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Trying To Find The Hobo Promised Land In Rock Candy Mountain: An Interview With Kyle Starks

Written by Tim Midura on Wednesday, August 30 2017 and posted in News with Benefits

Trying To Find The Hobo Promised Land In Rock Candy Mountain: An Interview With Kyle Starks

On Hobo Code, Wuxia, and how many cats Starks could fight at once.

Source: Image Comics

Tim: Where did you first come across Big Rock Candy Mountain?

Kyle: The song? That's a good question I get asked pretty frequently. I feel like I've always known it. I've done some degree of detective work because I've been asked so many times. I suspect it came from early '80s daytime Disney Channel stuff. It would always show black and white historical things. I thought it was a song that everybody knew. I was pretty shocked when I would be describing what I thought was such a clever name for my hobo book to people and got blank stares back since they didn't know the song.

That's why we ended up doing that backmatter for issue one with Dr. Newsom about the history of that song because the history of that song is dark. I think probably for most people in these modern times it's from O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I thought it was one of those that everybody knew.

Tim: Did you have any familiarity with hobo code before researching Rock Candy Mountain?

Kyle: I had seen it and I knew that it existed. I feel like that I've been doing research on hobos concurrently. It wasn't for a book. I can't remember why I was reading about hobos. Sometimes you find yourself reading about things. My idea of hobo culture and society was far different than when I started reading about that culture. I knew it existed, but it all seemed so weird and alien, some goofy homeless people thing. But of course, that's farthest from the truth. Those are safety signs. That's how you keep from getting beat up in someone's yard.

Tim: I like how the back of the issues have one code each so you can slowly learn hobo code over time.

Kyle: Yeah, I'm trying to sync them up with that month's story.

Tim: Can you describe your method acting process to get into your hobo characters heads?

Kyle: Oh man. I've never been asked such a thing. For my stuff, not like the Rick & Morty stuff, I don't really use a script or anything. One of my peers Andy Hirsch, who I think is a brilliant cartoonist, said it's like a comic book improv. So I don't know. I knew what kind of person Jackson was going into writing dialogue or even the choices he would be making. He was the original character and he has a very real history that shows up in issue five. I think for a character like that it's very easy to relate to.

I just try to find a place to insert a little bit of jargon without it being jargon. I think it's really important for period pieces to include those things, but not include them in a way that draws the reader out. If you don't know what they're reading, it's worthless. But Jackson doesn't talk a whole lot, I mean he does, but not as much as Pomona. I think he's the least chatty character outside of Big Sis who doesn't talk at all. He's on a mission. He's just so serious.

Tim: What went into the decision to set the book after World War II? Was that a boon for hobos following the war?

Kyle: The colorist on the book Chris Schweizer is an amazing cartoonist. He does historical fiction books for Oni Press. Crogan Adventures, etc, etc. When I was telling him about this book he was like "You gotta do it during the Great Depression because that's the golden age of hobos." Which is fair. I think it really was. There were hobos before in like the 1880s because trains were around, but during the Great Depression people had to travel around to find money. So there were more people hopping trains to go find work. So, he's right. It is the golden age. But, Jackson's history and the events that fall upon him are central to the story and that involves World War II. So it had to be a certain number of years after World War II for the series of experiences that character has.

Also, to a certain degree, I based the story structure on sort of a kung fu movie genre called Wuxia. Which are sort of these lightly supernatural travel stories with a super moral good guy. Which I don't have because I didn't realize that until after. There wasn't an American version of it so I wanted to do a very American version of that specific story type which doesn't exist. I feel like post World War II is when America was becoming... I hesitate to say great in this political climate, but that was the time. We left our little bubble to do something we hadn't done. I feel like we really flourished as a country and defined what we wanted to be as a country. It felt like the most American time. I could have set it after World War I, maybe. Maybe? No, I couldn't have. But that was important to me. Shit gets weird in World War II. Some stuff goes down.

I think issue five isn't very funny. But it was never my intention to write a jokey-jokey-jokey book. Just like it's not my intention to write a fighty-fighty-fighty book. I want to tell the types of stories I want to involve myself in, which are funny and have action in them. I think issue five is the most serious issue I've written and maybe my best issue. A lot of the mysteries of Jackson are going to answered in that.

Tim: You touch on Jackson's history a bit. Is he based on a historical hobo or is that coming from you?

Kyle: The only character that is based on a real, outside of the literal actual Devil, the only character that is even remotely based on someone else is Boss Flimbo, who is the head of the hobo mafia. In the pretense of the book, Boss Flimbo's dad owns a bunch of railroad lines, so that's why the mafia exists because you have to do what the boss' son says. But it's based on an actual guy, James Eads Howe. He was a hobo millionaire and he just wanted to live this off the grid life. Dude was loaded. I think it's so fascinating. Dr. Newsom writes a really good essay about him in issue four. He was going to write something else, but Dr. Newsom is now researching hobo stuff like I did. So he came across Howe and had to write about him. It's unbelievable. Pomona is just a failed actor. Even Flimbo doesn't really line up. They're just my characters. But I did know Dr. Newsom was going to write that article so I really wanted to drop that reference in there. The Devil I don't know if he's actually real. You'll have to base that on your own philosophical beliefs.

Tim: The Devil has been portrayed in media in every different way possible. What went into your version of The Devil?

