I met Josh Simmons, at a special screening of John Porcellino's Root Hog or Die at the Short Run weekend in Seattle last November. When I enthused about a comic Josh had made for Oily Comics called Training (it made my Top 20 minicomics list for 2013), and mentioned perhaps doing an interview with him sometime, he looked me straight in the eye and told me matter-of-factly that I should probably read more of his comics first. After the screening he went home (which happened to be next door) and got some more of his minis for me.
Months later, being much more familiar with his work, I fully understand his initial pause. As others have noted, Simmons's comics are not for everyone, exploring unapologetically some very dark, brutal, and scary places. His long list of credits includes his ongoing-to-this-day serialized surrealist tale Jessica Farm, the Ignatz-nominated graphic novel House (2007), an impressive collection of short, disturbing horror tales called The Furry Trap (2012, Fantagraphics), and many short stories for anthologies such as Mome and Habit.
Black River, his new graphic novel from Fantagraphics, depicts the harrowing adventures of a band of women, one man, and two dogs, trekking across the bleak ruins of a post-apocalyptic landscape. Simmons has an idiosyncratic approach to horror: on the one hand he often employs a take-no-prisoners harshness, on the other he's slyly, darkly funny, and intersperses many of his stories with moments of beauty and even sensitivity (no seriously, check out his Eisner-nominated "Seaside Home" and tell me it doesn't break your heart a little bit). It’s downright refreshing to encounter a seemingly fearless creator like Simmons, who damns the torpedoes and puts his most extreme and frightening visions on paper to share with the world, whatever consequences or misunderstandings may ensue. We did an email interview over a week's time in mid-July to talk of comics, book tours, horror, and other intense things.
Rob Kirby: I understand you recently finished a mini-tour for Black River. How did it go?
Josh Simmons: I think it qualified as a full on tour-tour rather than a mini-tour. It was super-nutso and exhausting and fun. Driving for an average of 8 hours a day mostly, with 24 stops all over North America. I put 10,000 miles on my car in two months. I would be happy never to sit in a car ever again. Got to visit friends and family all over the country whom I hadn't seen in 2, 10, 20 years. The events took place everywhere from comic shops to bars to festivals to gallery spaces. The audiences ranged from 1 to 60+. I did a weird artist's talk and got to show my little movies to audiences for the first time, which was very gratifying.
Making comics, you have very little sense of how people are absorbing it all, but with film screenings or performance, you get that instant feedback. Mostly people laughed and seemed to appreciate the movies. Sometimes you get those dead fish audiences. I have some experience with showmanship going back to my cirkus days in the early '00s, and tried to bring that to the tour to make it more than a guy sitting in a comic shop signing books.
The tour kind of felt like show and tell for work I'd done in different media over the last 5+ years: comics and movies and paintings/prints. I’d been planning on going to SPX this year, but on the last day of the tour driving home to Seattle through Oregon and Washington I decided I was done with any big trips for the rest of the year. Two months of the year of relentless travel is enough, thank you. Not to mention being broke/in credit card debt.
So yes, I am back in Seattle and just moved into a wonderful new space in a 100-year-old building. I’m looking to settle back in to a routine of sorts and get to cranking out the comics.
Can you really quickly tell me what you mean by your "cirkus days?" Were you a scary clown or a carny?
When we were teenagers some of my hometown friends had a hardcore punk band called Know Nothing. I lived in Sweden in '99, and while there I was getting mail and photos from those friends, who were living in Albuquerque at the time. The band had evolved into a sleazy punk sex cirkus sideshow thing: The Know Nothing Family Cirkus Sideshow. We teamed up with and were usually the sideshow act to another group, The End of the World Cirkus.
Some of the acts were: one gal hanging a six pack of beer from piercings in her labia, one fella sticking a drill in his urethra and turning it on, one guy sucking his own penis while lying on a bed of nails. Pissing, enemas, puke, semen. I had a bad clown character who would run around and molest people, and I also did the Bunny Soft puppet show, the happiest puppet show that has ever existed. I also documented much of the goings on in a series of comics that Top Shelf put out (“Cirkus New Orleans” in Happy issues 3 + 4), as well as a zine I published called All About Fucking.
