A Kung Fu Hobos Ride the Rails in Rock Candy Mountain

Taking inspiration from Americana and the strange legend of hobo heaven, Kyle Starks and Chris Schweitzer’s Rock Candy Mountain, from Image Comics, follows newly minted tramp Pomona Slim as he learns the hard way whether or not he has what it takes to survive an itinerant life on the rails. It’s a funny, action-packed book that also takes an astute look at the hobo subculture that survived on the fringes of American society for over a century.

Starks, the book’s writer and artist, was kind enough to chat with us about the big rock candy mountain, martial arts movies, and the pros and cons of boxcar life. Stick around until the end, and he’ll even tell you how to get your very own hobo name.

From your point of view, tell me about Rock Candy Mountain. What’s it about?
Rock Candy Mountain is about a hobo trying to find the mythical Big Rock Candy Mountain, which is basically hobo heaven. I tell stories in a fairly specific way. Like action comedy, so it’s a big action comedy hobo martial arts flick.

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Alright. That’s a good sales pitch! Where did the story come from…was it the song? Was it hobo lore? What was the spark of inspiration?
It was sort of two parts. So, I’m a huge action movie fan. I did a book called Sexcastle which is nominated for an Eisner. That was a love letter to 80s action movies. My next OGN from Oni Press is Kill Them All, which is a love letter to 90s action films. I love action films a lot. So I was trying to pivot into martial arts films. There’s a whole other universe of people fighting for entertainment and I feel like I’ve really done myself as a disservice, but it’s so daunting. There are a million.

I tried to go down whatever lists I could find on the Internet, but didn’t get very far because I became infatuated with a certain genre called wuxia which is sort of like Crouching Tiger hidden Dragon: the soft-fantasy martial arts things. The ones that I saw were these epic journeys where at the end you have a huge climactic fight. I became really interested in how there’s no American equivalent. What would that be? For some reason I was reading about hobos at the time and it just came together. And I was like “this is it!” This is my journey: it’s riding the rails, it’s post World War II America. The most America America. I just thought about huge martial arts kung fu fights in boxcars and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

That’s got to be a pretty good feeling when you have that idea, because I can’t imagine anyone ever thought of doing that mash-up before.
Sometimes all the puzzle pieces as a creative person sort of fall together, and it’s thrilling. It’s the most exciting thing. I hate to say Eureka(!), but you’re like…oh my gosh it’s so good. I can’t wait to do it as soon as possible

At least some of the people in the book seem to be based on real life figures. Boss Flimbo is pretty clearly James Eads How, the hobo millionaire.
Dr. Eric Newsom, who does some of my back-matter, is an expert on American folk music and folklore, but he didn’t know much about the song. He was suggested to me by the colorist, Chris Schweizer, but he was immediately drawn to the story of James Eads How. That’s the main one. There’s also a Bull Monroe referenced, who’s another character from hobo culture. But it’s really just the two.

How extensive was your research? Did it start with that, or did the story come first?
I’ve read every easy-to-acquire book, and a few that were difficult to acquire. There’s just not a lot, which I find equally fascinating and frustrating. I was a big fan of the Beat movement when I was in high school, but as an adult I feel like the hobos are way more interesting than the beats. This was an entire community that existed from the 1860s to the 1970s. And there’s almost nothing written about them. I always reference Knights of the Road, which is Roger Bruns. That’s a really good non-fiction take, and Jack London’s The Road. If you want to read a really good hobo book…it’s Jack London. But there’s really not much out there.

Why do you think that is? Is it too steeped in legend to pin down? Was it a less literate class that wasn’t writing about its own experiences?
A hobo is literally just an itinerant worker. So my suspicions are that hobos just weren’t part of proper society, and no one wanted to talk about them. The homeless, tramps, bums…not the same things…hobos chose an itinerant life…but they can all be wrapped up together somewhat. It was gauche to talk about. Polite society never bothered until we were well past the era. Post WWI and WWII, I think a lot of hobos were veterans with PTSD who couldn’t go work in, say, a grocery store, and just wanted to be left alone. There was nothing glamorous to them about it. And there were questionable elements: begging, stealing.

