Miners & monsters in the quest for coal:
Daniel Boyd’s Carbon
West Virginia writer and film director Daniel Boyd’s graphic novel Carbon is a horror comic in which coal is a monster. Its first chapter, a creation story involving hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon, is narrated by God himself. The story includes brave, exploited miners, soulless corporate bosses, and West Virginia mountain people living in a crippled environment of stripped mountaintops, poisoned waters, and billowing smokestacks. Add to that a deeply buried form of coal that burns forever, a sleeping (though not for long) race of carbon-based beasts, and swarms of flying, cave-dwelling she-demons hungry for men. It’s hard to tell which aspect of the book — the actual or the fantastic — is more frightening.
Boyd, a native West Virginian, got an education in coal towns during the early 1980s, when he took a position at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in the heart of Mingo County’s mining country. “The area is dirty, all the way around,” Boyd said in a phone call from his home in Charleston, West Virginia. “Dust is literally covering the houses and on the cars and in the air around you. These areas are rather isolated and people don’t pay attention to what that does to health.” Boyd knew that his message — pro-environment with an inside-out twist on conventional religion — might not be well received in his home state. “I had mixed feelings about doing the book,” he said. “West Virginia is a dysfunctional state, but it’s my state. I don’t want to say that I’m anti-coal — coal’s been necessary. But the transition to something else should have been done years ago. The coal industry has stalled progress in the state for 20 years. And climate change didn’t just come about yesterday.”
The book’s social and environmental messages blend surprisingly well with its voracious dragon ladies, bituminous giants, and action-packed escape scenes. It’s not hard to see symbolism in the story’s fantastic elements. “It’s absolutely an allegory,” said Boyd, who’s been an assistant professor of communications at West Virginia State University for 23 years. “I love myths and world religions, and yes, I wanted to get all those symbolic things in there. But it’s still entertainment. I always tell my film students, don’t be afraid to be an entertainer. It’s the best way to enlighten your audience. The things that change the world come from pop culture. We’re all burnt out on cable news networks and pundits. But a movie like Selma? That’s going to change people. The antinuclear movement of the 1980s got going after The
China Syndrome came out. I’m one that believes that pop culture is a powerful tool.”
In his introduction to the book, film director John Sayles calls Carbon a “Lovecraftian gorefest, religious picture book and political allegory.” The director and Boyd became acquaintances when Boyd spent time working on the set of Matewan, Sayles’ 1987 account of an effort by West Virginia miners to unionize in 1920. “John was a mentor to the film industry in West Virginia,” Boyd said. “I was an emerging filmmaker, doing local documentaries and short films. He had become the darling of my generation with Return of
the Secaucus 7 and Brother From Another Planet. And there I was, watching John, standing next to [director of cinematography] Haskell Wexler. It got me close to filmmaking. A few days on the Matewan set and I learned more than I learned in film schools.”
Boyd went on to write, direct, and produce a handful of cult classics, including 1987’s Chillers and 1990’s Strangest Dreams: Invasion of the Space Preachers. Chillers has spun off two graphic novels of strange, Twilight Zone-inspired stories. Putting together the Chillers comics is where Boyd first came into contact with illustrator Edi Guedes, part of the Brazilian artists’ collective Rascunho Studio. Guedes, said Boyd, had not been to West Virginia and, he believed, had never been outside of Brazil. “I’ve never actually met Edi in
The book’s social and environmental messages blend surprisingly well with its voracious dragon ladies, bituminous giants, and actionpacked escape scenes. It’s not hard to see symbolism in the story’s fantastic elements. “It’s absolutely an allegory,” said Boyd.
person,” Boyd confessed. “But after seeing his work, I knew he was who I wanted. Everything we communicated had to go through a translator. The writing was very specific, something like a shooting script in filmmaking. An artist like me, coming from screenwriting, writes in the moment; you have to. So I was very thorough, took it piece by piece and sent support materials.” Boyd, who said the West Virginia landscape, with its bald mountaintops squeezing in on valley towns, was critical to Carbon’s story, forwarded Google images of mining sites and snapshots he would take of the surrounding countryside to Guedes. “The geography, the landscape is so important to the story,” said Boyd. “I don’t think he got it quite right but I like what he came with.”
The narrative scrolls much like a movie. It’s carried by the young protagonist, a once-promising baseball pitcher with the nickname “Heat,” whose chance to go professional is stymied by injury. In a town familiar with failure, Heat’s unsuccessful attempt to make it in baseball makes him the object of scorn. Taking on work as a miner under particularly monstrous conditions gives Heat a chance at redemption. “America is too young to have a mythology except for baseball,” Boyd said. “It’s the closest thing we have to a myth. I wanted to take the larger allegory and mythos of the story and put a little Americana in it.”
Boyd wrote an afterword to the novel, in which he takes a historical and rather dismal view of the issues surrounding coal, both labor and environmental. “If coal is at the center of climate change, then West Virginia is at the center of coal.” He added an addendum after the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill contaminated drinking water for some 300,000 West Virginians, including those in Boyd’s home of Charleston. “Unlike
Carbon, this incident is not sensationalized fiction set in an isolated area, far from public view like our coal fields. This is real, and began right in the middle of our state capital before spreading to eight surrounding counties,” he wrote, accusing the perpetrators of being shell corporations tied to mining, and belittling the state’s governor for declaring that the spill was not related to the coal industry. “The only thing the governor clarified for me is who buys his drinks.”
Despite his insinuation of corruption, Boyd said he’s “absolutely” a capitalist. “I believe in the American dream, believe it’s why we’re the greatest country in the world. Not all the coal guys are evil. I’ve met [coal company owners] of great integrity. But this conversation will be moot in five years. The change [to clean energy] is already happening. All we’re seeing now is the smoke of politicians and business. It’s one of my main lessons and the theme of Carbon: balance. Every ancient text, any set of ethics and morals on how to live, they all say we must maintain our balance with the earth.”
Boyd has just finished the sequel to Carbon. It’s entitled Salt and concentrates on the fracking of natural gas. “Coal mining’s declining as we go to natural gas, but that process has its problems, too. The say it’s good for the economy. But what good is money if the world is dying?”
“Carbon” by Daniel Boyd was published by Caliber Comics.