Jhonen Vasquez is an enigma. Within the past two years, this young cartoonist has seen his career skyrocket, moving from a strip in the dark culture magazine Carpe Noctem to his own title, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (JtHM among its fans), published by San Jose, CA veteran Slave Labor Graphics. Despite the obviously personal slant to much of his work, he preferred to avoid discussing himself in this interview, instead focusing on JtHM, a dark, witty, and ultimately tragic series of vignettes that has achieved cult status in a genre saturated with cookie-cutter antiheroes. At times intensely philosophical, at others cartoonishly violent, the comic centers around Johnny C. (a.k.a. Nny), a tortured, lonely psychotic whose killing sprees reflect his contempt for humanity and modern culture. While the title includes other character-driven strips, it is Nny who has provided the comic with its soul and its biting commentary on the violent cruelty of human beings. Vasquez's originality and humor have earned Johnny a wide range of admirers, and its readership grows by the day. Poised on the edge of fame, Jhonen remains thoughtful, humorous, and razor sharp as he discusses himself and the nature of his work.
Haven: OK, first, a little background for our readers... Do you have any formal education in art?
JCV: A bit, though I do horribly in a classroom, always getting yelled at by rigid little teachers furious at a lack of PROPER cooperation. Life drawing, representational drawing, painting, sculpture, art history... and I've been yelled at in most of them. It is sad.
What publications besides Carpe Noctem and JtHM has your work appeared in?
That's about it. Perhaps I should expand. Yessss.... world conquest will soon follow.
So is JtHM the only project you have going right now? What else do you do with your time?
Johnny is the only work of mine that is being published regularly. Most of the book gets done at night, when everyone else is asleep and drooling, but I still have time to do other things. Anything to keep from going to sleep. I like to write as much as I can, and do other, non-comic related artwork. Drawing for the book can be fairly confining, as far as style goes. Not that I don't try different things in it, but there is a certain look that has to be there. It's nice to get away from that, at times, and use other looks. So I've got copious amounts of late night artwork in sketchbooks and notebooks crammed with brain-noize.
If it's confining, what is it you enjoy most about drawing your comic?
THE DISEASE RIDDEN SEX GROUPIES!!! YEAH!!! WOOOO-HOOOOO!!!! Also, there is something just relaxing about sitting there and focusing on the artwork. It's one of the few times I can ignore the usual noise that goes on in my head. Too many things to think about, but working helps to quiet it down.
What about the gobs and gobs of moolah?
Well, I'm really not one to brag, but, let's just say that I can put MORE quarters into the gumball machine, trying to get that GIANT stickyhand, than I used to.
Did you cartoon a lot before you went professional, or have there been other media you've enjoyed working with as much?
You seem to be under the impression that I am a professional. HAH!! But, yes, it's just one of those things I did as a little slimy larvae. I have to admit, though, that I really didn't think I'd be doing a comic book. It just, sort of, happened. Kind of like when you're walking downtown, and a meteorite crashes down on the people, leaving no one alive but you. I don't know what the hell that means, but, think about it: it9s pretty fuckin' weird.
I'd like to talk a little about the book itself. The violence in JtHM tends to be extremely graphic and brutal, including scenes of torture, dismemberment, and mass-murder. While it's nothing you won9t see at the movies, it's still present. What is the function of violence in the comic? How does it relate to what you wish to communicate?
Well... have you ever been to the zoo? Do not be embarrassed if you haven't (I won't laugh). If you watch the people who are looking at the monkeys, you see them laughing and enjoying the little show being put on by the fuzzy ones. The people smile at the similarities between the animal in the cage and themselves, laugh at how much they are alike, yet also at how primitive the creatures are. The violence is like that. It's for people who, hopefully, CAN separate themselves from the ugly, ridiculous behavior they see in the book. They can see it as something humorous and yet at the same time recognize it as something they carry inside themselves.
OK. Let me ask you this, then: Let's say you get picked up by a major comics publisher, e.g.Vertigo. Suddenly, your audience is going to include a huge number of people who see only the funny apes jumping around and flinging shit. Would you change the comic at all, or would you just ignore the gore-hounds and let them wallow?
