“Sometimes, You Get Your Throat Cut While a Clown is Pulling Your Pants Down”: An Interview with Josh Simmons

Last year, I ordered some comics from Josh Simmons. They arrived in an envelope covered with adorable cat and dog stamps. Placed near my address was a sticker of a dog and an ice cream sundae, with the words "HAPPY" absurdly floating underneath. My mailman, who handed me the envelope, along with the rest of that day's mail, was a little weirded out. I could tell. Somehow, he knew there was some sick stuff inside that package. How did he know it wasn't a letter from say, my cute-stuff loving little cousin? He just knew, man.

The inside front and back covers of Josh Simmons' book, The Furry Trap, are made to look like a crinkled-up and greasy, brown paper bag. The kind of bag you'd wrap around a 40 oz. to hide it from the cops. The kind of bag they put porno in when you buy it. The kind of bag Jeffrey in Blue Velvet uses to hold the severed ear he finds in the grass. Point is, both of these every day things – cute cat and dog stamps, a paper bag – become conduits for fear when Josh Simmons puts them to use.

Along with his assured approach to visual narrative, and blacker-than-black sense of humor, it's Simmons' ability to temper aggressive, stick-your-face-in-it content with creeping dread that makes his work stick in your crawl. Not so much the white trash incest of "Cockbone" but how normal and reasonable Simmons renders the family's actions; the moments when brutalist Batman riff "The Mark Of the Bat" just sits with this lonely, costumed sad-sack. All the quiet desperation that builds up before the old dude in "Night of the Jibblers" is ripped apart. The cozy suburban home where the buck-toothed cult resides in his new short film, The Leader. Over email, Josh and I talked about The Furry Trap, how it's about more than just "super freaked-out shit," the thin line between horror and comedy, and his recent transition into filmmaking with The Leader.

BRANDON SODERBERG: The subtitle of The Furry Trap is pretty simple: "horror stories." Why did you choose that to describe the book?

JOSH SIMMONS: I felt a little queasy about putting the "horror stories" tag on the book, but it was a practical thing. I generally dislike the synopses and blurbs authors tend to put on the backs of their books, in order to explain the book and sell copies. To me, the stories in The Furry Trap function just as well as a form of personal or confessional comics, or even as comedy. But in recent years, I have been embracing the horror genre more and more. And I figured it makes the most sense to boil it down and make it real simple: These are horror stories. That's what you're getting. They're, in my mind, what horror stories should be.

SODERBERG: You're similarly playing with other genre expectations. You've got a fairy tale, some scary stories, even a superhero strip with "Mark Of The Bat". Do you consciously begin with a comic book cliche?

SIMMONS: In the six main stories, I aimed to use fantasy or horror conventions as a starting point. Or, as something familiar for any reader to be able to jump into them. Everyone's familiar with swords and sorcery, costumed bat heroes, the cabin in the woods, Jesus, and witches and demons. But from there, I wanted it to be a very personal, and hopefully, a fresh exploration of that idea. Almost nothing to do with the original version of that idea. I wanted the book to hold together as a complete work, rather than a bunch of stories thrown together. Almost like a concept album. Certain themes come up again and again, with ideas weaving in and out.

SODERBERG: Let's talk about sequencing the stories in The Furry Trap. It seems like the main stories are organized so that each one is darker than the previous one. It says a lot that "In A Land Of Magic" – which depicts a wizard neck-fucked by a rage-filled knight – is the most humorous, but I do feel like each story moves readers into a harsher world.

SIMMONS: Overall, the stories do get less funny, and less fantasy-based. The most obvious way to see this is to compare the first story to the last. "Magic" is the most cartoonishly drawn, it's brightly colored, and obviously fantastic in its subject matter. With "Demonwood", I tried to do a naturalistic strip in terms of the drawing, the characters, the coloring, and even, the supernatural elements. At the same time however, the stories also generally, become less graphic. The idea of leaving the worst of it up to the reader's imagination works not just in individual stories, but in the final story in relation to the rest of the book. "Demonwood" shows no sex or violence at all. Yet, what is going to happen is described very clearly, and it is maybe the harshest story of all.

