Art preview: Cartoonist Josh Simmons is anything but conventional

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Josh Simmons is, he’ll admit, a fairly typical cartoonist in many ways, particularly when it comes to the anti-social, stay-at-home-and-draw stereotype often pinned on him and his peers. As with most things Simmons does, though, from his comic books to his in-store appearances, convention is something to be used and twisted by his own grotesque whims.

“Black River,” his latest graphic novel (and for which he’s coming to Kafe Kerouac on Tuesday, May 12), is standard, post-apocalyptic horror in many ways. A group of survivors marches across the countryside, stopping occasionally for rest and supplies. Along the way, they encounter blood-thirsty rapists and murderers, but in all this Simmons plays with convention, giving as much as he pulls back, and always making sure the comic is accessible and easy to read.

“There’s this idea that what the audience can imagine is worse than anything that can be shown, which I don’t necessarily think is 100-percent true,” Simmons said by phone in early May. “I try to find the balance, the middle way, where I show something awful and then something even worse is left up to the reader’s imagination.

“The more personal or strange a work is, it’s got to be approachable or digestible in some way,” he continued. “I like things to be very easy to take in and if it sticks in your craw after that’s cool, that works.”

Helping balance the onslaught of bloodletting is humor and beauty. A particularly lurid catchphrase of sorts is repeated for comedic effect, while elsewhere survivors stop at an open mic night in a makeshift town and take a mind-melting pharmaceutical drug called gum drop (“They just fuck you up without any real pleasurable benefits. They’re all that’s left and people still take them because they still need some kind of escape,” Simmons said).

Even the ruined landscapes can be breathtakingly beautiful in Simmons’ hands. One wordless full-page (see above) depicts survivors camped out on a wintry beach. In the distance are snow-capped mountain peaks; above them, camp fire smoke blends into the spectral Northern Lights. The page, which will be available for purchase as a poster on Tuesday, was inspired by Simmons’ experience with the natural wonder as a lonely 19-year-old living in Sweden.

“I always want that [contrast] to be in my comics,” Simmons said. “[The comics] can be very, very dark, but I always want there to be a sort of beautiful or lyrical moment. If it’s just a pure bleak, gray sludge-fest, then there’s kind of nothing to hold on to and that gets kind of tedious.”

You can likewise expect the unconventional at Simmons’ Kafe Kerouac appearance. Foregoing a traditional reading, Simmons will give an artist talk and show some of his short movies, like a minute-long Utz commercial that uses the crinkling of a potato chip bag to particularly creepy effect. He’ll also be joined by Kentucky cartoonist and musician J.T. Dockery and Sunshine Ears, a performer and musician who once toured with Simmons in a punk rock sex circus that featured a puppet show, clown act and auto-fellatio on a bed of nails.

“With this tour, my goal was to do something a little more than someone signing books in a comic shop. I wanted to make it more of a performance,” Simmons said. “And I find it a little perverse to show movies in book stores.”

Photos courtesy of Fantagraphics

Josh Simmons

8 p.m. Tuesday, May 12

2250 N. High St., Campus

ALSO APPEARING: J.T. Dockery and Sunshine Ears