5 out of 5
Josh Simmons’ Black River is one of the most brutal, dejectable things I have read. And it’s perfect. Not directly because of that brutality, rather because – like other pieces from Simmons I’ve read – he seems ready to willfully submit his characters (and us) to whatever reality he’s set forth. That is: the “point” of Josh’s work is not some piece of commentary stuffed within dialogue, or some juxtaposition between his alternate realities and our own; it’s the entire presentation – the relative pointlessness of what we see, and what we want to draw from that. Care to read Black River’s post-apocalyptic tale as a doomy warning of things to come, or as a particularly black view on human nature? Sure. Want to read it as a survivor’s story, indomitable human will and all that? Sure. You can also just read it for the content: a band of women trekking across the ruined, war-torn / human-destroyed / acts-of-God-ruined landscape, in search of any kind of relief – hopefully longlasting, but even temporary – as emotional and physical tolls are ticked off, page by page. There is no arc to this, really, as we join mid-trek and exit at a similar state (though with a very much changed group), but it is absolutely a journey, and again, how much you want to read in the way men and women are treated in this world, or the casual way Simmons references the ‘what caused this’ of it all, or the descent into pseudo-Western “morality” and violence, that’s up to you. However, be prepared to be punished in whatever way you read it, as Black River is not a world of earned karma or happy endings – it is a world impartial to your interpretation.
Everything about the presentation adds to this: the black and white presentation increases the severity; Fantagraphics’ slightly undersized printing gives it the odd, juxtaposing feeling of a being a kid’s storybook; the design (Sammy Harkham) – green-edged pages, the orange endpapers, handwritten-looking indicia – is queasy; and Josh’s flat but detailed comix style gives the book an underlying “this can’t be real” sensibility that makes the horrors more affecting in a way than uber-realistic art (which might aim to make one look away) could.