If Josh Simmons’ Furry Trap doesn’t elicit a visceral reaction from you, there’s something deeply wrong. Really. Even leafing through it the second and third times for review purposes bought squirmy feelings to my stomach. Or perhaps I have worms. This hardback collection from Fantagraphics gathers several of Simmon’s short stories previously published in Mome and Kramer’s Ergot, along with newer material.They’re perverse, disgusting and often more than slightly sickening, but they also do a seamless turn in dissecting religion, the proliferation of violence and sex in our society whilst managing to be very funny.
The book opens with In a Land of Magic, a blackly humorous tale which begins tamely enough: an elf/fairy persuading his girlfriend to venture into the forbidden, dark side of the woods and ends with the elf defeating the dark wizard of the realm and having sex(or attempting to) with the tracheotomy he’s performed on him. The bright colours and cartoony style, once so fitting, provide a garish juxtaposition as events unfold. It’s a caustic rejoinder to the epic fantasy film and books which have been the order of our culture for the past decade; heroes venturing into evil lands and returning triumphant, unscathed and unchanged. Their caving in to beastly temptations and temporary transgressions are blamed on the environment, but is it not merely the catalyst for unleashing what already resides within? Let it be a lesson though- there’s a reason the dark side is dark, folks- it will do things to you.
As much as art is interpretive with readers attaching meaning, Simmons seems to use self-cannibalising tropes as comment: the routine, needless violence in Christmas Eve and Asshole Roomate, the searing annihilative judgement of Jesus Christ, building into the standout leeching, exploitative dependency of Cockbone. The Furry Trap gets progressively more harrowing as it goes, with steadily less humour to be gleaned. It may sound obvious, but it’s Simmons’ choice to present what he wants the reader to see, and he does so to garner a certain reaction. It’s said that there is no terror worse than what your mind can conjure, but frankly I don’t think most people would imagine scenarios such as these. Even as your brain scrambles a retreat from the images your eyes are seeing, it flails wildly for the reason why you’re being shown these things. It forces you to confront the images and words, and their meaning and purpose in a manner that text alone would struggle to do. I’m sure it’s not an unlost irony on Simmons that the discussion of the very things he is taking apart- mainly sex and violence- are what evoke such strong reactions from his work, and arguably, what make his comics an ideal conduit for such discourse.
The one story missing giant cocks (and I may well have miscounted but I ain’t going back) is Demonwood, Simmons’ original contribution to this volume, in which a man is forced to sleep at his woodland work site after his truck fails to start. Nestled by the night, he’s kept company by a smoking, drinking, Elmer Fudd-esqe baby-faced child/thing, who proceeds to prey on his insecurities and shortcomings about himself and his family, reeling off a litany of atrocities he’ll perform when he gets his hands on them. Manifestation of psychology or otherwise, by the time the logger gets home to his family, he’s unable to recognise any of them, seeing only giant bald heads with those bitty, hungry eyes. Simmons ends the story there with an ominous ‘fun begins now’ and certainly the previous 100 pages have provided enough horrific fodder to fuel what may take place next. It’s an effective reminder (harking back to House) of the unsettling dread he can achieve even without the whack and jack.
A mention for The Mark of the Bat, an unofficial bootleg take on the caped Crusader and easily the best illustrated thing in here. This story has been getting quite a bit of interest recently, courtesy of Matt Seneca, who highlighted it as part of his ongoing ‘Greatest Comics of All Time.’ These things are entirely subjective, of course, but it’s a snarky little deconstruction of the Dark Knight and the constant ‘teetering on the edge of sanity’ thread that writers seem not to tire of exploring. Simmons gives him a hearty push over said edge as Bats devises a unique way in which to permanently distinguish criminals- cut off their lips and mouth. He appears to do this via some sort of plunging cutter device and as much as I try to take this seriously, the image of Batman playing ventriloquist with some poor bugger’s mouth just makes me laugh.
So yes, that’s what Josh Simmons will do to you- he’ll make you feel sick and then he’ll make you laugh and then he’ll make you feel sick for laughing. If you like to read something off-road and thought-provoking you can’t do much better. Be warned though- this stuff lingers.