Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ruling the Night with Kevin Colden

“I came from Philadelphia and moved to New York six years ago,” Kevin Colden says from his living room in the apartment he shares with wife Miss Lasko-Gross. It’s a long room flanked on one side by wall-length bookcases (littered with comics, books, graphic novels, DVDs, and “shelf porn”), and faced opposite by a sofa and art table. “I lived in New Jersey and went to the Kubert School, from 1998 to 2003. I graduated in 2001 and hung around for two years. It’s mostly in meeting people. There are so many people around in the comic business that are here. It’s great because, now that I’m working with Zuda I get to talk to those fellas because they’re around. If I need to do something, or go into a meeting, plus I get my paychecks [from DC Comics] the day after they send them out.”

Kevin laughs, and he laughs often.
“It’s mostly the culture here, because there’s so much media culture around here, and it’s all so ingrained that you can pop from one thing to the next. There are so many different things going on that you can pretty much do anything. Also, my output has increased, too. Things are just at the speed of light in New York, and you need to get things done. You have to keep doing things. When I finished Fishtown, I penciled the last seventy pages in one month while also working full time, and I also took an out-of-town vacation in there. In that month, and it was crazy. I made the deadline I’d set for myself, to finish those last seventy pages in five months, from soups to nuts, and I was able to do it.”

When four teenagers in Fishtown, Philadelphia planned and carried out the brutal murder of another teen, Kevin Colden took note. While it may have partially been the hometown connection for him, he was also galvanized by the media’s handling of the case when adapting the incident into his webstrip Fishtown.

“It was supposed to be a very non-biased view,” Colden states. “Part of it is a criticism of journalism, and a lot of the articles I’d read based on the actual case were very biased, probably because in the trial, the prosecutors were very biased, throwing around terms like ‘monster’. It occurred to me that these kids are just people who did a monstrous thing. Regardless of how awful they are or not, they’re still human beings, and that actually makes it worse. I tried to take that tack. It’s partly a philosophy piece, at least I’ve always seen it as one [but] it’s deliberately an absurdist piece, like The Stranger.”

Fishtown opens with one of the four teens sitting in an interrogation room, talking about the murder. “It’s sick, isn’t it?” he admits by the last panel. What follows is a recounting of the murder from planning to execution, focusing on the teens’ conflicting stories and troubled backgrounds.

“There’s always a part of me in everything I do, and I guess I drew on pieces of myself to get the characters’ personalities to come out,” Kevin admits. “So, putting myself in that place, I had to sympathize with completely unsympathetic characters. I had to get in the headspace of these kids and figure out how they would react to these situations. Because I had decided to make it a thematic and symbolic biographical piece, I had to make up personalities for the main players. I came at them as characters, and that was the only way I could do it. So by default, there's a lot of me and people I've known in there.”

Colden’s art in Fishtown is cast over in a pissy yellow, with the characters all cramped in panels that leave very little open space. The end result is a claustrophobic narrative experience. The camera is used to the best effect on the death scene, where details are zoomed in to extreme close-ups, forcing the reader to piece the unfortunate teen’s demise together while throwing away their personal comfort zones – and to be shocked by the final splash revealing his battered body.
Kevin’s initial vision for Fishtown was as a print comic book. In the process of “throwing shit to the wall” to see if it sticks, two opportunities presented themselves for Fishtown’s publication: the online venue of webstrip collective ACT-I-VATE, and the prestigious Xeric grant for self-publishing cartoonists.

“I’d been talking to Dean Haspiel and Dan Goldman about it for ACT-I-VATE and also sent the Xeric application in, not thinking I’d win,” Colden recalls. “I had the chance with ACT-I-VATE to put it up, and it actually went up the day after I received the [award] letter from the Xeric Foundation. I went back and forth to find out if I could keep it online and print the first issue of the comic. They really didn’t want me to do it at that time, which they eventually changed, I think partially as a result of Fishtown. I don’t know if the fact that it got a lot of press shamed them into it (which wasn’t my intent), but as a result of what happened they changed their policy. I chose to go the online route because, at the time, I could sense that webcomics were starting to take off and that was where we were going into the future, as far as serializing comics goes.

