Black River (2015) Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics)
Josh Simmons, writer and artist
Trade paperback, 6.6″ x 8.6″, 112 pages
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Black River is one of the most uncompromisingly brutal, bleak and violent books I’ve read in quite some time. It certainly won’t be for everyone. I wasn’t sure if it was for me. In fact, I almost didn’t review it. No, that’s not accurate: I almost didn’t finish it, not because it wasn’t good, but because it made me so uncomfortable. Yet the fact that it makes me so uncomfortable also prompts me to write about it.
Black River is a post-apocalyptic tale, but before you start thinking “Great, here’s another post-apocalyptic story,” this isn’t one you’ve read before, trust me. As the book opens, seven women, two dogs, and one haggard-looking man break into an abandoned storehouse filled with food, clothing, weapons, and booze, all of which are welcome: it’s winter and while these travelers have some winter gear, they don’t have much else.
We can tell that some catastrophe has occurred, but we don’t know the particulars. All we do know is that when one of the women finds a journal on a dead man’s body, excitement builds: the journal tells of a city named Gattenburg, a place with electricity, running water, greenhouses and more. The group leader, Seka, decides that they might as well try to find Gattenburg. No one has any better ideas.
In this type of atmosphere, everyone you meet is a potential threat, so when the group encounters a young woman named Caramel, they’re suspicious. She seems harmless, so they follow her to Smitty’s, the remnants of a stand-up comedy club where people still perform. (And why not? You need comedy during the post-apocalypse, too, right?) Although it’s bizarre, there’s at least a sense of community at Smitty’s, a place where you don’t have to suffer in isolation… Until one member of the audience gets out of control.
Eventually Seka’s group is surprised and captured by a gang of thugs whose leader is a good-looking guy named Benji. I’ll just say that the things Benji and his men do to Seka and her friends are horrific. Benji tells the members of Seka’s group who are awaiting torture and/or rape that “I knew the scariest thing wasn’t what could be done to me, but what I could do to other people…. and in this new world I did things to other human beings I never could have imagined.” His fears – of getting caught and having to pay for his crimes – faded until he had no fear left whatsoever.
It is often said in Christian circles that hell is the absence of God (taken from 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). One of the things that makes hell so horrific is, yes, the absence of God, but also the realization that people are made in the image of God, an aspect of our existence that is inescapable, a constant reminder of the work of God in us. Most Christians also believe in the concept of common grace, that as bad as things are on this earth, God still allows enough good to come through even the worst of events. Black River gives us a setting that seems to show us that if there’s any common grace left, there’s not much. When you’re surrounded by horrific death and the constant threat of death, you either have hope in something (or someone) or you don’t. Benji’s hopes have been realized: he rejoices that all restraint has been taken away, since it allows him to do anything he wants, seemingly without consequences. Seka and her friends only have each other, and only for as long as each member survives, but what then?
A scene occurs near the end of the book that may be interpreted as real or as an hallucination. It has to do with the idea that death feeds on life and that its appetite is unquenchable. We can say the same of evil; like hell and destruction, it’s never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20). Simmons chooses not to show most of the sadistic acts Benji and his friends carry out, leaving those scenes to our imaginations, which always convey horror in ways pictures simply can’t.
Simmons has created a world that seems to be constantly on the brink of even further judgment, with weather playing an important role. Dark ominous clouds threaten in nearly every large panel, coming down so low you’d swear they’re ready to engulf the characters. Interestingly, a long (and important) scene of rain is well-placed, conveying the act of cleansing. Another scene of falling snow— Well, I’ll let you interpret that one on your own.
One of the most difficult aspects of drawing characters that have cartoonish features has to be in making them feel pain and suffering that’s anything but cartoonish. Simmons is able to do this through the expressions on his characters’ faces, but also by knowing when not to include text. These acts of violence are largely absent of the rants, threats and exclamations we often see in other types of comics, giving Black River a frightening, realistic weight that refuses to release us from its grip.
Simmons’s economy of words is one of the book’s greatest assets. He knows when to let the artwork carry the story and doesn’t let the words get in the way, yet we feel we know what the characters would probably say if they spoke more.
Black River might remind readers of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road (and if you think that novel was good, you should read a similar, far better one, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower). Yet the graphic novel format allows Simmons to do something with both words and pictures that carries a different, unique impact with readers.
Black River is not for kids. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it’s bleak, violent and brutal. Is there hope in the book? Hmmm…. I won’t comment on the ending, other than to say we may each see something slightly different in it and maybe that’s what Simmons expects from us. Depending on your worldview, we may or may not see the absence of God in many of these scenes, but if we do, what do we do with that? How does it affect our faith and how do we treat others as a result of it? What would be our hope in such a situation? Would we even have hope? You may not find the answers in Black River, but reading it may make you think about something beyond a powerful, compelling story.