Jhonen Vasquez is one of the most unique voices in comics, though he doesn’t spend all his time in the medium. At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Vasquez and moderator Dan Vado hosted a spotlight panel that provided him the opportunity to share stories from throughout his career, discussing everything from from the creation of “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac” to his work on “Invader Zim” and much more.
To kick the panel off, Vasquez started with the story of how his breakout comic “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac” first came to be.
“Everyone has their characters that they drew in elementary school,” said Vasquez. “My character that I drew was a character named Chucky.”
Although it began mainly as sight gags that would only be funny to a child, Chucky served as a way for Vasquez to hone his creative and comedic talents throughout his adolescence, and as Vasquez grew, the things he found funny also changed.
“As I got older, Chucky the comic started to get — it was more about Chucky burning himself,” Vasquez said of the change, which was more in line with his present-day style.
In retrospect, Chucky also served as an example of how the lack of minority representation can affect young creators.
“He was blond, which makes me sick because I’m a little Mexican kid drawing a blond boy,” said Vasquez. “It’s all I saw. It’s all I had. Every character, every movie, everything that I was in love with, nobody looked like me.”
Over the years Chucky eventually transformed, growing taller and gaining black hair, before ultimately shrinking back down and becoming Johnny, The Homicidal Maniac. By then Vasquez was a teenager who had honed his artistic abilities and paired them with his adolescent sensibilities.
“It’s crazy to think about it now, but it was actually in the school paper,” said Vasquez. “You couldn’t do that at all now. I was doing comics where kids were murdering kids, but nobody gave a shit.”
When Vasquez was 18 or 19, he took his next big step thanks to a local television show called “Fishmasters.”
“‘Fishmasters’ was responsible for getting me into comics,” said Vasquez. “They got a comic book made and at the end of the show they had a little ad for their comic book.”
From that, Vasquez learned the address of Slave Labor Graphics and put together a portfolio of his work and dropped it off with Dan Vado. A few weeks later Vado called him with a request for more Johnny comics, forcing Vasquez to take his creative endeavor to the next stage.
“I’d never done anything more than, like, two pages, so that was weird,” said Vasquez. “So I had to start coming up with a reason why anything was happening.”
While Vasquez at the time said he had a story planned, he admitted to the San Diego crowed he was mostly making it up as he went along.
“For the most part, if anyone thinks they know what’s happening in the comics, they’re fully of shit,” said Vasquez.
“You were making it up as you were going along, but it worked,” said Vado.
Because of Vasquez’s process, or lack of one, “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac” has managed to stay relevant through the years, with Vasquez stating he still gets people thinking he’s a 19 year-old and that the comic is a recent work.
“There’s a kind of timeless quality about it and that’s why somebody just getting into it today thinks you just wrote it yesterday,” said Vado.
Vasquez’s success with “Johnny” led to another project, “Squee!,” which ultimately led to his biggest success, “Invader Zim.”
“And then I died,” said Vasquez, “according to a lot of people.”
Vasquez said he’s constantly approached by people who want to know “what happened to that guy” or why he isn’t “doing anything.”
“It’s been frustrating the last couple of years because I’ve been working in animation and it takes years to get that stuff up and people just assume I’m lazy and not working on anything,” said Vasquez.
“I’ve never seen anyone walk up to a human being like people do to him and say stupid fucking hurtful shit,” said Vado.
Taking questions from the audience, a fan asked what Johnny would be like if Vasquez were to go back to the character and continue his story today.
“The funny thing is, I know what happens for another story. I’ve had it in my head forever,” said Vasquez. “It’s a great series. You guys should read it, but it doesn’t exist.”
Vasquez said revisiting Johnny would allow him to examine what makes him work as a character that has been both admired and pitied at once.
“There’s always an element of making something that is better than you or worse than you, and in Johnny’s case it was kind of both,” said Vasquez. “There was that sort of wish-fulfillment aspect, being able to get revenge or judge people, and punish them and not have any repercussions. Which is kind of what the rest of that story would be about. That forcefield.
I never wanted people to admire Johnny because he is protected. He is able to form this idea of being godlike because nothing touches him.”
Vasquez said Johnny’s blatant disregard for consequences has resulted in some awkward encounters with fans over the years, particularly the ones who admire Johnny and claim to “get it.”
“Weirdly enough, it got worse after Zim came out,” said Vasquez. “After Zim, the ones that were really the most upsetting were always a girl… girls got weird. With Johnny, the weirdos were guys. Then with Zim, the weirdos were girls.”
Realizing he’d gone off on a tangent, Vasquez returned to the subject of a potential second story for Johnny.
“I think the second story is a lot about undoing the mistakes I made with the first series,” said Vasquez. “A lot of my intent got too mixed up with the aesthetics at the time and I think too many people saw Johnny as a cool person and not as a tool of a formless, Lovecraftian nightmare.
Storytelling ethics has become a much greater part of my life. I don’t think I’d go back and change the comics but any continuation would definitely be a reflection of what I’d do now. Hopefully not straying too far from what people liked in the first place.”
Another panelist asked about the “Z?” logo that appears in Vasquez’s work, commonly known as “Question Sleep.”
“I have always really hated sleeping. It’s horrifying,” said Vasquez. “In ‘Johnny,’ every time Johnny actually would fall asleep, any time he would wake up he would question the reality he was now in because he didn’t know if it was the same world he fell asleep in.”
For future projects, Vasquez expressed an interest in moving beyond animation and comics, entering the live-action world through either writing or directing.
“I’d love to do live-action stuff,” said Vasquez. “Anything that allows me to further realize the places in my head. That’s what it’s about.”
Moving the discussion to “Squee!” Vasquez responded to an audience member’s question about Squee’s sanity in an unexpected say.
“Here’s the thing, everything you believe is wrong,” said Vasquez. “Squee is perfectly sane. Squee is one of the most sane people in everything that I’ve done.
“Everyone always thinks that Squee is going to grow up to be like Johnny and no, that isn’t going to happen,” Vasquez continued. “What is fun about Squee is that he always comes back to thinking things are going to be okay. Which is funnier when you throw in something horrible.”
For the final question, Vasquez was asked if there was any franchise he’d like to adapt.
“In terms of me wanting to go pursue other people’s ideas, no. There’s not enough time in my life to not do my own stuff,” said Vasquez, who expressed disappointment when directors he liked get pulled into franchise work. “I think there’s a risk of getting comfortable because those things are very successful and make a lot more money, but then you’re not making your own thing. You’re not saying anything to anyone.”
That said, Vasquez still has one dream project he’d like to adapt.
“But if I could, in my fantasy scenario if I could make anything, in whatever way that I could, all the ‘Dune’ books up to ‘God Emperor.'”
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