essentially, it was the Harlem Renaissance before it was in Harlem if that makes any sense. It was inspiring and also very sobering and somewhat depressing to research, something cultural that the majority culture shut down. If that hadn’t happened, America might be a different and better place today.”
He told me that his research made the story he, Walker and Brown created and own feel more meaningful. “And it made me think about where and what we are today as a people, as Americans and people of color. It’s fascinating because what took place way back when honestly still affects us today. There’s good and bad. I knew a lot of this but to have the research confirm it really made it that much more poignant.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.