Josh Simmons's Flayed Corpse is a splendid collection of solo stories and collaborations with other notable cartoonists, most previously published in anthologies and zines like Mome, Intruder, Rough House, and Habit; also included are various unpublished drawings and odds and ends, all created from 2010 to 2017. The book is carefully curated, highly enjoyable, and more fun than Simmons's harrowing, almost nihilistic Furry Trap collection from 2012—though it is not without its upsetting moments (you wouldn’t expect any less from Josh Simmons, would you?). Working with other artists has only added further dimensions to his oeuvre.
Simmons's work has always presented a particularly unsettling aesthetic. His stories take place in an universe with an entirely indifferent moral structure, where life can be brutally snuffed out at any time, for no reason other than bad luck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The brief title story, "Flayed Corpse", sets up this ferocious tone. In it, a group of medical forensic experts discuss the state of mind of a dead man at the time of his demise. What they ultimately decide offers no comforting view of death as a final peaceful departure into the ether: “He died terrified, in agony. And it echoed out and was absorbed into a cosmos already sick with pain.”
Simmons's uncompromising approach to brutality and violence has often provoked quite negative responses from readers who do not appreciate the dark places Simmons takes them. In a 2015 TCJ interview I conducted with Simmons he addressed this:
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.
Simmons’ Eisner-nominated “Seaside Town”, one of the highlights of the book, illustrates his aesthetic perfectly. In it, a sweet young girl and her family are overwhelmed and destroyed by a natural cataclysm. No moral, the end. This doesn't make the story any less tragic and affecting. In another story, "Daddy", a Warren comics-style collaboration with artist James Romberger, an act of kindness spells doom for a nice young family; and in “Picnic”, a pair of fun-loving senior citizens meet their demise exactly because of their joie de vivre. In each story the violence and terror carry real weight.
In other stories, such as Simmons's collaboration with Pat Moriarty, “The Great Shitter”, he reminds us that while we are encouraged to be the captains of our own fates, we are often victims of circumstances beyond our control, or assigned to caste systems that ensure lives of drudgery, hardship, and despair. Other thoughtful stories along this theme include “Gywn” (which has the look/feel of a fever dream), and “The Village on the Mountain”, drawn by Joe Garber.
Lest you think Simmons is a self-serious dispenser of doom-laden tales, note the subtitles on the back cover and title pages, which reveal his sublime, pitch-black sense of humor: “Comics for social squirrels, hermit crabs, the shattered, the dying” and “Comics and art that meet at the crossroads of abomination and hilarity.” Simmons is a master at world-building, with the ability to plop the reader into the middle of an already established scenario and run with it, limning it quickly and convincingly, no matter how bizarre, as in “The Great Shitter”. In the chilling “Training”, which was originally published under Charles Forsman’s great lo-fi Oily Comics outfit, a teenage boy is trapped in an unspecified concentration camp-like training facility, where he faces a bleak future with other boys. What this training is for is less important than the hopelessness of the protagonist’s fate: “You will be here for many years,” the trainer tells him pitilessly. “It’s going to hurt and hurt and hurt.”
There’s a distinctly unnerving feeling to the one-page oddity “We Enjoyed Many Adventures”, in which a deity descends from the heavens to speak with the narrator. Unlike Simmons's typical hapless protagonists, this narrator and his friends seem to be among life’s winners and everything is working out perfectly for them. Still, I don’t trust that deity. At any rate, “Adventures”, a really weird piece, is one of my favorite comics here:
In other stories, Simmons expertly crafts an atmosphere of mounting dread. “The Incident at Owl’s Head”, a hitchhiker named Jonathan ends up in the titular tourist town, where he stays with an odd but seemingly generous older man named Ambrose. Throughout, we expect a denouement that will confirm our suspicions that Jonathan should get away from Ambrose as soon as possible. The story concludes on a cryptic but satisfying note. In “A Day at the Beach”, drawn by talented Seattle-area artist Eroyn Franklin, a young woman’s relaxing beach day with her child is disturbed by one of those ubiquitous manically toxic men that Simmons is so good at delineating. And “Don’t Look Up” (a collaboration with Ross Jackson) tells of an artist, welcoming an old friend to her strange home. Upon the friend’s arrival she warns him not to look up at the ceiling, as the rafters are “filled with Djinn or something. Demons of some kind.” Though the guest tries to make a deeper connection with her, she makes it clear that she is more beholden to her art, to the demons lurking above. We are left suspecting that her art and the demons are interchangeable. It's a neat metaphor and an unnerving, fascinating story.
There are lighter tales played for humor that still manage to be a little unsettling. In “Late for the Show”, written and penciled by Simmons’ pal, Tom Van Deusen (with layouts and inks by Simmons), a huge monstrous oaf goes on a murderous rampage, for no particular reason. Though limned humorously (with a fun supporting role that is clearly meant to be cartoonist Max Clotfelter, a friend of Simmons and Van Deusen), the oaf is a scary dude, no one you’d ever want to run into. Other horrors drawn in a blackly comic fashion include “Bertram” (written by Eric Reynolds) in which the title pooch has to take care of a dangerous living dead woman in his master’s backyard, and “Facecutter”, (featuring pencils and vivid colors by Ben Horak), a twisted take on the old mad-killer-on-the-loose trope.
Another highlight is Twilight of the Bat, a gorgeous, full-color minicomic from 2017, reprinted in its entirety. The twenty-page “G-- City” drawn by artist Patrick Keck, features the twisted psychodrama playing out between Batman and his arch-nemesis The Joker (here called “Bats” and “Joke Man”), in a shattered post-apocalyptic landscape. Simmons once again zeroes in on abject despair and loneliness as a theme, while providing uncomfortable laughs through the Joker’s often scatological/gory antics. It’s as demented as anything Simmons has done, and yet the relationship between the two characters is still oddly moving (and fabulously drawn by Keck). Included also are great pin-up pages by Simmons, Tara Booth, and Anders Nilsen, respectively.
Simmons wraps up the anthology with a few autobiographical pages: “Acid Party”, which depicts the angst-filled title fete; “Happy New Year: A True Story”, which recounts a scary incident on the streets of Seattle; and the one-page “Comics Life”, a quick but revealing look at the thought processes (and sore muscles) of an alternative/indie cartoonist. The tone for all three is darkly funny, in that ubiquitously autobio joke’s-on-me spirit.
The production is superb: Simmons took every opportunity to cram in as many drawings and comics as possible. The indicia and acknowledgement pages are peppered with nasty little doodles and sketches, which are delightful in their way, plus there are some stunning full-fledged, detailed illustrations like “Sprinting Bull (with Party Train)” and the sepulchral scenario of “1000 Years” on the back cover. Uncompromisingly brutal, horrible, thought-provoking and hilarious, Flayed Corpse is a thoroughly satisfying collection, a perfect showcase for alt/horror comics’ most visionary and uncompromising creator.