Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: The Director's Cut
By Jhonen Vasquez
Published by Slave Labor Graphics, US$19.95
Let's talk about preconceived notions.
I have them. You have them. We all have them to varying degrees, and one of mine has always been that I don't like "goth comics." I'm not a big fan of the dark, overly angular art style, with the brooding, all black costumes filled with anhks, piercings, cloaks and knee high boots, or the overly cynical, nihilistic themes. Or, at least, that was my impression without ever having read an actual goth comic.
Now, for years my brother has been trying to turn me on to Jhonen Vasquez. An aspiring standup comedian, he swears that JTHM is one of the funniest books ever written. I know it has that cult status (a quick Google search confirmed this), so a couple of years ago I actually gave this book a pretty serious look at the comic shop, but I couldn't get over my preconceived notions enough to bring myself to actually buy it.
Finally, not satisfied with my uninformed dismissal, my brother forced my hand. He bought me the book (JTHM: The Director's Cut) for my birthday. This was back in January where it sat, unread, slowly descending to the very bottom of my reading pile. That is, until this weekend. Since Rachel and I will be visiting our families in the Midwest next week, and since my brother will actually be there to question me on whether I read it or not, I decided to finally give it a read. Admittedly this was a courtesy read, more to simply seem grateful for the gift than because I was actually interested, but nevertheless, I decided to read the entire book cover to cover with as open a mind as possible.
What I found surprised me, not only because I liked the book quite a bit more than I expected, but because it's nothing like what I imagined.
JTHM: The Director's Cut collects the entire seven issue run of the series, and pads it out with lots of extras like sketches, early strips, pinups, character profiles, etc. The first couple of issues are pretty much what I expected, lots of killing, maiming, decapitating, goring, torturing, disemboweling, and generally over-the-top violence mixed with a healthy serving of South Park-style toilet humor. I admit to laughing a few times, but overall I really wasn't too impressed. The art style also repelled me at first, with its skinny, stick-figure characters with huge beaming eyes and the endless chaotic backgrounds filled with knives, weapons, tentacles and, of course, lots of blood spatters.
But then, around the beginning of the fourth issue, something clicked for me. Were my preconceived notions melting away or was the book really getting better? For one thing, an actual storyline seemed to be emerging. Johnny, or Nny as he liked to be called, was actually becoming a sympathetic character, hard as that is to believe. Not satisfied to simply continue killing, Nny began to question himself, exploring his compulsion toward violence, and while this is far from a realistic, therapeutic, human exploration (Nny goes to heaven and meets God, for example), it nonetheless added a considerable degree of intelligence and insight into the book which, frankly, surprised me.
But that wasn't all. The art also started to win me over. The harsh angles, which defy all laws of perspective, became more polished, with more varying panel compositions and imaginative backgrounds, and I started to really appreciate what a mad, artistic genius Vasquez actually is. His skill at creating depth in panels, and exaggerating physical body movements is impressive, as is his use of other cartooning tools such as page layouts, lighting, sound effects and pacing. He even works in some pretty clever experimentation, most notably in his page borders which contain hidden messages, but also in the text passages squeezed into margins, his varying art style to denote Johnny's mental state when creating his comic strip, Happy Noodle Boy (see panel below), and his incredibly well-designed logos, which kickoff each 4-5 page strip vignette.
I should also point out that the book IS funny, though not as laugh-out-loud funny as my brother led me to believe. Maybe I'm just getting old, but I did find some chuckles, especially at Vasquez's ever-present, self-deprecating wit, which often takes the form of little notes and sidebars to the reader ("Attention Morons: Plot Development!").
What's fascinating is that despite all the violence, JTHM is actually a rich social commentary, and, though perhaps this is stretching it a bit, it's also a love story. In that sense it shares more in common with Edward Scissorhands (who Nny resembles), than South Park. It's the kind of book that is worth another look, particularly if, like I did, you dismissed it without giving it a fair shot. There's a lot here to satisfy even the die-hard alternative comics fan, and while it may not be the greatest thing ever written, it's unique and unforgettable.