October 2002

Karin L. Kross


Comics for the Ill: Jhonen Vasquez

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac nearly cost me a friendship.

Well, that's exaggerating a bit. What happened was that after I read (and enjoyed) the collected series, I promptly loaned it to one of my best friends. When he returned it to me a few weeks later, he said he'd spent the first half of the book muttering to himself, "Why in God's name did Karin tell me I should read this?" Fortunately for both of us, by the end of the book, he'd changed his mind, and conceded that he'd really liked it after all.

I relate this anecdote as a caution: if you have a delicate constitution, a sensitive nature, a strong affinity for the politically correct, or any or all of the above, you will probably not enjoy the work of Jhonen Vasquez.

This caveat is no less true in Vasquez's latest work, Everything Can Be Beaten. It's not so much a comic as a picture-book, in which a prose story written by Vasquez ("Scolex") is accompanied by painted illustrations by Bracan ("Scrambly"). It's the not-so-charming tale of IT, a little fellow who passes his days in a dark room, bashing kittens with a hammer as they come down a chute. One day he notices a door out of the room and ventures out to a happy, brightly lit world, which unfortunately gives him little joy until he learns (much to his fellow-creatures' detriment) that everything can indeed be beaten.

Hilarity ensues. Or not. It's possible to read this as a little parable of ruination by one's unbroken (self- and otherwise) destructive habits, a theme that runs through much of Vasquez's work, but I finally found myself going back to some of Vasquez's earlier comics, namely Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and I Feel Sick, to remember why I liked his work enough to foist it on my friend in the first place.

From a certain point of view, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac as the ultimate revenge-fantasy of the over-bright, underweight goth kid who got kicked around too much in high school. The title doesn't lie: Johnny spends a large part of the book doing rather awful things to people who (depending on your perspective) just might deserve it. Nonetheless, Vasquez actually manages to make this madman a sympathetic character, meanwhile sending up almost every aspect of goth culture and asking a few questions about the human condition while he's at it.

I Feel Sick is arguably the best of Vasquez's books. The art and storytelling have grown more sophisticated and streamlined without losing Vasquez's wit and sick humour. It's the story of Devi, whose date with Johnny in JTHM went horribly awry when he tried to kill her. Here, she's struggling to make a living as an artist, doing illustrations for horror novels, and trying not to lose her grip on her own work. Things are complicated by one of her unfinished paintings, which appears to have become possessed. Despite, or perhaps because of, the sheer over-the-top surreality of the story (one of Devi's failed dates, we learn, was with a zombie), I Feel Sick is really an excellent story about the sheer hell of being a creative person in a society seemingly bent on squashing creativity at every turn.

Squee!, originally published between JTHM and I Feel Sick, isn't the completely coherent work that the other two books are. The title character (whose real name is Todd) is the unfortunate little boy who lives in the house next door to Johnny (his moniker comes from the tiny noise of terror he makes on first meeting Johnny). He gets kidnapped by aliens. His parents get kidnapped by aliens. Not that they wanted him in the first place, a fact of which they remind him at every convenient opportunity. His only friend at school happens to be the son of Satan. The puppy he tries to befriend gets hit by a car. Nothing ever goes well for poor Squee, and for some people, the idea of having this much nasty fun at a kid's expense may be a bit too much. But if you've hung in there through the other books, you know what to expect. The collected volume of Squee!, fortunately, includes the "Meanwhiles", short, sick, and often very funny vignettes that appeared in the original series runs of both JTHM and Squee!

Finally, there are Vasquez's mini-comics, Fillerbunny, Revenge of the Fillerbunny, and the Bad Art Collection. These are the sorts of things I can't recommend in good conscience, to tell you the truth; I might only if I know for certain that you're the kind of person who likes Peter Jackson's early movies (Bad Taste or Meet the Feebles, for instance). And you need to have spent some time with Vasquez's demented imagination for a while to begin with, if you want even the slightest hope of appreciating them.

And I suppose that's true as well of Everything Can Be Beaten. It's a slender little work, in terms of its physical size and its content, and I wouldn't want it to be the first Jhonen Vasquez story that you read. Start yourself off with Johnny or I Feel Sick. If you have a grim worldview, a dark sense of humour, a past involving lots of black clothes and heavy eyeliner, an appreciation for splatter films, or any or all of the above, you might find something to like.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: The Director's Cut
I Feel Sick: A Book About a Girl
Squee's Wonderful Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors

Written and illustrated by Jhonen Vasquez
Published by Slave Labor Graphics

Everything Can Be Beaten
Writing and layout by Jhonen Vasquez (Mr. Chancre Scolex)
Paintings by Bracan (Mr. Crab Scrambly)
Published by Slave Labor Graphics