Josh Simmons’ Black River is an impressively unnerving work, a slim black-and-white tale of a group of (mostly) women making their way through a post-apocalyptic landscape, struggling for survival and hope. With The Walking Dead leading the way, ragtag bands finding solace in the dying remains of human society have found new significance, but Simmons’ book is something very different.
Informed by dreams and shot through with gut-level anxiety rather than heroic cliché, Black River winds in an unpredictable pattern. No one is safe. No one is nice. Any one of its characters could be us. As population density increases, the idea of starting anew with all the amenities of modern life and very few of the world’s current people has a kind of appeal (for a comedic take, see Will Forte’s TV series The Last Man on Earth), but Black River is nothing but nightmare. There’s no wish fulfillment anywhere in the book, which is probably what makes it burrow into your brain and stay there. Simmons caught up with Paste from the road, answering questions over email from a McDonald’s in Michigan, among other places, as we tried to unpack his creation.
It seems like apocalyptic stories are experiencing a crest of popularity at the moment (zombies, The Hunger Games, etc.). What do you think fuels that desire to read/write about civilization’s collapse? What makes you want to explore it as a theme?
Josh Simmons: I’ve loved this theme since I was a kid, watching Romero’s Dawn of the Dead over and over. A movie I saw more recently that bears some resemblance to Black River is Late August at the Hotel Ozone, which is also a post-apocalyptic story about a wandering band of women. Different overall story, but also very bleak. The popularity of the post-apocalypse genre seems to be cyclical. I would guess it corresponds with times of change and upheaval. We live in the Age of Anxiety. Everyone’s anxious as hell. Having said that, it’s not so much a choice to do a story like this than intuition. The overall outline of the story came to me in a dream. I saw these women wandering through a dead world, and it seemed they’d been wandering for years, maybe dozens of years, and it was impossible to tell how old they were, because they were so caked in filth. They could have been 16; they could have been 60. There was a sense of urgency about this story. I felt I had to draw it.
Why Black River as a title?
Simmons: To be honest, I couldn’t think of a title for this book! In a perfect world, it would be untitled, the way a painting can be untitled. The title came from fellow cartoonist Sammy Harkham, who also designed the book. I think it works in that it is a kind of road trip story, a winding journey like a river. Also, there might just be a secret hidden river somewhere in the book…..
The bit in the comedy club isn’t exactly the climax of this book, but it seems crucial to the structure of the narrative. That is: you’ve dealt in horror-comedy a lot previously. Would you say this book is the same? Or something more on the horror end of the spectrum?
Simmons: This one does lean more toward the horror end of the spectrum. My longer books, House and Black River, tend to have less humor in them than the short stories. Not sure why exactly. That’s just how they come out. But I think there are some funny sequences in the new book. The humor in my stories tends to be more and more strained, the older I get.
What scares you?
Simmons: What I’m capable of in a worst case scenario.
This is a feminist book, right?
Simmons: I wouldn’t label it a feminist book but if that term works for people, I’m okay with it. The women are certainly the more sympathetic characters in the book, up to a point. And the men are mostly pretty horrid. Again, my stories are so compulsive that I hesitate to attach a political point of view to them. But if I had to I’d say Black River and my last book, The Furry Trap, tend to lean more towards misandry than misogyny. Men can be terrible. But yeah, my comics are less about telling people how I think the world should be than about grappling with how it is. Something like that…..I do try to make the violence in my comics horrible and upsetting rather than sexy or “fun,” which I suppose might be viewed as an ethical stance.
What makes you a feminist?
Simmons: I believe everyone—regardless of gender, age or ethnicity—is equally worthwhile or worthless, depending on my mood.
Is a focus on women inherent to the horror genre? And why?
Simmons: It does tend to be. I’ve read that the majority of horror fans are women, too. Is it something to do with owning or coming to terms with one’s place in a misogynistic society? Are women just more equipped to process dark, sexy, fucked up, fun shit, like horror movies? I’m not sure. In general I wonder why people are drawn to horror so much. Teenagers in particular. The teenage years are a time of massive change in anyone’s life, maybe that has something to do with their attraction to the genre. I suppose it’s about processing fear in some ways. Primal anxieties about the other, your body, dying. The aesthetics of ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s horror movies are often beautiful to me. It’s a wide open topic you could chew over endlessly.
There are creators who could probably delve into the topic with a lot more detail and coherence than I could. Julia Gfrorer is a cartoonist who does mostly horror comics who’s put into words what I’m trying to do better than I ever could. I like Sarah Horrocks’ writing about horror. Also for books I’d recommend Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films by Kier-La Janisse.