From "Demonwood"; published in 'The Furry Trap'
From "Demonwood"; published in 'The Furry Trap'

SODERBERG: The other part of the book's subtitle relates the years you made these comics: 2004-2011. Along with a steady move into darker territory, another narrative to the book is that your work seems gets more sophisticated as the book goes along.

SIMMONS: Hopefully there is growth in the basic craftsmanship from beginning to end. You can see this in that the first two strips have what I think is relatively, the roughest drawing in the book. To give one solid example of something I really worked at: Keeping the head from being too much cartoonishly larger than the body, and consistent in size from panel-to-panel. The size of any given character's head in relation to its body or from panel to panel is one tricky thing about comics, and something I never fully worked to get the hang of until recently. The head size issue is pretty obvious in "In A Land Of Magic", "Mark of the Bat", and "Night of the Jibblers". And with "Jesus Christ", I made the conscious decision to really concentrate on this aspect of the strip.

SODERBERG: It seems like the shorter strips, as well the the drawings and mini-strips in the front and the back of the book initiate the reader into your universe.

SIMMONS: Aside from the six main, long stories in the book, I wanted there to be a lot of smaller chunks and snippets of things for people to enjoy. I like that in books. Those in-between strips are shorter and more abstract, and personal, so even if someone doesn't get much out of them, they can dive back into one of the longer, meatier strips. The stand-alone, mini-galleries of images and gag strips at the front and back of the book are there to ease people into The Furry Trap. Also, they're there for when you're sitting lazy on the couch and don't necessarily feel like reading. You can pick the book up off the coffee table, and half look at it while you're watching a TV show.

SODERBERG: The basic elements of horror story are apparent in your work, even the trick or twist ending, albeit, in a mutated form. "Cockbone" and a few other stories have an ending that pushes the story to that next level of dread. To me, they have the same "shock" effect as like, an old EC Comics tale. How do you approach ending your stories?

SIMMONS: I usually have the ending in mind before I start writing. Often, I try to have the ending leave off before the narrative gets even worse. Working a bit off the popular idea in horror that the viewer's imagination is able to create things worse than anything the creator could show them. I don't think it's this simple, but to a certain degree, I do want to show the reader some really awful things, juice up their imagination, and point them in the direction that the narrative will be going after the last panel.

SODERBERG: How concerned are you with storytelling structure or even proper narrative "pay-off"? You're a disciplined storyteller, but you also allow the stories to stretch out and take the scenic route to their unhappy endings.

SIMMONS: I guess I'm most interested in good, old-fashioned storytelling. Or, what to my mind, makes for good storytelling. I found with making The Leader, that comics and movies are very similar in a lot of ways. Pacing is a big one for me. I decided a few years back that I wanted to work towards making my comics flow as smoothly as possible. Having exactly the right amount of panels – not too many, not too few. Economical. This applies to the drawing as well. Stripping it down to the essentials. Any formal trickery should be invisible, and in service to the story. As subtle as possible. And at the same time, I allow the characters or actions to have the space or freedom to take an extra beat or two, if it feels right. It's a balancing act!

SODERBERG: Is seamless, easy reading the most important goal?

SIMMONS: I like comics that read extremely easily and quickly, so I started working on that more, a few years back. I'm always thinking about sequencing and editing and framing in terms of telling a solid story, visually. Whatever world is being introduced in a strip needs to be clearly illustrated. So, even if it is fantastical or extreme, you can understand it a little before everything goes bananas. A lot of that is just spending time there, seeing what it's like, and keeping the tone even throughout. I want to go play-by-play through these scenarios. Really get inside it and understand what is happening. I want to understand who this "Cockbone" guy with the penis spine is, where he comes from, what lead up to his penis getting ripped open, and the consequences of this event. I want to know the whole story.

