After being nominated as Best New Series at the Eisner Awards 2019, Bitter Root has been awarded the Best Ongoing series at the Eisner Awards 2020. To celebrate it, we have reached out to one of the series’ co-creators, the writer David F. Walker. With him we have talked abou the genesis of this book, as well as about other series, like the controversial Nightwing, the acclaimed Naomi – written for DC Comics together with Brian Michael Bendis – and Superb.
Hi David and welcome on Lo Spazio Bianco. Bitter Root has been nominated for two consecutive years to the Eisner Awards. Which is the element that has more appeal on the fans and the critics in your opinion?
I think it is a combination of the story, art, themes, and even the essays in the back of each issue. This combinations of elements is what makes Bitter Root the book that it is. Some people may have a preference for the art, other may be drawn in by the subject matter, but it is the combination of parts that creates the whole, and if anyone is removed from the equation, then Bitter Rott becomes something else.
Etnogothic, a bit of steampunk and esoterism, as well as a consideration on the racial issue in the United States: Bitter Root is a complex mixture of different influences. Where did the idea for this series come from and what have been the biggest cultural and artistic inspirations on you?
Chuck (Brown) and Sanford (Greene) came up with the initial idea: a family of monster hunters during the Harlem Renaissance. They brought me on very early in the development process and I immediately started thinking of ways to make this different from any other books anyone has seen before. I asked a lot of questions about what it was we wanted to say beyond the standard story. What were the themes we wanted to explore? How did we want the story to impact people on an emotional level? For me, one of my biggest influences is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I’m also a fan of Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both of those are films that have much more going on beneath the surface, especially Night of the Living Dead. Romero is one of my favorite filmmakers, and his films always had deeper meaning, which is what made them resonate with me. I’ve always aspired to tell stories the way Romero tells stories.
You are writing together with Chuck Brown, who is coming from the indie scene and he’s here at his first experience on a mainstream series: how does it change your work when writing together with someone else? And what are the incentives that such a collaboration can bring, also considering his background?
I’ve done some collaborating with other writers, and each person is different. The only consistent thing is me, and I suspect that I can be difficult to work with. I push really hard to make the best story possible, and to me that means we should be striving to do better than we think we’re capable of. I’ve been collaborating with Brian Michael Bendis, and it has been a great experience, not just creatively but also from a learning standpoint. Every idea Bendis brings to a story is with the intention of making it better. At the end of the day, that should be the goal of every comic book team, regardless of whether there are two writers or one. If there’s a single writer, you’re still collaborating with others. The story starts with the writer, but everyone from the artist to the colorist to the letterer is part of collaborative process. A comic is only as good as the entire team.
On Bitter Root you are collaborating again with Sanford Greene, with who you already worked on Power Man and Iron Fist. You clearly like to work together and you can really understand each other. What’s the feature you appreciate the most in Sanford’s work?
I was a fan of Sanford long before we started working together. One of the things that has always appealed to me about his work is that it gives the illusion of motion. Comics are static. The images don’t move. But Sanford’s work looks like it is in motion, like it is flowing, and that really draws me in. I’m also a huge fan of artists that lean heavily into what could be called a more cartoon-ish style. I really like comics that pull me out of the real world and places me somewhere that sparks my imagination, and Sanford does that with his art.
Talking about Power Man and Iron Fist, this comic gave you the opportunity to talk about topics that are import for you, as well as reinterpreting the two characters in a modern context, far away from their origins in the time of Blaxploitation. Considering this origin and the urban context they move in, what do you think is the main strength of this characters and how can they still talk about our society, our world?
The strength of those two characters is their friendship and the fact that they don’t look like they would be friends or on a team. This is especially true of them back in the 1970s and 80s. I can only speak for myself, but I loved the fact that they looked so different from each other, and there was nothing complimentary about their appearance. Batman and Robin look like they belong together. And while with the looked different physically, Green Hornet and Kato dressed the same – very complimentary. You look at Lone Ranger and Tonto, and they had very distinct looks, but it was always clear that Tonto was the secondary character, which bothered me. Tonto was cooler than the Lone Ranger. But there was a sense of balance in the contrast between Power Man and Iron Fist. They didn’t look the same. They didn’t compliment each other. And this is important, neither seemed like they were more important than the other. Add all of that together, and then throw in their friendship, which is something very universal, and you have a great team.
Still talking about Marvel, a couple of years ago you have realized a very controversial comic, Nighthawk. In that series you brought to extreme some of your considerations on racial hate, police brutality and the greed of powerful people who speculates on the poors, on the last of our society. Reading that comics again these days, I felt it as contemporary as ever: how do you think it can be evaluated and read today, at the light of what is happening? At the time it came out it received mixed critics and it had a rally short life. Do you think that some of those messages have been misinterpreted, especially the huge presence of violence both from the heroes and the villains?
I don’t know if the message was misinterpreted so much as there were people who didn’t care for what I had to say. I was speaking out on how I saw issues of police brutality, racism, and other societal ills that plague this country and are used to oppress African Americans. I’d like to think that message was loud and clear. And if that’s a message to don’t agree with, or you don’t want to hear, then move along. I won’t waste your time, and you keep your opinion to yourself. When I wrote that series back in 2015-16 all of the issues I tackled then are happening today. The level of systemic racism and white supremacy that chocks this country doesn’t happen overnight, even if some people choose not to see it. If you don’t see the systems of oppression, or don’t care, I have nothing to talk to you about.
