When it was first launched on Act-I-Vate earlier this year, Fishtown was primarily known in comics circles as the Webcomic that won–and subsequently lost–Kevin Colden a 2007 Xeric Grant.
With nearly three-fifths of the story now serialized, Fishtown has amassed a large following based on its own merits, becoming more than simply an asterisk on the history of the Xeric Foundation, thanks in no small part to Colden’s tight pencil work and story laden with teenage drug use, sex, murder, and deceit, inspired by a true story from the artist’s home town of Philadelphia.
We met up with Colden last Wednesday in Manhattan’s lower east side, to talk about Webcomics, his rock ‘n roll career, and some big news in the neighborhood of Fishtown.
We initially discussed setting up this interview at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund party, back in December, with the caveat that we wouldn’t set it up until you got a certain piece of important news.
Yeah. I thought it wasn’t going to happen. And then I was contacted shortly afterwards, and now it can actually be told. Fishtown is going to be published by IDW. It’s slated for a hardcover November release. It will be the complete story.
What’s the process for finally settling on a publisher? It sounds like you’d be discussing the possibility with IDW for a while.
Yeah. We’d been talking on and off for months. It just ended up that they were so enthusiastic about it that I just couldn’t say no. They were prepared to put a lot behind it, and that was important to me. I could have gone with a larger publisher, and maybe made a little more money, in terms of sales, but in the end, the way that they’re set up and the size company they are, I think they’re going to sell it well.
What sort of details did you have in mind, in terms of marketing? Was there anything you really needed a publisher to agree to do for the book?
I was really concerned about bookstore sales—but, by the same token, I’m really concerned with direct market sales, too.
So, pretty much everything…
Yeah, and they can cover both really well.
You’ve developed a pretty good following online already. It’s a pretty dark book though, who do you expect will be picking up the print version?
Yeah, we’ve got a good following from Act-I-Vate. I think that people who would be interested in regular crime comics would certainly be interested in it, but I also think that there’s certain universal interest in the subject matter. It’s about murder and the motivations behind it. I tried to make it as universal as possible. There’s obviously a lot of interest in Philadelphia, too. That’s why I wanted it in bookstores, so it would be available to people who weren’t really used to walking into the comic shop. I think there’s a certain literary quality to it, so I think it’s a book for everybody [laughs].
Except for kids…
Yes. It’s certainly not a children’s book.
How did you initially hit on the subject matter?
I actually grew up right outside of Philadelphia, just west of the city. I was actually looking to do a book about my experiences as a Catholic school kid. I thought it would be a really fun comedy.
So, where did you go wrong?
I ended up doing research for that and Googled my school and came up with this article about the girl who had led this kid to his death in the Philadelphia area. I started reading up on it, and the basis of the story came from a series of articles based on that in the Philadelphia press.
It’s inspired by a real-life incident, but I changed the names and the characters significantly, just for story purposes. It was more interesting to see where the characters would take it, as opposed to doing a more factual account. I figured I could get more to the truth of what their motivations were, and I thought the best way to do that would be to create these characters and see where they would go, rather than use what had happened and try to graft something else onto that, and to try to avoid the emotions of the people that were actually involved.
So, at what point in the process are you making this 180 in the story. Had you started drawing pages yet?
No. Not at all. I actually decided very early in the process. I started with the idea to do the actual book, and I was having trouble getting documentation. I had made phone calls down to the Philadelphia courts to try to get some transcripts.
So you did some real legwork for this?
I did as much legwork as I could, but didn’t get far, because they were in between the criminal and civil trials.
And these are children that we’re talking about.
My dad’s a lawyer in the Philadelphia area, and he said to me that that was what was so weird about the case, they were all minors, but their names were plastered all over the TV. I didn’t know how big the whole thing was until well after I started working on the book. I guess I probably should have known from the number of articles I found online. It was pretty well covered.
But I could get those court documents, so what I decided to do was write a script and see where it would go, come back to it later, and revise. But what happened was I just started writing and didn’t stop. I went into this four day haze where I was just typing, and after that, I came out a 150 page script and thought to myself, ‘this couldn’t possibly be any good.’
I put it away, and came back to a few weeks later and read it. That script is essentially what the story is. I didn’t really change anything. I did some editing here and there, because it was kind of long, but essentially the book is exactly what came out of those four days of writing. And then it took me two years to draw if [laughs].
How did it turn into a Web comic? I know there’s a long story involving a Xeric Grant.
From the time I started working on it, I was looking for a publisher, and it pretty much got rejected by everyone twice.
Because of the storyline?
I don’t know why. I didn’t really press them for details. I figured that if they didn’t want it, I’d just move onto the next company.
This was before the whole thing had been drawn?
Yeah. I had about ten pages done when I started shopping it around. After I finished about 15 or 20 pages done, I started doing a comic with Neil Klide on the [comic collective] Chemistry Set called Todt Hill. That became my focus for a while. I was kind of working Fishtown in the background. Towards the end of 2006, I had 23 pages—the first part—done.
I wanted to see if I could get a Xeric Grant and publish it myself. I sent it off, and pretty much forgot about it immediately, because I didn’t think I could win. In the meantime, I had talked to Dean Haspiel and Dan Goldman about bringing it to Act-I-Vate. I thought that would be a good forum. Dean had really like my work on The Chemistry Set, so we decided to give it a shot. I put it up in April, and I thought I would have already heard about the Xeric, if I was going to hear about it at all.
Apparently I didn’t read the documentation well enough, because it actually takes them several months to decide. So I put it up, and the next day I got a note saying “congratulations.” I thought it was great, but then I realized that I might not be able to keep the comic online, so I e-mailed them immediately.
How many pages into it were you?
So far I’d only put up three pages. I told them that I had put it up online and it had gotten a huge response, right off the bat. So we went back and forth for a little while. Their policy at the time was that they couldn’t give me the money and let me still keep it online. Their grant is for things that are previously unpublished. That’s fine—they can do what they want with their money.
Was three pages that big of an issue for them?
No, but I would have had to have stopped immediately. My reason for not accepting the grant was, if I keep it online until these 23 pages are done, I can sell out the entire print run, but if I take it offline and just print it up anyway, I’ll probably be out however many thousands of dollars it takes to print it.
It was ultimately a fact of, I was reaching thousands of people on weekly basis that I would have had to have cut off. And I wouldn’t have had any basis for promotion. The Web serialization is an amazing promotional tool. We’ve seen evidence recently, actually. The best selling graphic novel of last year was Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is more of an illustrated book, but is still the best selling graphic novel of last year, and it was still available entirely online before that. So was Shooting War, Dan Goldman and Anthony Lappe’s book. A large portion of that was online, and that’s doing gangbusters. So, it was just really a marketing decision. Eventually I was going to find a publisher for this, one way or another. And Lo and behold, I did.
You’re up to part three online, right now.
Part three is still going along.
Are all five parts going online?
Yes. It will all be online, eventually.
But there may be bonus material in the book?
There may be a few extra pages artwork in the book. It won’t be storyline, but there will be extra. And the story will be revised, as well.
This has certainly been the subject of a lot of debate recently, but what do you think the appeal is of buying a physical copy of something that’s already available for free online?
I think people still like holding a book. I personally prefer holding a book. That has more to do with my eyes. I get headaches from reading stuff online, which is somewhat ironic, given that my entire career has been pretty much exclusively through Webcomics. I think that people will want to go back to the book and reread it, without turning the computer on.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Website get more traffic, once the book comes out.
Yeah, it will. I still haven’t decided whether it will stay in its complete form for long after it’s in print, but it probably will.
[Continued in Part Two].