Josh Simmons has quite the reputation for horror comics, a genre that doesn’t always transcribe that well to the medium. His previous books House and The Furry Trap haunted the reader long after they were finished, and so Black River has a substantial expectation to meet.
The comic tells the story of a group of women, two dogs, and a man who are struggling to survive in a post apocalyptic wasteland. They find a journal which describes a working city, civilisation, “It’s walled in and completely self sufficient. Protected by sharp-shooters all around the city.” It even has stereos and TV’s, “everything from the old days.” The group heads off to find the city, and along the way they wind up in a strange comedy club, and find trouble with another group.
This is a short, blunt, horrific comic. At a hundred pages it is brutal in its violence, and short on plot. The group, mainly composed of women, gets put through the wringer almost constantly throughout the book, and it’s to Simmons’ credit that the reader feels every single act of violence. Never mind the blood and viscera on the page (and there’s a lot of that), the emotional weight of every death is felt. That’s no small thing considering the sizeable cast he’s writing and drawing.
This is a book about survival, but it’s also a book about the myths and lies that we tell ourselves. The mythical city that the survivors go to search for may or may not exist, in fact, many of the characters don’t believe it does. A scene in the middle of the book, in a comedy club, has a stand up comedian state, “So the apocalypse was weird. As a kid, so many movie shows about it. So many ways for the world to die. Asteroid. Nuclear. Earthquake. Volcano. Virus. Singularity. All the greatest hits. What a hoot when they all went down over just a few years.” One of our lead characters turns to the other and says, “Is that what happened, Seka?” to which they reply, “I don’t think so.”
Simmons’ publisher, the ever reliable Fantagraphics, describes the book as a cross between John Carpenter and Shirley Jackson and it’s easy to see why. The stark coldness of the apocalypse is reminiscent of The Thing and Escape from New York (although B-movie classic The Warriors also came to mind when reading), whilst the writing and art have the poetry and lyricism, and steady build of horror that we associate with Jackson.
In fact, Simmons’ art here recalls artists like Isobel Greenberg in his almost quaint depictions of character. Of course, that quaintness is entirely offset by the horrific events taking place on the page. In the end though, it’s his landscapes that turn out to be the most quietly scary. There are numerous beautifully rendered landscapes, from the opening Northern Lights-esque icy territory, to a burning city. Most important though is the sky. Simmons draws the sky with weight. Whether it’s heavy smoke hanging after a fire, or the thick lines of the Northern Lights, the sky has body and weight, and it hangs over our band of heroes, often so low that you feel it might fall down on them at any moment.
This is a book about survival, told with delicacy and weight. It is about human suffering, and one might be tempted to compare it with other post-apocalyptic fare such as The Road, or 28 Days Later, both of which share characteristics on display here, but this has a different feel. For one, it’s far weirder, and it also has a joke about Duck Tales. Cormac McCarthy never did that, did he?
Any Cop? Yes. This is a very fine comic indeed, and depending on how much gore you can stomach, this is a must read.