In the back-matter to the books, Dr. Newsom talks about the contradictions of hobo life. There’s freedom, and a romance of life with no obligations; but then also the daily struggle for survival. The theft, the sexual exploitation. Is it an appealing life, to your mind? Would you ever want to be a hobo?
I couldn’t do it, no. I’m super happy to have walls and air conditioning. The colorist Chris Schweizer could do it for a while. He likes the great outdoors. He’s whittled. I’ve never done any such thing. We have a lake house that we go to every summer without air conditioning and I hate it. But, at the same time, I think about a hobo on top of a boxcar going through the forest of Oregon. The stars are out, the moon’s out. That’s got to be one of the best experiences someone could have. Just this big world, no responsibilities, and you can do whatever you want. There is a romance to it.

And, as someone who’s creative, I have a lot of respect for someone who has to hustle to make a living. For the most part, though, there are a million ways to die on a train. Train cars used to shift and just smash people, people would climb into ice cars and get locked in. Vagrancy laws in many places allowed you to do whatever you want with a vagrant on your property. It wasn’t safe anywhere, you usually didn’t have a roof or know where your next meal was coming from. So it’s the worst. It sounds like the worst to me. Even if I were outdoorsy, I don’t want to fight to get on a train. And then fight someone on the train. No thank you.

I’m the same way with camping: it sounds good, but once I’m there I just want a toilet and a bed.

So Chris Schweizer’s doing the colors for this, but you’re doing the writing and art. You’ve done work where you’ve just done one or the other. How does the process compare? Is it nice having it all to yourself?
So, after Sexcastle got nominated for an Eisner I was asked to do a single issue of Invader Zim and then five issues of Rick & Morty which became 24 issues and counting. Before that I’d always done my own writing and drawing, which is nice: the writer always knows what the artist wants and vice versa. And they both work cheap. Just writing is nice, because it feels so easy when the collaboration with the artist works. When it doesn’t, which is rare, I hate it. It makes me so angry. There are pros and cons to both, but I love drawing so much. Plus it’s hard to find people who want to draw a bunch of hobos. I’ve been really lucky, though.

What’s your hobo name? I’m down to dumb questions.
My hobo name would be like “Hoosier Beard.” It’s where you’re from, generally, and some distinguishing feature. That’s why “Pomona Slim” is Pomona Slim…he’s skinny, and from Pomona. “Jackson” is a city in every state in America, so the Jackson character in the book could be from anywhere.

I don’t want to throw shade, but I feel like a lot of hobos had beards, right? Is your name going to work?
I think you’d be surprised. Almost every hobo jungle had a mirror for shaving. And, during this particular era, a beard suggested that you were sort of wild. This was still a time when you needed a hat or you were considered rude. These were workers who needed jobs.

Multiple choice: cigarette tree? Lemonade spring? Lake of stew? Little stream of alcohol.
That’s actually a tough one. I quit smoking two years ago, and also quit drinking . I’m not a big stew guy, so it would have to be lemonade? But I feel like there’s a lot of sugar in lemonade. I’m not pleased with the choice, but everything but the stupid stew would probably kill me.

There are also the hens that lay soft-boiled eggs, so that’s an option.
Yeah, let’s go with that. Nothing at the big rock candy mountain would be all that much fun for me. But I think the hobo heaven thing is so fascinating. This idea of a back-door to heaven has existed throughout history, and I think that the big rock candy mountain is the most modern version of that. I love the idea that you can be like: “Oh, I’m a car thief…but don’t worry, I’ll get into car thief heaven.”

I don’t think you will? But OK. Everyone wants to feel like it’s OK to do whatever they’re doing.

What’s coming up for Kyle Starks?
More Rock Candy Mountain, of course. I’m doing Rick & Morty for Oni Press every month. Through issue 40, at least. Another year. Dead of Winter, also for Oni, based on a very popular tabletop game. It’s co-op zombie survival. The book is about a dog named Sparky, who’s an ex-television star, who fights zombies. It’s fun. I think comics should be fun. The world needs it.

Rock Candy Mountain is available October 3.

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