From 'House' (2007); published by Fantagraphics
From 'House' (2007); published by Fantagraphics

SODERBERG: In wanting to know the whole story as you said, I've noticed you move moment-to-moment, which is really effective in horror storytelling. Like, House and most of the stories in The Furry Trap feel like they're playing out in real time, which adds tension.

SIMMONS: Yes, real time! This is true. There's something about taking the reader through the action in a matter-of-fact fashion that can be much more affecting. Or treating something that is fantastical or surreal with the same tone as the more mundane aspects of the story. I'm not so into the Spielberg style, where you rub the viewer's face in the fact that this moment right now is so beautiful and amazing. It's important to me that the stories are very much grounded in the mundane and a feeling of the day-to-day.

SODERBERG: So, there's probably something wrong with me, but one thing I'm totally obsessed with is trying to imagine the real time of terrible events. Like, there's audio of the Jonestown massacre that's incredible because you literally hear it, second-to-second, getting worse. Or this movie Come and See that just feels so visceral, and even, horror movie-like, thanks to the immersive sound design and camera work. Plot takes a back seat sometimes and the goal becomes inhabiting dread. I get that same feeling in your work.

SIMMONS: Come and See is an incredible movie. One of my favorite movies I've seen in the last few years. Absolutely blew me away. It's one of the harshest movies ever made, yet is filled with some of the most beautiful imagery. There's a short list of movies I've seen in recent years that aren't quite horror movies, but come close. That feel really truthful to me. Come and See, The White Ribbon, Bad Boy Bubby. It's not as harsh, but La Dolce Vita might be my favorite movie of all time. It sort of touches on everything, and shows people at their best and worst and everything in between.

SODERBERG: Because you begin with an ending, do you then work backwards from that ending?

SIMMONS: Well, I don't really begin with an ending, as much as I tend to have the whole skeleton of the story in mind from the start. And in part, that's because comics are so slow and take so much time. So, while I'm working on any given story, there are five or six other stories or fragments simmering in the back of my mind. And those fragments slowly piece themselves together over months, or years. Although sometimes the story comes to me very quickly, in a nightmare I'll have, or a daydream. "Demonwood" was like that.

SODERBERG: Abuse of power seems central to your work. Victims and perpetrators. "In A Land Of Magic", not only has the knight killing the wizard, but the creepy relationship between the knight and the princess. Or in "Mark Of The Bat", there's the superhero terrorizing the homeless. I sort of feel like the Josh Simmons universe is fueled by will-to-power. Someone screwing someone else over, and trying to dominate them.

SIMMONS: I'm fascinated by how sadistic and insane humans can be to each other. Not that I think that's what all human interactions boil down to, at all. I dig kindness. But cruelty is what I tend to focus on. Not sure why, exactly. People screwing each other over, it happens all the time, doesn't it? Or in more extreme situations, genocide and rape and murder. Books like Surviving the Killing Fields, or The Rape of Nanking. Both of those books describe in unbelievable detail atrocities so awful that you can barely believe what you're reading. And then think of how both authors, Haing S. Ngor and Iris Chang, died. Well, if you're already inclined toward a less than rosy outlook, it only adds to the stack of evidence that the universe is cruel and/or indifferent and our lives arbitrary/meaningless. Ha ha!

From 'Flayed Corpse' (2012); published by Oily Comics
From 'Flayed Corpse' (2012); published by Oily Comics

SODERBERG: That said, I don't see your work as nihilistic, no matter how much it "goes there." There's always some sense of empathy or at least, sympathy in there. It never seems glib or dark for the sake of being dark. How do you see your work in terms of darkness?

