Thursday, October 9, 2014

“A Light in Darkened Spaces”: A Review of Carbon (Writer, Daniel Boyd; Illustrator, Edi Guedes)

“A Light in Darkened Spaces”: A Review of Carbon (Writer, Daniel Boyd; Illustrator, Edi Guedes) (Caliber Comics, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-9857493-3-0)

Carbon is a fantastical tale that marries new Creation mythology with the very real coal-mining-culture-at-a-crossroads narrative now happening in southern West Virginia. Daniel Boyd, a three-time Fulbright scholar and Media Studies professor at West Virginia State University, has recently joined the ranks of accomplished filmmakers (he is known for Chillers, among many others) who are utilizing the graphic novel format to tell their stories. Cinematically illustrated by Brazilian Edi Guedes (with great attention to light and dark and mise en scène), Carbon tackles the tough questions and points an unapologetic finger at large Energy Corporations and state-level politicians.
Before I go into the characters and story, a little context is called for. Having lived in West Virginia for the past 7 years, I have watched from an outsider’s perspective as the Obama “war on coal” has been playing out, and also experiencing through close friends the increased presence (and resulting damage to property, roads, and people’s lives) of the energy industry practice known as “fracking.”
While recently researching WV politicians from the late 1800s for a cultural history project I was writing and for a Web series I acted in, I learned a lot about how little has changed since the state was founded during the Civil War in 1863. Coal was the means to solidifying the fledging state’s economic future and by the late 1880s all political policy was aimed toward that end. Politicians owned coal companies, and invested in them, as well as in all the corollary industries they spawned. Incidents like the Matewan massacre (the subject of a film by John Sayles, who wrote the Carbon Introduction) and the Monongah (1907), Sago (2006), and Upper Big Branch (2010) mining disasters, as well as the 2013 chemical spill near the state’s capital that made water unsafe for use by 350,000 citizens in the midst of one of the worst winters on record, have made an indelible imprint on the lives and psyche of West Virginians. I have seen plays about and been to the memorial for the miners at Monongah. This is sobering, complex stuff.
I purchased 3 acres in north-central WV nearly a decade ago, looking to get away from the changing landscape and personality of my home town in Jersey post-9/11, when deep-pocketed New Yorkers began to flee the city and relocate at the scenic shore. My wife and I, environmentally minded as we are, were anxious to give our children a simpler, more nature-connected experience of life. So it has been ironic and disheartening to watch the knife-edge dance between natural beauty and the way of life one would expect in the mountains and forests of the state and Big Energy. No. Better make that BIG ENERGY. Because of the social justice and arts entrepreneurial work I do, I have sat on several business and community service boards, attended state-wide leadership programs, and gotten to meet, talk to, and even introduce at high-level events a broad array of state politicians, up to and including the governor and a few U.S. Congressmen.
But I am, unlike Daniel Boyd, an Outsider. Something of which I have been constantly and straightforwardly reminded. So I don’t say much, though I have decided to move my family and my theatre company out of state the middle of next year.
Given this background, it was with great interest, after meeting Boyd at the West Virginia Writers Conference in June of 2014 (where he and I shared the stage with Bram Stoker Award Winner Michael Knost to read from our books—all, ironically, about sons returning to the coal fields they had tried to escape) that I read Carbon.
Coming from a Horror background, Boyd employs some variations on familiar tropes: a demon species spawned in the process of the humans-employing-Free-Will-and-God-letting-them of his Creation myth and a sort of Super-Coal that burns continuously that drives the Big Bad in the story (the head of an Energy company) to do some out-sized and horrific things (although they have clear analogs in the “real world” of Energy companies cutting costs by compromising safety in order to bulge their bottom line and fund their political payola…).
In the midst of all the Fantastical is a down-home redemption story about a local baseball hero who comes oh-so-close to the Big Leagues but blows it on a crucial pitch and is forced into the mines where his father was killed several years earlier.
As I’ve learned in my decades-long study of Story and Structure, it’s all about that identifiable hero, the one with the major flaw with which we all can identify—no matter how fantastic the genre. It’s what makes the Spielberg remake of War of the Worlds work, and why “historical” films like Pearl Harbor and Apollo 13 are compelling and watchable although we know the outcomes. It’s what made TV series like Lost and Supernatural initially so fascinating despite their outlandish, fantastical worlds and well-traveled tropes. 
Like a carefully constructed film, Carbon’s dialogue is secondary to, and in service of, image, but the characters are well defined and succeed in illuminating various aspects of the central theme. And, most importantly, Boyd honors the coal miners (to whom the book is dedicated), much in the way that twenty-first-century America has done a better job of honoring Veterans by separating those who serve in the Armed Forces from the profit-enhancing corporate-patsy politicians who send them into War Zones for less than honorable reasons.
And, in the end, this is very much the point of Carbon, and what makes the “coal mining/energy question” in West Virginia so thorny and compelling: It is not the working person who is at fault, but the Profiteers (the real-life demons in the darkness) who put them in harm’s way and wreak havoc with the natural landscape and the health and happiness of those who haven’t got a voice.

Kudos to Daniel Boyd for giving them a Voice, and creating a wonderfully entertaining and fantastical journey in the process. Perhaps, like I am now compelled to do through this review, others who have been silent will now begin to speak.

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