Black River (2015)
Writer/Artist: Josh Simmons
Josh Simmons had his task cut out with Black River, to be honest, especially with the wealth of quality fiction about the apocalypse in recent times. When Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying novel The Road scooped up three major literary awards (including a Pulitzer) in 2006-7, I honestly felt that I would not come across a book this bleak again. I mean, how do you top cannibal groups roasting babies on spits?
Simmons has the answer and it isn’t meant for the squeamish. This graphic novel begins with introducing us to a bunch of renegade women (and a lone guy named Jakey) on the run in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. This group, led by the iron-willed Seka, stumbles upon a cache of weapons, clothes, food and booze at the beginning of the story. They also find a diary that contains instructions to reach Gattenburg, a city that somehow still has electricity, running water and greenery. Encouraged by this, Seka, Shauna, Daisy and the rest decide to take the hike to Gattenburg; a road trip that you just know will not end well for the group. After a short, bloody detour via a stand-up comedy club (yes, they appreciate gallows humour), they are captured by a band of heavily armed sex-starved brutes led by Benji, a psychopath with a sunny disposition and immaculate grooming (both of which are difficult to maintain during the apocalypse, as he points out).
Here are four words to explain why Simmons’s art is especially terrifying: clowns are f***ing creepy. The expressions on his characters’ faces are often clownish, even as they are hacking people to pieces with a sword or locking them up in a room full of ravenous sex offenders. There is a serenity in his violence that is more unnerving than the most realistic Frank Miller grimace or the most affectless Chris Ware tragedy. Daisy, for instance, has lost the ability to speak, apart from one word that she keeps on repeating: “dickpussy”. She just keeps on repeating that one word again and again, à la Hodor from Game of Thrones. It is only through the artwork that we are able to gauge her moods.
The longish scene where Benji explains his worldview to Seka and the girls is one of the passages of the year. There’s much to be said about this charming young maniac, but perhaps it’s better to look at what he thinks of himself.
“You’re scared of what we’re going to do to you. When I was a boy, I was terrified of what the world would do to me. When I was a man, I hurt people who were close to me. Then I knew the scariest thing wasn’t what could be done to me, but what I could do to other people. How far I could go, given circumstances. Then the world died. And in this new world, I did things to other human beings I never could have imagined. Out of necessity at first. And then the fear began to fade. Soon, I enjoyed much of what I did. And now, I’m glad to report I have no fear at all. Maybe you’ll be like me someday, honey.”
Black River is best read on a weekend with a playlist of happy music on standby, just in case.