Smash Pages Q&A: Sanford Greene

The artist and co-creator of ‘Bitter Root’ talks about the series’ origins and how current events are shaping its direction.

Sanford Greene has been drawing comics for years, working on projects that ranged from Wonder Girl and Rotten Apple to Runaways and Galactic. But until a few years ago, he was probably best known for his run on Power Man and Iron Fist with David Walker, and though the series didn’t last long, it showed off Greene’s kinetic figurework, his skill at capturing a sense of place, not bound by the constraints of realism, instead attempting to convey a sense of the world as it feels, in the best tradition of superhero comics.

Greene is currently the artist and co-creator of the acclaimed series Bitter Root, which is his finest work to date. This is the saga of the Sangerye family, who hunt monsters in 1920s Harlem — though as we discussed in our conversation, the story is ultimately about far more, about hate and monstrous behavior and American history. Greene’s artwork manages to capture the era but also depicts its own world in ways that have had me re-reading every page. Issue #9 of the series comes out this week from Image Comics, and I spoke with Greene about the series, his career and how recent events have changed both our understanding of history and the book.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I came to comics during the era where you could get comics pretty much everywhere. The specialty stores were just starting, and I would go to the local drugstores and Kmarts and they would have spinner racks. I would notice characters that I saw on TV. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Superfriends, shows like that. I begged my mom and she bought me a three-pack. Two of them I wasn’t really interested in, but one had The Avengers and the Grey Gargoyle. I went to a store a few years back and looked for that book because I consider that my first comic. That was the beginning. I started drawing from those comics and the obsession started from there. 

I went to art school, and while I was in college, I went to some conventions – including Heroes Con, which was the first real con that I went to. It blew me away. That so much of what I grew up with was in the flesh before me. I got opportunities to show my work to a few publishers. It took me a few years to get in, but that was the beginning of me understanding where I wanted to go in my career.

I’ve seen your work in a lot of different places over the years, but I remember that you and Chuck Brown did a serial for Dark Horse Presents years back.

Rotten Apple. Chuck has been a friend. He was trying to break in, and I was doing work at Marvel and DC. Dark Horse approached me about doing something creator-owned. I was willing to do some short stories, so we did some stories when they brought Dark Horse Presents back and then did a collection of those short stories. That’s how Chuck got his first published work.

And funny enough, David Walker was writing Number 13 in DHP around the same time.

It’s funny. We knew each other a few years prior. We would see each other at conventions and David would say, “We need to work together.” Like any creator that knows the other. You make that gesture, but without a solid idea of whether it will work or not. I would see him often, and a few years after that he was writing Shaft for Dynamite and they reached out to me to do covers. I was reading those comics, and David’s writing was great. I’d known him for a while, but he was doing documentaries and screenplays and he worked at a comics news site. Around that time we started to correspond on a regular basis. He mentioned at one point, not only should we do something together, but we almost have to do something together – because we had a lot of the same ideas and directions and mindset as far as our careers. Long story short, we were reached out to by Marvel, separately. We talked and he said, “I got a pretty big opportunity and I’m going to put your name in the hat.” I would say to him, “I would love to, but I’ve got this opportunity coming up and if it works out, it would be really cool.” Little did we realize, we were talking about the same thing – Power Man and Iron Fist. When that came together, it was like the stars aligned, and we took off from there. That got some buzz, and we started to understand that we were doing something special.

You and David were both known before that, but you really gelled on that book. Was part of the impetus behind Bitter Root just, “Let’s keep working together“?

I can say with a bit of confidence that Power Man and Iron Fist not lasting was the best thing that ever happened for us. A lot of people were disappointed – and obviously we were disappointed – but it was what we needed. We needed to understand that the gloves are off now. We don’t have to adhere to the powers that be anymore. With that book, we gained an audience and we gained a voice. It’s not a bad or good thing necessarily working for corporate comics. It is what it is. We knew that we couldn’t tell the kinds of stories we really wanted to tell working for corporate comics, but we had this audience and this attention so we thought, “Let’s take that momentum.” We had stories that we wanted to tell through Power Man and Iron Fist, but when the book didn’t last we took those ideas and restructured them and started working toward Bitter Root. Then coming back full circle, Chuck had this idea he wanted to do, and me and David had this thought of where we wanted to go, and we thought these ideas could gel together. 

