Thursday, March 13, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #13: Josh Simmons

Moreso than any other horror artist I can think of, Josh Simmons draws comics that are genuinely upsetting. At the same time, his comics can be funny, poignant and deeply strange. Chuck Forsman's Oily Comics imprint published its first "giant-size" mini in publishing an anthology of Simmons' work in Habit #1. An anthology of Simmons' work at a size that flatters his intricate linework and knockout images was one of Forsman's best ideas as a publisher, and this was one of the best minicomics of 2013.

The first story, "Seaside Home", is an example of Simmons' use of character and environmental detail as a kind of misdirection for something awful, inexplicable and lethal occurring, like in his book House. The sadness of the little girl who's the protagonist of the story, the callousness of her parents and the majesty of their seaside home are all subject to the random and inexorable forces of nature and the suffocating, unrelenting qualities of water. This story is a gut punch because Simmons makes the readers care about the little girl in the span of just a few panels before unleashing the unthinkable.

Habit also includes the latest episodes of his serials "The White Rhinoceros" and "Jessica Farm". The former serial appeared in the pages of Mome, while the latter has been published by both Fantagraphics and by Simmons himself. "The White Rhinoceros" is written by "The Partridge in a Pear Tree" and is a crazy fantasy story wherein Paul Lynde and Rosie o'Donnell (never named but fairly explicitly referenced) wind up in Racelandia, confronted by a cute baby pink Polack and a young boy in search of "racial magic". It's a hilarious, over-the-top exploration of racial and ethnic stereotypes repurposed such that the meaning of each word has been totally altered and put in a fantasy context. Horrible slurs become monsters or harmless creatures, and a cup of racism is a life-giving drink. A bit of history and context is provided in this issue, but the hows and whys of Racelandia are still unexplained. The delicacy and even cuteness of Simmons' line is absolutely perfect for the bizarre and disorienting storyline and satire. This episode of "Jessica Farm", on the other hand, sees Simmons at his most visceral. He mixes whimsical character design with cringe-worthy gore and violence, as what seems to be a magical world for its protagonist is in fact filled with great danger. The other stories, "Behemoth" and "The Choice Is Clear" (illustrated by Wendy Chin), see Simmons creating an atmosphere of creepy mystery that may be malevolent or just simply strange. This mini is a showcase for Simmons' talent and the variety of material he's interested in as an artist.

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