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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: The Director's Cut

Title: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac:
The Director's Cut

ISBN: 0943151163

Price: $19.95

Publisher/Year: Slave Labor Graphics, 1997

Artist: Jhonen Vasquez

Writer: Jhonen Vasquez

Collects: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac
Carpe Noctem

Rating: 3/5

Let's talk about preconceived notions.

I have them. You have them. We all have them to varying
degrees, and one of mine has always been that I don't like "goth
comics." I'm not a big fan of the dark, overly angular art style, with the
brooding, all black costumes filled with anhks, piercings, cloaks and knee high
boots, or the overly cynical, nihilistic themes. Or, at least, that was my
impression without ever having read an actual goth comic.

Now, for years my brother has been trying to turn me on
to Jhonen Vasquez. An aspiring standup comedian, he swears that JTHM is one of
the funniest books ever written. I know it has that cult status (a quick Google
search confirmed this), so a couple of years ago I actually gave this book a
pretty serious look at the comic shop, but I couldn't get over my preconceived
notions enough to bring myself to actually buy it.

Finally, not satisfied with my uninformed dismissal, my
brother forced my hand. He bought me the book (JTHM: The Director's Cut) for my
birthday. This was back in January where it sat, unread, slowly descending to
the very bottom of my reading pile. That is, until this weekend. Since Rachel
and I will be visiting our families in the Midwest next week, and since my
brother will actually be there to question me on whether I read it or not, I
decided to finally give it a read. Admittedly this was a courtesy read, more to
simply seem grateful for the gift than because I was actually interested, but
nevertheless, I decided to read the entire book cover to cover with as open a
mind as possible.

What I found surprised me, not only because I liked the
book quite a bit more than I expected, but because it's nothing like what I

JTHM: The Director's Cut collects the entire seven issue
run of the series, and pads it out with lots of extras like sketches, early
strips, pinups, character profiles, etc. The first couple of issues are pretty
much what I expected, lots of killing, maiming, decapitating, goring,
torturing, disemboweling, and generally over-the-top violence mixed with a
healthy serving of South Park-style toilet humor. I admit to laughing a few
times, but overall I really wasn't too impressed. The art style also repelled me
at first, with its skinny, stick-figure characters with huge beaming eyes and
the endless chaotic backgrounds filled with knives, weapons, tentacles and, of
course, lots of blood spatters.

But then, around the beginning of the fourth issue,
something clicked for me. Were my preconceived notions melting away or was the
book really getting better? For one thing, an actual storyline seemed to be
emerging. Johnny, or Nny as he liked to be called, was actually becoming a
sympathetic character, hard as that is to believe. Not satisfied to simply
continue killing, Nny began to question himself, exploring his compulsion
toward violence, and while this is far from a realistic, therapeutic, human
exploration (Nny goes to heaven and meets God, for example), it nonetheless
added a considerable degree of intelligence and insight into the book which,
frankly, surprised me.

But that wasn't all. The art also started to win me over.
The harsh angles, which defy all laws of perspective, became more polished,
with more varying panel compositions and imaginative backgrounds, and I started
to really appreciate what a mad, artistic genius Vasquez actually is. His skill
at creating depth in panels, and exaggerating physical body movements is
impressive, as is his use of other cartooning tools such as page layouts,
lighting, sound effects and pacing. He even works in some pretty clever
experimentation, most notably in his page borders which contain hidden
messages, but also in the text passages squeezed into margins, his varying art
style to denote Johnny's mental state when creating his comic strip, Happy
Noodle Boy (see panel below), and his incredibly well-designed logos, which
kickoff each 4-5 page strip vignette.

I should also point out that the book IS funny, though
not as laugh-out-loud funny as my brother led me to believe. Maybe I'm just
getting old, but I did find some chuckles, especially at Vasquez's
ever-present, self-deprecating wit, which often takes the form of little notes
and sidebars to the reader ("Attention Morons: Plot Development!").

What's fascinating is that despite all the violence, JTHM
is actually a rich social commentary, and, though perhaps this is stretching it
a bit, it's also a love story. In that sense it shares more in common with
Edward Scissorhands (who Nny resembles), than South Park. It's the kind of book
that is worth another look, particularly if, like I did, you dismissed it
without giving it a fair shot. There's a lot here to satisfy even the die-hard
alternative comics fan, and while it may not be the greatest thing ever
written, it's unique and unforgettable.

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