Thursday, July 06, 2006

Review: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

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.

Grade: 4/5


Anonymous said...

Johnen 5UcK^S!!!
I was talking with him at Toronto`s Festival of Fear, one year ago. You are great and part of my inspiration in my life.
I am living in Mexico city.
Eternal life Dark and goth comics with Nny (I like Zim too)
My best wishes from here! Si ya.
+Ricardo Hedz+

Andrew C. said...

Good/fair review, I personaly am a huge Vasquez fan, for similar reasons to the ones you stated.

Also, if you haven't already, check out Squee, It has allot more inocent humor, and is allot less manical, definitly worth a read if you liked JtHM.(also I Feel Sick might be for you, sence it's more about friendship, and love.)

Glad to see you came at a book with an open mind, hope you do so with other books that you find "Taboo"...;)

Anonymous said...

I love Johnny so much, maybe someday I will marry him in my dreams... when I tell most people that they say I'm crazy... but I agree totally with you, it's funny and fun to read... if you like it weird and 'wacky'!!

Anonymous said...

JTHM is awsome and so is jhonen

Anonymous said...

I love most of Jhonens work and I'm glad that you kept an open mind to this. It is kinda sketchy at first, I have to admit, but you have to say that I does get better ^^

Actually, I hear that Jhonen had no idea what half of the crap he wrote in there was about. Heh... thats kinda funny. ANYHOW! heh. sorry.

Anyhow, I'm glad that you read this and if you liked this you should read SQUEE! and if you liked that, you should read Lenore by Roman Dirge. They're pretty funny. :D

Anonymous said...

I am twelve years old. This book was violent and depressing with heavy themes and innopropriate humor at akward moments.

I adored it with all my heart, and I agreed completely with your review. I have no qualms about being caught reading a "goth" comic, however, because I'm sick of preconcieved notions about myself- that because I am small for even my age, because I am young, I MUST be naive and unintellegent.

This is exactly the kind of thing you'd look for in a novel, or a good movie, because even while you're laughing, you feel the anguish and the fear creeping up behind you and you love it. Vasquez is certainly mad - as is Johnny - but both are incredibly profound individuals to listen to.

Sean said...

JTHM IS NOT GOTH, according to Jhonen.

Anonymous said...

I love how JtHM has become considered a "goth" comic when it pokes so much fun at the subculture itself. Goths make up a large number of the fanbase and I find that hysterical.