Smash Pages Q&A: Chuck Brown

The co-creator of ‘Bitter Root’ and ‘On the Stump’ discusses both projects, his background, the Harlem Renaissance and more.

2020 has been a big year for Chuck Brown. Bitter Root, the Image series he makes with David Walker and Sanford Greene, wrapped up its second story arc and received an Eisner Award for “Best Continuing Comics Series.” Brown also launched On the Stump, a new series from Image Comics.

Since it first came out, Bitter Root has been acclaimed as one of the best American comics in recent years, but for Brown its the culmination of many years’ work, and a long friendship and collaboration with Sanford Greene. The two have worked together on different projects like Rotten Apple at Dark Horse and 1000 on Webtoon. That’s in addition to Brown’s other comics work including The Quiet Kind, Godstorm: Hercules Payne and Trenchcoats, Cigarettes and Shotguns.

Bitter Root: Rage and Redemption, the second volume of the series, is out this week. And the first week of November sees the release of the collection of On the Stump. Brown and I spoke recently about his career, these two different books, and using history as setting and subject.

To start, how did you come to comics?

At a very young age I used to get comics from the drug store, but my brother worked at a corrections facility and someone had donated a bunch of comics no one was reading, so he brought them to me. I started creating characters, but I never really wrote anything. I didn’t start pursuing it until I got to college. I co-formed a studio with people, and we started publishing our own comics.

What were earliest comics you made? The first time I came across your name was when you and Sanford were in the relaunched Dark Horse Presents.

At 803 Studios, we did at least four or five anthologies. I did a tiny ashcan called Trench Coats, Cigarettes and Shotguns. As a writer I knew I couldn’t just take a script to a comics company, I had to make work and put it out there. I published a miniseries of Trench Coats with a publisher and it’s a weird title and weird concept so it got some attention.

You wrote a few things at Marvel and did The Quiet Kind at Dark Horse last year, which was a one shot told in chapters, and felt like something you designed for Dark Horse Presents.

It was. There was a lot of stuff going on that delayed that book. It took so long for us to produce it that they cancelled Dark Horse Presents and it sat on the shelf for a while. That’s why they published it as a one shot, but I think it worked. It was a very personal work and there was a much bigger story there that I wanted to tell, and I’ll tell it someday.

You and Sanford have known each other for a while. How did the two of you and David connect?

Before [Sanford] did Power Man and Iron Fist, we had come off of Rotten Apple and we wanted to do something together. We would hang out and watch anime and bounce ideas off each other. I said, I have this idea about monster hunters during the Harlem Renaissance. His eye lit up and said, send me some reference. I did and he came back with designs. He was interested but he started doing more Marvel stuff, and then he and David blew up doing Power Man and Iron Fist. He said, maybe we should all collaborate together, and David helped push the story further.

Had you written with people before this?

At Zenescope Comics I co-wrote Hercules. That was my first experience writing with anyone. I worked closely with other writers at 803 Studios, but not on the same story. It’s very different working with someone. David is really cool, really fun to work with. David’s in Portland and Sanford and I are in South Carolina. Cons were a great opportunity where we’d get away from the table and go eat lunch and bounce ideas off each other. Some of our best ideas came from sitting at the San Diego Comic Con cafeteria. We’re kind of like brothers, so we fight like brothers sometimes. It can be rocky but it’s a lot of fun. I think the three of us work.

It’s interesting you say that because you centered the book around a family as opposed to a team or friends, and family is so central.

I thought this was lineage. They’re carrying their roots, this long line of people trying to help the world. I wanted it to be organic. Not like Ghostbusters where they come together, but this is their family responsibility. Also one of the main characters, Cullen, is trying to find his way and making all these mistakes and going through so much pain and it’s all about what he’s supposed to be. He’s supposed to fight monsters but he doesn’t necessarily want that life.

Being about family it personalizes the fact that one of the book’s subjects is history and a multi-generational family personalizes that.

Absolutely. Also it was empowering. A strong black family unit that possesses this technology. They’re articulate, they’re scholars, and they have the ability to turn the other cheek while dealing with the racist evil creatures. To be able to step up and not only fight against this but try to heal it. That’s the goal for where you want to be in life.

Also, the book isn’t like Hellboy where it’s about punching the monster until they fall down, it’s a lot more complicated.

Right. 

Why is it set during the Harlem Renaissance?

I thought it was a fascinating time. Almost a magical time. The fact that they influenced the world and the country. Being oppressed and lynched and tortured and murdered and able to rise above it and turn their pain into beauty. It seemed like such a super heroic feat to create all this amazing work and accomplish all these things with all these odds against you. I can identify with that a lot. When I first thought of the idea, I thought it was a magical time. Once I started reading books on it, there was so much horrible stuff going on. I knew that. But how the music was affected by all these atrocities that happened during that time helped mold the plot of Bitter Root

I’ll be honest I wasn’t quite sure what to make of your other book, On the Stump.

