Catching Up With Josh Simmons’ “Ghouls”

Forgive me in advance for broaching the subject, but — is there anything you’re going to miss about the pandemic when it’s over? Go on, act as incensed at the question as you wish, but I’ll bet you it’s something you’ve asked yourself at least once, even if you felt guilty that it even so much as entered your mind. Come on, be honest here : less traffic, quiet neighborhood streets at night, no waiting for tables at restaurants, being able to work from home — all of these things are, well, kinda nice. Not to say that they’re worth hundreds of thousands dead, millions more infected, and probably very nearly the same number of people out of work either temporarily or permanently — just saying, these are things that are not bad, in and of themselves, even if we arrived at them via the most fucked-up means possible. I mean, there were days when it probably felt a little bit fun and exciting for soldiers to be exploring the jungles of Vietnam, but that doesn’t mean the war itself was in any way good or justifiable. Maybe it’s just an acknowledgement that even under the worst of circumstances, there are still things you can point to and say “well, at least this little aspect of it wasn’t so utterly and relentlessly horrible.” I mean, lest we forget, COVID-19 probably played a pretty big part in finally getting Donald Trump the fuck out of office.

One thing I know I’ll miss once life either returns to normal or settles into some permanent “new normal” is the sheer amount of free time so many cartoonists seem to have on their hands, even though I know a lot of them could use the income their days jobs provided (and hopefully will again), simply because a lot of good comics are being produced that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been. Granted, 95% of these are “quarantine diary comics,” but that’s okay : a lot of them have been top-notch “quarantine diary comics.” And then there’s that other 5%, which brings us to Josh Simmons — and, more specifically, to his self-published ‘zine Ghouls.

I reviewed the first issue of this series — even if I didn’t know that’s what it would turn out to be — not too terribly long ago, and now he’s released two new issues that “sandwich” it, a pandemic-themed second issue and an issue #0 (guess he came of age in the ’90s, as well) that collects eight pages of pre-pandemic drawings. Again, there’s something of a grab-bag feel to these — even if #2 has a fairly distinct theme — and that’s their great strength when considered as a whole : you literally never know what’s waiting for you on the next page, and that’s a sure-fire way to make sure you keep turning ’em. Sex gags, fake comic book covers, Bond villain portraits, a couple of short, fully-formed strips — even Willie Nelson and Whitsesnake song lyrics. Anything goes. Who can possibly take issue with that?

Of course, Simmons being Simmons, the horrific is never going to be under-represented, so be on the lookout for mutant families, creepy clowns, raging rednecks, and decrepit old perverts, all drawn in styles ranging from the realistic to the rapid-fire to the deliberately ambiguous to the classically cartoonish — thus ensuring that vagaries and variety in both subject matter and artistic methodology will greet your eager eyes — but here’s the thing that elevates this above many a random-ass mini : for all the shit thrown at the wall, most of it sticks. And when you’re putting together a package like this, you really can’t ask for much more than that.

There are laughs to be had here, too, grim as they may be — but what do you really expect from grim times? When evaluating the two issues side by side, it’s interesting to note that the humor quotient remains roughly proportionate in each, even though one features drawings from before the world went to hell (okay, fair enough, went more completely to hell) and the other, appropriately longer one from after, so it’s fair to say Simmons’ outlook has always been —errrmmm — ghoulish, his sensibilities always leaning toward finding the funny side in the darkest of situations, and while the contemporary state of things may offer him more material at the ready, who are we kidding? There was never any shortage of it in the first place.

In any case, Simmons has his finger on the pulse, and his pen at the ready. He captures the essence of things in a way that’s sometimes a bit too close to home, but never anything less than absolutely truthful. Read it, weep — and yes, have a few chuckles while you’re at it.

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Ghouls #0 and #2 are available together as a package by sending $4.00 via PayPal to joshuahallsimmons@yahoo.com.

Review wrist check – Ocean Crawler “Paladino Wavemaker” green dial model riding a black Ocean Crawler stingray leather strap.