In Graphic Novel Sequel, West Virginia Writer Tackles Coal, Climate & Race

Sep 21, 2017

A few years back, West Virginia writer and filmmaker Danny Boyd stepped into the world of graphic novels, releasing books under his cult-classic Chillers franchise, as well as other stories. One of which was Carbon, a mythological world set in an alternative West Virginia and dealing with an ancient race of people and their effect on the coal industry thousands of years later. The follow-up, Salt, was released in late-2016 and picks up where Carbon left off. We spoke with Boyd about his latest graphic novel, some of the social and environmental issues addressed in the story and why he’s just now getting around to promoting it the way he would have liked.

The last time we talked, we were talking about Carbon -- which was the first installment in this mythological world, so to speak. Now comes Salt and take us to the world. Let's start with Carbon. Describe that world for us what happened and then get us into where we're going with Salt.

Carbon was a story that I had nearly 30 years after living in Williamson and seeing the destruction of strip mining and those kinds of things. But in the movie world, as a filmmaker, I was never going to be able to have the kind of budget to do something that big and then when I got into comics it's like, ‘Oh, man, with this I finally can.’ So, it's Gods, monsters and evil coal barons.

So, I started thinking about it as an entertainer: Coal, coal, coal, coal.

Coal is organic material. It's plants, animals, people. What would happen if it came back to life and was ignited by an evil industrial power? So that launches Carbon which leads through to Salt with the lead character, Heat Hatfield. And you're right, it is a mythological approach with it the tragic hero turned to epic hero.

There are some heavy things going on here. For one, there's sort of an apocalyptic vibe. In Salt, there are some issues of climate change and global warming. What is it like trying to use a platform such as a graphic novel for a subject matter that is so socially ubiquitous at this point?

Credit Caliber Comics

It is so hard to digest. Who wants to turn on TV anymore? You know, after the last election, it's the last thing you want to bring joy in your life. So, it's difficult for a career. I don't know if that was successful, but [you have to ask yourself] ‘OK, how do you make these topics entertaining?’ That's number one. If it's not entertaining, you're not going to bring people to it. Hopefully, at least, through the backdoor. But, if you're a climate denier, this is a nonstarter for us. But, if you turn on TV right now and watch the Weather Channel with this new hurricane system coming through -- even in a very stable society like ours, we're only a few clicks from melting down politically, environmentally, all of those kinds of things.

There's one scene I do want to address in Salt and that is a moment that particularly addresses issues of race. It's one of those things that, whenever you talk to people about issues of race in West Virginia, you oftentimes hear one of two things. One of the things you hear is -- normally from an outsider's perspective, I would say  -- that West Virginia is very overtly racist, that we're a bunch of hillbillies that are ignorant and have no progressive ideas as far as dealing with race. And then, on the other hand, you hear something to the effect of: ‘There's such a low more minority population that race isn’t an issue here. It seems like you're trying to respond to some of that in some fashion or another.

I am and thanks for picking up on that. It's a sticky wicket and it was when I was writing this that I realized, ‘Man, I have my entire teaching career -- 32 years with a historically black college and university -- I’ve lived in Tanzania, I live in a black community by choice.’ When you're around the community, you start hearing those things: ‘Oh, we're all black in the coal mines. You know, we all come out that way. So, we're not racist’ -- that kind of thing. And then you start to hear, ‘No, not really. That’s only if you're white.’

Credit Courtesy Photo

And I realize the white privilege that I carried -- that I didn't really acknowledge and I really wanted to see and I don't know if  I was successful. But, I wanted that scene with Willie Mays Vincent, who who's like one of the main heroes of this whole epic thing, with Heat Hatfield where he says, ‘Well, you're my best friend.’ Well, that's a stereotype. People always say, ‘I'm not prejudiced. Look at my best friend.’ Well, no, you need to look at these things and live a little bit deeper.

Right before we started speaking, you handed me a sheet of paper. It's essentially just a one-sheet, more or less a press release, that deals with the Trump Administration and how that's playing a role and in making dystopian literature interesting and marketable. What can you say -- at least in your experience as a creator, as a graphic novelist, as a filmmaker, as a person that's delved into that particular kind of art -- how is the relationship with the administration affecting the marketability or the conversations surrounding what it is that you're doing?

Well commercially, I probably shouldn't tell you, but I'll stand by this: I didn't think these things would happen. If you read the interview with me at the end of Salt, I'm saying, ‘Hey, look, West Virginia's got the short end the stick, America.’ I said, ‘Hillary, how about helping us out. You know, giving us a stimulus package after we built the country.’ So, that's how little that I thought that this would happen.

But this interview took place and was published before the election?

You talk about bad luck timing; my book came out the day after the election. You talk about sucking the oxygen out of the room. So, these weren't like the most farfetched things. 

One of the things I look at in Salt is that it's a story that seems like it's still not finished. Is that is that right? Is there more coming from this storyline?

Well, it has an ending that's a big, big, big ending. So, I hope that encourages people out there to get the books and we won't give it away. But it opens up another door. We always think things are black and white -- it's this or it's that. We're very arrogant to think that we could destroy the earth. We can't destroy the Earth -- we can destroy human kind as we know it.

So, it's not just about when will we destroy humankind or will we not. It's like, well, is there something in the middle? And we're hinting a little at evolution here. Again, this is all mythological and that's probably as much as I want to talk about the ending.