The Sinister Secrets Of Smoketown With Phillip Kennedy Johnson, Dustin Fearon Mollick & Scott Van Domelen
by Hannah Means Shannon
Smoketown is an unusual comic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it ran for 8 issues from Scout Comics when many comics only run for four to six these days, but also because it forms a kind of anthology, building to thriller status, set in the same locale and featuring the same characters throughout. The stories are, for the most part, presented in chronological order, and follow different key characters before bringing about a satisfying conclusion to the criminal intrigues in a washed up steel mill town. The lynch-pin of it all is the life and career of an army veteran who returns home with PTSD and gets pulled into local crime, but the themes that Smoketown explores include domestic abuse, murder, human trafficking, economic decline, and the decay of rural America, just to name a few.
Written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson (Warlords of Appalachia, Last Sons of America, Low Road West), drawn by Scott Van Domelen, and colored and lettered by Dustin Fearon Mollick, Smoketown has now been collected in a substantial trade paperback edition landing in shops today. It’s definitely time to pick up the complete saga, and give yourself the opportunity to binge-read a story that’s quite a page-turner regardless of format. Having it all in one volume just makes it that much more tempting to burn through it in one or two sittings.
The entire creative team are joining us on-site today to talk about what went into making Smoketown so haunting.
Hannah Means-Shannon: In this day and age, it’s actually getting strange to see an eight-issue series to a story, rather than a miniseries or a series of ongoing arcs. What does having 8 issues, and in the trade 8 chapters, do for the story, in your opinion?
Phillip Kennedy Johnson: I originally envisioned Smoketown as a series of loosely interconnected one-shots, but we knew we wanted to eventually tie them together into a single narrative. Four or six issues would have been too few to do both, and after some discussions with Scott and Dustin, eight felt like the best length to give each character their time in the spotlight and still bring it all together.
Dustin Fearon Mollick: It forced us to work within a constraint and get the point across without leaving a mess of loose ends. This largely fell on Phillip as the writer, but in our conversations about where the story was going from issue to issue, it was clear we all wanted it to conclude after eight issues.
Scott Van Domelen: I feel having eight issues gave us more time to answer questions, develop the main characters, and add to the overall atmosphere. It also lets each chapter have more space to stand on its own.
HMS: How did working on this book affect your lives over time? Do you feel you made any discoveries about the story or about yourselves as creators along the way?
Dustin: When Phillip asked me to color this book, I immediately said “Yes”, and started watching online courses on coloring comics. My only experience as a colorist at that point was coloring my own work, which was largely three-panel comic strips about snarky musicians. It was a huge shift from candy-colored gag strips to the gritty, violent world of Smoketown.
Scott: There were four or five months toward the end of the run where I had to put everything in my life on hold that wasn’t work related. There was a ton of sitting. I was either sitting at one job, or sitting at the other job, or sitting in traffic, or sitting at the drawing board drawing Bernie the cop. My wife was super supportive and made sure I remembered to do the important things, like dress myself and eat. Something I learned about myself was that I can get pretty attached to characters and feel bad when I draw them in tough situations. Something I learned from Smoketown is that when the story is good, I’m happy to go through all of this again and again.
HMS: What does the overall story of Smoketown mean to you? We’ll avoid spoilers here, but what are some of the ideas you think are important or interesting in the comic?
Phillip: Smoketown began as a story about small-town Americans with serious problems who often feel discarded or invisible: victims of domestic abuse, soldiers with PTSD, human trafficking victims, etc. But partway through the series, it became more about the small town itself, and the way those towns have a tendency to trap their residents…not just them, but entire generations of their families. Little blue-collar communities like Smoketown create these local dynasties of people who at some point all wanted to escape, but all eventually got trapped there and came to accept it. That’s a fascinating concept to me, and I wanted to explore it in a comic.
Dustin: I loved seeing the worst of each character before learning about their (often violent) past.
Scott: So many of the characters have to do something very difficult to break out of whatever crappy or dead-end chapter of their life they are in. The tone of Smoketown is dark but it’s still inspiring to watch a character do this really hard thing. They try to become what they feel is a better version of themselves, even when the price of failure could be their life. To me, it’s a story about self-reliance and deep inner resolve.
HMS: Phillip, as I understand it, the creation of Smoketown has an unusual history, starting off with an initial idea and then spinning out into an over-arching plot in the same location with interconnected characters. What were the challenges of creating a story in that way?
Phillip: Yeah, the story began as a one-shot called Killing Marcus, and it had a definitive ending. When Jim Pruett at Scout called and wanted to make it into a series, the team was excited to do it, but it definitely took some figuring out… how do we take this one-and-done story and make it bigger? But I’d always wanted to do an anthology series, and this was the perfect opportunity to try it. It was fun to think through what would have come later for the main character, bring in new characters, and give them all their own stories…The biggest challenge was bringing them together into one narrative. I would have happily done an endless series of one-shots about characters in Smoketown, but we felt it was important to unify the narratives by the end, and that ended up being the trickiest part.
