“Flayed Corpse And Other Stories” : Josh Simmons Sits At The Center of A Brutal, Random, Uncaring Universe — Is That A Bad Thing?

In most fields of entertainment and/or artistic expression (the two only seem mutually exclusive, they needn’t necessarily be), there is usually at least one generally-acknowledged “Master of Horror,” if not several : literature has Stephen King; cinema has John Carpenter remaining out of the one-time Carpenter/Craven/Romero “trinity,” with plenty of others ready and waiting to assume up the mantle;  television has Robert Kirkman (hey, I didn’t say I liked all these folks); mainstream comics still clings to the acclaimed works of “British Invaders” Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Jamie Delano, as well as to the legendary EC and Warren creators. Purportedly “alternative” or “independent” comics, though? Not so much.

Certainly the first wave of underground comix saw plenty of cartoonists who were very much at home delineating the horrific : Greg Irons, Jack Jackson, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson and all produced memorable horror-themed works — heck, even a young Richard Corben cut his teeth in the underground milieu. These days, though, folks pursuing a non-corporate path for their comics careers tend toward the autobiographical, the surreal, the “slice-of-life,” the dramatic, the melodramatic. Horror seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor among the “indie” set.

Which is why Josh Simmons is such a breath of fresh — if fetid and diseased — air. Whether we’re talking about his shorter works collected in books such as The Furry Trap, or long-form graphic novels like Black River, this is a guy who makes his bread and butter holding a brutally scrambled — and just as brutally honest — funhouse mirror up to society and forcing us to acknowledge any number of things we’d much rather ignore, and his latest Fantagraphics-published collection, Flayed Corpse And Other Stories, sees him back on familiar ground and twisting the knife in deeper.

Simmons is often mistakenly lumped in with the “dudebro” crowd of white male cartoonists that think subtracting all meaning from their work automatically makes it “edgy” and gives them license to “up the ante” (Jason Karns, I’m looking at you — and Charles Forsman, I’m looking at you sometimes), but what I think the largely-well-meaning critics who take exception to this (as, usually, they should) miss is that there are ways to make pointlessness a point in and of itself, and that it takes genuine skill to effectively imbue your work with a sense of dread at the realization that the world is going to go on spinning no matter what the hell happens to any of us individually. That’s what Simmons does, and he does it without apology, pity, or a minute’s hand-holding.

His intro strip to this volume, pictured above, subverts the contents of everything that follows for those of us who know what to expect, saves its sardonic punchline if you’re a newbie, but undoubtedly works like a charm (an unlucky one, perhaps, but still) either way and very nearly manages to momentarily redeem the concept of irony until you remember that, oh yeah, most people shouldn’t even try this shit, but Simmons does it well enough to earn a pass. It’s really the first (and titular) strip presented after the table of contents, then, that sets the “legit” tone for the next one-hundred-sixty-some pages, as medical examiners debate how an unfortunate corpse came to be in their “care,” each one-upping the other with increasingly grotesque hypotheses as to cause of death before settling on all of them, and that the victim therefore met his end in a state of extreme agony — an agony that will likely endure forever because, I guess, that’s how metaphysics works. Welcome to a highly personal apocalypse that never ends.

Bizarrely, though, Simmons and his coterie of collaborators — writer/artist Tom Van Deusen, inker Eric Reynolds, artists Patrick Keck, Ben Horak, James Romberger, Pat Moriarty, Eroyn Franklin, Ross Jackson, and Joe Garber (with additional stand-alone art pages by Tara Booth, Anders Nilsen, and Shanna Matuszak) — find the funny side in the midst of this bleakness. The humor on offer is of the unsettling — hell, the gallows — variety, to be sure, but sometimes a shameful laugh in spite of yourself is better than no laugh at all.

In that sense, then, this assemblage of stories — most culled from various anthologies published between the years 2010-2017, although some were self-contained “floppy” single-issue releases — probably owes more to the ethos and aesthetic of the drive-ins and grindhouses of the ’70s than it does to what’s happening in contemporary horror, given that anything can happen at any time and no one is safe. Joe Bob Briggs would probably approve — as do I — but folks who grew up on horror with implicit, if never directly-stated, rules ? The readers who know the “loose” girls die first, the virgins survive until the end, the killer gets up and walks again no matter how violently he’s been dispatched? They might be genuinely surprised by the kind of “no hope for anyone, ever, so don’t fucking kid yourself” existential terror that is Simmons’ stock in trade.