Bitter Root has a great high-concept pitch, but there’s so much going on even beyond the characters and this place and this sense of history that you guys have been building.

Obviously we’re having conversations about this now in our world, especially here in this country, but it’s been a part of the conversations we’ve had in the Black community since before that. Hate is colorblind, but it is a derivative aspect based on something that you’re not willing to understand. Or come to a healthy compromise. Whether it be your viewpoints social or political. It goes beyond skin color, is what I’m saying. You being Caucasian and me being Black, our upbringings and backgrounds and viewpoints are shaped because of those things. Immediately when I see you and you see me, there’s preconceived notions. Whether we are conscious of it or not, that’s what it is. If not recognized and fully accepted, without giving the story away, we can fall into subconscious biases that can lead into bias and aggression that can lead into hate. It’s as simple as that. Well, it’s not so simple. [laughs] 

When we were developing this story we knew that we were going to hit some uncharted territory or at least territory that’s a little polarizing. A lot polarizing. That’s the other thing. We knew this subject matter was intense to discuss on a straight forward linear level. We needed the fantasy element behind the subject matter to give it a little more of a disconnect so that when you start to dive in, you’re invested emotionally and psychologically. You can see how this thing affects us. How it affects me. That was what made me super excited about doing the project. I’ve never done anything like that. And we never could have done something like that at Marvel or DC. Who would have thought the entire world now is looking at the very thing we’ve been tackling for the past two years in our book?

Making a historical work lets you show what’s changed and what hasn’t. You have a lot of back matter in the comics, which lay out far more eloquently than I could about what has changed and what that means.

There’s a the old adage that if we don’t learn from our history, we’re bound to repeat it. I think that’s definitely the thing that pretty much everyone comes away with. But how the more things change the more they stay the same, this isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime fight. It’s an ongoing battle. The way that we narrate or reconstruct the story, we make sure that we’re creating a narrative that centers around that. How our story has a conclusion, but the battle must go on. We must continue to move forward. That’s not a spoiler – that’s what it is. 

We’re not just using the Harlem Renaissance, we’re using the Underground Railroad and earlier events. This isn’t a spoiler, but we’re starting to use the Black Wall Street Massacre, the Red Summer. As a funny sidebar, the TV show Watchmen looked at that moment of history and it’s been interesting to see people on social media saying, “I never learned about this history.” We’re getting tagged by fans saying, “There’s this book Bitter Root talking about the same thing and using that moment in history.” We’re using different moments like that. The research that we’re doing on this, like you said, the back matter is some next-level material from scholars all over the world. We’re in a place where we feel so empowered to be able to not only have this unique story, but this other content. We’re having conversations with scholars from all over. There are high school and college teachers that use our book. I consider this probably the most unique content out there right now. Again, it’s the zeitgeist of our moment, our time, what’s happening in the world. What Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

You’re clearly doing a lot of research, but if you want to cover a lot of different time periods, what was it that made you guys decide that this should take place primarily in the Harlem Renaissance?

One reason we wanted to set the book in the Harlem Renaissance was because the story is heavy. We started looking at different time periods – and truth be told, we could have done it in any time period – but because the subject matter is so heavy, we needed some balance. If you read the story, it’s not quite balanced, but at the beginning it was. If people know that time period, it was very empowering for Blacks. It was called the Harlem Renaissance because it was a coming of age of some of the most creative people – not just Blacks, but people – who shaped this country. All these brilliant writers and musicians and actors. It’s fascinating. You don’t even need a fantastical story; it’s an amazing story. To come from nothing, to make this huge migration with all of the entrapments along the way and still make it there. And not just make it – but thrive. We are going to highlight a lot more of that going forward. We wanted to nail down the characters and the core of the story, but we want to highlight the backdrop a lot more going forward. Plus we did some research, and we didn’t see a whole lot about that period, especially in graphic literature.

There really aren’t many comics stories about the period. Incognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Please is the best known, but there aren’t many more sadly.

Marvel did Luke Cage Noir, which was set in that time. Truth be told, in Power Man and Iron Fist we wanted to take him back to Harlem in that period so he could see his ancestors. Marvel wanted to go in a different direction, but we knew that we had a rich enough story that we could take it and do our own thing. Again, because there wasn’t a lot out there. This was one of those moments in our history that literally shaped this country. Especially from the art and entertainment side of things.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to think about the 1920s differently. They went through World War I, followed by a massive pandemic and Red Summer, and we’re all realizing that we missed something in the history.

