Bitter Root Vol. 1 – Harlem’s Very Own Crew of Monster Brawlers

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Social Horror, which marries social commentary with the horror genre, which has existed as early as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) experienced a resurgence shortly after the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Peele’s culture shock paved the way for a variety of films, books, and comics. However, the best part of this impact may be the increased inclusion of diverse voices speaking to their own histories and adversities. It’s no coincidence that this story takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, because it is undoubtedly part of a new renaissance of socio-political art to come from a modern age of political unrest. 

Bitter Root Horror Comic art featuring a demon hand reaching for a man

Bitter Root (2019) presents a historical fantasy where the power of hate can literally transform your being. Told through a kaleidoscope of colorful images, humorous banter, and breakneck action sequences, this series is what you’d get if Mike Mignola combined his Hellboy comic series with the Lovecraftian-inspired novel Lovecraft Country. It’s a fun dark fantasy that balances a ton of themes while also managing to land each punch. 

The narrative is set in 1924 Harlem not too long after the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. It focuses on the Sangerye Family, who were once a family of notorious monster hunters before they were broken up by tragedy and personal differences. When a new supernatural danger hits the streets, the Sangerye’s must overcome their past challenges and reunite in order to save New York and quite possibly the entire world. 

Illustration of vampires

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This first volume serves as a quick introduction to the different members of the Sangerye family where, much like other comic book super families such as The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol, special attention is given to what makes each of them unique. Every character rocks their particular skill set while providing a distinctive perspective on their world that is both generational and intrinsic to who they are. A personal favorite of mine is Berg, who gets an A+ in etiquette and monster brawling. There’s also Ford, who is a Django-type legend that kicks ghoul ass with a massive glock like something out of Doom.

Horror comic art featuring a man with a futuristic gun

Despite a story that is built on serious themes, the content never feels heavy. This is mostly attributed to the vibrant art style that resembles Mike Mingola’s, along with a dash of whimsy found only in golden age Disney films. The opening quite literally has music dancing off the page as we’re introduced to the sights and sounds of 1920’s Harlem. Another standout in this comic is the liberal use of color. Each page seems to have its own color palette, always more bold and surprising than the previous page. 

Fans of Guillermo Del Toro and Jim Henson would lose their mind with the cast of monsters that we come across in these five issues. From orcs and Final Fantasy-like sprites to the more gargantuan crow-head behemoths, you will be treated to a smorgasbord of monstrosities. Most of the ghoulish entities are drawn with a cartoonish quality that gives this dark fantasy a satirical layer, like when a gaggle of Ku Klux Klan members are transformed into slobbering goblins. They appear as scary and ridiculous as the hate that created them. 

Illustration of a zombified man

While the pages are filled with action, the horror lies in the reality of the world that the Sangerye’s are living in. It’s a world that’s not too far from the Harlem it was based on or the state of America that still exists to this day. Despite the sunny disposition that this comic carries, this is ultimately a story about hate and how it can literally change you into something monstrous. There is a moment in the comic when the family wonders if this transformation can be reversed or if it’s permanent. The response to that question is answered, but I imagine that it will be examined more deeply in future issues. 

These five issues are undoubtedly a jazz set charging with energy, breaking only to give each character a momentary solo. This first volume of Bitter Root has nearly everything you could want from a dark fantasy comic series. The world-building balances neatly with its socio-political themes as we are introduced to both the magic and conflict that surrounds this whimsical family’s lives. This volume concludes with a stunning reunion and eerie revelation that will definitely have you ready for the next set of issues. The Sangerye’s are here to stay as they weave their magic, brawl through hordes of snotty imps, and stomp down on the hate that is attempting to consume their world.

Bitter Root Vol. 1 is available now on Amazon and Image Comics.

