Each month, when we get our Previews book, I always go page by page through the independent comic section, looking for little known treasures that might offer some great reading. I've learned in recent years that independent comics carry a lot higher quality of story-telling and are much less restricted in their ability to pack a lot of story into less pages than the Big Two (and yes, I'm referring to Marvel and DC, whose comics are more about the art and flashy splash pages these days than they are about actual story). So, when I stumbled across a new book from Fantagraphic Books a couple of months ago, I thought the description sounded good, so I ordered it.
"Jessica Farm fuses adventure, fantasy and psychological horror, all stamped with Josh Simmons' macabre sensibility. In Book 1, Jessica arrives at her Grandparents farm and the banality is subverted by a ratcheting sense of dread, as we discover that Jessica's increasingly nightmarish house is filled with creatures around every corner."
I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I could have easily done an internet search, I suppose, and learned all I could about the book and the author, but why spoil the surprise? Books 1 and 2 were both being offered, so I bought them both. I recently got them in our comic shipment, so I sat down today and read the first volume.
Jessica Farm is far from anything at all what I was expecting. There are so many horror movies and television shows that deal with a person who goes to a house/farm/school/etc. and discovers that nothing is what it seems. Is it a dream, a la Nightmare on Elm Street? Is it a possession, a la Amityville Horror? Is it a link to pure evil, a la Hellraiser? Or is it something else entirely? With Jessica Farm, it is definitely something else.
First, let's talk about the concept (something which I either missed in the Previews description of the book, or it simply wasn't advertised that way). This is apparently a labor of love in every sense of the word for the creator, Josh Simmons. He is not only the author, but also the artist and the letterer, and this book (or rather, series of books) is what the back of the book describes as a "life-spanning work in which the cartoonist is drawing one page every month for 50 years (this volume was created between January 2000 and December 2007)." Yes, you read that right. This man creates just one page a month - so that the 96-page first volume took him 8 years to complete. Wow. I mean, really - wow. That is definitely some dedication right there!
Next, let's talk about the art. Simmons' art is without a doubt a style all unto itself. You would never see this kind of art in any mainstream book, that's for sure. And while, at first, I was rather turned off by the simplistic, almost child-like drawings, the more pages I read, the more I began to realize just how detailed and pointed his art really is. For example, Jessica's father is shown in the book only as a shadow - you never see his face, his body, his anything. Except his hands. You do see his hands, which are three-fingered, white-gloved hands that bear a striking resemblance to the hands of a certain mouse here in Central Florida. Coincidence? Or how about the grandeur of the attic on page 22, which is one of the very few full splash pages in the book - shadowed with only slivers of light coming through the large window about, he creates an amazing effect of roominess and enormity, while at the same time, a sense of stuffiness and almost-claustrophobia. Then, of course, there's the nudity. This book is certainly not intended for children. There is full frontal female and (surprisingly!) male nudity within the book. But, before you think it, there is no gratuitousness to it at all. It falls meaningfully within the story, and it's done realistically (meaning no over-sized breasts or engorged male members that are beyond human reality). None of it is there to titillate, and in some ways, it adds to the odd horror of this tale.
Which bring us to the tale itself. The story opens with Jessica waking up on Christmas morning and talking to a monkey on her dresser, who reminds her it is Christmas day. She is very excited until her father appears at the door to also remind her it is Christmas day. Her reactions to each are very telling, setting the tone of the tale. With the monkey, she is excited and can't wait; with her father, however, Jessica hangs her head and the reader gets an immediate sense of dread. It isn't until later - after Jessica showers to the sound of a big band playing from her soap dish; after she is dragged into a dark room by a filthy, vulgar-mouthed old man who shows her a pit of babies with their eyes and tongues removed; after she visits the big band again, this time in the attic where they are putting on a concert for a room full of tiny people; after she visits the unbelievable heights of the towers, which overlooks the countryside far and wide; and after she meets up with the Captain on her journey back to her room - it is only then that the reader begins to realize that Jessica is escaping. She is being physically abused by her father, and while she repeatedly tells everyone she has to face him, at every turn she is doing anything but. Which raises the ultimate question regarding the story - is everything but a dream in her mind, a way for her to escape the physical violence that is her father? Or is all of it really happening, and Jessica resides in some outlandish realm of supernatural and horrific beings? And what of her mother? The story is completely silent, never mentioning or showing her once, leaving the reader to wonder.
Jessica Farm is in no way what I was expecting, but ultimately, I think that was a good thing. It is surreal and psychological in a way no other comic I've ever read has achieved, and despite its not-so-typical art and off-beat story, it has definitely caught my attention and my interest - which, I believe, is what any creator really wants, yes?
RATING: 6 crangle-shitters out of 10 for keeping me completely off-kilter while I was reading this book and surprising the heck out of me with a unique and totally unexpected story!