Kevin Colden gained national attention, at least in comic book circles, when he became the first comic book creator to publicly turn down a Xeric Award. The prestigious grant, offered by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Peter Laird's Xeric Foundation, provides financial support for worthy self-publishing projects. Over the past decade and a half, major creators like Adriane Tomine, Jason Lutes, Nick Bertozzi, and Farel Dalrymple have benefited from the program, and when Colden refused the money, he raised more than a few internet eyebrows.
Yet Colden had good reason for declining the award, since Xeric policy didn't allow online serialization, and he had just posted the first batch of pages of "Fishtown" on the ACT-I-VATE website when news of the award arrived on his doorstep. Rather than pull out of his commitments, and emboldened by the immediate fan reaction to his initial pages, Colden graciously said, "thanks, but no thanks" to the Xeric Foundation, and continued to tell the story of "Fishtown" in free weekly installments.
"Fishtown," Colden's stylish tale of murder amongst a group of affectless teens in Philadelphia, was picked up by IDW Publishing this past year, and November 5 brought a slick collected edition of the works to comic shops across the land. As I said in my recent CBR review of the "Fishtown" hardcover, it's one of the most impressive books of the year.
Colden's debut as a full-fledged graphic novelist has positioned him as a creator to watch in the industry, and CBR News contacted him to talk about his experiences putting together his first major work and his thoughts on the finished product.
CBR: Let's start at the beginning. You based "Fishtown" on a real-life Philadelphia crime story. How did you come up with that approach?
KEVIN COLDEN: The murder did happen, and the book is similar in some respects to "In Cold Blood" -- essentially a nonfiction novel -- but with more fictional elements thrown in to flesh out the characters. I focused on the idea of the book not being about the murder itself, but about the story of the murder, which is why I can't really call it a true crime book.
How much had you written before "Fishtown?" What can you tell us about that side of your creative life?
I've been writing for a long time, but not a lot of it has seen print. I wrote a lot of short stories and a few plays when I was in high school, and I spent a number of years as a songwriter. In 1997 I wrote and drew my first comic book magnum opus -- a cartoony humor piece about Jesus Christ quitting his job as messiah and taking a road trip with the devil, and the positive response my friends and family had to that was the impetus for me to stop fucking around with my life and go to art school.
A wacky Jesus graphic novel? Tell us more about that project! Has any of it seen the light of day?
I went to Catholic school for 13 years, and once you hit a certain age you start to see the gaping loopholes in the faith, and you start to realize how many hypocrites that particular religion attracts. So I thought, what if we have Jesus just hanging out, watching all of the idiotic and awful things that people so to each other in the name of religion, and he just gets pissed and goes on vacation. He then inadvertently causes Armageddon just by returning to Earth.
There was a very small minicomic run of the first issue from the planned follow-up series in which heaven gets bought out by Disney and Jesus quits in protest and spends his time doing odd jobs like house painter and fry cook. The rest of it may never see the light of day, but every so often I get tempted to do a flash cartoon series because it actually was pretty damn funny.
As you developed the story of "Fishtown," did you have to do any additional research on the Philadelphia crime itself, or on the setting at all? Did you gather any photo reference or anything like that?
I did some research on the crime in the form of sources that were readily available -- newspapers, magazine articles. I didn't involve any of the actual people close to the case because in order to tell the story I wanted to tell, I couldn't have any bias or emotional attachment whatsoever. But I did shoot a lot of photos of the neighborhood.
How much of it had you finished by the time you started serializing it online, and how did that arrangement come about?
I had finished about 35 pages before it went live. I had been in talks with ACT-I-VATE for a while about bringing it to them and the timing was right to do it -- or so I thought.
You famously declined a Xeric Award. What was up with that?
That's why the timing was less than ideal. I had either forgotten about my submission to Xeric, or thought that I hadn't gotten the grant for some reason and the day after it went up on ACT-I-VATE I got the grant. At the time, they wouldn't allow concurrent online serialization, and I had to make a choice. But as I understand it, the foundation has now reversed that.
What kind of reception did you get from the online serialization?
Massively positive. The readers who like the book, are incredibly supportive and very vocal. There have been a few people who have been negative, but every single one begins "I haven't read your comic, but I hate it." Gotta love the internet.
How do you feel about webcomics? What other online comics do you read? What do you think about mainstream publishers producing original content purely for online consumption?
