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ROTTEN ROOTS #1-3: Murder by History

Written by Scary Cleve on Thursday, July 28 2016 and posted in Reviews

ROTTEN ROOTS #1-3: Murder by History

The past really does come back to bite you on the ass.

Source: Rotten Roots #1-3

Rotten Roots Logo

Paul Axel - Writer/Letterer

Renee Majkut - Artist

Tom Majkut - Formatter

Malory Mengler - Title Letterer

Brian McKenzie - Editor

Robert Howard - Publisher

From Bad Kids Press


Harold Wood, CEO of Wood Industries and patriarch to Osprey City's most powerful family has been murdered. Detective Mark Robles, a transfer from Chicago, is placed in charge of the case, and he soon finds out this is no mere murder but part of a larger plot to wipe out the Wood family and their relatives. In order to solve the case, Detective Robles will have to dig deep into the Woods' family history and expose the sordid past of Osprey City. With unique art and an engaging plot, Rotten Roots is a murder mystery that explores the dark side of American history and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "rotten roots bear rotten fruit."

I recently read an article that said too many comic books have mononymic titles, one word titles that don't properly suggest the content of the story. While I understand the argument, I'm not 100% concerned with that aspect of titles. For me, a title has two jobs:

1. Suggest (however vaguely) the content of the story.

2. Connect (however transparently) to the themes of the story.

Rotten Roots may not totally succeed in Job #1, but it hits the nail on the head with Job #2. The theme is summed up in a phrase that appears in the comic: "Rotten roots bear rotten fruit." I have a feeling that this a reference to the bible passage, Luke 6:43: "No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit." This passage can be interpreted as meaning that actions have consequences in the future, and the outcome depends on the morality of those actions. This is the central theme of the comic as suggested by the title. With an engaging murder mystery and creative, time-bending art, Rotten Roots fully explores its central theme through various periods of American history.

Starting with the covers, they are a mixed bag. Issue #1 for example:

3810350 orig

The penciling of Detective Robles and the street corner is detailed and realistic. Accompanied with the watercolor palette, and it is like a landscape painting. Also, it's nice that the title of the comic is located in the lower right hand corner. Most comics headline the title, which isn't necessarily bad but can sometimes get in the way. By placing it elsewhere, the art has more breathing room.

While the cover of issue #1 is beautiful, it doesn't do much in terms of Job #1 or Job #2. Rotten Roots is a murder mystery, but nothing about this image suggests so. As far as the reader knows, this is just some guy walking on a street corner. Even the title is vague. It does make sense to the theme of the story, but the reader won't know until reading the comic. The only clue to the theme is that in the far distance, one can see that the modern street corner gives way to an old settler-era town. It's easy to miss though, and it could easily be mistaken as a theme park. In this case, the cover doesn't encapsulate the story content or theme because it lacks strong visual clues.

Issue #2  is better.

1755470 orig

Here, the cover conveys what happens. In fact, it's also a splash page in the issue. The fighting men in revolution-era clothing with the American flag behind can be interpreted as symbolic of division. After all, not everyone living in the colonies at that time were down for independence. Although the cover is vague, it does hint at both the content of the story and its theme. After all, what could bear more rotten fruit than inner conflict?

Probably the best is issue #3.

Issue 3 Cover

This cover is all kinds of artistic brilliant. First off, the detailed penciling and watercolor is striking. It probably helps that the image is a close up, allowing Majkut to add in more than if it was drawn at a distance. Second, Detective Robles seemingly being spied on conveys more of a murder mystery vibe. It gives the feeling that who or whomever is behind the string of murders has got their eye on Robles even as he is investigating them. More brilliant is the fact this cover is a deception. The man with the telescope is not spying on Robles, but is a navy man Robles reads about. What this cover does is connect (granted, transparently) to the theme of "rotten roots bear rotten fruit" by showing how the past and present are related (look closely and see that the image in the telescope is a callback to issue #1). This makes issue #3 Majkut's best cover and hopefully more like it will appear.

Renee Majkut continues her style in the interior pages, combining detailed penciling and inking with a watercolor palette. It's effective most of the time, the style conveying a realistic world rich with scenery. This is where the watercolor comes in handy. Traditional or digital coloring applied to a realistic setting can sometimes make it rigid and bland, even suffocating. With a watercolor palette, the world looks soft and airy, giving the reader a relaxed view that makes for an easier read.

Rotten Roots Osprey City

Unfortunately, there are issues with the art. The biggest is character anatomy. Humans in this world are not drawn consistently. They suffer from disproportional limbs, inconsistent height and width, and clunky facial expressions. The worst is this example:

Rotten Roots Tar and Feather

In this scene, a man is being tarred and feathered, but his anatomy is so wonky it appears he's drying up like a salt-covered snail. It's an ongoing problem in the series. Also, the watercolor is not perfect. There is a moment in issue #1, pages 2-6, where it becomes murky.

