Kevin Colden - Entering 'Fishtown'

Recently concluded as a webcomic serial at ACT-I-VATE, cartoonist Kevin Colden’s Fishtown gets a print edition from IDW Publishing in November. Reconstructing the murder of a Philadelphia teenager by four of his classmates, Fishtown is a brutal account of adolescent malaise and irresponsibility.

Examining the connection between society and the failure of our own youth to understand the morality of their decisions, Colden’s story is a harsh document of a world that’s happening around us, no matter how much we wish to deny it. ACT-I-VATE founder Dean Haspiel called Fishtown “a truly stellar yet harrowing account.”

Kevin took some time to answer our questions about Fishtown and the process of bringing it to print.

Newsarama: Kevin, big picture here, what is Fishtown about?

Kevin Colden: Fishtown is a semi-fact-based story about four teenagers who planned and went through with the murder of a 16-year-old boy in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia back in 2003. It’s an examination the murderers’ motivations and the way it affects them, their families and the surrounding community.

NRAMA: How did you become aware of the story, and what about the story moved you to tackle it in comics form?

KC: I came across some articles on the actual case around the time of the sentencing in 2005 while I was researching a different project. I have a somewhat existentialist life philosophy, and thinking about this incident kept me awake at night on the brink of total nihilistic breakdown. I suppose the starting point was my trying to work out my own issues with the story. Comics are my main form of creative expression, so it was natural for me to try and move it into this format.

NRAMA: How much liberty did you give yourself in adapting the story?

KC: Quite a bit. At one point I’d wanted to make it a very detailed “true” story but ran into some problems in my research so I took what I knew and wrote a very quick script draft in four or five days without any limits beyond my creative and thematic goals – very much like historical fiction. I figured I would revise it and throw it out if need be, but when I read it back, it seemed to hit on something more universal and more emotionally true than I would have gotten from interviewing and researching the real people involved. The final product reads a bit like a game of pass-it-down-the-line; it’s partly a reflection of the media portrayal of the case, informed (or misinformed) by that portrayal itself.

NRAMA: If you gave yourself considerable latitude in fictionalizing this story, how much truth is there in it, and how do you think the fictionalization potentially affects the impact of the events on readers?

KC: Well, one of the themes is really the nature of truth. The basic story is factual, and there are pieces of the characters that are factual. Generally, instead of trying to sensationalize the story – which is the natural tendency – I tried to do the opposite: make it as mundane as possible. This makes it more horrific, in a subtle way. A lot of the changes come from that and trying to paint the characters in fairly broad strokes, which is necessary in comics. But the only way it would really affect the impact on the reader is that I deliberately didn't take a moral stance one way or the other on any of their actions. Most news media outlets do. But by not pointing an accusing finger, and not making the kids all that out-of-the-ordinary – I’ve actually based their fictional selves on people I've known – it forces the readers to make that moral choice for themselves.

NRAMA: There’s a really powerful theme of youth with no concept of morality or consequence. How do you portray these characters without turning readers off because they’re so despicable so frequently?

KC: It was important to me to emphasize the human element of the characters because it’s too easy to look at them as monsters. As a society, we have to own them, because we made them. One of the ways I tried to achieve that was by finding or creating traits that I and the readers could identify with and using them to play out the quieter moments in the characters’ lives. In effect, using a sort of reverse psychology to encourage the reader to have empathy for characters who have none. Which is another reason I decided not to pursue a more factual account – I may not have had the luxury of being able to do that.

NRAMA: There are some interesting storytelling choices. Notably, nearly the entire story unfolds as flashbacks during the police interrogation of the four murderers, and you only deviate from the duo-tone coloring to show the red blood of the victim. How did you arrive at those storytelling choices?

KC: The non-linear storytelling serves a few purposes. One is that it’s another way to help the reader identify with the characters. By showing – or at least hinting at – the consequences of their actions throughout the story, it makes it an easier pill to swallow without losing impact. The other is that by having the second-person interrogation sequences interspersed throughout, it makes the reader themself a character in the story while the stationary camera in those shots allows the characters to “act” and reveal more aspects of character in subtle ways. It also adds another facet to the story depending on whether you read the flashbacks as third-person or first-person in relation to the narrating characters – they’re not necessarily trustworthy. The color choice was made after I finished about nine pages in full color. The original idea was to have the color saturate and desaturate to delineate changes in time or perception, but in my test copies the colors were printing inconsistently and the saturation levels weren’t showing up, so I decided if it saw print, I would do it in spot colors so every reader would see it correctly. I chose two – blue, a calming color and yellow, an agitating color – because it fit thematically. The red is used entirely as a visual representation of violence.

NRAMA: Fishtown was serialized at ACT-I-VATE. Is it more satisfying to have it in print, or simply a different satisfaction?

KC: They’re both gratifying in different ways. With ACT-I-VATE, there was a constant interaction with readers that you can’t get outside of the web, and it was able to bring the story to a ton of people who wouldn’t normally buy comics or graphic novels. But the print version has the bonus of being an art object as well. And I’m a total bibliophile and a sucker for good book design.

NRAMA: Have you retouched any pages or edited any sequences for the print version?

KC: I’m sure I’ve done at least minor retouching on every page; redrawn a few whole pages, revised dialogue throughout (sometimes heavily) and added artwork for chapter breaks.

NRAMA: How did you end up publishing the print version with IDW?

KC: Chris Ryall at IDW had contacted me very early in the ACT-I-VATE run and we kept in touch as I finished drawing it (the book will be out almost a year to the day of my having completed it). I think it was only about one-third serialized online at that point, but he showed it to Ted Adams, and based on what had been published, they were both very excited to bring the book aboard.

NRAMA: What are you working on now, Kevin?

KC: My latest parojects are: the story Red with Elizabeth Genco in the anthology No Formula: Stories From The Chemistry Set (and we’ll be collaborating again for the new Indie Spinner Rack anthology), a short piece with Tony Lee for a yet-to-be-announced Image project, and my next major solo project which will be announced soon. Also, earlier this year I took some time off to re-start my career as a drummer by joining the band Heads Up Display, and we have a record coming out late ‘08 or early ‘09.

Fishtown is currently available at ACT-I-VATE and sees print in November from IDW. More information at: KevinColden.com.

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