Coded for Violence: The Horror Stories of Josh Simmons (Spoilers Below)

The Furry Trap: Horror Stories, 2004-2011 by Josh Simmons (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2012) is not a collection of horror stories in the usual sense of the word, like knife-wielding maniacs or supernatural monsters, although these things make their appearance in Simmons’s book, too. Rather, the horror of The Furry Trap is like that found in war, with dismemberment, birth defects, horrible deaths, animal cruelty, torture, incest, rape, and crimes against the innocent. The level of violence is so extreme that I found myself wondering at times why I was reading it, why anyone would want to read such a thing, why anyone would create such a thing. While I can’t speak for Simmons, I found within The Furry Trap, especially the story “In a Land of Magic,” and the eight-panel comic “Guns Muscles Guns,” an exploration of the often unspoken codes that justify violence in fiction. This forced me to examine my own desire for violent entertainment, while also delivering up a literally embarrassing abundance of violent entertainment. The Furry Trap works as both a serious, formalistic piece of literary art and, as Josh Simmons put it to me in an email, “a kind of fucked up fun.” So have your cake and screw it, too.

Cover to 'The Furry Trap' by Josh Simmons, published by Fantagraphics.

“In a Land of Magic” appears to be a simple, if twisted, tale of good versus evil. The main characters are Hester, a female fairy, and her elf boyfriend, Lothar. They live in the titular Land of Magic, a brightly colored, medieval-European fantasyland straight out of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, a place where animals cavort happily with fairy folk in front of a bright pink castle. Despite all of this, however, Lothar believes he and Hester “should not limit ourselves to thus,” and admits to “ponder[ing] upon the land beyond.” The land beyond is the Dark Forest, self-proclaimed domain of the “evil” wizard Arachnad the Terrible and his foul-mouthed dragon sidekick, Drog-Non, who blast Lothar and Hester with a lightening bolt for trespassing in their territory. Lothar recovers and kills Drog-Non in a violent but funny way, something Bugs Bunny might do but with blood and guts instead of blown off beaks that can simply be reattached. He then incapacitates Arachnad and commits an act of sexual violence so horrible I would have thought it unimaginable, but there it was, in a comic book of all places, committed by the hero against the villain.

It was at this point that I wondered why I was reading something so horrible. Then I remembered a funny but seemingly throwaway comic on the indicia page, right before “In a Land of Magic.” Entitled “Guns, Muscles, Guns,” this brief strip depicts a white man firing an Uzi at what appears to be a black man with a shotgun hiding in an abandoned house. The white man has a cleft lip, while the black man has a shaved head and a bulging crotch. The black man waits in the house, silent and sweating, until he pops out, shotgun extended from his groin, and blows off the white man’s head, cleft lip and all. This comic summarizes the plot of almost every ultraviolent action movie made in the 80s, and many action movies made since. The hero proves his virility, or his proficiency or compassion or bravery or cool, by defeating a villain in self-defense, with said villain preferably being visually unattractive in some way, whether low class or ugly or disfigured or bald—or disfigured and bald.—or gay or from an undesirable race. The fact that the hero of “Guns, Muscles, Guns,” is bald and black just reflects the changing times. Baldness is spun as sexy, and in today’s PC environment, villains are more likely to be homophobes and racists. As soon as they say something culturally insensitive, you just know they’re going to get clobbered.

Excerpt from 'Ti-Girls' by Jaime Hernandez

With this in mind, I was able to re-read “In a Land of Magic” and see how obviously Simmons was coding the story for justified violence, setting us up for something over the top. Hester and Lothar come from a place where different species get along in harmony, like the lion laying down with the lamb. They’re the good guys, and they’re in love, and fantasy stories are all about good defeating evil through the power of True Love (besides Sleeping Beauty, see also Legend and The Princess Bride). And while Hester and Lothar don’t bear much resemblance to the heroes of Sleeping Beauty, Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip, Arachnad and Drog-Non are very similar to Maleficent and Diablo, the movie’s villains. Maleficent is an evil sorceress with an evil-sounding name and green skin, a color of illness and decay, while Arachnad is an evil sorcerer with an evil-sounding name and gray skin, a color of illness and decay. Maleficent has a pet raven and can turn into a dragon, while Arachnad just has a dragon. Drog-Non even insults our heroes with sexist, homophobic language, calling them, “Shit-whore[s],” “Ripped cunt[s],” “Cock-sucker[s],” and “Faggot-clown[s]”. While we may not want Lothar to horribly kill Arachnad and Drog-Non, we probably wouldn’t mind if they accidentally fell to their dooms.

But when Lothar does horribly kill Arachnad, it reveals the hypocrisy of violent entertainment, from Disney to Bruce Willis. We want a bit of action but we want it presented to us in a way that still says violence is wrong, where only the bad guys are tarnished from its use, leaving us heroic and innocent. We want different species to get along with each other the way they do in the Land of Magic. In children’s stories, hunters and predators are usually the bad guys, whether in Bambi, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Fox and The Hound, or the occasional Muppets sketch. But most of us still eat meat.

Classic myths and legends had a different way of dealing with the violence used by heroes. In his article “The Epilogue of Suffering,” critic Patrick Colm Hogan points out that in most classic myths and legends, a hero’s story ends not with his or her triumph over evil, but in dealing with the consequences of using violence to defeat evil. Sometimes they are even killed themselves. Or to put it more succinctly, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” In this way, classic myths and legends are more realistic than today’s action entertainments. Have you ever seen an action movie in which the hero suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder? Or a hero that suffers more than the most casual of flesh wounds? Usually it’s the sidekick or comic relief that gets carted off to the hospital, while the hero limps off, sans-medical attention, with his woman. Supporting characters in action films tend to not even be shocked by the hero’s willingness and ability to deal out violence, but wouldn’t you look at your friend or lover differently if they killed someone, even in self-defense?

The common response to all of this would be that movies—especially action movies—are not supposed to be realistic, that we all know they’re fantasies. But doesn’t this make us even more like Lothar? Leaving the safety of our modern Land of Magic, exploring the Dark Forest of the subconscious, looking for trouble. That’s why Lothar’s actions are so shocking: they force us to ask, “Is this really what we wanted?”

Excerpt from 'In a Land of Magic' by Josh Simmons

There’s nothing wrong if the answer is yes. Despite all our handwringing, watching violent movies, reading violent comic books, and playing violent video games is a lot healthier than going out and actually being violent. In his email, Simmons said “I don’t want to wag a finger in anyone’s face, necessarily, as much as re-frame the things we’re used to seeing in order to maybe think about them a little deeper.  How we often consume entertainment with a sort of sublimated, hypocritical bloodlust.” That’s what The Furry Trap did for me: it gave me a deeper appreciation of genre fiction, the way we code violence to justify it, and the difficulty we have in separating a representation from the thing it represents.

The Furry Trap also features a Batman parody called “Mark of the Bat;” like “In a Land of Magic,” it gives us far more violence than we probably wanted while also removing the code that would justify that violence. Simmons’s Batman doesn’t seem to be acting out of an altruistic desire to help people, or even avenge his parents’ death: he just likes hurting people, including himself. Over-the-top violent superhero parodies are nothing new, of course, but the disturbing irony of people going to see a violent spectacle and getting the real thing instead is what The Furry Trap is all about.