SIMMONS: I'm not sure why I do the stories I do. People usually have a much harder time owning up to their faults. And everyone is certainly capable of acting selfishly, or being a bastard, or being awful. So, what's wrong with creating a story from the perspective of an aggressor, or a pervert, or a psychopath? Which is taking it to an extreme, sure. But horror is usually a version of melodrama, of heightened reality. In that framework, you can work toward an emotional truth. Sometimes, my stories get super far-out and grotesque, but it's not done to "shock" the squares or freak-out your parents or anything like that. Often, the best horror is about losing. And maybe struggling to keep a shred of dignity while you do. But often, you don't even get that. Sometimes, you get your throat cut while a clown is pulling your pants down. It's not enough that you're getting murdered, you're being humiliated at the same time! Sometimes, for some unfortunate people, that's how ugly it gets. That's life!

SODERBERG: Do you just tend to dream up fucked up stories or are those the ones you see through? Do you ignore the inspiration in your head that thinks of more "pleasant" ideas?

SIMMONS: These are the stories I feel compelled to do right now. Most of my ideas lean toward the horror thing at the moment. But I don't feel obligated to do them. I don't only like super freaked-out shit just for the sake of it being super freaked-out. It's got to be good and smart and original and well-made, too. I'll appreciate the shit out of some down-to-earth, subtle, low-key classic shit. I'll watch the fuck out of Tokyo Story. I don't give a shit. Ultimately, I'm interested in quality and honesty over who can do the freakiest shit. But yes, generally happy or pleasant stories don't come to me. One exception is the one-pager, "We Enjoyed Many Adventures", which was in Mome 22. And with Jessica Farm, I try to have more pleasant moments. An up and down thing.

SODERBERG: Do you have a back stock of ideas, or are you working whether or not "inspiration" hits you?

SIMMONS: I have a huge back stock of ideas. It's never a matter of sitting down, and trying to come up with an idea, it's about getting the day-to-day bullshit out of the way, so that I can draw. I will probably, never in my lifetime, get to all the stories I want to do. Anyone out there want to draw some comics that I write?

SODERBERG: You just released a short film, The Leader. Was The Leader a comic idea turned into a movie, or specifically designed to be a short?

SIMMONS: The Leader came to me one day last summer. I was a bit sleep-deprived from waking up early to get to one of my house painting gigs. Then, after a full day there, I had to run to another job. Brain cooking in the sun. Then, driving home as the sun was setting, I downed a Red Bull to keep awake, and in that scorched state of mind, I saw the movie come together perfectly in my brain over the course of a few minutes.

SODERBERG: I can totally see The Leader as one of your comics.

SIMMONS: It could only be a film. It was a matter of a number of factors coming together just right so that I could make a movie: I moved to Connecticut; my friend John Sellick had a camera equipment and filmmaking knowledge; the house I lived in at the time was ideal; My friend Gregory Spencer, being a musician and performer. And the teeth tuck thing. It all smashed together at that moment, and I knew we would have to make this movie.

SODERBERG: The teeth tuck thing has appeared in your work before. There's a photo of you in Happy #4 doing the teeth tuck, and your strip about the exploitation movie Messiah Of Evil from Cinema Sewer #23, features a self-portrait of you doing the teeth tuck.

From 'Happy' #4 (2004) From 'Cinema Sewer #23 (2010)
From 'Happy' #4 (2004)/ From "Messiah Of Evil" in 'Cinema Sewer' #23 (2010)

SIMMONS: I am one of only a small handful of people in the world who is able to tuck both the upper and lower lip, simultaneously. It is a highly specialized skill set. Anyone who knows me knows the lip tuck is this annoying thing I do all the time--kind of a nervous habit.

SODERBERG: That Cinema Sewer strip and Messiah Of Evil came to mind while I was watching your short. The Leader grabs onto some of Messiah Of Evil's sloppy, creepy awkwardness.

SIMMONS: Yep, I was pretty obsessed with Messiah of Evil for a long time. The stoned vibe, the creeping electronic score. The great thing about a lot of horror movies in the '70s is that you could tell they were sort of feeling around in the dark, figuring it out as they went, finding new ways of doing horror stories. It was before certain approaches became the formula. It's my favorite era for horror movies! So much great stuff.

SODERBERG: Let's talk about music in The Leader. Who did it? It's got a John Carpenter feel. Is that what you were going for?