“It was also that the book wasn’t done yet; I’d only had 22 pages, and the Xeric was just for the first issue, and not the whole book. I had to cut my losses and say ‘Okay, if I have to choose, then I can serialize this thing online until it’s done and can be building an audience the whole time. It makes more sense to do it that way, instead of putting out five issues, where I’ll be spending ridiculous amounts of money.’

“I told the Xeric Foundation ‘Thank you, but I need to go online’ and they said ‘You can still call yourself a Xeric winner.’

“I told them ‘Now you can take the grant and give it to someone else. There's no need for me to eat up the money because I think I’m going to be OK anyway.’ It was my saying that not only did I think I would work out better this way, but that it would go to someone who could use the money more. The Xeric Foundation has been great to me, and I hope that I didn’t offend them or make them look bad in any way. It certainly wasn’t my intention, but just a matter of my not needing the money anymore.”

As a result of his regular online publication on ACT-I-VATE, Colden was able to build an online audience of readers, as well as receive press for Fishtown’s experimental and real-world nature. It did see print later on, through IDW Publishing in 2008 and received the 2009 Eisner nomination for Best Reality-Based Work.

Kevin’s art table is old and sturdy, solid wood with a metal adjusting knob on the side. A large piece of masonite is attached to the surface for drawing, covering over an opening in the center of this former animation table. The table belonged, once, to comics legend Bernie Krigstein of EC Comics fame.

“Bernie was a master storyteller,” Colden reflects. “He really was doing stuff at Eisner level and maybe even beyond at the time Eisner was starting to come on to his own. I'm not sure he gets the credit he deserves for that…He really believed that comics were fine art, at a time when even the people who were pushing the medium forward didn’t think that. Eisner was still doing work for cash – he was doing wonderful stuff, and I’m not trying to slight it at all.

“At the time, comics were the place where illustrators went when they couldn’t get the high-paying work.”
Krigstein’s kinetic, loose, and thin pen line seems to pop up in Kevin’s style; whether he’s intentionally channeling the master artist’s mojo or not, Krigstein’s work obviously has an influence on his own.

“In 2004 - I had been a big Krigstein fan since art school – [I saw] that his studio was still open,” Kevin recalls. “Miss and I went up to go see the studio. Greg Sadowski, who wrote the Krigstein biography books gave tours and, if you called him up, he’d show you the studio. The studio was right in Union Square, and still had Krigstein’s name on the buzzer and everything. It’s a studio that he’d shared with some guys at the time he died. It had all of his paintings in it and some of his illustration stuff. There weren’t any of the EC pages because I think Gaines had all of those. They didn’t have much of his comics work at all, I don’t think, but a ton of his illustration work and a ton of his paintings. We stayed there for a while, looking at his paintings, and Greg said he was closing the studio down and I asked ‘What are you doing with the studio gear?

“He said ‘If you can get it out of here, you can have it.’

“‘Well, just call me when you’re breaking it down and let me know. We’ll come in and help you pack it up, and we’ll take the drawing table.’ That’s how it ran down; I rented a truck and popped it in the truck and took it away.”

Colden next brought his psychological approach to I Rule the Night, to DC Comics’ Zuda online imprint.
The first glimpse of lonesome kid sidekick Shadow Boy in I Rule the Night is when the protagonist strangles a baddie to death with a wire, leaving a note declaring “I Rule the Night” by the body. We quickly learn that Shadow Boy is none other than a 21 year-old girl, whose superhero Night Devil removed her pituitary gland to arrest her age before his death. With the present day Shadow Boy attempting to bring Night Devil back through Satanic rituals and black magic, and the past told in four-color flashbacks drawn in a Silver Age style, Night is a shocking exploration of the depravity of the metatextual superhero.

