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.

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