Sanford Greene has drawn for Dark Horse, DC, Marvel and many independent properties, including design work on the Dark Knight and an indie comic with Method Man. He also owns his own animation studio called Secret Sauce that’s worked on several games, including Battleborn (Catsuya).
He's also the artist behind Image Comics upcoming Bitter Root. A five-issue series that drops on November 14, Bitter Root is the brainchild of co-writer Chuck Brown and was developed in collaboration with co-writer David F. Walker. It's actually the first time since Power Man and Iron Fist and Luke Cage that Walker and Greene have collaborated. This series also features some beautiful variant covers by Mike Mignola, Skottie Young, Denys Cowan and Brittany Williams.
Bitter Root is a story about the Sangeryes, a family of monster hunters living during the Harlem Rennaissance. I got a chance to sit down with the Bitter Root team at New York Comic Con, but I wanted to ask Greene a few more questions about this brand new story, his career and how the Sangeryes' story was inspired by real-world events.
Did you draw as a kid?
Sanford Greene: So when I was about, I think maybe eight or nine, I thought it was cool to do a mural on my wall in my bedroom. My mom didn't think it was cute, so she let me have it. I mean I literally was going to draw every character that I liked on that wall every night before dinner. That was the plan. So by the end of six months I would have, you know, a thousand characters on this wall. But after punsihing me she said, “You know what, this ain't half bad.” Then she got me my first drawing set. She obviously saw that I was really into it.
Who were some of your influences?
I was a huge fan of John Byrne and Mike Zec, he did Secret Wars, the first volume, the original one. I was a huge fan of that stuff. As far as artists outside of the comic industry, I was a huge fan of Norman Rockwell. His characterization of people was really eye-catching. It got my attention. I loved the expressions. Obviously, that's what he's known for, but even as a child I realized that there was something beyond that. I'm also a fan of guys like Michael Golden, who is probably my greatest influence. I've also been influenced by hip-hop, graffiti, and anime.
What were some of your favorite anime?
Dragon Ball Z. I went from watching the Super Friends, which, when I was a kid, was the greatest thing ever. Then comes along these characters who had these abilities and powers to collide universes and all that stuff. That kind of stuff really kind of just blew my little mind when I saw it because [in my mind] it was not of this earth, it was from some faraway place called Japan. These guys are more awesome than Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. I later gravitated to more sophisticated, classic anime like Akira. That was my first foray into that genre and I couldn't get enough of it. I became an absolute fiend for anime.
So what was the first comic you were actually paid to draw?
It was a very, very independent comic called The Black Arrow. I think that was the first one. I was just starting college and all I knew was I loved to draw. I met a few publishers and creators at Wizard World Chicago and there was a man who was a small indie publisher that pitched me an idea and gave me my first gig. So that was my first encounter in the professional side.
How did you get from that comic to the Big Two?
After doing this comic I knew that comics is what I wanted to do. But at that time, I didn’t really understand this industry. I live in South Carolina and at that time, this is right at the cusp of the internet, so there wasn't a whole lot of opportunity to learn about this medium. So for a while I just didn't really push for it even though I knew I wanted to do comics. So I went into graphic design.
But my inner geek knew I wanted to do comics so I went back into Wizard World again and showed them my portfolio. Marvel turned me down like three times and but they thought I had some potential. They told me to go to one of the smaller companies and get my sea legs and then come back. Turns out that was great advice. Dark Horse took interest because they were impressed that I actually had something published and they gave me a small job. I did pin-ups and drew covers sometimes for them.
Did that lead to bigger jobs?
Well, what I consider my first real professional work was a fill-in issue I did of Planet of the Apes, the Tim Burton version. But it was awesome because I was able to work on this major property. That's when a lot more opportunities started to come along from DC. They gave me a one shot Superman issue, which was an incredible, humbling, depressing experience, in that order I think. Because I was super excited to be working on a big comic book but the reality of the industry just slapped me in the face and I just wasn't prepared for it. I missed a lot of deadlines, I had to rush work out. I just didn't understand it, because everything I did beforehand was all personal deadlines for the most part.