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Blue in Green – Music, Secrets and Ghosts

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It is well documented that music can have an almost otherworldly hold over us; lowering stress hormones, raising dopamine levels, evoking specific memories, or transporting us to various times and places. But if music has this sort of cosmic power, could it possibly turn into a type of cosmic horror? For example, could a malevolent force created from art stalk us with intent to harm, as in the film Velvet Buzzsaw? Or could the bewitching and obsessive pursuit of art make monsters out of regular people, like what happens in the film Whiplash? Or maybe, as we see in the graphic novel Blue in Green, the terrifying reality lies somewhere in between. 

The story begins with a man named Erik getting a call that his mother has passed, prompting him to return to his childhood home, where he finds a photograph of an unknown man in his mother’s most prized possessions. The ensuing questions launch Erik on a quest that will lead him down some unexpected paths. Who was that man? What was his mother’s connection to him? And who exactly is the pale figure lurking in the periphery of the pages? More clues are uncovered and the mystery deepens as the story twists and turns, winding its way to an ultimately shocking conclusion.

Erik is a character struggling with his current situation in life. A talented saxophone player, he now squanders his skill teaching college classes and avoiding any close relationships. He ponders the fragility of life and wonders how many of us will leave this world without making an impact. His own desires, his failings, the expectations of family and society – all of these topics are the swirling subconscious maelstrom that push the story forward and pull back the curtain to its darker underpinnings. 

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Image from Blue and Green Graphic novel featuring a scared face and a tentacle

And this story certainly has a sinister underbelly. I love stories like this, full of dread, ambiguity, and uncertainty. From the very first image of the pale man you know something is off, but the terror stays in the background for much of the story, adding to the mystery and unraveling the deeper Erik digs. It’s still horror, but more of the understated, slithering-beneath-the-skin kind, which makes those moments when it bursts into daylight even more terrifying. I’ll be honest, I don’t want to say too much about the plot. Not just because I don’t want to give away spoilers, but because this is truly a tale that needs to be experienced.

While the story from writer Ram V is good, the art from Anand RK is really what makes this graphic novel shine. I don’t think I’ve seen a style quite like this, and I was continuously blown away with every page. It’s a mesmerizing blend of architectural precision, vaguely brushed forms, and a particularly gorgeous and enchanting array of colors thanks to John Pearson. The unconventional design of the pages is also really neat, shifting from full page spreads to pages with panels strewn about it like panes of glass. It reminds me of Dave McKean’s work, specifically on the Grant Morrison tale Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (and now that I think of it the pale man shares a resemblance to the Joker). Regardless, the art is captivating and it works well to elevate the story. 

The Blue in Green graphic novel is a story first and foremost about music and the creative pursuit. But it also weaves in ideas about the burdens of the past and the ghosts that haunt our present. It’s about family secrets, loss, rapture, unexplainable feelings, and cosmic dread. We are confined to the mind of Erik, and as the story progresses we have to question how reliable of a narrator he really is. I may not have understood everything that happened, but I know it was well worth the experience. This is a story that is ripe for further read throughs and I’m already itching to dive back in.

Blue in Green is available now from Image Comics.

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Book Recommendation – Black Stars Above

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Puzzle Box Horror’s book recommendation of the week is Black Stars Above from Nightfall, an imprint of Vault Comics.

Black Stars Above is written by Lonnie Nadler, illustrated by Jenna Cha, colored by Brad Simpson, and lettered by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.

Panel from Black Stars Above comic with alien creature

Synopsis

LET THE BLACK STARS GUIDE YOUR WAY.

The year is 1887 and a storm brews. Eulalie Dubois has spent her entire life tending to her family’s trapline, isolated from the world. A chance at freedom comes in the form of a parcel that needs delivering to a nameless town north of the wilderness. Little does Eulalie know, something sinister hides in those woods and it yearns for what she carries. A chilling historical cosmic horror tale of survival from the deranged minds of Lonnie Nadler (The Dregs, Marvelous X-Men) and debut artist Jenna Cha.

Collects the complete five issue series. 152 pages.

Review

“A sterling example of elevated horror in comics.”

