Of all the comic compendiums/graphic novels I own, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director's Cut by Jhonen Vasquez is easily the one I've read the most. I still have the first copy I picked up at a mall Hot Topic in middle school and it's been through a lot. It's been attacked by stupid dogs (they were mine and bright is not an appropriate descriptor), thrown in the trash by over zealous Catholic relatives, and defaced by a terrible roommate my first year in college. If none of that could stop me from reading it, what could? The answer seems to be nothing. Vasquez's ultra-violent dark comedy comic series ran all of seven issues before ending with a literal hiatus for the series. Side stories came out--I Feel Sick followed Johnny's ex-girlfriend and Squee followed Johnny's traumatized little neighbor--but the original series has not expanded (beyond awful fan fiction, which obviously doesn't count).
The concept is encapsulated in the title. A man named Johnny is a homicidal maniac. He kills people in horrible ways using an expansive subterranean torture chamber and some on the street ingenuity. Are you supposed to root for the killer? Nope. The victims? Guess again. The survivors? Only one, and she gets her own issue to deconstruct everything that should stop you from reading the series at all.
The key to Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is realizing that it's an exploration of character, society, pop culture, and storytelling. Johnny is an anti-hero up to the point when he crushes someone's skull. Then he's just comic relief in dry satire of the over-saturation of violence in American media. Except for when that violence is against a particularly vile archetype that slips by in America. Then he's the symbol of justice, like Batman with razor blades and surgical hooks.
If you don't recognize how disturbing the content of the book is, you're part of the thesis. How often are we willing to look the other way just because? Do we ignore heinous behavior from well-admired people because they're well-admired? What about people with serious mental health problems? Do we just brush them into the basement to do who knows what as self-therapy? And can anyone actually make a meaningful impact on the world by himself? Or is a singular quest for justice, peace, revolution, or better treatment at the checkout line a lost cause from the start?
Jhonen Vasquez works alone on JTHM, creating a singular noir vision of violence and mayhem in society that refuses to take itself seriously. The panels are filled with hidden messages and notes from Jhonen about the quality of his art, the stupidity of the characters, and handy reminders of when something connected to the overall arc of the series happens. Some of the stuff he does is so wrong that it's just right in context. I struggle to think of a time where it's appropriate to say "Wow, this sucks REAL bad" about your own work as a way to keep people reading. This happens in every issue of the collection.
The downside to Director's Cut is a matter of space. The original run of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac had multiple side comics contained within. "Happy Noodle Boy" is the schizophrenic stick figure comic that Johnny himself writes in the main story. "Public Service Announcement" mocked the absurdity of the slippery slope anti-everything campaigns of the 80s and 90s and the Anne Gwish side-stories skewered the target audience of the comics. These are all represented in the collection. However, the riotously funny, Twilight Zone-esque "Meanwhile" comics were left on the cutting room floor. Now where will you get to see pinatas take revenge on a four year old after a birthday party?
The book is filled with a ton of bonus content at the end, including character bios, the history of Johnny, and Jhonen's commentary on each issue. This is the part of my copy that is the closest to recycled material. Ink is missing and the pages fan back to the spine. While Jhonen Vasquez has a clear voice in the comics, his persona connected to his creation of the comics is hilarious. This is a man who knows exactly what he's doing when he puts pen to paper and starts coloring shadows.
It takes a certain kind of person to get a kick out of JTHM. This collection is filled with disturbing violence, angst-ridden stream of consciousness narration, and really offensive humor. If you come in with the right perspective and know what you're getting into, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director's Cut can be a fun read.
Cross-posted at Cannonball Read IV.
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