I really don’t want to give the impression that this book has a sense of relentlessness to it, though — and while much of that is down to the aforementioned bleak humor, a lot of it is down to the varying, but uniformly pitch-perfect, art styles on display. Simmons’ own cartooning is plenty strong in its own right — rich and inky blacks juxtaposed with economic, effective, and moody linework that gives off a feel of “what if Chester Brown swapped out his clinical detachment for informed cynicism?” and finds its apex in the collection’s two finest stories (“The Incident At Owl’s Head,” a revisionist take on outsider-wanders-into-an-isolated-community tropes, and “Seaside Home,” a harrowingly straightforward character study of a family facing unavoidable, inescapable natural disaster) — but he shows a real penchant for playing to his artists’ strengths when he sets the pencils and brushes aside himself.

Of the collaborative entries, the strongest is no doubt “Twilight Of The Bat,” the justly-celebrated story that draws the one and only logical conclusion  to the let’s- not-call-him-Batman and let’s-also-not-call-him-Joker relationship (something of a surprise entry given that the original, riso-printed magazine came out in the latter part of 2017 and is still available from its publisher, Cold Cube Press), drawn with suitable post-apocalyptic grit by Patrick Keck, while the best example of two heads being better than one is probably “Daddy,” a stark and particularly unforgiving tale of the “oh my God the killer was already in our home” variety that transcends its telegraphed-from-the-outset trajectory thanks to James Romberger’s violently evocative art that marries old-school EC eeriness with a thoroughly modern sensibility, all awash with rich and vibrant and frankly disturbing colors. It’s gorgeous to look at, yeah, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell.

Still, while the gory and the gross are  present and accounted for here in generous proportion (see especially the Pat Moriarty-illustrated “The Great Shitter”), it is the philosophy underpinning Simmons’ stories that sets them apart and above. Not even the light-hearted (relatively speaking, mind  you) Tom Van Deusen-penned yarn, “Late For The Show,” can completely escape the inexorable vortex pull of inevitability at the core Flayed Corpse And Other Stories. When your number is up, it’s up, Simmons never tires of reminding us — but before it comes up (and I hope, for your sake, that’s not for a good, long while yet), I absolutely urge you to buy this book.

Speaking In (Okay, Of) “Tongues”

I was warned, by no less an authority on all things small press-related than Daniel Elkin, that once I read the first issue of Tongues, the opening installment in a new, long-form, modern retelling of the Promethean myth by Anders Nilsen (take or leave the Brekhus as you see fit — although the artist himself seems to be including it more and more frequently), that I’d probably feel like going back and re-doing my “Top 10 Single Issues Of 2017” list — and damn if he wasn’t right. Still, going back over old ground has never been my style, we just plug ahead around these parts, but that doesn’t mean we can’t — and shouldn’t — give this extraordinary work the recognition it deserves, does it?

There’s lots to unpack when one discusses Tongues — visually, conceptually, thematically — but before getting lost in those tantalizing weeds, a word about the format : this is a beautifully- presented comic,  48 oversized pages on heavy paper that makes the muted pastel hues Nilsen employs in his color scheme absolutely sing, with a striking wrap-around cover complete with French flaps. If you remember the old Ignatz line of books from the early-2000s, you’re pretty much getting the idea, and in that respect it’s rather a return to form for the artist, whose early work The End made its debut as part of that line. The “throw-backing” doesn’t stop there, though —

Nilsen’s work has always had a quality of the self-referential about it (not that new readers should be intimidated by — or even need to know — this), but it’s how he combines and collates ideas he’s explored previously, as well as how he builds off them, that makes each project intriguing its own right. Here, for instance, we have the apocalyptic nature of Rage Of Poseidon taking its next logical leap forward to post-apocalyptic aftermath, incorporating the rubble-strewn wreckage and talking, intelligent animals of Big Questions along the way, and throwing in the wandering protagonist first met in Dogs And Water for good measure.  Yet to call this a retread of past works is to sell it way too short — rather, it’s an extension of them in much the same way that Lynch wove together ideas and concepts first raised in his earlier films into the magnum opus that was Mulholland Dr.