HMS: I think it’s fair to say that Jen is a protagonist of some variety, as we see her gradually surrounded by a lot of unsavory characters and threats. What do you think are her core traits, and what made her interesting to write about?
Phillip: In a nutshell, Jen is a perfect example of the lifelong small-town native: she got a part-time job in town, married her high school boyfriend, had a kid, and never left. And she was happy there, until her husband got back from Afghanistan and everything started going wrong. She’s interesting because she keeps trying to take control of her situation, and even as different people keep trying to take control of her or manipulate her for their own ends, she continues to do hard, sometimes bad things in an attempt to take control of her fate and the fate of her daughter. Jen gets backed into the corner a lot in Smoketown, and over the course of the series, both she and the reader learn what she’s capable of.
HMS: The whole idea about landscape in Smoketown is pretty awesome in a dark way—that there’s a place with steaming sinkholes and that people seem to get sucked into the town itself and never leave, either. Why bring in horror-ish setting elements and other psychological horror aspects to a story that’s already pretty dramatic? Why is that essential to Smoketown, too?
Phillip: Aside from the tendency of small towns to trap their residents, another theme in the book is the contagious nature of violence, and of mental illness. Nearly every issue of the series has a moment in which a main character speaks to someone who’s dead, often to someone they themselves killed. When a character in Smoketown kills another character, the victim infects the mind of the person who killed them… the voices in the victim’s head become the voices in the killer’s, and the cycle of violence is perpetuated.
And as horrifying as the town of Centralia is—a town built over a coal mine that’s been on fire for 60 years—it’s a very real place, and the perfect metaphor for the way small towns hold onto their people. Even when the ground under their feet was literally opening up, swallowing buildings, and belching poison into the air, a fair number of Centralia residents still refused to leave, or didn’t feel like they could. A handful of people live in Centralia even now, despite the fact that it’s become a literal hellhole.
HMS: Scott and Dustin, can you talk a little about how working on Smoketown fit into your previous interest and work with comics? What sort of process did you follow on each issue/chapter, and how much did you know about where the story was headed?
Dustin: Smoketown really represents a beginning in my art career. I learned so many new skills in preparation for this project, and from coloring Scott’s art, that I don’t know where my art would be without it.
I never knew where the story was going beyond reading the script for the issue I was coloring. Phillip’s such a busy guy that even those scripts were often incomplete! At times it was a page-by-page affair.
Scott: Before Smoketown, I was much more interested in working with fantasy, sci-fi, and superheroes. I’m coming away from this experience with a greater appreciation of the sort of gravity a realistic story can have. Our process involved a whole lot of texting. Ideas, thumbnails, corrections, layouts, etc. There was a general idea of where the arc was going to go, but the fates of individuals characters were sort of up in the air.
HMS: If you had to describe the aesthetics of Smoketown, what words would you choose? How did you decide how you wanted the mood of the story to feel, and what were some of the ways you created it?
Dustin: Smoketown starts off in a bad place and only gets worse.
The primary goal of a colorist is to enhance the storytelling through focus. Color can draw your eye through a page more effectively than just black and white line-art, so I tried to take Scott’s art and push the mood, atmosphere, and focus as much as possible.
Scott: Stale. Crumbling. Burnt. I hope it’s not giving too much away by saying there is an old mailbox in the book. At some point it stood tall and strong, somewhat defiant. Now it’s old, rusty, surrounded by weeds, abandoned. To me, it represents the atmosphere that is hanging over the characters. If they don’t do something to change, this is how they’ll end up. It’s one of my favorite images in the book.
HMS: Without giving too much away, there are some psychological horror elements in the story, as well as plenty of gore and violence. What were some of your thoughts on how to present that in a way that would affect the reader consistently? Were there any artistic choices you made that you feel worked particularly well?
Dustin: As a colorist, your job is more often to elevate than to create. Scott’s art style left room for me to add lighting, shadows, and rendering which allowed me more room to create. One of my favorite “creations” was the red glow as certain characters were visited by their demons. This became a tool I used throughout the series, almost independently of the line-art. Even if their demons were off-panel, the eerie glow made sure you knew what was coming.
Scott: For the violence and gore, I tried to be as detailed as I could within the time frame of our deadlines. Be generous with the blood. Give those guts some heft. Make it more specific, visceral. I tried to reflect the horror elements in the characters’ eyes. Dustin’s colors really pushed it over the top, though. Some of the finished panels still freak me out.
Thanks to Phillip, Dustin, and Scott for taking part in this interview and humoring all my questions!
Smoketown TPB collects issues #1 through #8,and hits shops from Scout Comics, today, November 7th, 2018 so pick it up and wander into this dark exploration of legacy and locale.