If you don’t learn from history, you’re going to repeat it! Not to spoil anything, but everything you just said – we’re using that.

How much research are you doing? You’ve always have a good sense of place. David is good at providing a sense of place in his work, as well. You’re not going for photorealism, but how accurate are you trying to be with Bitter Root?

We’re doing a lot of research, but it is hard to truly get a true depiction of that time period. A lot of records are scarce. There was a newspaper called the Harlem Negro, and we thought if we can get some good reference from that. Only two people will get it, but if we can do it, it feels so much more enriching. The way it’s written in the story I was afraid to illustrate this thing any way except for that one viewpoint, so I had to make sure that the next viewpoint wouldn’t distract. Because someone out there does not know what this looks like. We’re being a little more thoughtful. Well, a lot more thoughtful. This is where a lot of the work is. I would love to get references for everything, form every viewpoint, so that I can copy from that. But we had to take a lot of liberties. I don’t make up stuff, but I’ll do things where you won’t see this entire place; I’m just going to show you enough so you know where it’s coming from. That’s where the most work comes in, just trying to be thoughtful about that.

I’ve done historical photo research, and we do live in such a different world today in terms of reference.

That’s the other thing. I said we didn’t take a lot of liberty, but I take that back. We have. It’s like the world of Fantastic Beasts. The world feels like New York, but it really feels like something else at the same time. That’s another thing that makes this book special. Because you’ve got this fantastical element, you’re willing to accept the steampunk technology, you understand the foundation of it – but you’re willing to accept the fantastic stuff as well. You can easily see the cross reference of these different elements in this time period because it was a really creative and magical time.

It was this exciting and dynamic period, and Harlem was the center of so many things. I also kept thinking it was intentional you centered the story around not a team or a single hero, but a family. And what that means.

We thought initially about making it a team, but I can give credit to Chuck for the family aspect. During that time, the entrepreneurial side of things was at the forefront for Black communities. The whole emporium concept came during these times because you were lucky to have some type of ownership in buildings, so you didn’t just live there but tried to run your business in these places, because it was cost effective. You could do everything from shoe shines to dental work in one facility to take advantage of your space. We thought it would be unique that this family was a business – not hunting monsters, but a business of herbal remedies. Those things were huge during that time period. A lot of the Black community couldn’t afford doctors. A lot of the white community couldn’t, either. We thought that would be a unique first layer to bring you into the story. It’s something grounded, it’s part of history, so now when we introduce these other elements, this grounded element helps.

The fantasy element made the darker elements more realistic and allegorical aspects easier to accept, but you also had to ground it in real history and details to get people to accept the fantasy elements.

There’s a whole lot of what we call in the sports world, “blocking and tackling.” I credit David for his unique way of really being able to talk about heavy subject matter by giving you this grounded element. We have all walks of life connecting with what we’re doing. Everyone can identify with family. Once you see that, your mind doesn’t think color, it just sees family and what it is.

When I first picked up the book I got the sense that you guys were taking this very seriously, that its important to you for a lot of reasons, but you’re also having a lot of fun.

Even before we had an outline, when it was just an idea, I understood the premise and I was drawing characters from this period, introducing elements of steampunk. There are very few things that I connect with to the point where I have to draw it right then and there and start sketching out ideas, but I did. I realized if I’m doing this much work after a casual conversation with these guys where we hadn’t even discussed this idea specifically, it was just an idea we were talking about. Most people have ideas, but you don’t act on it. But I was sketching characters and world-building and I did that over the next week and I knew that we had to do something. We were still at Marvel, and I was looking at these drawings and how I was putting this much work into something that was just an idea, and I thought, “We need to make this happen.” That is why you see what you’re seeing. The energy was there, even before there was a solid story. The concept was all I need to get excited, and it keeps me going today. 

It sounds like early on, you guys figured out more or less what the story was and how it plays out.

More or less. Current events is causing us to change a few things. Honestly, our story was going to end in a really tragic way, but when COVID happened, we felt we might need to rethink this because of where things are in the world right now. Then all the recent racial injustices that have started to explode on top of that, and we thought, “There’s no way our book can’t give some direction based on what’s happening.” To some degree, we’re being influenced by current events and long story short, there are things we’re going to do that I’m excited about, that will be hard-hitting, but leave seeds of this whole other thing. 

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