Eventually we all landed in New Orleans in 2000, and that was the home base for the next few years as we did the Cirkus thing and toured around the country. The Cirkus grew and grew until there were about 40 people in it at its peak, then it shrank down to about 3 people, and by 2005 it was defunct. But everyone who was in it went on to do other Cirkuses, or one-man bands, or stand-up comedy, all kinds of things. All really talented nutbags.
How have the reactions to Black River been so far?
Reactions seem pretty positive. Everyone talks about how depressing it is. I had thought it my most hopeful book, in a way, compared to most of my other work. But I'm not the best gauge for what my work is about, or what it's doing, I suppose. I still get plenty of haters. I don't understand at all when people call it gratuitous or "shock value" work. Or pointless. I always worry my stuff is, if anything, too obvious in its text or subtext or meaning or whatever. And people will have completely opposing reactions. One thing I heard was a reader thought that I was enjoying the violence too much. And another thought I was taking a kind of ethical stance, sort of wagging my finger in the reader's face about how much they enjoy violence. Sometimes I want to take to the Internet and write a screed telling people how it is. But I think it's best to just let people have their reactions. That's part of the fun of art, right? And it's nice there seem to be a fair amount of reviews online, and that people seem to be talking about it...
Being ignored is way worse than getting various negative reactions. I read a review of Black River before I got a chance to read it and I was bracing myself, thinking, uh oh, how is Josh going to top some of the stuff in The Furry Trap? As it turns out, being that it takes place in a dystopian future, it’s much more hopeful and humane than I had been led to believe. The women really care about each other, nurture one another. But of course stuff happens to them...
That’s interesting that someone accused you of hectoring your readers about how much they enjoy violence; that reminds me of director Michael Haneke’s movie Funny Games (1997), which really disturbed me the first time I saw it, the way several of your stories have done (I mean that as a compliment).
I like Haneke's movies. I think what I'm doing is closer to what he or Von Trier are doing than, say, Wes Craven. There's an element of having your cake and eating it too with the violence in my stuff, I suppose: both indulging in it and commenting on it, or having some distance from it. Makes it harder to parse. I know I want the violence in my stories to have weight. I don't want it to be violence for laughs, or to be numbing. I suppose that's part of why people sometimes react so strongly to my stuff. Because it isn't played for laughs, there isn't an ironic distance. I work hard to make the characters feel believable and real. There's humor in the stories, but it isn't at the expense of the victim. What really perplexes me is when critics dismiss the work as a kind of calloused bro humor fuckery, when if anything the work is born out of hypersensitivity and vulnerability. But if people aren't picking that up, they have soft, feeble minds anyway, so who cares.
The Furry Trap is probably the harshest book I will ever make. Still, I'm proud of that book, I think it works. I made exactly the book I set out to.
I'm glad you picked up on the women caring for one another in Black River. I felt that was kind of central to the book, something not a lot of people commented on. They are a family, and they look out for each other as well as they can, as awful as things get...
Yeah, I guess I just don’t understand people being startled by the bleakness of Black River. I mean, a dystopian future isn't going to be a lot of fun for anybody! Can you tell me what inspired you to write and draw it? Did you have any agenda in particular in featuring a nearly all-female cast of lead characters?
The starting point was a dream I had around 2010 at a low point in my life when I was living in downtown Los Angeles. The overall structure in the book came from the dream. During the writing process it mutated a bit. (I don't usually care for "dream comics," where the creator tries to capture exactly how a dream came to them in comics form. But I think using dreams as a starting point for a story can work.) In the dream I saw these women blackened with filth and walking and walking through a post-apocalyptic world. Impossible to tell how old they were, they could have been 16 or 66, and it seemed as if they'd been walking for a million years.
No agenda, but while working on it if you think about creating a story starring all women and having anything other than the typical white male perspective, naturally that can't be a bad thing. As I worked on it I also thought a lot about women in my life and ways they'd been messed with by men. And my not always being the gentleman I would like to have been, especially when I was younger.
Did the fact of your being a (white) male writing about women in such extreme situations get in your way at all, or were you able to just put that aside and go with it?