Which naturally begs the question — is Tongues destined to be the defining work of Nilsen’s career? Certainly he’s chosen fertile ground for it — Greek mythology is, by its nature, big, bold, expansive, interpretive. And he’s peppered this “re-imagined” (a term I generally hate, but still, it applies) updating with recurring elements and motifs that invite all kinds of speculative examination : arcane geometric symbols, black birds, the fact that our three apparent protagonists are never identified by name. The mind races with “what could this all mean?”-style questions, exacerbated no end by the oblique nature of the setting (which promotional blurbs online inform us is Central Asia, although the text never explicitly states as much), and of the just-concluded war that took place within it. The ground beneath our feet is unstable in the extreme, the world we’re plunged — or drawn — into very much unformed, transitory, a space where anything can happen. Where maybe it already has.

A Swahili-speaking girl, for instance, first appears in our techno-organic Prometheus’ dream, and then proves herself to be very much flesh and blood, not to mention something of a child prodigy, wise well beyond her years, and as each brief chapter (entitled “The Prisoner’s Dream,” Hercules,” and “The Murderer,” respectively) flows into the other, those questions (big ones, naturally) about the nature of this world shift outward, to the point where we’re wondering how much of this is “real” and how much is entirely imagined by Prometheus as his black eagle “friend” chomps down on his liver. Or is he, perhaps, imagining it into being?

Speaking of internal organs, they provide another running visual motif in the early going, as Nilsen designs pages around the various anatomical systems of different animals. Again, the precise meaning of this is as yet unclear, but any number of inferences are invited, making for different experiences with each successive re-read — and you will be re-reading this, probably many times.

Which, come to think of it, highlights a fascinating tension between the book and — well, itself. Certainly this is dense, heady stuff, each page a marvel of layout and design, thoroughly thought-through and with nothing left to chance — and every individual panel, for its part, is bursting at the seams with visual information that could very well prove to be of tremendous import later on. You literally don’t want to miss a thing. And yet, the pacing of the story is breezy, dare I say even relaxed, with an unmistakably organic feel to it. Events don’t occur in succession so much as coalesce one into another, in naturalistic quasi-rhythm. As the old bumper sticker says, “Shit Happens” — but here, it’s all happening for a reason. Or, perhaps more accurately, for reasons, plural.

At this point it probably goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — that Nilsen’s illustration is zenith-level throughout this comic, everything from monkeys to armored battle trucks to barren landscapes to fucking respiratory systems delineated with a keen mixture of precision and free-flowing expression, each should-be-competing polarity working with the other to achieve holistic unity in the eye of the lucky beholder. He does some interesting things with time and movement, as well, a handful of panels showing the physical progress of characters moving within a formally “static” image that is, of course, anything but.

And ya know, that may not be a bad metaphor to cling to when grasping for an overall description of Tongues itself. We may think we know this story, or that we’re at least familiar enough with its basic components, but pre-conceptions, as with appearances, can be deceiving. Nilsen is doing something supremely confident and just as gutsy here — filling in very little by way of actual details and trusting entirely in his craft to both inform and mystify us every step of the way, to establish the framework of our expectations and subvert them in equal measure. This could very well be the most ambitious thing happening in comics right now — and you’d be a fool, dear and valued reader, not to get in on the ground floor.

Nilsen is self-publishing Tongues under the auspices of his new “No Miracles” imprint — and while it’s not cheap, it’s worth every last one of the 15 dollars you’ll spend on it, and then some, so quit listening to me and get yourself over to https://www.andersbrekhusnilsen.com/tongues/

 

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 12/03/2017 – 12/09/2017

Great stuff to tell you about this week, friends, so let’s eschew the time-wasting in favor of getting right the fuck down to business —

Twilight Of The Bat is Josh Simmons’ second “unauthorized” take on DC’s most bankable property, following on from his 2007 mini-comic simply titled “Batman” (later re-christened, no doubt for legal reasons, “Mark Of The Bat”), and this time out he’s joined by artist Patrick Keck for a 20-page ‘zine boasting high-quality Risograph printing and an $8.00 price tag set in a post-apocalyptic G _____ City where “The Bat” and his mortal enemy “Joke-Man” are the only survivors. The true nature of the most psychologically complex hero/villain relationship in comics is laid bare in frank and stark terms here, Kek’s rich and no-doubt-time-consuming linework is exceptional, and damn if this story won’t even make you laugh a couple times in spite of yourself. Yeah, okay, the Killing Joke influence is too obvious to miss, but this is, if anything, even more harrowing and tragic, even if does posit the same (and only)  inevitable outcome for this pair of star-crossed haters/lovers that Moore and Bolland did thirty years ago.

