She Knows Which One, Heading Where
The apocalypse in fiction fulfills a lot of deep, and predictably dark, needs in the human psyche. Zombie stories are usually an exercise in psychopathy, indulging a curiously common instinct to portray the commission of mass murder without moral consequences; tales of nuclear or other technological holocaust portray a surface distrust of technology while introducing a world free of stricture, liberated through the joy of looting and the revival of adventure that comes with the elimination of law and structure. But it is in uncertain times such as the one we live in that the art of the eschaton becomes something different and much more tenuous: it becomes a way not of returning to an appealingly uncivilized past, but predicting a future we fear is imminent and cannot be forestalled.
It is this sense of inevitable dread that suffuses the bleak, dense, phantasmagoric graphic novel Black River by Josh Simmons. His vision of a nearly empty world, full of uncertainty and stretches of boredom punctuated by shudder-inducing violence at the hands of strangers and friends you can never fully know if you trust, has the feel of something not imagined but predicted, of a future whose horror consists of seeds that have already been planted. It is not that Simmons does not create a world that knocks us around with its fantastic qualities or that denies us the thrill of the unfamiliar — those qualities are present in abundance, from treks past vast and still-burning cities to the constant looming waves of an eerie Aurora Borealis displaced in time and space — but that it saturates the ordinary and the banal with elements of terror that come from things being pushed only a slight bit further than they already are. Its unnerving qualities lie not in the decorative qualities of nightmare, but the endless pain of being awake.
Black River‘s plot is simple to the vanishing point. A group of people — mostly women — walk through a ruined landscape, scrounging for the merest necessities of survival: food, water, warm clothes, ammunition. It is bitter cold wherever they go; simply being outside is a life-threatening challenge, and being inside is rarely an option. To stave off the boredom and frustration of their difficult daily existence, they do whatever they can: they drink, they fuck, they take whatever mind-altering substances they come across. No harmful side effects could be worse than the alternative of facing the world unimpaired. Nothing brings them joy; the least they can hope for is an interruption. There are promises; there is a comedy club, a cache of supplies, and a city called Gattenburg — it may be the closest thing to paradise, even though it is barely described and entrance to it is a violent ordeal. But these promises always turn sour. There is no escape, there is no end save death, there is no help on the way from anywhere. But this is not the hollow nihilism of The Walking Dead, where characters are put through the wringer to prove nothing more than the entertainment of degradation; it is the curiously grim expression of persistence without reward.
Did I say there was a comedy club? I did! For all its blackness and despair, Black River is funny on occasion, though it is not the humor of absurdity or humiliation or even discomfort. It is the humor that only horror can truly get away with, the nervous laughs that wind you up while you’re waiting for the next shock to happen. When the travelers arrive at Smitty’s, the inexplicable nightclub in the midst of a shattered landscape, they find an ancient comedian telling jokes none of them can understand and dropping references that are lost on everyone; the result is both curious laughs and the unsettling panic at suddenly being in a world where all your accumulated pop-culture knowledge becomes meaningless. The comedian also provides our only hint of what might have happened to the world we know: it might have been everything at once, and it might have been nothing. He also provides a moment of bizarre comedic violence as he has to deal with a worst-case-scenario heckler, in one of many instances of the human breaking point being reached at the most inopportune moment.
Black River does not spare us some of its worst moments. Though it shifts them off-panel a few times — though what we do see is cruel enough — it makes no bones about what is happening, everywhere and at every moment, in its world. It does not present us with the kind of big-boss villains that apocalyptic fiction often relies on. Instead, it gives us, in Benji, one of the most terrifying images imaginable in a broken world: someone who has learned not to be afraid. In a normal setting, this is liberating, even heroic; in a world without limits, by virtue of being a world without order, it is absolutely chilling. And the encounter with him and his gang upends so many of our expectations of this genre: violent death at the hands of others is no more tragic or unjust than death that comes from simple boredom or surrender, and revenge brings no catharsis or satisfaction — only a resumption of the long walk of survival, only another suspension of time before the next Benji. It is one of the purest and most frightening evocations of the difference between living and merely continuing not to die.
Simmons’ art is alternately gorgeous and ridiculous, his faces a combination of cartoonish simplicity and existential unraveling. Where he truly excels is in his landscapes and skies, his visions of underwater and inner space, where his humans recede into irrelevance and their interior landscapes become as menacing as their exterior surroundings. There are several moments that are as visually breathtaking as his writing is stark and depressing: the immediate aftermath of the escape from Benji’s camp, the vision/dream of a dying woman, and a long trek through the snowy waste by a single unidentified figure closes a book that is hard to shake and impossible to forget. Its ending, which makes explicitly clear both what the future means to these people and what the past has taken from them, leaves no doubt that this is not a nightmare of tomorrow, but a slight exaggeration of today.