Min­ers & mon­sters in the quest for coal:

Daniel Boyd’s Car­bon

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPOS - Bill Kohlhaase

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.

Text and im­ages from Car­bon; cour­tesy Cal­iber Comics

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