A Dearth of Contrition in ‘Fishtown’

The mighty Delaware River runs along the east end of Fishtown, a neighborhood seated just northeast of Center City, Philadelphia. Back in the 1830s, Fishtown earned its name due to the bustling American shad fishing industry that was evolving on the river’s edge. In May of 2003, in a wooded region of Fishtown bordering the Delaware called “The Trails”, a 15-year-old local girl named Justina Morley used promises of sex to bait her then-boyfriend Jason Sweeney away from public view. Instead of an intimate exchange, three other young men sprang from the brush and pounced on Sweeney, swinging a hatchet and a hammer, and throwing big rocks at his face and head. He was beaten to death.

A Philadelphia artist and writer named Kevin Colden, now working on the relaunch of The Crow, captured what happened nine years ago in comic format. Before it went to press as an IDW graphic novel, Fishtown was first hosted on the Web by comics collective ACT-I-VATE, which marked its sixth anniversary this year. Colden’s work is still online, and it follows a gruesome, real-life tale so closely that each detail absolutely drills to the bone.

When Philadelphia shifted toward moderate springtime climes in 2003, Justina Morley was repeating eighth grade at a neighborhood Catholic school now shuttered due to low enrollment. According to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Morley had been cast out of her previous school when officials found two pocket knives in her purse. She had been using drugs since the fourth grade and was prone to bouts of depression. Only a year earlier, she was admitted to Northeast Philadelphia’s Friends Hospital for pills use, cutting herself, and for threatening suicide. Morley and a trio of local male friends had taken to snorting heroin and smoking weed spiked with embalming fluid back then, and they were often short on cash. At 15, she was trading sex for drugs within this small circle of neighborhood teens, and it was the routine of a regular, cheap fix that had Morley eventually using sex to lure Jason Sweeney to his death. There was a week’s pay of $500 in Sweeney’s pockets just ahead of June 1st — he earned it working for his father’s construction company. Morley was casually dating Sweeney and knew about the roll of bills he was carrying. He made for an easy target.

In Fishtown, Justina Morley is called “Angelica”, a name that couldn’t be less suited to the girl whose face sold so many Philadelphia newspapers years ago. Clad in her school uniform, Kevin Colden has Angelica getting stoned in a bathroom stall ten panels into Fishtown‘s first chapter. She collapses shortly thereafter and it’s visible only in the girls room mirror. When she’s reprimanded by a nun and scolded by her mother, we get mere glimpses of the adults. This positioning is telling; the teenagers get all of the shine in Colden’s story. And just as Justina Morley took on the most prominent role in the days that followed the close of May, 2003 — taking the stand as the prosecution’s star witness in Jason Sweeney’s murder trial, pleading guilty and testifying against her three accomplices — she’s at the center of Fishtown.

When Kevin Colden had begun working on Fishtown, he attempted to categorize it as a work of fiction. He changed the names of the parties involved in the story, but if paired alongside newspaper reports of the murder, it appears that Colden altered little else in shaping the manuscript. The physical events surrounding Jason Sweeney’s murder swell miserably to the foreground in Fishtown, but the artist and writer seized upon the larger piece of this: the scarcity of contrition for what happened in that wooded, vacant region of Philadelphia nine years ago. While Colden doesn’t gloss over the most horrific aspects of this story, his comic’s narrative is mostly concerned with conversation. Some words are very difficult to swallow.

Fishtown‘s teens were drawn mostly in interviews and in flashback scenarios. Colden recreated piercingly casual exchanges in such an authentic manner that the reader is virtually positioned in an interrogation room, seated across from Justina Morley and her accomplices. The comic’s dialogues are conducted with investigators assigned to the case, but we never see the interviewers. Instead, perhaps as it should be, we absorb the harrowing play-by-play from the mouths of the defendants, who recount, with no semblance of remorse, how they came to kill their friend. When they aren’t planted in interrogation rooms, Colden characterizes the teens as crabby drifters, laboring to secure a daily buzz. They’re locked in hostile face-offs with the older folks in their lives, or slumped over and nearly horizontal in Philadelphia row home basements, working through the last of their collective weed stash or plotting their next high.

