Thursday Comics Hangover: The unexpected terror of Josh Simmons

Josh Simmons is continuing a proud comics tradition of grossing people the fuck out using graphic violence and inappropriate humor. His books read like modernized, literary versions of those schlocky old EC Comics that came out back before the Comics Code Authority turned the freewheeling world of comic books into squaresville.

This Saturday at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery, Simmons will be onhand to present his latest book, Flayed Corpse, which is a kind of one-man anthology written by Simmons and drawn by a passel of artists. (It's fitting that the book is launching in Seattle, since Corpse is a book with deep Seattle roots, too: artists include Seattleites like Eroyn Franklin, Ben Horak, Tom Van Deusen, Pat Moriarty, and Fantagraphics editor Eric Reynolds.)

It probably goes without saying, but this book isn't for everyone. In the second story, a slasher stalks a pair of nubile young women. "…I'm in need of a sweet, slow sexin'," one of the women announces while in the hot tub. "I could go for a slice of the ol' dick myself," the other replies. The story ends with an explicit, gory sex scene that would probably get the book banned in Alabama if a library mishap resulted in a copy of Flayed Corpse winding up in the wrong kids' hands.

But Corpse doesn't feel like a book that's out to get banned for the sake of cheap publicity. Simmons's intent is different than the intended-to-shock vibe of, say, a Johnny Ryan comic. He's genuinely interested in the vocabulary and cadence of horror comics - stretching out a tense scene using longer panels, or a spray of tiny panels to build up suspense, even while the plots of the stories resist the many clichés of the genre. There's no violence in the story by Simmons and Franklin - it's a literal day at the beach - but it's a genuinely unsettling tale in which the threat of violence is palpable in every day-glo panel.

Not every story is a horror show; some are quite amusing. In "Late for the Show," Simmons and Van Deusen draw an enormous manchild going on a cop-killing rampage on what appears to be the Boren overpass. In "The Great Shitter," Moriarty and Simmons tell the story of a giant Godzilla-like creature that eternally eats and shits onto a small town that devotes generations to feces removal. "The shit is pushed out to the river, where it washes away. We all keep our heads above the shit flow and live to work the shit show another day." It's an allegory for jobs like fracking and coal mining that destroy the environment, sure, but it's also a funny story about monsters and poo.

Like the best anthologies, Corpse is interested in keeping you on edge, never quite sure of what's coming next. Hell, don't tell DC Comics, but Simmons seems to have snuck an actual Batman story into the book, somehow. Even just calling it a horror collection is doing it a disservice: Simmons understands that to scare a reader, you can't keep sending unrelenting darkness into faces for a couple hundred pages. True terror happens when you don't know what's going to happen next.