Smells Like Teen Carnage

A Philly comics writer turns a Fishtown murder into grim art.

By Alli Katz
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 20, 2007

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Smoking in the girls' room: 'Fishtown' explores the dark side of human nature.

"The irony of this story taking place in the City of Brotherly Love was powerful," says comics writer/artist Kevin Colden. His new work Fishtown is loosely based on the true story of a particularly brutal murder in the Philly neighborhood.

Colden, a native Philadelphian now living in New York, has drawn comics for the past 10 years. A founding member of the comics collective Chemistry Set, his work has appeared in Alternative Comics' True Porn 2. He also did the artwork for Red, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that made serious waves when it came out last year.

Colden's first long solo piece Fishtown is the talk of the comic world--in no small part because Colden refused a prestigious Xeric Foundation grant in order to publish Fishtown a few pages at a time on the online forum Act-I-Vate.

Fishtown is a dark psychological tale that reads like a fresh version of an old true crime pulp novel. It tells the story of the 2003 murder of 16-year-old Jason Sweeney by a group of his friends. Justina Morley, Sweeney's first-ever girlfriend, is a worthy femme fatale (or, as the attorney for one of the other defendants called her, a "queen of evil"). With the promise of sex, she lured Jason into the bushes where three boys ambushed him. They beat him to death and then engaged in a group hug. They then stole Sweeney's paycheck and used it to buy alcohol, drugs and deodorant.

The Sweeney murder riveted Philadelphia with its viciousness. It also attracted Colden's attention. "I wanted to try to wrap my head around it, and realized that was the book I should write," says Colden. He uses the story as inspiration, weaving in elements from other murders and adding a healthy dose of fiction.

"I didn't think anyone involved would want to revisit the incident ... there are still a few real elements peppered throughout, but all the incidents and interactions are fictional," he says.

Despite this approach, Colden took hundreds of reference photos of the neighborhood, and is working hard to recreate the atmosphere and culture. Fishtown becomes a character in and of itself--not the hipster-ridden, art-show Fishtown, but the Fishtown of old row homes and families that have lived in the neighborhood for decades.

Natives have noticed.

Colden says he's heard from a number of Fishtowners who remember the murder. Some comments posted on his website compliment the accuracy of his drawing. Another, posted by a fourth-generation Fishtowner, reads: "You have really captured the feel in a few short panels. Not just of the place, but the emotions involved as well."

"I used [the murder] as a framework to build a philosophical book," says Colden. "To explore the dark side of human nature."

It's the dark complexity of the killers that seems to fascinate Colden most--how a group of young people could murder a friend so viciously. Although Colden says the teens in Fishtown differ from those presented by the sensationalist media, "they still do destructive, amoral things. And I don't shy away from showing it."

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