Today I want to focus on a great comic book, one which has given me some comfort in times of stress, and has become an odd sort of touchstone for the idiosyncrasies of life. Of course I'm talking about Johnny the Homicidal Maniac...
Okay, not "of course", in fact I'm sure that (as usual) some of you think I've lost my mind. But the thing is, Jhonen Vasquez is a fantastic commentator on life and he creates some of the funniest metaphors for deeply serious things. If you've ever watched Invader Zim you might know what I'm talking about. There he used an entirely useless alien invader, trying to blend in with human school children to effectively highlight everything that is completely amusing and untenable about childhood. Anyway, back to my first exposure to this unsung genius, his early comic book Johnny the Homicidal Maniac gives us a first person narrative of a man who is forced to kill in order to keep a wall in his house wet with blood. Well, I use the term "forced", but he does seem to do it pretty wantonly. The idea is that he must keep a wall wet with blood or something world-threatening will burst through it. He's not a monster, so he only kills those most deserving of death, though again, his standards are pretty extreme.
Keep in mind now, this comic book not only predates Dexter by years, but is also much, much funnier. I'm not talking about a solipsistic pseudo cop who is an otherwise healthy member of society. Johnny is a maniac who stopped hanging onto sanity years ago and now converses mostly with a dead bunny rabbit he nailed to a wall in his home, in between torturing his victims to death and paying well-intentioned (but terrifying) visits to the neglected little boy next door.
Certainly this is a very macabre form of humor, but the title of the book alone should have warned you that this is absolutely not an all-ages comic book. In fact, maybe no one under 25 should read it... Or maybe teenagers should read it, as a cautionary tale which might traumatize them into ignoring the rush of hormones and behaving politely. It could work. The book is unrelentingly, caustically violent and funny. It isn't unpleasant to see this culling of the dregs of humanity by the scrawny, deranged Johnny, but more endearing is the comic book creator constantly breaking the fourth wall to remind us that this is ridiculous.
There are moments that often pop into my head, particularly the ones where Johnny meets new people. Like the date he enjoys so much that he wants to stab her, or when he meets God, who is too fat and indolent to talk to him, or the man who's in hell "by mistake." Even his slushie buying is amusing and strange.
I find that a lot of people have only read one or two issues of the book, assuming that it is a one-line joke taken too far. These people are missing out! The story has a wonderful arc, getting funnier and funnier, all the while interspersed with the odd, completely unconnected story of ridiculous suffering, often involving goths, or fashion, or vampires (or all of the above.) I cannot emphasize how much enjoyment can be had from reading the story to it's conclusion.
By the time the story is nearing its conclusion it begins to become apparent that Vasquez is creating a modern day Candide (Voltaire's darkly humorous book, reacting to the philosophy of the day that it was the "best of all possible worlds.") The scratchy, brutal black and white art has a dynamic, urgency to it, like the doodles of a disturbed mind which needs to get the thoughts out. I don't think this would be as funny without the emotionally charged, heavily black look it has. It isn't just the writing, but the look of the book as well, which conveys the intimacy of getting a world view straight from a mind of a Johnny, who is definitely a homicidal maniac.
While I would love to tell you that the comic book which inspires me in my dark moods is a work of great beauty and elegance, I don't know that something with gravitas would really reach me at my most dismal. In fact, the most useful tool to me has always been to remember that life is a bit of a surreal, silly joke of a journey with no destination. Nothing will shake me out of a too-serious take on personal pain like laughter, if I can acknowledge how ridiculous it all is, then that is the first step towards enjoying the small miracles of every day living.
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the first comic book which made me laugh at the human condition. It took a while for me to really embrace it as the important book it is, because it is so funny and exaggerated, but over time the depth and sanity of it has become increasingly apparent.