Webcomics may be the last nail in the coffin of the floppy comic. There are a number of books in the last few years that have serialized online before going to print, that have been stunningly successful. Recently Rich Johnston ran some numbers on the cost of a floppy comic vs. the US inflation rates and the outcome was that floppies are far more expensive than they should be nowadays -- almost by exponents. It's just more cost-effective to do it online.
And I'm all for mainstream content online. But I don't think you can financially support the content solely online unless the revenue is ad-based. That's why you collect it as a trade or a hardcover. Hell, I love webcomics, but I like curling up with a book more than with a laptop, and I think a lot of people feel that way too. It's more warm and cozy.
How did you hook up with IDW Publishing? What has that experience been like?
[IDW Editor-in-Chief] Chris Ryall contacted me about a month into the ACT-I-VATE run and we talked for a while about it before finally locking it down. In my mind, once the opportunity presented itself, IDW was the only place for it. Everyone at IDW has been fantastic, are very excited to have the book on board, and have been incredibly supportive of my ideas creative vision. My only complaint is that they're three time zones away.
What kinds of changes did you make between the original online serialization and the hardcover edition?
I've retouched almost all of the pages, totally redrawing some - including restoring some things I changed for the online version - and altered a lot of dialogue. Also, the coloring is much more subdued.
Let's talk about the contents of the book itself. You certainly use a distinctive artistic style in "Fishtown." How would you describe your own work? You attended the Kubert school. How did that affect your style? Are there any major influences that seem to inform your approach to comic book storytelling?
My work tends to shift style depending on the project. I suppose as a storyteller, I'd call myself "confrontationalist." As far as my art, I learned from a lot of first-and-second-generation comic book artists at Kubert -- including Joe himself. I think that lends a much more "cartoonist" quality to my art than an "illustrator" quality. I consider myself a workman. I don't labor over anything for too long. I also love EC comics, and I'm sure that informs my work a lot.
You seem to adapt your inking style depending on the setting of each scene. The interview scenes are more pen and ink style, while the outdoor scenes seem more brush-heavy. Was that an intentional artistic decision you made from the beginning, or was it a natural progression as you attempted to depict each scene honestly?
The change in style is part of my usual bag of tricks, but it's conscious -- it's a technique used in manga. I think Scott McCloud refers to it as "masking," though in this book, I tend not to insert the characters directly into the backgrounds. It makes the streets themselves characters, and a bit menacing maybe.
What do you mean by that?
Physically, I used the detailed shots as establishing shots, and rarely actually put characters into them. That makes the streets themselves the focus of the drawing, and emphasizes them the same way making a character would be emphasized as the focus of a drawing. It lends a heavier sense of character to the background itself.
What inspired the "confessional" interview scenes? There's a certain reality-TV aesthetic there -- was that part of your thinking?
Not really. It springs partly from a challenge to myself to make every bad storytelling choice I could and make it work. Second-person visual storytelling has rarely been used well in comics, so I used it to develop the characters and implicate the reader into the story. But mostly it comes from the fact that I wrote the book as a stage play, with the page being the stage and the characters being actors. That's why there are a lot of repeating panels. It's not cinematic, it's theatrical.
You could probably speak about the book having a "Rashomon" quality, with its multiple perspectives, but there's also a sense of a Gus Van Sant influence. "Fishtown" seems very much like Van Sant's "Elephant" or "Paranoid Park" with its poetic minimalism. Were any of those films influential on your development of this graphic novel? Any other cinematic influences you'd like to speak about? Does "poetic minimalism" sound like an artistic school you'd like to be affiliated with?
I very much enjoy Gus Van Sant's movies, but I would say that Kubrick -- specifically his film of "A Clockwork Orange," and even more so the Burgess novel it's based on -- were the biggest influence. And Larry Clark's "KIDS." There are elements of a lot things in there.
I'll leave it to others to label the work I do. My job is just to do the work. Once I start thinking about putting a label on it, the label starts influencing the work and I try to
avoid that. But I certainly don't mind you doing it.
"Fishtown" ends at the beginning, completing the narrative loop started on page one, but what do you want readers to take away from their experiences with this book, with this story? Are you commenting upon aspects of society or simply reporting the truth as you see it? What is the role of the graphic novelist, do you think?
Oh, I'm most definitely commenting on many things in society. But the idea is that the reader's own biases will inform what they get out of the book. If any book is successful, it doesn't function as a story -- it functions as a mirror. And that's really what we strive for as storytellers, right?
What's next for Kevin Colden, artist and writer?
My soon-to-be-announced next project is a new webcomic -- I'm told it rules. After that, I've got a piece with writer Tony Lee in "This Is A Souvenir" from Image in January.