There's nobody that took you under their wing and showed you the ropes?
No, I was slogging through the mud by myself. Later on, there were other artists that I look up to like Brian Stelfreeze, Dennis Cowan and guys like that who were already professionals and had substantial names in the industry. They gave me great advice. But I'm glad that I learned the way that I did.
Once I kind of figured out how I wanted to express my art, then, I pursued design. That got me a lot of attention from Warner Brothers, which then transitioned back into comics when DC Comics reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you like to do comics based on Batman: The Animated Series or Justice League?” So I kind of fell back into comics and [my career] took off from there.
A few years later, I did some design work on The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger's movie. I worked on that and a couple of other things and right around that time I got to work with Method Man on a graphic novel.
What was it like working with Method Man?
He's a huge comic book fan. I mean all of the Wu-Tang Clan are. You see it in their personas, how they go about what they do. But yeah, Method, he was great. I mean, a lot of energy. A little intimidating because he knows exactly what he wants but I love him. Just like when I see DMC at these cons and it's a little frustrating seeing how much energy he has. He looks better now than he did 20 years ago. So that part can be a little overwhelming.
You've been an inker, a colorist, a penciler and a cover artist. What's your favorite position on the field?
All of the above. I know how that sounds, but I love all my kids. But I'm a bit of a control freak I think, but every artist that's doing kind of what I do is too. You're technically the artist instead of a penciler or an inker. You kind of do it all. I can't let go of my vision though. So let’s say I have a colorist that does something that may not necessarily fit my vision, then it's a lot easier for me to do it just on my own because I've done it before.
So tell us about how Bitter Root came about and how you got into Image.
Me and David had a meeting with Eric Stevenson a year ago at San Diego Comic-Con and we knew that Eric was definitely interested because he paid for our dinner.
Hilarious. Why is that?
Oh, that means he's serious. Someone told me that because Eric gets a million requests at Image that it’s hard to pin him down. And honestly, we hadn't even really pitched anything yet. We just told them we wanted to do something and he was like, “Great! Let's meet and talk about it.”
Who are we meeting in the first issue?
I would say the main protagonist is Cullen Sangreye. I would say he's kind of the focal point because he is kind of torn between his purpose versus what else is out there. He was born into this. He's born into this hunter family and it’s all he ever knew. And he’s questioning that.
Sounds like he’s fighting monsters and himself.
Yeah. So it's interwoven into everything that we do, like this arc and in the next that's going to be kind of the underlying theme. His struggle and ultimately what that's going to mean, not only for the family but even for anyone else they come across and what will take place in the future. But the initial story is more about the family and this split of different philosophies. Without spoiling it, the family was a part of a major historical event and it will affect that as well. We're tying real-world events into the story and placing this family being behind the scenes.
You mentioned at NYCC that some of the baddies in this are actually personified traits of fear. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
There's this force, this evil that is infecting people and they turn into monsters. They’re monsters that could take a hold of a person, but not completely at first. You're kind of halfway you, you know your name and who you are, but you don't know why you're doing what you’re doing or where you are. If the family doesn't capture you in a certain amount of time, it will continue to manifest just like a disease. It spreads like cancer.
So that's essentially the physical aspect of the monsters. But the bigger meaning behind it is kind of an analogy to what happens to you when you don't deal with certain darkness within yourself, like hate and fear or, or things of that nature. Why are people turning into these monsters, how did we even get infected to begin with? There's a bigger threat and story there.
Is this story art imitating life a little bit?
We were kind of jokingly like, oh wow, like the “monster” is running wild right now. That's very much in line with what's transpiring in reality. I think in, our medium, more than any other, it tends to imitate life. I think in comics, you look throughout history, even with Captain America. It was created because of what was taking place in history. Even Superman to some degree became popular because of what took place in the social-political climate of the time. We hope that in a similar way we can at least garner some type of attention in a positive way and spark discussion with what we're creating here.