I would hope the number of people who have a fair understanding of the book increases as well, and that the draw of the comic didn't come solely from those shit-flingin' monkeys. I think the book SHOULD change on a regular basis. As long as I'm doing it because I enjoy it, everything should be okay.
A friend of mine once put it this way: "What if, one day, I turn on MTV by accident and find Beavis and Butthead wearing JtHM tees, saying 'Huh-huh... he stapled her eyelids shut. Johnny is cool."? I hope I'm right about this, but don9t you get the idea that Mike Judge [the creator of B&B] KNOWS that he's making fun of the people who watch his show and love it? Seeing Nny on MTV would feel like a more bizarre extension of the way my book already seems to be viewed. Some people are in on the joke, and others think it's "cool, cuz he's killin people".
Hmm... speaking of your audience, is rather obvious that JtHM has a certain appeal with a certain subculture....
PUNK ROCKIN' ALBINO AMPUTEES??!?? No, I know what you're hinting at.
Was this a conscious decision on your part?
No. just something I'm fairly familiar with. I think it's nice to see a lot of different types of people enjoy the book. I don't intend it to be exclusive to anybody, other than the literate. So do you intend to contribute anything to the subculture with JtHM? Perhaps a bit of vicious self-mockery. Humor, more than any-thing else.
I'd like to delve into Johnny's motivations a bit. In the book you've often made reference to him as a product of "that most vile form of human life: assholes". What is an "asshole", in the personally descriptive sense? What do Nny's victims have in common, aside from having slighted the boy?
I think it's important to make it very clear that not ALL of Nny's victims have slighted him. Hell, sometimes all they have to do is resemble someone he doesn't like. That kind of information helps a person to not LOVE how COOL NnY is, because, well, Johnny's a bit fucked in the head. That aside, an "asshole", as I see it, is someone whose attention is set to this idiot focus on trivialities such as another person's appearance or choice of lifestyle. We ALL have things we don't care for, but some people actually feel the need to share it with the world. They vomit out their moronic brain-sewage and it's an undeserving bystander who gets hit.
I take it you're implying that, when looking at another person, we should consider only that which we glean about their personality. But doesn9t one's choice of trivialities reflect his or her personality? I mean, true, there are things you can't help (like body weight, baldness, or gigantic festering verucae), but when it comes to clothing, lifestyle, etc.,
Oftentimes people who choose to live a certain way have similar natures. I haven't perfected my responses in any way. However, ultimately, I hope to be able to neglect ANY form of reaction to some person I consider unpleasant. Why expend precious attention on something so stupid, so trivial as one9s choice of appearance? There are far better things to do - feeding squirrels, for instance.
Going back to Nny... do you care about him as a character? When you've written about him in your prefaces, it seems you've alternated between contempt, amusement, and a sort of grudging comraderie....
You've pretty much summed it all up. I'd hate for Nny to be some one-dimensional monster. There is no doubt in my mind that he's a villain in a story peopled by slightly less reactionary villains. I also don't want there to be some convenient origin to his character that would make us understand how he came to be, thus making us sympathetic towards his situation.
While we're on the subject of characters, exactly where the hell does the dialogue in Happy Noodle Boy come from?
A friend at one time always wanted me to do new comics for her, ALWAYS. So I came up with a comic that re-quired little effort in the art department and made absolutely no use of sense in the writing: HAPPY NOODLE BOY!!! The writing is just a nice change of pace from the rest of the book. If it makes no sense, the LOVELY. It's nice not to care, at times.
Issue #6 seems to be a bit of a departure: it's more fun-loving and bombastic than previous issues. Would you say you9ve taken a new direction with JtHM?
I never think in terms of direction. It's more in keeping in the spirit of a character whose behavior cannot be summed up in a convenient little pile of words. What better way to do this book about a manic little guy than to be writing it to as erratically as the character himself? It's fun. Sometimes it's happy, sometimes insane, always sarcastic.
Do you want to say anything further about yourself or the future of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac?
Just one thing: I am the rightful heir to the flaming global throne of evil. I WILL TAKE THIS WORLD AS MINE, so if you people could just cooperate it would be very nice.
By Matthew McKeon For Haven House Publications, Ltd.