The strip comes before anything. When I first had the idea and was writing it, there's a certainty. I just knew this was the comic I had to make. The fretting comes over the year or however long it takes to draw - the slow drudgery. That's when all the neurotic dithering starts up in earnest. Worrying how people are going to interpret the story, following certain conversations online and worrying about the internet dog-piling on you. I fret, Rob. But ultimately I have to stick to the original vision for the story, and usually it seems to work out. I've gotten enough feedback on this book where I feel like people get what I was going for, that I'm not too worried. The positive feedback far outweighs the negative, so that's nice in thinking that I didn't entirely shit the bed on this one.
One legitimate piece of criticism I got from a couple places was that the art was a little rushed in places. Which is fair. It was drawn at a breakneck pace. But that's largely to do with the fact that, honestly, making the comics I make is really hard. There is no financial return, so I work a stressful and degrading day job, which is slowly destroying my mind and body. So the time and energy I have to draw comics is limited, and only shrinking as I get older. So I simply can't be too precious with certain aspects of making comics. They have to get done, one way or another. I often fantasize about getting to a point where money's not such an issue and I can work full time on comics and make the work 100% what I would like it to be. That day may never come. In the meantime, I'm going to do whatever I have to do to get the work done.
Whoops, I don't know if that answered your question. As far as writing female characters, or people from any other walk of life, I don't worry about it too much. For me it goes back to Jessica Farm, which stars a teenage girl. I started that strip 15 years ago. I guess my starting point is that people aren't fundamentally all that different, gender or skin color or sexual orientation aside. We all kind of want the same things, right?
Let’s segue from the horrors of being a cartoonist to creating horror. Your work has often put me in mind of recent French horror films, like Inside and Martyrs; downbeat works of uncompromising brutality but with vision and a real point or subtext to their mayhem. To be honest, even though I grew up reading DC horror comics and Warren mags like Creepy and Eerie, I don’t read horror comics anymore. I love the genre but explore it through films and literature. How about you? Can you tell me about some of your influences and favorites in the genre?
Fangoria magazine was huge for me as a kid in the '80s. It went a long way toward shaping my tastes (similar to The Comics Journal in the '90s). It was through Fango that I learned about a lot of movies and about the people behind the movies. Their worship of directors such as Craven, Cronenberg, Hooper, Romero, and Carpenter is where I learned what a director even was and how they could make a film their own. Read Stephen King and Dean Koontz as a kid. Loved the Elm Street movies as a kid, which I think went a long way toward shaping what I do today, the dream logic and surrealism in those films. As a teenager I fell away from horror a bit and tried to take in more general "good" movies, books, comics, and fine art. Although as a stoned teenager I was especially drawn to Al Columbia, Renée French, and Jim Woodring. Got into Feral House-type true crime/conspiracy/pervert shit in my 20s. That was a deep, dark rabbit hole I'm still recovering from. And in my late 20s-30s I started returning to the classic genre stuff, and discovered how much of it still held up, and how much of it had a heavy influence on me. You can't argue with the classics: The Shining, The Exorcist, the first Elm Street, early Cronenberg (on up to The Fly and Dead Ringers—I'm also very fond of the second half of Cronenberg's career, but it's just not as horror-centric). Texas Chainsaw Massacre is probably the greatest horror movie ever made. It is a beautiful and perfect movie. The humor in particular in that movie rubbed off on me in a big way. I agree there's not a lot in comics horror-wise that's worth keeping up with. I occasionally pick up a copy of Crossed when I want to feel dirty and freaked out, but, y'know, Crossed is what it is.
As to horror prose, I occasionally dip into Poe and Ligotti. I read [Arthur Machen's] The Great God Pan recently. Being as immersed in horror as I am, when I read work from 1850 or 1900 that helped shape the genre... I don't know if I can put it into words, but I feel the connective tissue to what's coming out today, to art that I absorbed when I was young and helped shape what I do now. Sometimes I'll read a Poe story and it makes such perfect sense to me. A great thing about a lot of Poe's stuff is that it is like the best horror, like a lot of horror movies from the 1970s, this sort of formless fever dream that doesn't quite make sense or work in a conventional sense, but works entirely on its own terms. But I guess you could say that about a lot of the best art, horror or otherwise. Dreyer's Vampyr is a great early horror movie that works in this way.