Newsarama

“An exemplary creative work that shows the heights a work can reach when creators pay respect to the work that inspired them.”

AiPT

“Sublime literary horror that channels the best of weird fiction. If you’re looking for something that expands on the work of Lovecraft – look no further. Fans of Alan Moore will eat this up. Beautiful, stunning, and haunting work by Cha throughout. Easily the best horror comic of the year.”

Zac Thompson, author of Come Into Me and I Breathed a Body

“I love the way the story is told and the strong cosmic horror elements. The format of narration-through-journal-entries gives it the feel of an old school text-based horror game. There are so many bizarre and unsettling scenes, plus a constant layer of dread blanketing the tale like snow. It’s a massive metaphor about coming of age, going out on one’s own, and identity – and yet it’s also so much more. Highly recommend!”

Ben Long, reviewer at @reading.vicariously

To read the full review, click here!

Black Stars Above is available now at Horror Hub Marketplace

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Call of Cthulhu Manifest: Illustrating an Outer-God

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The time is once again upon us to take a plunge into the morbid and cosmic horror world of H. P. Lovecraft, once more staggeringly illustrated by the visionary François Baranger. I’m now two books into this series which is beginning to feel akin to a sort of cinematic universe, only retained on paper where it can truly pay tribute to Lovecraft’s original work. Whereas the first part of At The Mountains of Madness left me hanging on the edge of a sheer plummet into darkness, Call of Cthulhu, a much shorter tale, manages to contain it’s entire self within the confines of this gargantuan hardback. But only just. 

With this being a story I’m familiar with and one I managed to enjoy in a single sitting along with all of the gorgeous artwork it swims in, how did Baranger and Free League Publishing do? In short: terrifyingly well. 

Call of Cthulhu is a rather more nautical outing than it’s snowy predecessor in this series and, for those with sensibilities such as my own, holds far more capacity for cosmic horror and its suffocating vastness. This story deals primarily with scale: the ocean, the dreaded city of R’lyeh, and the tentacled megalith himself; almighty Cthulhu. Of course the narrative wades in accounts and letters and newspaper articles in classic Lovecraft fashion, but towards the final act things heat up to boiling point and we’re treated to several devastating views of the alien geometry of R’lyeh and the towering, tentacled form of the lumbering god himself. 

I’ve mentioned in the past that Baranger’s art makes Lovecraft’s writing even more dramatic and far more accessible. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Cthulhu these days, or at least seen one of the countless artistic depictions of the squid-dragon goliath. He was an obvious choice for this next huge illustrated issue, and the payoff involves some truly chilling images.

In an age of plush toys and parodies it’s good to see my personal favorite oceanic behemoth in a style more befitting his true nature, and in a book big enough to support him. These hand-painted renditions depict the colossal elder god rising from unfathomable depths, looming over a fiery, decimated New York and roaring into the heavens beneath stomach-dropping storms. It truly is the best tribute to the visual horror of Cthulhu that i’ve witnessed, and serves as the perfect accompaniment to Lovecraft’s unsettling tale.

Call of Cthulhu book art featuring a giant monster in the ocean

Thematically, the narrative centers around madness and obsession, as is common in Lovecraft’s work, though perhaps not to the extent of detail and thoughtfulness as displayed in this masterpiece of a short story. Implications of extensive lore are found throughout logs, notes, newspaper articles, alien statues and accounts of outlandish dreams. Much of it is a story within a story as our narrator, Francis Weyland Thurston pores over his late uncle’s notes and a strange bas-relief depicting Cthulhu reigning over R’lyeh. Insanity is displayed through obsessive artistry, mass hysteria and primordial cultism. The pervading racism is unfortunately as apparent as we’ve come to expect from this particular author. While the ignorance much of Lovecraft’s work is rooted in should not be glossed over, the style of story helps separate art from artist and merely take this as the views and wording of Thurston and his uncle. 

