Ever since Invader Zim hit Nickelodeon, you can't escape from
Jhonen Vasquez; he's everywhere. Not since Ren and Stimpy brought
John Kricfalusi to the public eye has anyone as dementedly funny been in the
spotlight, thrilling kids and adults alike.
Of course, to the best of my knowledge, John K. doesn't have a Homicidal Maniac
in his past. Jhonen does, though, and it'll either disturb you to no end or
make you laugh and think, all while experiencing disturbing thoughts.
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: The Director's Cut is a collection
of the seven issues and a few shorts that introduced the characters of Johnny
("Nny" for short), Squee, Nailbunny, and others to the world (it's
available in both trade paperback and hardcover formats). It's disturbing, over-the
top, violent, provocative, thoughtful, and funny as hell.
Johnny is a misanthropic (and more than slightly maladjusted) guy who hates
everyone; this works to his advantage, though, because he has a wall that must
be kept painted with fresh blood (it becomes the wrong color when it dries),
lest a being from beyond breaks through from the other side. Along the path
of death and torture that he walks, he meets a little boy named Todd who lives
next door (though he becomes known as Squee, after the noise he makes when frightened);
a girl named Devi, who brings him so much happiness that he tries to kill her
to capture the feeling; Mr. Eff and Psycho-Doughboy, two Styrofoam dolls that
may or may not be more; and many many other colorful vict -- er, characters.
It's a good evening's read, with a lot of supplemental material like early sketches,
an interview (so to speak), as well as pages of Happy Noodleboy,
the comic that Johnny works on when he's not otherwise occupied.
The collection bears a resemblance to the first Cerebus collection
(by Dave Sim) in that it starts of with a series of disconnected vignettes,
introducing characters that will reappear later but without a joining thread.
It evolves, by the end of the book, into a story of its own, though, with gradually
more complex plots, recurring characters, and a natural ending that will both
satisfy the casual reader and set the stage for future tales.
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac shares another common ground with
Cerebus: as the stories evolve into a cohesive narrative (as
opposed to singular, stand alone shorts), the focus shifts from purely comical
to introspective and thoughtful material. The latter 3/4 of the collection is
a lot like Bill Hicks' comedy: there is a brutal, merciless assault on sense
and sensibilities, filled with anger and loathing for the hypocrisy of the world
around, but it's presented in such as way as to leave tears rolling down your
cheeks as you're doubled over with laughter. It's a black satire, pointing out
the ugly double standards that so many hold, hidden beneath the even uglier
actions of Johnny.
As funny as the book is, and as much as it will force you to think about yourself
and those around you, it is simultaneously a brutal book. There are moments
that invoke the more disturbing elements of David Cronenberg's films; there
are torture scenes that put American Psycho to shame. It's true, as noted
in the introduction, that violence is funny -- at least, to a lot of people.
From the Three Stooges and early Bugs Bunny to the WWF and America's Funniest
Home Videos, there are entire schools of comedy built on the pain and suffering
of other people. However, taken in the wrong light, it's not hard to see a lot
of this shifting from hilarious to demented.
Still, what makes this such a great read is the humor and the introspective
philosophy, both of which are highlighted in their stark contrast to the bloodshed.
It's a surreal, out-of-nowhere sort of humor, mostly, the kind that Quentin
Tarantino might write for Christopher Walken and Fairuza Balk. Vasquez even
takes pokes at the philosophy, letting us know that none of this is to be taken
too seriously. It's not for kids, but then, most of the really good things in
Invader Zim be damned -- it's Johnny The Homicidal Maniac
that really hits the mark.