Hail The White Rhinoceros Part Three (of Three): Josh Simmons

Posted by on February 23rd, 2011 at 12:01 AM

BURNS: When you guys were first collaborating on this whole project, was it Shaun who said, “I’ve got this idea about a story about race and fantasy.” Or did you both bring something to the table that melded together into White Rhinoceros?

SIMMONS: It mutated from some of the posts he was doing on Jim Goad’s message board, The Netjerk Lounge. There’s some posts on there where you can see the origins of Rhino. It’s his story; it’s his idea completely, and I’m really more of a technician on it. Even though it’s similar to something I might do, I definitely couldn’t work on someone else’s idea or comic unless it was something I was really into. But I am definitely more just doing the mechanical and technical parts of making it into a comic. I actually found that really enjoyable because the writing — when I’m doing comics — is one of the most neurotic and difficult parts to me, but I really enjoy the mechanics of creating a page and creating the flow, and also it was a great way for me to start learning coloring comics. So it’s largely mechanical, but I find that really enjoyable.

BURNS: So when he got you his rough draft for that story, was that a full script or … what did you really receive?

SIMMONS: He e-mailed me a rough draft and we printed it out, it was about a hundred pages. I’d say parts of it are fully realized. The beginning was all set to go. And some of the end needs work, and we need to insert some scenes, but mostly the whole story is there, and also as far as what I’m bringing to the table, I think I help a fair amount with editing and structuring the story, especially when I was up in Portland. He and I, when we got together, we would kind of figure that stuff out: the technical side of it, I guess.  The thing is, doing it, trying it, I guess I am basically co-designing some of the characters. I’m creating the landscape that they’re in, so there’s still a lot of a creative side to what I’m doing.

BURNS: So is he giving you a traditional script? “Here’s what I want: Panel 1, 2, 3, 4, 5” or is that …

SIMMONS: No. It’s almost like I’m adapting a short story. ’Cause he doesn’t really have any experience with comics, so it just makes sense for us to work that way. But the way he writes, one of the things I always liked about it, was that it’s extremely visual. Whenever I would read his stuff early on I could always imagine it because I think he just thinks that way anyway, you know just extremely visual and visceral.

BURNS: Talk more about those posts you mentioned. Did they take the form of a story or was he talking about the subject matter, like hobbling racial stereotypes and stuff like that?

SIMMONS: It’s just a lot of stuff he deals with, and has always written about, anyway. Those original posts, they were almost like little short stories. I don’t know, they’re a lot like the comic, they’re very strange and very particular little short stories that he …

BURNS: Pretty idiosyncratic.

SIMMONS: He’s extremely idiosyncratic, but some of the characters, like the White Rhinoceros, I remember, was early on, and the black boy was one of the characters, and he’d always start mixing in celebrities, especially celebrities from the ’70s, and that ties in. I think my girlfriend pointed out the humor is very much a lot like ’70s humor, obviously very pre-politically correct, but this insult humor, like Don Rickles, which is definitely … potentially people might get offended by it. There’s not meanness to it, there’s just this gleeful playing with the racial hysteria people have in this country, and channeling it into his work, his writing, to the story, this comic.

BURNS: Is this the first time you’ve been given somebody else’s words to interpret?

SIMMONS: I drew one of my friend’s comics when I was a teenager, but this is the first time since then, I think, although this has lead to some other collaborations. I’ve just enjoyed collaborating so much. I’m working on a couple of other short things with some friends. And it’ll be different roles: like I’ll be writing one and the other person will be drawing it. Or I’ll be inking somebody else’s pencils. Comics is just such a lonesome grind, it’s nice to work with other people on things. I’ve done before, when I used to be in the circus. Doing music with people sometimes could be very frustrating in some ways, not having the control you do with comics, but also incredibly energizing, working with someone else.

BURNS: It sounds like it’s been a pretty enjoyable process, but as far as adapting somebody else’s work, have there been any difficulties or obstacles you’ve had to overcome?

SIMMONS: One thing is my sensibility is a lot more depressing than Shaun’s. The first time I would draw the Polack King, for example, just as a character, the way I tend to draw people, he looked soiled and filthy. But Shaun was like, “No, he’s kind of broad-chested and big-shouldered and is a big powerful guy.” So I had to adapt. I had to redraw it. So, it’s definitely not a thing where like our egos clash, or I feel like I have to make it more my thing. I’m all for doing it the way he pictures it because I enjoy his vision and I have a lot of faith in him.

BURNS: Talking about your sensibility, were you interested before this project, and getting to know Shaun, in psychedelic or fantasy art, or psychedelic or fantasy stories?

SIMMONS: A lot of my stories have a fantasy element to them. Definitely. And Shaun and I are both … I’m not like a big fantasy fan or something. But I definitely enjoyed The Lord of the Rings movies, and just the idea of a fantasy epic. I always liked the idea of doing something like that. Sure that goes way back. So this is an excuse to do that. And it’s also a stretch for me trying to do Shaun’s stuff, because like I said, my aesthetic tends to be a bit more harsh, and I see his being more joyful. So, just doing a joyful psychedelic fantasy epic, which I’ve resigned myself to, is going to take years and years to do. It’s great.

BURNS: How have you two designed the stereotype creatures? For example, the paddies, how did you take Irish stereotypes and translate that into a paddie? Is it pretty no-brainer, let’s-have-fun, who gives a shit?

