HORROR MONTH #15: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, by Jhonen Vasquez (1995)

Type of Media: Comic Book

Have you ever had a revenge fantasy? I'm not talking about an imaginary conversation where you throw down a devastating insult and get one up on someone. I mean something physical. Like luring your worst enemy down into a cellar and then chaining them up so you can wall them in and entomb them alive. Of course you would never act on a thought like that, that would be crazy. Even if... you knew you could get away with it.

When you first pick up Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, it seems like a disturbing outlet for someone's especially gruesome revenge fantasies. The main character, Johnny, is a goth guy who lives in a house with a labyrinthine basement, and spends his time torturing and killing anyone who slights him. Several voices in his head, represented by a floating rabbit's head and sinister Pillsbury Doughboys, urge him to kill others, kill himself, or seek help for his obvious psychosis. It's later revealed that almost no one, not even the police, is looking for him or even knows he exists. Johnny is a monster getting away with murder and the comic sometimes glorifies his violence.

However, as the series continues it becomes clear that Johnny's life isn't in his own hands. Some cosmic force has infected Johnny's psyche, giving him the power to kill with impunity so he can paint fresh blood onto a crumbling wall in his house that constantly soaks up gore. It's hinted that he was once a talented painter, but his creativity has been sapped and left him only able to draw crude stick figure comics. Johnny doesn't know how to fight back, and his best plan to get free is to purge himself of emotion and want, becoming like an insect.

The main themes of Vasquez's work are mental illness and creativity, specifically the links between the two. The force influencing Johnny uses mania and depression to redirect his artistic energy from painting pictures to painting a wall with the blood of his victims, and though he is quite prolific and successful with this new outlet it is ultimately self-destructive. It's a power that requires him to forsake most of his relationships, and he ultimately gets sick of it. Even when he meets a kind person who isn't afraid of him, Johnny is still driven to kill that person to satiate the wall.

Vasquez's art style is suited to this kind of story. It feels underground, scratchy and unclean in stark black and white. Many of his character designs are Tim Burtonesque, featuring big heads, thin bodies, and a lot of stripe-patterned clothing, but his settings are crumbling and dilapidated, and every machine has these gritty Japanese cyberpunk flourishes that make them look like they were spawned rather than constructed.

Despite the bloodiness and horror, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac has a distinct sense of humor as well. Throughout the story are jabs at goth culture, bizarre side-stories, and more light-hearted vignettes starring Johnny. One story arc has Johnny exploring heaven and hell, and offers some genuinely clever ideas as to what eternal bliss and eternal torture might look like.

It's unfortunate that a lot of the dialogue hasn't aged well. Vasquez's animated series Invader Zim was the start of the "randum" style of humor that saturated the internet during the early to mid-2000s, so a lot of the jokey dialogue in Johnny now seems dated. Additionally, Johnny's rants are much less thought-provoking as an adult compared to when I read them in high school. It can be hard to stomach the sections that are just Johnny and his voice of reason Nailbunny waxing philosophical while strolling through the basement torture-labyrinth.

However, at its heart I still think Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is a good horror story about the relationship between creativity and mental illness, as well as a critique of the same revenge fantasies Johnny indulges in. To anyone who's gone through an anti-social phase, especially if you were goth, give this series a go. You might find yourself empathizing with Johnny more than you'd like.