Fishtown By Kevin Colden

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By Kevin Colden

Kevin Colden

In 2003, four Philadelphia teenagers beat and murdered their friend Jason Sweeney. The story is fairly horrific—Sweeney’s girlfriend lured him to a secluded area, where the three boys surprised and killed him with a hatchet, a hammer, and bricks. He had just gotten paid—$500—and the foursome stole the money and split it amongst themselves.

This incident was the gruesome inspiration for Kevin Colden’s current Web graphic novel, Fishtown (so named for the Philly neighborhood from whence the teens hail). It isn’t the most typical fodder for a comic, nor an easy story to digest, but the unreality of the situation works perfectly for Colden; it has compelled him to create a dark work that broods philosophically over the complexity of human nature.

Colden originally set out to create a true crime comic, but legal issues prevented him from doing so. Instead, he allowed the characters to turn into fiction-reality hybrids. Fishtown is less about the actual murder act than it is about the kids who committed it, and Colden has forgone adherence to the truth for the ability to shape his complicated protagonists through fictionalized interactions. He makes his interest in the kids’ psyches clear from the very first panel, in which Adrian, one of the murderers, looks out at us from the page and asks, “what do you want me to say?” We find out in the next panel that he is actually talking to a psychiatrist, but as Colden puts us in the psychiatrist’s seat, he forces us into the role of the concerned party.

From the start, nothing of the “typical” high school experience exists in this world. Angelica, Adrian, Keith, and Justin are kids with terrible problems and sometimes terrible surroundings. They do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex, Angelica cuts herself, and Adrian’s uncle abuses him. None of this quite prepares us for the abrupt end of part one, when Angelica’s small voiceover in the last panel announces, “that was when we killed him,” and yet, Colden is careful never to resort to full scale shock value or slip into incredulity. He keeps the tone matter-of-fact, almost accepting, and attempts to feel his way around and through an incident many would consider unfathomable.

The color palette consists solely of dark blue, tan, white, and pink (for blood). His heavy use of dark blue in contrast with the lighter colors creates a world filled with inky, expressive shadows. His dramatic drawing angles heighten the emotion. What’s more, this is a world bereft of adults. Adults are shown almost only in pieces, Colden refusing to offer us a complete, close-up image of any kind of authority figure. Even the adults tuned in enough to know something is wrong—Angelica’s mom, for instance—remain ineffective. To the kids, they are only their parts—a pair of scolding lips or an abusive fist, either fought against or ignored.

It’s a testament to Colden’s effectiveness that even though we know how the story ends, we still want to keep reading. Even though we know these are fictionalized versions of the real kids, and we know we’ll never be able to understand what could drive them to commit such a crime, we still want to continue. Fishtown is absorbing, and it moves ahead with a new page published in the Act-i-vate online forum, every Thursday.

–Jillian Steinhauer

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