Kyle: I wanted him to look different than everybody else. He has your sort of traditional tiny mustache, red face, tiny horns, generic Devil look. Which I'm totally okay with writing a clear trope for clarity of story, but he's also completely a dandy. He's a fancy boy. I wanted that to play off of how everyone else in the story is in the dirt getting their hands dirty day to day. He's above it all. He's based on an actual guy too, Robert de Montesquiou. Which is the most dandy name too. Apparently, when people say dandy, they're just thinking about this one dude. Which I think is hilarious. He's always dressed to the nines and he looks like he doesn't want to get his shoes dirty. I think that the Devil doesn't want to get his hands dirty. He's just philosophically evil. He doesn't want to walk around Earth. Earth is for the other ones. Everyone is below the Devil. And he's fancy. Everyone is wearing shitty old coats.

Tim: Will the trade collect the back matter from the single issues or are they single issue exclusive?

Kyle: The back matter? That's sort of the modern comic climate. You throw that back matter in there as sort of an incentive to buy the single issues, since you're going to get stuff in there you won't get in the trade. I would like to, but that's the whole point of it. (Laughs) Those guys did such good work. Now, issues two and three sold out almost immediately. I think issue one is sold out too. So all those great essays are sort of lost to time. We're gonna hope for Rock Candy Mountain to be such a big deal that I can do a sweet sweet hardback omnibus. I don't know. I'd like to collect it all with all of it together at some point.

Tim: It's good incentive to buy the single issues.

Kyle: Dr. Newsom wrote two essays and Benito Cereno wrote one about the Devil. They're all great. They're so informative and interesting. We'll have four more in the next four issues.

Tim: Sexcastle and Kill Them All were OGNs. Why make Rock Candy Mountain a serialized book?

Kyle: Here's why. I really like doing a 200 page story. I think that's the best format for the type of story I want to tell. I think pacing is very important. Doing pacing for a comedy and action sequences over 22 pages is difficult. Doing it over 35 pages is easier because you can do one more page of fight sequences or blah, blah, blah. There's that for one. Secondly, I don't think American consumers will buy an OGN from someone they don't know. But I think they will buy an OGN they recognize because there is a series. It was me hoping to see what the economy of the business was. And I like it. I like doing a 200 page story straight through better, but I like having month to month interactions. I don't have to wait four months and another two months before I hear anything about it. It's nice to have that monthly interaction and all the extra stuff. That's why I did it. If I lived in another country, I think you could maybe go straight to trade, but I don't think you can really do that in America.

Tim: I just read Butts [an 8 page, quarter page mini-comic about butts] before we started recording and I think that's the perfect format. Just 8 pages, you're in and you're out.

Kyle: I wish that I could do Butts forever. Did you read it digitally?

Tim: My brother has a physical copy.

Kyle: That's a collector's item now. (Pause) No, it's probably not. I always wanted to do a second one called Butts 2 sttuB. It would have a 2 in the middle and butts would be spelled backwards on the other side. I really thought I'd be doing fun little mini-comics, but I don't have time. I'm doing four books. I don't have time for mini-comics. I wish there was because I love them. They're a nice thing to have. I think that was $1 for that little book. It's got a great love letter to butts.

Tim: You just mentioned you're doing four books. How do you find a balance between creator-owned and work-for-hire?

Kyle: Well, that's a good question. There's pros and cons to each, for sure. In different ways to each other, they're faster than the other one is. I draw Rick & Morty every fifth issue, but it's pretty rare that I'm drawing it. A script can go pretty fast. You have to phrase these things very carefully. (Laughs) Rick & Morty is not mine. I want it to be great and true to the show. But where those characters are going to end up in a story, they're not going to change. They can't change. Basically, I just have to put them in a scenario where they get to be amusing. Dead Of Winter is similar. There's sort of a board game structure I'm working off. It's sort of clear how it's going to go. It's easier in that regard, but I didn't have to draw them. Which can be nerve wracking. The other ones I just have to be funny, write some good dialogue, and rely on having really good teammates to carry the art side. Whereas for my stuff I don't.

I also don't have to think of how my characters talk. I don't have to be sure that that's the cadence Rick would use in a situation. There's pros and cons to both. I like both. I wish whenever I did someone else's IP I immediately became a partner. You'd be like "You know that show Rick & Morty? It's by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland...And Kyle Starks." Then I'd get all the free merch. I'd have a Mr. Poopy Butthole towel. But it doesn't quite work that way. I've been really really lucky and knock on wood it stays that way. I haven't had to work on anything I didn't love. I love Dead Of Winter. I love Rick & Morty. It's a joy to play in those sandboxes. Hopefully, it never reaches the point where I do something just because I need to do it. That makes a big difference. I've not had to do a book which I didn't enjoy working on, mine or someone else's.

Tim: Hundred Cat is a pretty tough fighter. How many cats do you think you could fight at once?

Kyle: 17. That's my answer. I'm a tough guy too. That just goes to show you how tough Hundred Cat is. 17. Would you rather fight 100 ducks...20 ducks...I can't remember, 20 duck sized horses or 1 horse sized duck. You have to think about it like that. That's how Hundred Cat is.


The first volume of Rock Candy Mountain, which collects the first four issues, is set to release September 27.


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About the Author - Tim Midura

Born in the frozen tundra of Massachusetts, Tim Midura has long possessed a love for comic books and records. After stealing the beard of Zeus and inventing the pizza bagel, a much more heavily tattooed and bearded Tim Midura has finally settled in San Diego. He's the world's first comics journalist who doesn't want to become a comics writer. Find him on twitter, facebook or by email.

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