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House
posted June 13, 2007
 

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Creator: Josh Simmons
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, soft cover, 80 pages, July 2007, $12.95
Ordering Numbers: 1560978554 (ISBN), 9781560978558 (ISBN13)

When I was a kid, my family spent the summer on Lake Wawasee, two hours from where we lived and went to school. About a mile and a half down the shoreline, at the end of a sidewalk cracked and warped by trees attempting to uproot in tornado season, just past the house where old man Eli Lilly lived with two dogs and a refrigerator full of Coca-Cola, sat an abandoned seminary and prep school. It was a humongous building whose history stretched back to the early part of the 20th Century and the days when Lake Wawasee was a favored vacation stop for Chicago residents both upper and criminal class. Among our youthful, demented non-water activities of choice, including laying pennies on the railroad track and jumping off of cliffs into the soft sands of a local quarry, was to squeeze through a broken window and explore that old building, roaming its corridors and marveling at the left-behind equipment and the raised floors like graves and most of all the cottony stillness that soaked into everything wall to wall and floor to ceiling.

imageIn House, Simmons captures a lot of that singular feeling in a wordless graphic novella about a tragedy that befalls three travelers digging deep into an older building, its neighbors, its hidden depths and secret passages. After a promising debut in the autobiographical Cirkus New Orleans, Simmons put out the scatter-shot Happy series and a collection's worth of short stories for 'zines and small-press anthologies. Many of these comics worked into their body extreme expressions of violence and evinced a kind of general disdain for the human species. Unlike many of his same-age peers, Simmons can sometimes suffer from too many ideas, snapshots of the human condition that animate and kind of spill off the sides of his comics pages. In House and the forthcoming Jessica Farm, Simmons works in what seems like a more tightly controlled way, infusing his comic with the energy and tension of a wound coil. When the second half of this book goes dark, both literally and figuratively, it feels like being lowered into a pit where you don't start clawing at the walls until well after the ladder is pulled up. At some point during House, he'll have you.

Simmons is an under-appreciated craftsman, and while his figure work isn't always consistent, he knows how to make powerful visuals. His depictions of the discoveries in the first half of the book, this intricate world just out of sight, are as compelling as any artist out there could have drawn. Simmons also pulls two very advanced storytelling tricks on the reader. First, he reduces the scope from the panoramas at the story's beginning to heavily-bordered tiny pictures of tragedy near the book's end. In fact, he uses these moments of context-broadening awe as the first half's primary artistic effect, a rhythm that he takes away from the story at a certain point in a telling way, as if to represent the reduction of our lives into moments of individual choice and widespread struggle over shared, transcendent vision. Second, Simmons puts forward a kind of soap opera veneer on the early proceedings that leads one to think that the culmination of the overall story and this plot-line will be closely related. No such luck. Simmons prefers a kind of horror that's random and hopeless and arbitrary and in House he delivers all of those things. It's a lovely performance.

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