SIMMONS: Yeah, the score was fun! It is inspired heavily by John Carpenter. There're a lot of great '70s and'80s synth/prog horror soundtracks, out there. Some of my favorites: Carpenter's stuff, like the theme from Prince Of Darkness. The main theme from The Shining, and Goblin's music for Suspiria and Dawn of the Dead. So, I wanted the music to have the feel of that stuff. Gregory Spencer, the star of the movie, is also a musician and performer. He is one of my oldest friends. And we were in a circus together. So, basically I told Gregory more or less what I wanted, and worked with him, and he took it from there. He has a studio set-up in his basement, and was able to borrow a real synthesizer for this soundtrack. I was blown away by what he was able to do. That's one of the exciting things about collaborative mediums: The people you work with can surpass and improve upon your ideas. This was true of everybody who worked on the film.

SODERBERG: What's the deal with the circus? For whatever reason, I just assumed the "Zirkus" strips you did in Happy and Top Shelf: Under the Big Top #8 book were fiction. It all seemed too insane to be real.

SIMMONS: My friends and I did this kind of punk rock sex circus thing from roughly 1999-2004. I was involved mostly in 2000 and 2001. I had a puppet show based on my "Bunny Soft" comics. The puppets were cut out of plaster core from election signs stolen from around town.  Six feet tall, they could take up a whole stage. I also had a bad clown character called Spanky Ass-Blood the Clown. He performed in the puppet rock opera of the apocalypse, Rock-a-Zulu. And later on, I had the 14-year-old girl puppet/costume and song, which I mostly performed with my friends Glory Bee. Gregory did a lot of stuff. He played music, and most famously, as the climax of most of the shows, would perform auto-fellatio while lying on a bed of nails. We toured all over the country and it was some fun, crazy times.

Photos of Spanky Ass-Blood the Clown & Bunny Soft courtesy of Josh Simmons/ From 'Happy' #4 (2004)
Photos of Spanky Ass-Blood the Clown & Bunny Soft courtesy of Josh Simmons/ From 'Happy' #4 (2004)

SODERBERG: Are you familiar with the Werner Herzog idea of "ecstatic truth"? In a way, it's just Herzog justifying the fiction he crowbars into his documentaries, but he's also getting at something pretty profound. Namely, that it is actually the odd, stylized (read: "fake") moments in a piece of art that make it feel more "real" and truthful. The pants-falling-down moment in The Leader is a moment of ecstatic truth. I mean, it's just plain funny, but it somehow raises the emotional stakes.

SIMMONS: I hadn't heard of Herzog's thing. Sounds good to me, though. I guess I think of it in terms of what brings a scene or moment "alive." The pants thing in The Leader is a good example. When I thought of that, I sort of knew it would be the money shot of the movie; that it would sort of ground it. It's kind of funny, absurd, but also truthful in terms of real violence, which is rarely ever as elegant and balletic as it's depicted in movies. It's usually awkward and uncomfortable. It's rarely thrilling.

SODERBERG: That blending of comedy and horror is all over the place in The Furry Trap, as well.

SIMMONS: The best are the things that you don't quite know if it is scary or funny. You don't know quite how to feel about it. Kubrick does it in A Clockwork Orange. Kate Bush does it on "Babooshka". Cronenberg does it in The Brood. A Whitehouse song like "Wriggle Like A Fucking Eel", which tickles the same part of my brain as this ABBA video for "Eagle". Artists who are own their own planet. When it approaches hysteria, frenzy, mania. When it goes on way too long. Repetition. That's what I like. This scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The "Ooh Mama" from Tim & Eric. And this scene from Possession.

SODERBERG: The Leader, really feels like a coda for The Furry Trap. A seven-minute distillation of the thematics and atmosphere of those stories.

SIMMONS: It is the only major project I've done since finishing the The Furry Trap. I'm glad it feels of a piece with the stories in The Furry Trap. I almost think of it as the twelfth story for that book. My latest comic, starring actual humans.