Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Comics Review: Jessica Farm, Volume One, Josh Simmons

This review first appeared, in somewhat different form, in The Comics Journal #295. Material that had been deleted for publication has been restored, and other minor revisions have been included. It was originally published online on Pol Culture.

The first volume of Josh Simmons' scatological fantasy-picaresque is a tired, amateurishly drawn rehash of dream-surrealist tropes.

The episodes of Josh Simmons’ Jessica Farm are constructed around the dynamic of Snoopy Syndrome. In Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, the Snoopy character has an active fantasy life. Living the stultifying life of a suburban pet, he imagines himself in more glamorous scenarios, such as being a World War I flying ace, or the ultra-hip college lady-killer Joe Cool. But he never finds satisfaction; his daydreams always end in disappointment. As the flying ace, his nemesis the Red Baron always shoots him down. And as Joe Cool, the “chicks” always ignore him. Jessica, Simmons’ protagonist, is repeatedly frustrated in her fantasy world as well.

She does find some enjoyment, such as when miniature musicians perform for her. But most of the scenes follow the Snoopy Syndrome pattern. Her favorite stuffed animal--it talks, of course--turns up butchered. A beefcake fantasy lover becomes a self-pitying crybaby just as their make-out session heats up. She is reunited with her grandparents, but their meal together is disrupted by Mr. Sugarcock, a naked weirdo with man-boobs who continually gropes his genitals and “seasons” the soup by dunking his scrotum in it.

Jessica Farm has pretensions of being a Surrealist piece, and it includes such hackneyed tropes as climbing darkened stairs and endless falls through space. Simmons, though, has a ways to go to catch up with Salvador DalĂ­, Djuna Barnes, or David Lynch. His narrative is clear, but it lacks tension, and the book is aimless and tedious. His art isn’t compelling, either. Simmons has a solid understanding of composition, and he’s a passable cartoon draftsman, but he hasn’t mastered treating the inking as part of the drawing process. His inept brushwork sits lifeless on the page.

It’s certainly possible to create a successful surrealist picaresque in comics. Just consider Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown. But this requires stronger cartooning chops than Simmons demonstrates, and the story needs a sense of urgency. Simmons reportedly cartoons Jessica Farm at the rate of one page a month (this volume contains the first 96 pages of a projected 600), and he seems to forget the why of the story in between pages. The Snoopy Syndrome dynamic of the episodes seems more reflective of habit than intent. Jessica Farm doesn’t appear to know where it wants to go, and it doesn’t give the reader any reason to tag along.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fiction Review: "The Trespasser," Bonnie Jo Campbell

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Bonnie Jo Campbell's treatment of a break-in's aftermath is a frightening little story about the most fragile of victims: one's sense of security, well-being, and identity.

“The Trespasser,” the opening tale in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short-story collection American Salvage, is a chilling piece of work. The story begins with a shocking moment for the family at its center: they arrive at their vacation cottage, only to find that it has been broken into. The trespassers used it as a squat and a meth lab. The situation isn’t exploited for melodramatic suspense. All but one of the trespassers is long gone, and the one who stayed behind immediately flees the house. She never comes into contact with the family. Campbell instead uses the story’s circumstances to take the reader inside the sense of violation the family feels. Her rendering of those feelings isn’t superficial--she doesn’t mine the scenario for reactionary anger. Campbell gets at something deeper; the story dramatizes how people use the objects that surround them to define their identities. The family's life finds expression in their possessions, photographs, and diaries. It turns out the last trespasser has used their belongings as a focus for her thoughts and feelings as well.

Using a break-in to evoke feelings of anger and disgust in the reader is a simple thing for a storyteller to do. Campbell, though, doesn’t take the easy way out. She mitigates those feelings by making the sole remaining trespasser a figure of pity. The trespasser is 16, she’s suffered through years of physical and sexual abuse, and she’s now caught in the downward spiral of drug addiction. One can’t judge her harshly for the drugs. It’s obvious she doesn’t take them to get high so much as to make herself numb. The pathos of her life is powerfully rendered by her appropriation of the family’s things. She uses them to imagine the life for herself that she was never given the opportunity to have.

Campbell intensifies the reader’s sympathies for the trespasser by juxtaposing her life with that of the family’s 13-year-old daughter. The younger girl is the model of a well-adjusted suburban teenager. Everything she has becomes everything the trespasser never knew but wished for, and everything the trespasser has suffered is the brutality the other girl has been protected from. The feeling of oh my God, this trespasser could have been my daughter/niece/what-have-you is slammed into the reader's consciousness near the story's end, when the girl's parents discover that the trespasser had been used as a whore by the men cooking the meth. One thinks back on the trespasser's odd celebrations of the daughter's athletic trophies, or the rearrangement of the furniture into a conversation nook for her non-existent family, and one wants to cry at the meaning those objects have for her.

But the pathos of the trespasser's actions is accompanied by the reader's horror at the deeper implications of what she's done. She's infused things that are not hers with an emotional meaning that cannot be dismissed. One cannot deny her the right to her feelings, but those objects also hold meaning for the daughter, and that cannot be denied, either. The horror comes from the realization that the meaning of those objects--those expressions of ourselves--is relative. Others can appropriate those objects as expressions of their own identities, and even after everything is reclaimed, the awareness of that appropriation is still there. One has to wonder, do those objects really still belong to me? And if these totems of my life can be taken, can someone take my life as their own as well? Security is rooted in the sense of ownership over one’s life. Once that’s gone, what is there? "The Trespasser" is a devastatingly effective piece of work.

"The Trespasser" is featured in Bonnie Jo Campbell's short-story collection American Salvage, a nominee for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.