[laughs]

Having read a few issues, I thought about when Charles Sumner was almost beaten to death on the floor of the senate. I thought of the Cabinet Battles in Hamilton. But it really feels like a response to the 2016 election.

Definitely. It was inspired by 2015 when Trump started campaigning and I kept seeing this evil moron getting all this press. I was a part of it, too – what crazy thing did Trump do today? That sparked the idea of these larger than life, loud mouthed politicians beating up each other in public for our entertainment, while behind the scenes, people are passing legislation and controlling us like sheep while we cheer and not see what’s right in front of us. 2016 was very surprising to me. I woke up at four in the morning and was like, what the fuck is this? I like writing fiction, I don’t want to live this. I think the concept of On the Stump is relevant before Trump when Republicans switched to race baiting with Nixon. I think it’s always kind of been like that. 

I didn’t realize the book would be as relevant as it is now. Not to spoil anything, but there’s a virus. This cult worships the idea of “thinning the herd” and they want this plague. I wasn’t expecting that to be quite as relevant as it is now. The idea was the next arc would go more into the virus. I planned that before the pandemic and was going to talk about health care. None of this is new. Race and race baiting was always there. I was worried because there are so many points of view I wanted to express without it getting confused. I talked to friends and Eric Stephenson at Image and they said it came together. I’m proud of what we put out. When the pandemic hit I almost felt like I was defeated. I was putting my voice out there. A lot of us want to do something positive, but all this horrible stuff happening all at once, it’s a lot. It weighs on you.

The book lays out so clearly how politics is about money and power and the show of it. I thought about how sports are so tied up in politics – Colin Kapernick, Rocky, Ali, the Olympics. All the ways that sports are an extension of politics.

I totally agree. Politics is a spectator sport. I mean, some people don’t go vote, they’re watching it from the sidelines.

The world of On the Stump diverged from our world in the election of 1868, which is so precise, so why 1868?

I was looking at where it could make sense that history had diverged. I wanted it to be after slavery and after Reconstruction has taken place. I wanted to be strategic about when it would make sense. There are characters in the book, The Blacksmiths, and where history diverged, African-Americans are freed, but during Reconstruction we were making a lot of progress and then that got stomped out.

You’re very conscious in both books of history being not just a setting of the book, but a subject of the book.

You have to know your history if you’re going to move forward and know what’s going on in the world. The humanities are getting their budgets cut and if you don’t know where you came from, you can’t see the patterns and where we’re going. That’s just my opinion. I have a day job where I work in IT in the history department and I always thought history was boring, but working in this department I was around all this, coming across things, hearing parts of lectures, and it really opened my eyes.

In On the Stump, history diverged in 1868, but in 2016, our history diverged. What’s happening now is unprecedented. We consider ourselves modern people, but to have him elected brought out this whole Republican race baiting and the chickens are coming home to roost. The On the Stump present day is our present day. Where are we going to be in 30 years? Will things get better or things get worse?

Both books are very timely. I’m assuming in most cases you know how the stories end, at least in broad strokes, but have the recent uprisings and the pandemic changed the story or how you’ve been thinking about some of these events?

I do know how both end. Honestly it’s very discouraging. I thought 2016 was bad, but now it’s getting worse. I go online and you hear white allies say, a bunch of people unfollowed me just because I said “black lives matter.” I’m seeing a lot of allies saying this over and over again. Just because you say black lives matter? That blows my mind. It’s a very depressing time. When this hit, it almost felt like the forces of evil won. I’m trying to get back out there and creating again. 

The second Bitter Root collection is out this week and I’m guessing you’re all working on the next arc.

We’re going to come back next year. I’m really interested in taking it to a whole other level. Showing more about the mythos, the ancestors, the future generations. It’ll be interesting. It’s fun to bounce ideas off of David and give reference to Sanford and see what he comes up with. There’s a lot more story to tell, and a lot more characters to explore.

We were talking about an amazing period the Harlem Renaissance was. Do you want to explore the setting more?

I’d like to. There’s so much to tell in this book. We may start moving away from the time period. There’s going to be a lot more with the mythos and dealing with that hell dimension and Sylvester’s trauma from the Black Wall Street massacre and Cullen’s journey. Maybe we’ll do a one shot one day just focusing on the Harlem Renaissance one day. That would be fun. I think of Langston Hughes’ poem The Weary Blues. They were dealing with their own trauma and putting it in their art. So by talking about pain and trauma and racial hatred and oppression in the book, we’re talking about the Harlem Renaissance. It’s their pain. They put their pain into those pages.

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