BURNS: When you guys were first collaborating on this whole project, was it Shaun who said, āIāve got this idea about a story about race and fantasy.ā 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 Goadās message board, The Netjerk Lounge. Thereās some posts on there where you can see the origins of Rhino. Itās his story; itās his idea completely, and Iām really more of a technician on it. Even though itās similar to something I might do, I definitely couldnāt work on someone elseās 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 ā when Iām doing comics ā 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 itās 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. Iād 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 Iām 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. Ā The thing is, doing it, trying it, I guess I am basically co-designing some of the characters. Iām creating the landscape that theyāre in, so thereās still a lot of a creative side to what Iām doing.
BURNS: So is he giving you a traditional script? āHereās what I want: Panel 1, 2, 3, 4, 5ā or is that …
SIMMONS: No. Itās almost like Iām adapting a short story. āCause he doesnāt 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 itās 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: Itās 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 donāt know, theyāre a lot like the comic, theyāre very strange and very particular little short stories that he …
BURNS: Pretty idiosyncratic.
SIMMONS: Heās 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 heād always start mixing in celebrities, especially celebrities from the ā70s, and that ties in. I think my girlfriend pointed out the humor is very much a lot like ā70s humor, obviously very pre-politically correct, but this insult humor, like Don Rickles, which is definitely ā¦ potentially people might get offended by it. Thereās not meanness to it, thereās 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 youāve been given somebody elseās words to interpret?
SIMMONS: I drew one of my friendās comics when I was a teenager, but this is the first time since then, I think, although this has lead to some other collaborations. Iāve just enjoyed collaborating so much. Iām working on a couple of other short things with some friends. And itāll be different roles: like Iāll be writing one and the other person will be drawing it. Or Iāll be inking somebody elseās pencils. Comics is just such a lonesome grind, itās nice to work with other people on things. Iāve 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 itās been a pretty enjoyable process, but as far as adapting somebody elseās work, have there been any difficulties or obstacles youāve had to overcome?
SIMMONS: One thing is my sensibility is a lot more depressing than Shaunās. 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, āNo, heās kind of broad-chested and big-shouldered and is a big powerful guy.ā So I had to adapt. I had to redraw it. So, itās definitely not a thing where like our egos clash, or I feel like I have to make it more my thing. Iām 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 … Iām 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 itās also a stretch for me trying to do Shaunās 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 Iāve resigned myself to, is going to take years and years to do. Itās 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, letās-have-fun, who gives a shit?
SIMMONS: [Laughs.] I think largely our thinking on it is, letās take these racial stereotypes and make them completely meaningless. Itās 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. Itās 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 doesnāt 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, itās hard to appreciate it. I have a hard gauge for whatās 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. Itād be just completely ridiculous. āCause itās just racial slur racial slur racial slur, but itās not cruel, itās not mean; weāre just talking about the story and weāre talking about these groovy characters which are, like the Zipperhead, really groovy, awesome characters. But itās 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 donāt see it as being offensive. I remember watching South Park with my nieces and my nephews when they were like 5. And thereās jokes about … Kenny was up in the bus driverās pussy or something … and he died and he didnāt get out, and Iām watching this with these little kids and weāre all laughing. So I guess thatās kind of where Iām coming from. Iām a little surprised when somebodyās 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 doesnāt fall into that South Park-, Borat-type of category. It so effortlessly hobbles those stereotypes, you know? I mean thereās 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 thatās not our main focus at all. I mean if anything, the main thrust, what weāre shooting for is just to make a grand fantasy epic, and Shaunās using the building blocks or interests that he has: thatās ā60s and ā70s 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: Thatās good.
BURNS: Itās not even important when the characters are being chased by a jigaboo. Youāre not thinking, āOh, how offensive!ā Youāre thinking, āHoly shit, theyāre going to get crushed by that slug-elephant monster.ā
SIMMONS: We talk about it being a work of great racial healing actually. Because, weāre taking these terms and making them completely innocent and absurd, and divorcing them entirely from the offensive context. But thatās going to be there anyway. Like when I tell the guy that thereās a gook in the story, of course, it just sounds horrible. But I havenāt 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: Thatās the great thing too: these stories keep coming up. Thereās always something. Like with Rosie OāDonnell there was the Ching Chong incident. Mel Gibson, of course, canāt seem to keep his mouth shut.
BURNS: When did the decision to serialize in Mome occur? Youāve 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, āThis story is going to be 700 pages or something like that, and itās in full color, and thatās going to take me 25 years.ā Like maybe if I wasnāt working on anything else I could do it in five or 10 years, I donāt 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 itās 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, Iāll take it. Me and Shaun both. No, I think a lot of people love the D.J. Bryant story, too. But overall, of course itās 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: Whatās 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, itās like thereās always a new racial creature around the corner. So thereās always a part of the adventure they have to go through. Itās like The Fellowship of the Ring: our heroes, our protagonists, are coming together slowly. So thereās 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 Iām working on it. When you first read it, it can seem like … and Iāve seen people say this, it just seems like a cheap shot. Like itās 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 donāt know. Itās fun for me to draw.
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