Rotten Roots Murky Color

The art takes a major blow as people and objects fade away or become a sketchy mess. This is not a matter of Majkut trying to gain a sense of the comic's style, as the rest of the issue has solid coloring. Whatever artistic reason for coloring pages 2-6 in this manner is not clear. If this coloring had been reserved for flashbacks to symbolize murky understandings of the past, that would have been fine. But here, it's inconsistent with the rest of the coloring. By issue #3, coloring and anatomy do improve but still have a long way to go.

Despite these flaws, there is plenty to praise in Majkut's art. As said before, scenery is rich. Majkut realistically conveys both modern and past periods of history, effortlessly switching back and forth between the two. She also has a knack for clothing, utensils, and other details that breath life into the various historical periods. This is handy given history is essential to the story.

Inset panels are utilized often for investigative scenes to signal clues and small details that Detective Robles notices. It adds a layer to the mystery element, making it an engaging part of the story. Speaking of panels, Majkut often foregoes them in scene transitions.

Rotten Roots Transition 1

In this example, Detective Robles is reading a book to learn more about the history of Osprey City, and instead of just simply switching to another panel, the splash page opens up to a flashback as Robles reads, conveying the mental image in his head. It is unique, creative, and shows the power of comics storytelling when not trapped in the confines of panel borders. The art may have ways to go, but with strong, interesting experimentation like this, readers will be unable to take their eyes off it.

The art is only as strong as the storytelling, and Paul Axel has conceived an engaging murder mystery with an emphasis on history. The present murders are similar to those from the past, showing how Osprey's problems are tied to its sordid history. Flashback is heavily used but never feels burdensome. By exploring Osprey City's past, Axel shows the moral grayness of America's history. This is not a biting condemnation, but does acknowledge that it was never a simple matter of good vs. evil. This moral grayness defines the Wood family. They are a prosperous, influential family, but they have (often literal) skeletons in the closet. Witnessing how this affects the descendants actually makes them pitiable. Do they really deserve to pay for the past sins of their forefathers? They're hardly innocent, but what justification could the murderer(s) have for appointing themselves judge, jury, and executioner? The drama of the Wood family and their various cousins adds a human element to the mystery plot.

The same cannot be said for Detective Robles. For 95% of the series, he is simply a guide for the reader putting the pieces together. There isn't a lot of background information on him aside from being a Chicago transfer. There is tension between him and his superior, often angry at Robles for digging into the Wood family history, but it's confusing. After all, they're the ones being targeted, and none of the descendants show signs that they want to keep their history under wraps. The only reason the chief would be angry at Robles is if he's being payed off by the murderer, but who else aside from the Woods could be that influential? It would have been better if Detective Robles was a more engaging protagonist, if the readers got to know him and perhaps see how his own past could relate to the sordidness of the events around him. Fortunately, there is an indication of this in issue #3, and it will be interesting to see if this expands Robles' character.

Axel also contributes to the lettering of the comic, and he changes the style for each time period. It's a nice touch and adds to fully realizing the history periods as drawn by Majkut.

I touched a little on how Paul Axel's writing plays around with the comic's theme. In fact, both Axel's writing and Majkut's art work in companionship to explore it fully. One part of it is the structure of the story. It starts off with a scene from the present, usually Robles investigating the murder. When Robles is studying the history of Osprey City, the scene transitions to a flashback of whatever period it is. Many times, these transitions are experimental, not just a sudden change from one scene to the next. There is an element that connects the two, whether it's the breakdown of panel barriers separating the scenes or an object from the past now in present, etc. In relation to the theme, this is symbolism at a superficial level. Things get interesting when murders from the past are replicated in the present, often right after Robles is done reading history. This is just one example of how the theme is played around with, and I feel like I'm doing the comic injustice by not mentioning more, but it's  makes the murder mystery so interesting. Things don't just happen because. There are deeper reasons. The story may not explore the philosophical connotations of "rotten roots bear rotten fruits", but it is great comic storytelling to have a a central theme and use the words and images to explore and play around with it. 

Rotten Roots may have its faults, but the core of the comic, it's theme and the many ways art and story explore it, will prove engaging to readers. It's a look into the dark side of American history without too judgmental an eye and pushes its murder mystery plot beyond just solving a case. With only three issues in, there is plenty more to go and interesting layers to expand upon. Highly recommend for those that like their mystery comics thought-provoking and creative.

(I didn't mention this before, but there is also a blog for the comic that operates as its fictional newspaper, the Osprey Courier-Gazette. It's pretty cool and adds a level of realism to the series).

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