Today, Taylor and Mark are discussing Rock Candy Mountain 1, originally released April 5th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railway bulls are blind
There’s a lake of stew
And of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
Harry McClintock, “Big Rock Candy Mountain”
Taylor: Like a lot of people, one of my first introductions to the world of folk music was through the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. Made up entirely of traditional American folk songs, the soundtrack is a classic on which it’s hard to pick a favorite tune. Still, if I had to chose one song from that tracklist, I might just go with “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” It has everything you would expect in a folk song. A catchy little melody, a simple rhyme scheme, and of course, lyrics that are at once wistful and cynical. Writer and artist Kyle Starks makes no bones about this song being the source material for his new Rock Candy Mountain series, but how does it stack up next to the old ditty?
The premise of this book is simple and straightforward enough, just like most folk songs. A mysterious stranger named Jackson is on the run from the devil himself for reasons we don’t know. He boards a midnight train and meets up with perpetually down-on-his-luck “Pomona” who is on his way back to Kentucky to try his hand in the exterminator business. Before long, they run into trouble and get into a hobo fight that lands them on a different train going the wrong direction, putting Jackson’s quest to find the fabled Rock Candy Mountain in jeopardy.
This story sounds innocent enough. But just as folk lyrics are innocent at first glance and cynical on the second, so too is this story. Sure, there are fights and characters of ill repute, but what makes this issue one that’s not for the kids is the foul language. Very early on, Starks makes it clear that this series is intended for adult audiences only through the copious use of profane language. This gives the issue a gritty, dark feeling but is also surprisingly funny too.
As Pomona watches Jackson derail some evil hobos with his fists, he quips that the man must have “punch diarrhea.” This scatological reference is at once gross, weird, and funny and perfectly blends encapsulates the tone of many folk song lyrics. “Big Rock Candy Mountain” sounds like an innocent song until you realize it’s about a place where booze is free, crime is legal, and vice is embraced. Just so, Rock Candy Mountain seems like an innocent yarn at first but it’s language quickly strips it of any purity. Starks’ establishment of this dichotomy in the first issue of the series promises a story that is unexpectedly dark and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with this motif in later issues.
The straightforward nature of the story is reflected in Starks’ artwork as well. Starks favors clean, bold lines here, which makes for a style that at first seems simplistic. However, this simplicity lends itself very well to the action sequences that dominate the last third of the book. Take, for example, when Jackson and Pomona jump from one speeding train to the next as they pass each other in the night.
Starks doesn’t clutter up any of the panels on this page by adding unnecessary motion or contour lines. Instead, he uses dynamic camera angels, like in the second, third, and fifth, panels to imbue this scene with danger and suspense. Along the same lines, he uses the postures and positions of Jackson and Pomona to show that they are in danger of careening off a speeding train. The clever thing that Starks does here, though, is to work in motion lines into the background of each panel. This is easy to miss at first, but on second read it becomes apparent these soft lines in the background actually do a lot to show that the train these characters are on is moving at perilously fast speeds. Folk songs are often simple tunes, easy to remember and easy to play, but in many ways are actually pretty complex. Just so is Starks artwork.
Given how smart all of these choices are, it’s curious to think about the color in this issue. Nearly half this book is shaded in a tone of of blue, apparently Chris Schweizer’s solution to depicting scenes at night. While this simple color palette matches Starks artwork in a way, and while it’s actually kind of impressive just how many shades of blue he uses, I found myself wishing we had less sequences like this…
…and more with dynamic ranges of color. It’s clear that Schweizer can work with a broader color range, as he demonstrates in the earlier pages of the issue, so it’s curious to see him resort to such a uniform idea here. By no means does this coloring detract from the issue, rather it just leaves me wondering “what if” when it comes to satisfying my pigment palate.
Still, I could see my dislike of these blue scenes as being a matter of taste. Mark! What do you think, do you dig the blues? What do you make of Marion and his evil hobo cronies? And after all is said and done, do you think you’ll remember this song the way most folk tunes work their way into most people’s heads?
Mark: I agree that in isolation the use of the same shade of blue over and over in successive panels can make for a boring read, but I think part of that dullness is an unavoidable weakness of ComiXology’s Guided View for this issue. Going back through the pages in full-page view better showcases the choices Schweizer made. Take for instance Jackson’s beat-down of Marion and his boys; Schweizer employs a subtle transition from blue to purple that gets lost when viewing the panels in isolation but works really well on the page.
Purple continues as the dominant color for another couple of pages until Jackson and Pomona jump from the moving train, when the outside’s yellow light catches their bodies, and the blues and purples of the previous pages are all used to greater effect.
These are all panels you highlighted previously, Taylor, but they’re worth reprinting in full sequence to show the dynamism of Schweizer’s work when it comes together at the climax of the issue.
But while the color work may be best viewed from a macro level, the structure and sequencing of Rock Candy Mountain 1 suffers when viewed under the same lens. The story opens with a dynamic sequence where Satan — dressed not dissimilarly to a blood-soaked Colonel Sanders — dismembers and otherwise gores the inhabitants of a hobo encampment. It’s a striking way to begin the issue, to be sure. A similar tactic was employed in the first ever episode of the Game of Thrones television series with a surprise White Walker attack in the forest. But where Game of Thrones was able to integrate its shocking cold open into the action of the episode in a meaningful way (Ned Stark is forced to decapitate the attack’s survivor for abandoning his post), Rock Candy Mountain 1‘s opening moments feel completely divorced from the rest of the action. In fact, by the end of my initial read through, I had completely forgotten the moment even happened. Satan’s rampage feels like a more natural ending for the issue, a cliffhanger of sorts, rather than a gonzo opening that the rest of the story fails to exploit.
And I have to admit that the more “adult” elements of the issue didn’t work for me. There certainly is a striking dichotomy between the cartoony art and the salty language, but to what end? “Cock sucker” was probably a common refrain on the rails, but Starks clearly isn’t working to present an accurate portrayal of hobo life. And since characters of all types curse, the words’ uses don’t tell us anything about the people swearing. Further, if the joke is that cartoons can say “ass,” that’s a hard sell in a world where South Park hasn’t been considered outrageous for more than a decade. That “FUCKING” is the second word readers encounter might have been a mission statement of sorts, but without a reason for their use — character, thematic, or otherwise — the issue’s swears come across as a juvenile’s attempt to present as mature. It’s unfortunate because it’s so unnecessary.
There’s a lot to like about Rock Candy Mountain, but it’s dying to be stripped bare. Like a teenager pretending to be something they’re not in an effort to be “cool,” I just want to grab Rock Candy Mountain by the shoulders and shake it until it realizes it’s good enough as it is. Strip away the posturing — the affected cursing, the opaque characters, the narrative confusion posing as mystery — and you have the base studs of a fun book.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?