SIMMONS: [Laughs.] I think largely our thinking on it is, let’s take these racial stereotypes and make them completely meaningless. It’s how a child might, if he heard these words, what he might imagine these words are: something totally offensive to an adult might sound like a frog creature to a child. It’s basically trying to divorce it completely from any sort of association with what the slur means in our world, not Racelandia: just the idea, in a way, of making it completely innocent.

BURNS: Have you encountered anybody who just doesn’t get that?

SIMMONS: … Yeah. [Laughter.] I tried explaining The Rhino to somebody at a party a couple weeks ago, and I think he was offended [Burns laughs] right away. And I feel like, maybe unless you read the comic, it’s hard to appreciate it. I have a hard gauge for what’s too much for certain people or certain groups of people, because Shaun and I, the conversations we have discussing the story, we think about it, how it would sound to somebody else if they were listening in on the phone. It’d be just completely ridiculous. ’Cause it’s just racial slur racial slur racial slur, but it’s not cruel, it’s not mean; we’re just talking about the story and we’re talking about these groovy characters which are, like the Zipperhead, really groovy, awesome characters. But it’s harder for people to appreciate it sometimes unless they read the comic. I hope.

But it seems to me in the post-South Park, post-Borat world, this kind of stuff. I just don’t see it as being offensive. I remember watching South Park with my nieces and my nephews when they were like 5. And there’s jokes about … Kenny was up in the bus driver’s pussy or something … and he died and he didn’t get out, and I’m watching this with these little kids and we’re all laughing. So I guess that’s kind of where I’m coming from. I’m a little surprised when somebody’s offended, but I sympathize, I guess. I guess I should get a better gauge for talking about that kind of thing.

BURNS: Well White Rhino definitely falls into that … It does and it doesn’t fall into that South Park-, Borat-type of category. It so effortlessly hobbles those stereotypes, you know? I mean there’s no real irony there. Do you agree with that?

SIMMONS: Oh yeah, absolutely. We never intended it to be that at all. And I think it can work as satire, but that’s not our main focus at all. I mean if anything, the main thrust, what we’re shooting for is just to make a grand fantasy epic, and Shaun’s using the building blocks or interests that he has: that’s ’60s and ’70s culture and celebrities, and definitely things like racial slurs and racial humor.

BURNS: I find myself forgetting [laughs] that they are even racial slurs sometimes.

SIMMONS: That’s good.

BURNS: It’s not even important when the characters are being chased by a jigaboo. You’re not thinking, “Oh, how offensive!” You’re thinking, “Holy shit, they’re going to get crushed by that slug-elephant monster.”

SIMMONS: We talk about it being a work of great racial healing actually. Because, we’re taking these terms and making them completely innocent and absurd, and divorcing them entirely from the offensive context. But that’s going to be there anyway. Like when I tell the guy that there’s a gook in the story, of course, it just sounds horrible. But I haven’t had a gauge on that sort of thing from working on it for so long. But I hope that when he and the rest of the world pick up The Rhino that the great wave of racial healing will sweep over the land.

BURNS: Oh, we can hope.

SIMMONS: We should give it to Mel Gibson.

BURNS: Definitely Mel Gibson.

SIMMONS: That’s the great thing too: these stories keep coming up. There’s always something. Like with Rosie O’Donnell there was the Ching Chong incident. Mel Gibson, of course, can’t seem to keep his mouth shut.

BURNS: When did the decision to serialize in Mome occur? You’ve published in there a couple times.

SIMMONS: Yeah. I think it was when I got the script and I was trying to figure out how to do it. I was like, “This story is going to be 700 pages or something like that, and it’s in full color, and that’s going to take me 25 years.” Like maybe if I wasn’t working on anything else I could do it in five or 10 years, I don’t know. But this is going to take a long time, so Mome seemed like a great venue to do it in. And Eric [Reynolds] said yes, and that was good. And it’s also good to have a deadline to work with, to get the installments out.

BURNS: And [Mome] #19 is being hailed, almost across the board, as the best issue of Mome, by almost any critic I could find when I was doing research for this. Do you want to take this opportunity to take all the credit? To gloat, perhaps?

SIMMONS: Sure, I’ll take it. Me and Shaun both. No, I think a lot of people love the D.J. Bryant story, too. But overall, of course it’s hard to be subjective about it, I would say of all the stories in there I enjoyed it more than almost any other Mome: Gilbert Hernandez, D.J. Bryant.

BURNS: What’s going to keep readers interested in White Rhinoceros as the story continues? Why should we care and keep reading?

SIMMONS: I hope it will be enjoyable just in the sense any well-told fantasy adventure story is. I think that, when I sat down and read the script the first time, it’s like there’s always a new racial creature around the corner. So there’s always a part of the adventure they have to go through. It’s like The Fellowship of the Ring: our heroes, our protagonists, are coming together slowly. So there’s that. And I also think that the characters, and Shaun has said this, they just seem to come more and more alive to him, and to me, too, as I’m working on it. When you first read it, it can seem like … and I’ve seen people say this, it just seems like a cheap shot. Like it’s just shock humor or something, but I think as it goes on you feel for all these characters in this world. They just become more multi-faceted, and you start to care about them. I mean, I did, reading the script. In that old kind of storytelling sense, I think it will be a lot of fun to follow. I hope. I don’t know. It’s fun for me to draw.

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