Together with Brian Michael Bendis and Jamal Campbell you have created Naomi, a new young superheroine of DC Comics. It’s not easy to create a new, successful character nowadays, especially in a consolidated universe like that of DC Comics, but you did it: what’s the secret of this success?
We created that character from our hearts, and set out to make her different than other heroes we had seen. For me, I am bored with the male teenage hero, and I didn’t want to write another book like that. Neither did Bendis, and I think the feelings that motivated us also spoke to what readers were looking for, even if they didn’t know it at the time. But when it is all said and done, we just got lucky. It was the right team of creators with the right project.
Starting from her surname McDuffie (that recalls Dwayne McDuffie, the Afro-American writer who died prematurely in 2011) and coming to her and her parent’s origins, Naomi embodies the values of inclusiveness and acceptance, almost a manifesto of your ideas. What is your main contribution to this character and this really specific characterization?
Brian and I have been friends for a very long time, and we teach together, which has given us a chance to really explore character and story in ways that some other people seldom get to do. That friendship and our work together as teachers prepared us for an eventual collaboration. Under different circumstance that collaboration may have happened at Marvel, but it didn’t, and I’m thankful for that. Knowing where I was in my life and career, I need to be part of something new and different, and I think the same was true for Brian. We both had our own reasons and needs for creating a character like Naomi, and DC provided us that opportunity.
Let’s finally come to new of these days, a topic that we cannot ignore or circumnavigate: the protests of these days in the US have once again brought to the fore many recurring problems, like the racism, the inequalities of our society and police abuses. In this context, what’s the role of comic books in telling our society and reflecting on these themes?
I may be the wrong person to ask, because while I believe that comics and films first job is to be entertaining, I also believe that it is the role of the artist/creator to speak to the truth as they see it. I don’t want entertainment that preaches to me, or hits me over the head with rhetoric or dogma, but I do want something that engages me emotionally and intellectually. This brings us back to George Romero. Many people say he is a director that made horror movies with a message, but I feel he made message movies disguised as horror, and the beauty of what he did and how he did it is that if you aren’t looking for deeper meaning, you won’t see it. I feel the best comics are those that have deeper meaning that is cleverly disguised. I’m not smart enough to disguise my messages…yet. But I’m working on it.
US comic book industry, especially the mainstream one, has faced the theme of minorities representation many times. The last years we have seen the birth of many characters that are giving voices to a plurality of ethnic groups, cultures, religions and sexual orientation, like Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, America Chavez, Kong Kenan, Naomi and many more. Do you think that the industry should put more efforts in this, in expanding this representation?
Yes, I do. But I also think that readers and retailers and critics all need to do their part. Some people in the industry have very closed minds. And I include the readers in that statement. Some people don’t want to take a chance and try something new, or they think that because a character doesn’t look like them they can’t relate. That’s a load of crap. If you can’t relate to a character because of their race or gender or whatever, then it means one of two things. It means either that character has not been fully developed, which is a possibility. But the more likely reality is that you’re choosing to not relate to that character because of you biases and prejudices.
One of the minorities that is basically never represented in mainstream comics is the one of the disabled persons. Also in this case you stand out among your colleagues: together with Sheena C. Howard you have created the first superhero with the Down Syndrome, Superb, for Lion Forge. How did this character come to life and what do you think is the strongest message of this story?
That character, Jonah, was created by someone at Lion Forge before Sheena and I came on board to write Superb. In fact, one of main reasons I worked on the book was because the character had Down Syndrome, and I wanted to be part of something that helped bring a bit more inclusion to comics. Lion Forge made sure we consulted with the National Down Syndrome Society, and I spoke to families and people with Down Syndrome. My goal was to always portray Jonah as a complex human being with real emotions, while at the same time dealing with having super powers. The mistake would have been to put Jonah’s Down Syndrome before his humanity, which is what some creators do when they write outside of their own experiences. Frankly, that’s lazy writing and it is a disservice to both your characters and readers. There’s nothing wrong with writing outside of your experience, as long as you learn about the experiences of others. I’m working on a story with a character who is a transgender woman, and you can best believe I’m talking to transgender women and men to make sure the character reads as a real person, and not a prop or a gimmick. I don’t care if you are writing a character who is transgender, or has Down Syndrome, or is a talking car, you have to give that character a level of humanity that everyone can recognize and relate to. Otherwise you’re not doing your job well.
Thanks a lot for your time, David!
Interview realized via e-mail in August and September 2020
David F. Walker
David F. Walker is a comic books writes, as well as author and producer for movies and television and teacher. In his 20+ years of career in the comic books business, he worked for some of the most important US publishers, from DC Comics (Cyborh, Naomi) to Dynamite Entertainment (Shaft, Glyph Award winner as best comic of year 2015), from Matvel Comics (Luke Cage, Occupy Avengers, Power Man and Iron Fist, Nighthawk) to Dark Horse (Number 13). In 2018, together with Chuck Brown and Sanford Greene, he created Bitter Root for Image Comics, Best Ongoing Comic at the Eisner Award 2020.
Renowned expert of African-american movies, he produced the documentary Macked, Hammered, Slaughtered, and Shafted, one of the most important works on Blaxploitation, and he co-wrote Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak. His most recent book is Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism and Popular Culture. He spoke about these themes on the magazine BadAzz MoFo and on the blog on his website, davidfwalker.com.
Walker is an adjunct professor at Portland State University. He has also taught documentary filmmaking, writing for comics, and film criticism to youth through the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Northwest Film Center, Documentary Northwest, and Project Youth Doc.