“I thought ‘What do you do when you take the hero out of the equation?’” Kevin elaborates. “That was where the whole thing started. Zuda wasn’t doing a superhero story, and it developed from there and turned into something even bigger. It’s only been hinted at in the run, but the plan is to make it 180 pages, and we know where it’s going and it turns into an interesting thematic critique of comics in general and comics culture, told through the eyes of the superhero genre. It’s hard to get in too deeply without giving anything away, but it changes drastically from page one to page 180. It not only skips genres, but turns the whole medium inside-out. I call it the ultimate post-post-modern superhero story, where I’m taking elements from other post-modernist superhero comics, throwing them in a blender, and then exploding the whole thing.”

“It’s funny because I never thought I would do a superhero comics,” he admits. “It’s not that I don’t like superhero comics, I read them as a kid and certainly read them now. I just never thought I could add anything to that genre…It hit me that nobody does the story about the sidekick. I’ve always loved sidekicks and have always been a huge Robin fan. If someone asked me what character I’d love to work on, Robin would be it.”

I Rule the Night is obviously a take on the Batman and Robin dynamic, done as an extremely dark parody. Colden owes it to both his love of sidekicks and a controversial comic by Rick Veitch.

“Honestly, and I should point this out, it owes a large debt to Rick Veitch’s Bratpack book, which was one of my favorites as a kid,” Kevin says. “That was a lot of the inspiration for it; there are some things that pop up in the story that unintentionally refer back to that. I’m certainly going to a different place thematically, and ultimately the story is going to a very different place. That was why he had the sidekicks being tortured. There's a similar kind of vulgarity. But what he was doing was a reaction to Robin being killed by the masses in 1988 [through a vote-in call], while I'm writing a deconstruction of comics from their origins to the 21st century. Still, Bratpack is one of my favorite books, easily. He was supposed to do more in that vein, and I’m hoping he actually does. I’ve asked him, when I’ve met him a couple of times, but it doesn't seem like there are any solid plans. His latest book, Army@Love is also one of the best satirical comics ever.”

As Colden continues to thrive as an online cartoonist, he is savvy towards the logistical differences between viewing a comic onscreen and reading a printed version:

“Going from a screen to a page is a huge change in presentation. Seeing something on the screen is backlit and illuminated. The color patterns that you’re seeing are different, because you see an RGB color pattern and print is a CMYK pattern, so it’s going to be different, either way. They’re different media so I don’t think the changes matter that much. You’re going from one visual medium from another that’s going to change it anyway, so you might as well make it look as good as you can.

“Ultimately, I think the main thing is the story, and not the aesthetics. There are certain things that I want to do if and when we get to an I Rule the Night book, and things I’ll want to change, but it’s more from because I’m doing it in four-page increments, there are things that relate to later pages that I can’t do. It won’t change the story; it's aesthetic.”

On top of finishing up I Rule the Night
, which should take about a year after resuming with Zuda’s early fall relaunch, Colden keeps himself extra busy with his rock band and…puppets?

“I’ve been with Heads Up Display since March of 2008. We play around in New York and are still pretty local. I’d like to say that we are Aggro-Indie-Nerd Rock. We party like it’s 1995, very late ‘90s rock, but don’t let that deter you because we're very good. Our singer’s a great songwriter. We have a record that came out in April called AS/IS, and are working on a video for that, which will hopefully be out in the next few months.”

Listening to Heads Up Display conjures up memories of ‘90s-era Sonic Youth, with a bit of the Violent Femmes thrown in for good measure. Colden’s skills as a comic book artist bore the conceptual fruit for their first music video, when he drew them as puppets for a poster.

“When it came time for the video concept, I went ‘Why don’t we do puppets?’” Kevin poses. “Our singer worked for the Sesame Street workshop and knows how to build them. Eight months later, after we started building them, it seems it may have been a better idea to not do that, but it’s going to be fun. Plus, we’ve tapped Seth Kushner as a director, who I know pretty well through comics.”

Further reading: I Rule The Night

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