Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin's small press review column
(Josh Simmons with Wendy Chin, Karn Piana, and The Partridge in the Pear Tree)
Habit #1 is a showcase for the talents of Josh Simmons as an artist and storyteller. Within its pages are five stories that will bend your brain with confusion, amusement, repulsion, pathos, and glee. What they all have in common, other than the hands of Simmons smacking everything about, is that all these stories will push you out of your comfort zone and make you re-examine all your preconceptions about narrative, entertainment, and comics.
This collection opens with Simmons writing and drawing (and inking thickly and darkly) a story titled "Seaside Home". This eleven-page tale starts off as a subtle exploration of the dysfunctions inherent in a particular family. It then quickly shifts gears, taking a dark, unexpected turn towards complete devastation and despair. As the family's relationship problems manifest themselves in the very environment they inhabit, the reader can only bear witness to the horror and stare gaping at the reality of Simmons' denouement. It's a hard opening and sets the tone for the rest of the collection that follows. "Seaside Home" is no bedtime story, that's for sure, but it prepares us by unsettling us, taking us into a place where we can no longer trust our prior knowledge of how stories are constructed and drowning whatever expectations we have of traditional narrative in a wave of the unexpected.
"Seaside Home" is followed by "The White Rhinoceros, Part 5", written by The Partridge in the Pear Tree with art by Simmons. This surreal tale adds an additional 347 pounds of politically incorrect humor to your already guilt-heavy liberal rucksack. While the story takes place in a setting that could only occur in the dreams of a person who has passed out after eating far, far too many Ring Dings, the naively innocent biting racism and homophobia that pours out of the characters is so over-the-top that they all become instantly recognizable. They may, in fact, be, aspects of ourselves.
And that's funny.
"Behemoth" is a mild, yet still unsettling departure in tone. This story, written and drawn by Karn Piana, bears the heavy inks of Simmons' pen, lending an ominous tone to what is, by all accounts, a beautiful fairy tale story.
"Jessica Farm", which Simmons both wrote and drew, takes up the freak flag charge once more. This tale of Crangle-Shitters, Mr. Sugarcock, and Skrats is a continuation of Simmons' previously published graphic novel of the same name available from Fantagraphics and his self-published follow up. This is a violent, profane, and terribly twisted tale that splatters you with as much blood as it does tension, and leaves you wanting more and more and more and more. It's heavy and off-putting and engaging and exciting – ALL AT THE SAME TIME. You have to read it to understand what I'm trying to convey here, and even when you do understand, you won't, because … well, you can't … because I have the sense that Simmons has no idea where he is going with this either, which only adds to its charm.
The final tale in Habit #1 is the Simmons written and Wendy Chin drawn "The Choice is Clear". Somehow, through the combination of Simmons' wonk and Chin's clean and children's television-like art, you don't have a clue as to where you've been, what your reading, or where the hell this story is going to go next. Once again, Simmons has succeed in kicking your staid sensibility out of the La-Z-Boy it has been reclining in while smoking its pipe and rubbing its paisley-sweater covered belly; now, upon the uncharted shag-carpeted ground, it is forced to flail about for some hand-hold to assist it in helping it regain its equilibrium. But there is nothing to grasp firmly, and the smiling, huge-eyed pack-llama that fills the final panel of this story will probably end up only guiding it to its doom.
Yeah. It's like that.
So you might as well take off your pants when reading Habit #1, as there is no comfortable seating available. It is relentless in its quest to strip us naked anyway. Why not make things easier at the onset?
Because sometimes you got to get naked to see your true reflection in the mirror.
– Daniel Elkin
You can purchase Habit #1 from Oily Comics.
Like A Virus
(Ken Lowery / Robert Wilson IV / Jordan Boyd)
In a place that's a lot like Brooklyn, a strange event happens every Thursday: "It's this lady. She killer herself a long time ago. She relives her last moments before she jumps out the window and – splat!", as one indelicate person puts it. Only the most sensitive people can sense the suicide. One of those people is a woman named Felicity Bane, who is driven by curiosity and her own demons to investigate these bizarre events.
I began Like A Virus expecting to read a kind of indy Ghost Whisperer or something similar, a supernatural adventure comic with a main hero trying to solve the world's supernatural problems. Instead what I found inside was the story of a rather broken woman who's attempting to face up to her shortcomings and to help others deal with their place in
the world. Rather than a slambang action epic, this comic turned out to be an intense meditation on the incredible temptation and power of suicide.
Any comic that meditates on suicide will be depressing in many ways – filled with very serious, shoegazing faces and contemplative views out windows – but there's a power and grace to Like A Virus that makes it more than an exercise in wallowing. Writer Ken Lowery delivers a main character who's broken but is trying to do her best; more than that, Felicity seems to care about the woman that she's helping. She's connected to her as a human being, providing empathy and companionship and even maybe a little hope. Though the comic ends on a rather ambiguously downbeat note, we're left with a real appreciation for the personal integrity of Felicity.
The other aspect of this comic that makes it work well is its extremely high production values. Funded by a Kickstarter project, this comic has a lovely thick cover, a nice paper stock that presents Robert Wilson IV's art well, and includes fully processed color by Jordan Boyd that adds a tremendous amount of atmosphere to the story.
Because of these production values, Boyd and Wilson combine to deliver Lowery's story quite effectively. Well-designed characters are shown in smartly designed light. Shadow and staging is presented in a way that brings this somewhat talky comic – it's similar to a one-act play – seem alive on the comics page. Except for one full-page image, there's nothing dynamic or thrilling here, and a lot of the success of this comic depended on effective staging. Thankfully the artist and colorist were up for the task and give us a comic book that transcends its rather depressing storyline.
Like A Virus is about a ghost haunting an apartment building, but what it's really about is the thoughts that haunt us, taunting people to make the wrong decisions. This meditative comic presents that difficult concept in a really smart way.
– Jason Sacks
For more information on Like a Virus, look here.