Damn! Now that I feel positively ancient, I’ll just mention that the inside covers feature pin-up art by Tara Booth and Anders Nilsen, who both contribute outstanding work — even if I can’t begin to decipher what Nilsen’s illustration has to do with the book at all. Well worth a buy, and damn, do these guys ship fast — I got mine in two days. Order yours at http://www.coldcubepress.com/shop/twilight-of-the-bat-josh-simmons-pat-keck

Uncivilized Books wants six of your hard-won dollars for John Porcellino’s South Beloit Journal, and you know what? You should give it to ’em. This is an engaging little collection of diary strips drawn at the low point of Porcellino’s life in the winter/spring of 2011, and if we’re going to measure it on a “diary comics bleakness/hopefulness scale” that has Gabby Schultz toiling away in the doldrums and Brian Canini serving up sunshine and rainbows at the other end, I’d have to say that it falls firmly in the middle. Certainly there is depression, anxiety, and even nihilism to spare, but by the end, things are looking up for Mr. King-Cat, and his shot at potential happiness feels well-eared, if almost nonchalantly arrived at. But then, that’s kinda how life works, isn’t it? Things suck until, slowly but surely, they don’t anymore. Chicken-scratch minimalism doesn’t get much more honest and engaging than this. Get it direct from the publisher at http://www.uncivilizedbooks.com/comics/south_beloit_journal.html or the author at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/south-beloit-journal-by-john-porcellino/

Eric Haven is a cartoonist whose work first caught my attention when I was a teenager and he was putting out a three-issue series called Angryman for Caliber’s short-lived Iconografix imprint (anyone else remember that one?), and while his Hollywood gig as a producer on Myth Busters has kept him away from the drawing board more than I’d like, on those rare occasions when he does produce some new stuff, it’s always worth checking out — and his latest, the Fantagraphics-published hardback Vague Tales, is certainly no exception. A nearly-wordless collection of interlocked stories featuring super-heroes, super-villains, super-barbarians, and super-sorceresses that’s part Winsor McKay, part Jack Kirby, part Fletcher Hanks, part Charles Burns, and part something else entirely, this one seeps into your brain as you read it and simmers there for days as you try to piece together exactly what it’s all about/in aid of. Big, bold, brash — and yet profoundly subtle at the same time. Seventeen bucks is a bit much, true, but I don’t feel cheated in the least as this is one to re-visit over and over again. Porcellino’s got it at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/vague-tales-by-eric-haven/

Fantagraphics also serves up our final offering of the week, Michel Fiffe’s Zegas, and this is the point where the spirit of full disclosure compels me to admit that I’ve never quite loved Copra as much as my fellow arbiters of taste breathlessly assure me that I need to. Mind you, I don’t dislike it in the least, I just fail to see what all the fuss is about.

This, though? Yeah, this one’s worth fussing about. Fiffe actually self-published this vibrantly-colored, assuredly-drawn story in serialized form before his more -celebrated (and still ongoing) super-hero homage, and for me this tale of two siblings with vastly different, but equally-compelling, problems trying to make their way toward vastly different, but equally-compelling, goals in a recognizable-but-not-quite city of the future, collected here in one volume for the first time, is supremely confident, visually literate stuff of the highest order. The sci-fi landscape is a tricky one to navigate, but in Emily and Boston, we have two fascinating guides, albeit for distinct — even disparate — reasons. Can’t recommend this one highly enough — well worth the $19.99 cover price, but easy enough to find for less even without resorting to Amazon. So don’t.

Alright, that ought to be enough to empty your wallet for one week — it was for me! — see you back here in seven days for another round!