As to the New French Extremity stuff, I dipped my dock in a lot of it when it was coming out, and don't care for most of it. Too much of it is just pastiche of better movies, with no soul. High Tension, Frontier(s), Inside, Calvaire. Bleh. [Gaspar] Noé sort of skirts along the edge of that stuff, but there are things about him I like. And Martyrs is the one great standalone movie from that lot, in my opinion. There are probably gaps in my education, though. There are several movies in there I've been meaning to check out for a while: Dumont, Assayas, Claire Denis, yeah, I need to check that stuff out...
The great horror movies only seem to come along every couple years or so. The Babadook and It Follows are quality. Nothing too surprising there. I've enjoyed certain aspects of the Insidious/Sinister camp, but ultimately they aren’t really my cup of tea.
I suppose I'm just as influenced by creators that aren't horror exactly but deal with similar themes: the above-mentioned Haneke, Von Trier, Bergman; movies like Come and See, Bad Boy Bubby, so much, so many...
Do you believe that horror is a "safe" way of processing fears, angst, etc? Does creating stories do that for you?
Boy, there are potentially so many reasons for why horror is such a popular genre. I think about it a lot. I don't have one solid answer. The big one is as you said, a safe way of processing fear: fear of people, fear of your body, the fear of failure. Having to deal with the fact that you have this weird thing called an anus. Death anxiety is the big one, I suppose. The ultimate fear.
But it can also be kind of thrilling, a kind of adrenaline rush. Not too far from riding a roller coaster or sky-diving. I know Martrys and Texas Chainsaw give me that kind of feeling. It's kind of a sick thrill, but a thrill nonetheless.
Sometimes I don't know if it's a healthy thing at all to be into this stuff. If you're a fairly strong and upright human being in the world, maybe you don't have much space in your head for horror. Fear isn't a big deal in your life. I wonder if more often than not horror attracts people who are sort of barely holding it together, who are fragile. If you're constantly taking in CSI and Nancy Grace and Game of Thrones and Hannibal and the news and Saw, all this stuff, then you construct a narrative of the world as a cruel and dangerous place. Which it mostly isn't. Constantly traumatizing yourself can lead to a sort of paralysis. Which leads to a docile populace. Depression, anxiety, addiction...
But then again maybe it's just one more thing to think about, one more lens through which to process the world. There are real dangers in life. I think a well-balanced person can see the value in high and low art of all different stripes and genres. I'm a big horror and comics nut, primarily, but I also try to dig in to a sci-fi classic every couple years, highbrow movies, stoner comedies, literary writers. Drama, fireworks, hip hop, tennis, porn, heavy metal, pop music, superheroes, there is potentially value in all of it, right? Problems arise when you want to sit in only one narrow corner of the playing field and you start to think that that's the only perspective that matters. Dogma, fundamentalism, narrow weasely fussy nerdishness. Fuck that.
As far as making this stuff, it is a kind of addiction. I think about these stories and putting them down on paper obsessively. And when I finish one, I've got 5 more in my head or in the works that I'm eager to get to and finish, so it never ends. I wonder sometimes if I was a healthier or more functional human being if I would make rom-coms instead, or not make anything at all, and just enjoy life. I dunno!
What have you got cooking next for us, Josh?
Finishing up Habit #2 to be published by Oily Comics. Shooting for a Halloween/Short Run debut. Another 52-page issue. I think this one will be much stronger than the first issue (which contained a lot of chunks of longer strips). This one will have all standalone short comics. A new 33-page story by me (which I've been laboring over for more than 2 years), and 3 short stories that are all collaborations with local Seattle cartoonists: Ben Horak, Tom Van Deusen, and Eric Reynolds.
Jessica Farm Volume 2 is out next spring from Fantagraphics. I think we're also going to re-design and reprint the first volume. Jessica Farm is a comic I'm drawing over the course of 50 years, at the rate of one page a month. I began it in January of 2000, and plan to draw the final page in December of 2049, which will make it exactly 600 pages. Sixteen years in the making at this point!