Justina Morley wrote a series of graphic letters from jail that celebrated the murder of Jason Sweeney, and referenced the sexual relationships she shared with the other defendants. Her words would be used against her during the evidently harrowing criminal court proceedings in Philadelphia. When Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy asked Morley if she took pride in what she’d done, citing what the letters had already indicated, she declared that she had. The character based on Domenic Coia, one of two brothers who helped kill Jason Sweeney, asks flippantly on Fishtown‘s page 1, “It’s sick, isn’t it?” Colden lifted this remark from court transcripts, but it had to appear at the onset of what happened. It’s critical to the establishment of Fishtown‘s ghastly tone.

Colden’s noir is limited to a blue-green and yellow setting. While our experience with the interview sequences might have benefitted from a deeper exploration of color, the hectic strokes that shade the building facades in Fishtown yield a dense and nearly hypnotic effect. The city’s low-slung tangle of power lines and barren side streets are darkened in a bleak, rich teal. Colden parts with the work’s aesthetic to deploy grisly streaks of red only when the depiction of Sweeney’s death becomes necessary. The minimal approach that’s utilized for the bulk of Fishtown would’ve worked better here, but it remains clear that Colden’s chief focus isn’t blood. Rather than relegate too many panels to overcooked violence, he told comics news site Newsarama that he wanted Fishtown to read in a fashion that was “as mundane as possible.” He moved away from a tendency to “sensationalize the story,” as the media had already done. In covering Jason Sweeney’s death for The Los Angeles Times, reporter David Zucchino wrote about what would eventually be the crux of Colden’s comic. “Like any big city,” wrote Zucchino, “Philadelphia is accustomed to almost daily homicides, some of them brutal, some committed by teenagers. But this one was different, and the accused teens’ apparent callousness and utter lack of remorse has shocked even this tough, gritty town.”

Local news anchors weren’t cutting to grainy corner store footage of thugs sticking up late-shift cashiers in the wake of the Fishtown murder. These were teenagers, involved in unspeakable violence that was also connected to sex and drugs. Jason Sweeney’s death owed to the sort of abhorrent murder narrative that people cling to, recounting the salacious details to one another in supermarket checkout lines as if discussing a new film. I remember that people in my PA suburb, about an hour’s bus ride from Philadelphia, talked about the homicide with equal parts disgust and crass enthusiasm. Fervor powered dinner table discussions of the murder trial. “Did you hear about what they did to that kid? They should all get the chair.” The severity of the Fishtown case — its horrific “appeal” — soon ensured a place for it in the national spotlight. Christmas had come early for staffers on evening newscasts when they learned that the teens had listened to the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” more than 40 times while planning the murder. Comparisons to the Charles Manson Family materialized immediately on television news reports.

It didn’t much bother Eddie Batzig that he and Jason Sweeney had been best friends for 10 or 11 years by 2003. Batzig swung the first murderous blow, after waiting quietly in the bushes along the Trails’ wooded interior with Domenic and Nicholas Coia. Morley and Sweeney were undressing nearby when the others charged and bludgeoned their target until he lay bloodied and motionless. A deputy medical examiner testified later that nearly every bone in Sweeney’s face was broken in the attack. On the witness stand, Justina Morley told a courtroom that Sweeney’s last words were that she’d set him up. Judge Seamus McCaffery listened to preliminary testimony that June and identified what he saw as a “medieval” theme in the act. Police detective Aaron Booker told Inquirer reporter Jacqueline Soteropoulos at the time that Jason Sweeney’s murder practically floored him. “In my 10 years in homicide,” he said, “this is the most unique case, and I’ve never seen anything quite as brutal.”

For a chilling splash page positioned at the end of chapter two of Fishtown, Kevin Colden breaks form. He casts the teens for a moment as dancing mutants, their torsos, elongated and grotesque; their faces, hollow and distorted with mouths agape. Limbs are swapped out for worming tentacles that flail wildly overtop sheet music ledger lines. It’s only one page, but here, the portrait of Jason Sweeney’s killers is clearer than ever.