Josh Simmons first began this book in December of 2000 with the goal of drawing one page a month. The second volume will not be completed until 2016, and the final volume (of a projected seven) won’t be out until 2050, by which point, as some reviewers have noted, many of us will likely be dead, myself included. It’s no joke to say this series will literally be his life’s work.
So yes, it’s another one of those books, one equally if not more obsessed with methodology and experimentation than plot or characterization (though there’s certainly enough of that in here to satisfy). No doubt to the casual reader it all sounds very gimmicky and I suppose to a degree it is, though I think the book largely surpasses it’s gimmicky publishing premise to offer up something haunting and wholly original.
Certainly beyond the whole “who will be alive to see the final volume,” there’s a tantalizing aspect to the idea, in that we get to see Simmons develop as an artist over time. Even here in the first volume you can see his figures become less rubbery and his art tighten up in general. His cross-hatching improves and a lot of the forced whimsy of the early pages (talking monkeys! tiny bands in the shower!) give way to more promising conceits.
But is this the best way to be telling a long form story like this? Isn’t Simmons in danger of losing the thread of his tale, working on it in episodic fashion like this? I mean, yes, he probably has notes aplenty, but it’s hard for me to imagine being in the throes of the story only to put the pen down once you come to the end of the page. Will working this way hurt or help the story ultimately? And aren’t we as readers in danger of losing the thread of the work as well. 2016 is a long ways away after all.
I’m not privy to Simmons working methods or his grandiose schemes, so I really have no way of knowing if he has the whole story laid out at this point or is just randomly following his muse. Either way could produce quality work really, though I find the former tends to be a more trusted and proven method.
Certainly the book has a deliberately random, nightmarish feel to it. The story involves Jessica walking up on Christmas day with her father telling her some awesome presents are waiting for her downstairs. We know the dad is a sinister figure in Jessica’s life because we never see his face and he’s wearing Mickey Mouse gloves.
From there, Jessica spends much of the book attempting to avoid having to head downstairs. The house itself is more of a phantasmagorical, magical, Alice in Wonderland-style landscape than any sort of real structure. It seems endless, with trap doors, hidden spaces, poles to slide down and lots and lots of creatures for Jessica to meet — some friendly, some not.
As the book progresses, there’s an unsettling suggestion (actually not really so much suggested as flat out stated at one point) of child abuse that nips at the heels. In addition to Jessica’s father, most of the supporting cast that appears are male and are either abusive, hurling epitaphs, or in one case, spears, or simply ineffectual. It becomes quickly clear that there are a number of psychological underpinnings that are designed to keep the work from flying off the rails and become just one episode after another.
Of course, sex and horror have always Simmons main interests. He’s always been a cartoonist comfortable with portraying sex and sexuality in a casual, even playful fashion. Thus we have characters like Mr. Sugarcock, who not only possesses spicy balls (and I mean that literally), but at one point is led around by our heroine by his crank.
But, horror plays a large factor in the landscape here as well, and, as Simmons provide with House, he’s very adept at scaring the shit out of you. There are some truly disturbing sequences in Farm, including one involving babies with their eyes gouged out and tongues pulled, though honestly the menacing, morphing silhouette that appears at the end of the book sent more of a shiver down my back. By and large, the horror here is more psychological than of the blood and guts variety, and Simmons is very good at suggesting that horrible things are waiting for you just behind that door.
By the end of the book, something more along the lines of a traditional fantasy plot has developed, with Jessica being assigned the task (by her grandmother, the only other female in the book it should be noted) and must take a journey to help remove a dangerous threat. Will future volumes tread down a more familiar genre path, as unlikely as that seems? Will a more structured story slowly begin to develop? Is the whole thing the dream world of a young girl being abused by her father?
It’s really hard to say. Simmons might well be making the whole thing up as he goes along and there may never be any resolution or narrative arc to speak of. But I’m OK with that. In fact, I’m not really sure I want any further explanation or resolution since that my easily spoil the ominous sense of mystery and dread that Simmons is working so hard to maintain.
Jessica Farm is a real stunner of a book, with enough sequences of real stark, surreal power to justify its existence and its continued and lengthy publishing schedule. I’m impressed enough to keep reading the series as it sporadically comes out. Until I’m dead of course.