By Kevin Colden
When I first reviewed Fishtown, back in January, the artist was using Act-i-vate to publish a page a week of the book, which is based on a true story and follows four Philadelphia teens who brutally murder and rob their friend Jesse (the character’s name in the book). Now Fishtown is out in hardcover, courtesy of IDW, which means that readers can take in the rest of what began as an emotionally charged, upsetting, and incredibly well executed comic.
In the latter part of the book, Colden maintains the same narrative distance with which he starts. He reserves passing judgment on the kids, focusing instead on fleshing out the characters and approaching the tale as something of a question or a puzzle. This feat is particularly impressive given that this section of the book includes a reenactment of the murder. Colden’s drawings–whether they show the run-down Philly neighborhood of Fishtown all in inky yellow and blue and black or the horrifying scene of Jason’s slain body, stained in pink blood–are haunting. But the most affecting panels are the ones depicting the four teens—Adrian, Keith, Justin, and Angelica—committing the act of murder.
Narrow close-up panels of each character slow down the action of the boys bearing down upon Jesse with a brick, a hatchet, and a rock—and of Angelica as she stands by and watches; the staccato rhythm of these spreads points out the deliberateness, the intentionality, of the act, which fills the reader with disbelief. We want to dismiss this as fiction, but we can’t; instead, we wonder: How on earth could they do this? What possessed them?
The word “possession” seems particularly apt in some cases. Colden paints Angelica essentially as the devil, overlaying phrases from a letter she wrote to Justin while in prison with scenes of her crying in front of the police and offering a damning testimony against the boys. The letter suggests serious mental instability—if the story has not already done so—as Angelica confesses her love for Justin, swears she would never betray him, and contemplates the difficulty of crying in order to make the police believe she is remorseful. And when the boys climb into the back of a police van where she sits waiting, she flashes her breasts at them and smiles a vixen smile.
At first it seems that Colden has overdone it a bit in this portrayal, but research about the real crime will tell any reader that he actually may have underdone it—if such a thing is possible. Consider a sentence quoted in the press from the real Angelica’s (Justina Morley’s) letter: “I’m a cold-hearted, death-worshipping bitch who survives by feeding off the weak and lonely. I lure them and then I crush them.”
At the close of the book, the four murderers walk to the courthouse with photographers and a crowd yelling behind them. Angelica and Keith smirk and laugh, seeming to feel no remorse; Adrian looks ready to fight; and Justin looks like a deer in headlights. The group is a picture of disturbing ambiguity. Then, once they are inside, Keith is called into a room, the first to be questioned by an invisible psychiatrist, and the last panel of the story becomes the first.
In that moment, Colden locks the reader into a chilling cycle of violence and betrayal, and the only way out is to shut the book and push it aside. Even then, it’s too late to pretend it never happened.