I guess “misandry” is more accurate than just “feminist” as a descriptor. It’s as though the book is more about the horrors of being female than about the horrors of the apocalypse. Yes? No?
Simmons: I think both terms could work, and this is a pretty apt way to describe the book. Part of where the book is coming from I think is women I’ve known and ways they’ve been messed with. And my not always being the gentleman I would like to be, especially when I was younger. Coming to terms with that. But in some ways I think the gender doesn’t matter, it’s as much about any person moving through a hostile world and being worn down by it. The gang in the book never gets a chance to rest, to stop somewhere and be comfortable. But again, the way I work is so intuitive that it’s difficult for me to say that the book is specifically about any one thing, and I don’t want to nail it down that much for myself or for readers. I’m a big believer in the idea that the art is the thing, and saying that it’s about this or that or a = a and b = b can be problematic. It can kill a story when it’s easily decoded, and you can forget about it and move on from it. I’m not the best talker about art and what it can “mean” or be about, but it can be fun to do. I’m trying, Hillary!
And maybe this inherent vulnerability and the awareness of it is what makes women both the subject of and the audience for horror movies?
Simmons: Maybe, yeah. I think you put it into words better than I could.
Can you talk about how you build suspense through panel timing and layout?
Simmons: Pacing is hugely important to me. Very clear and easy-to-read panels and pages. With this book it’s all two- or three- or four- or six-panel grids, or full splash pages. I try to keep the tone and pacing at the same level throughout any comics I make. I think it helps make the dramatic moments all the more effective.
You’re hitting a particularly hard target here, with making something that is horrifying but still doesn’t deter one from reading on. I read your Comics Journal interview from a few years ago, and when the film Come and See came up, that seemed like an apt comparison in its almost unbearable intensity. Others I might bring up as analogues include Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Kill List. I guess what I’m saying is: Do you sleep well?
Simmons: I love all three of those movies! Just saw “Kill List” recently, loved it. It felt like exactly the kind of thing I try to get at with my comics. Do I sleep well? Not always, ha ha. I definitely have some anxiety issues, and the comics are often an attempt at trying to process them, I think, I think.
Can you talk about the process of creating these characters? The group dynamics seem fairly important to this story.
Simmons: In the dream they weren’t fleshed out as individuals, so I had to figure that out in the writing. They are mostly based on people I’ve known. There are autobiographical elements to a lot of them, I’m sure. I thought it would be funny to name the leader of the gang, Seka, after the queen of porn from the 1970s. In a way this touches on the sex and gender themes running through the book….
Was the “Dickpussy” thing in your initial dream?
Simmons: Daisy saying only “Dickpussy” came to me in the writing of it. I think it’s a play on the “Hodor” character in Game of Thrones or Tom from The Stand spelling out everything he sees as “M-O-O-N.” There’s often a simpleton who repeats something over and over.
You’ve worked in both black and white and color, but this book is the former. Deliberate choice? Budget issue? When I was pondering this question, I thought about the fact that Hitchcock picked b/w for Psycho because he knew he could get away with more graphic violence if you saw the blood as a shade of gray instead of a bright red.
Simmons: It’s mostly a pragmatic issue for me at this point. It takes twice as long for me to make color comics as black-and-white comics. My time and energy are limited and only shrinking as I get older. And there are many more comics I want to make. So I would rather get twice as many black-and-white comics out into the world as color. But I also do like the way black-and-white looks. And it doesn’t mean I won’t do color in the future, but I would need a really good reason to do so.
Here’s an analogy: Black River is to most apocalypse literature as Game of Thrones is to most fantasy literature, i.e., the working out of the nitty-gritty realpolitik horrible details as opposed to the clean-slate fantasy. Even most zombie movies and comics have an element of “fun” to them that is in no way present in your book. How do you make someone want to keep reading while stripping out all the fun?
Simmons: I think the first 20 pages are relatively light or fun. And the comedy club routine isn’t TOO too dark. So there is an element of seducing the reader into the story to begin with. Designing the pages in such a way that the book is really easy to read. And however dark the book gets, I still want the settings and goings on to be beautiful or interesting. Or something you haven’t seen before. I think also taking the time to make every movement and scene feel “real” and down in the dirt helps.
How big is your closet of doomsday-prep canned goods?
Simmons: I do think about putting together an end of days closet sometimes, but I’ve never had the time or money or been settled enough to do so. Some day! It would be fun to learn some basic survival skills and how to use guns a bit more…..