Baranger’s art remains moody yet grounded and rooted in realism so that when our titular overlord finally awakens, first time readers can breathe a sigh of relief that such an intense story ends on more than just implication. Lovecraft himself would be delighted and terrified at these powerful renditions of his brain spawn. I for one can’t wait to see what comes next in the series; with such an extensive backlog to choose from we’re left with infinite potential for stomach-dropping cosmic horror imagery. 

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Hope…for the Future, Vol 1 – A Neo-Noir, Pulp Crime Horror

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Imagine the black and white pulp crime world of Dick Tracy mixed with the neo-noir of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Now, add in a dash of occult magic and envision the love child of James Ellroy and Alan Moore, a genre-bending mashup of L.A. Confidential and Hellblazer. Starting to get the picture? If you love any of those genres as much as I do, then you will be head-over-heels for 2000AD’s gritty detective graphic novel Hope…for the Future. 

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Hope for the Future comic book cover
Hope for the Future comic book cover

In an alternate post-war 1940s Los Angeles, where occult forces are a fact of life, Mallory Hope is a private detective haunted by his past… and by the demon he works with. When a new case involving a missing boy reminds him of his own lost child, Hope is determined to find him. But he soon discovers all is not what it seems, with dark powers lurking behind the lights of Hollywood

Our protagonist, John Mallory, is very much a John Constantine type: a hard boiled private investigator who’s tuned into the magical world existing beneath everyday reality. He’s a man on a mission, navigating the dark underbelly of 1940s Los Angeles with a dry wit and a grim disposition that makes him immediately likeable. He’s rough and tough, and when given the option to run or double down he always chooses the latter (at one point shrugging and saying “It’s been hours since my last beating”). But he’s also compassionate – demonstrated when he risks his life to save a misfortunate child threatened by a gang of violent goons. I was invested in him from the very first page, his narration really helps to carry the story and give it the necessary exposition and snark.

john mallory art from Hope for the Future comic
John Mallory takes a beating

In this story Hope is tasked with finding a young movie prodigy, a child star who has suddenly gone missing. His investigation will take him to various Hollywood locales, from glitzy film production studios to seedy underground clubs. Along the way we learn about his use of magical powers and how these supernatural interactions are slowly draining his life force. We learn about the enigmatic spirit he accidentally conjured, who wears a nun’s habit and gas mask and feeds off his misery. And we learn, to my great excitement, that there is an overarching storyline about him tracking down the dark being who stole away his wife and son.

demon kidnapping art from Hope for the Future comic
A demonic kidnapper

The writing of Guy Adams is on point here. Literally every single wistful, droll, and pessimistic line from Hope is gold. The story includes a good mix of drama, horror, and humor, and the core mystery of the missing boy would be compelling enough, but the added occult elements really elevate it. Inserting scenes of snake-tongued demons into a detective thriller plot is jarring, but in the best way possible. I definitely appreciate that magic is simply part of the story, and that it’s the dynamic characters who drive the momentum. We get just enough backstory on Mallory to make him engaging, but there’s suggestions of more intriguing reveals in the future. 

And that art from Jimmy Broxton…wow. Normally, I’m a fan of vibrant colors in comics, but the black and white illustrations here just fit so superbly. They’re grungy, gritty, and the art certainly feels like an homage to earlier horror/crime comics. I love the shading and stark contrasts, and how the style bends towards realism in the way the characters and settings are drawn. I also love how Broxton overlays swirling runes and symbols across the panels to let us know when magic is (literally) in the air.

Occult magic art from Hope for the Future comic
Seeing the world through dark magic

This first volume, in my opinion, is a near perfect story. It’s a horror crime thriller with a solid plot  and great pacing, populated with wonderful character archetypes plucked from the supernatural noir genre that bred it. It has a self-contained storyline, but it expertly weaves in a larger plot and perfectly sets up the next book. At 66 pages it’s a very quick read and it leaves you hungry for more. I absolutely cannot wait to join Mallory Hope’s further adventures in the next volume!

Hope…for the Future is available now from 2000AD Comics

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