The Twisted World of Jhonen Vasquez
Jhonen Vasquez is probably best known for the creation of Invader Zim , a short-lived cartoon series on Nickelodeon which ran in the early 2000s. Although it may have been faithful to Vasquez's style of humor and art, it was not as controversial in its subject matter. That's saying something, considering the show was attacked for being “blasphemous” and “immoral” by Christians as well as being far too dark for children, even showing up as prosecuting evidence in a trial where an episode of it was argued as being a motivator for a teenaged murderer. The show was canceled after two seasons.
Though Vasquez's reputation has mostly stemmed from Zim , Vasquez started out very young on a comic series that would become his most infamous at the age of twenty-one, called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac . The series started as a series of short comic strips published in his high school newspaper, then appeared in a few strips in and around 1990, then to appear as a full-fledged project in 1995-1997 in only seven issues.
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac was probably my biggest introduction into Vazquez's idiosyncratic humor, following an almost completely irredeemable character named Johnny (nicknamed Nny) who murders several people throughout the series, many of them innocent bystanders who happen to be around when he grows inconsolably upset.
I read the series at a pretty young age, around fourteen when I couldn't really understand the psychological battle Johnny faced, and sure, my parents were uncomfortable with me reading the series, as it's violent, gory, horrific, and riddled with profanity, all in a relentlessly dark spirit. My father even flipped through the first issue one night and said to me, “Ben, this is some sick stuff. I'm a bit worried about you if you like this.” But I argued that it was what it was, and that it was simply funny to me. Probably not the best response, but well, I was fourteen. And he didn't throw them out, surprisingly. I think I turned out alright, regardless. I was drawn in by the artwork, which was very inspiring to my own style at the time, Vasquez's unique way of constructing characters pretty fascinating to me, with the large tall eyes, wide and often square irises on thick, trapezoid-shaped heads, triangular and needle-thin bodies below; it was an aesthetic I was inexplicably fascinated by. And not only was his artwork fascinating, but he was also refreshingly human in the small commentaries he'd make about his stories and characters in the form of little comedic notes beside or in some panels of the comics. I have yet to read a comic book with enthusiasm outside of Vasquez's. Then again, I'm not much of a comic book fan outside of his work, with the exception of anything Roman Dirge, who also worked with Vasquez on a few projects, including Zim.
Vasquez had a determined beginning, middle and end to the Johnny series, which was made apparent by the series' events and its short run. In seven issues Johnny went through an entire spiritual adventure (which I'm frankly amazed wasn't attacked more by Christians) where he encounters God and Satan both toward the end, and ultimately is faced with himself, a morally misguided and twisted individual. There are also many psychologically disturbed conflicts Nny faces, including ones involving two evil dolls who try to convince him to do terrible things.
Not only did the series involve Johnny, but it also had several guiltily hilarious and most often really somber in-betweens where Vasquez would introduce small characters, most involving Happy Noodle Boy (a vulgar stick figure who rambles about everything random) and Wobbly Headed Bob (a morbidly depressed intellectual who finds unbearable pain in his knowledge). Squee is also introduced in this series as a minor character, Johnny's terrified neighbor, a child who usually bears witness to Nny's unspeakable acts of violence. Ironically, this is the only character Johnny ever acts kind to, with maybe the exception of his small friend Devi.
Jhonen's next series was Squee, which ran for four issues. Everything terrifying that could happen to Squee--who's despised by his own parents--does happen, including visits from aliens, confrontations with the Antichrist as a child and his father, among other dismal events. It was a fun series, though I didn't enjoy it particularly as much as Johnny, mainly because I thought Johnny was a more interesting character, and thus more happened around him that was interesting to read. But Squee was funny, and for any Vasquez fan the Big Book of Unspeakable Horrors is an excellent addition to a collection, with a word from Vasquez about the in-betweens he includes in the second half which were excluded from the Johnny series and the Directors Cut of that series.
I Feel Sick was Vasquez's next project, a two-issue comic focusing on an artist named Devi (seen in JTHM) in her own struggles with sanity by constructing an illusory view of society and talking to one of her own paintings. Vasquez reportedly found the series cathartic while working on it. I have not yet read this series, but if I can find it in a comic store I will be able to say whether or not I recommend it. I probably would.
As for Vasquez's next series, and arguably his most sadistic, a series of short mini-books entitled Fillerbunny, it follows a poor, innocent cartoon bunny whose sole purpose would seem to be to serve as a torture victim for other elements of Vasquez's insane world. I've only read and possess the third issue, Fillerbunny in My Worst Book Yet, and can safely say this is probably the saddest character Vasquez has created, even worse than the suicidal Wobbly Headed Bob. It's amusing, yes, but the fact that Fillerbunny is even told by a cold, callous machine that it was indeed created for torture alone is downright cruel, even if it is funny in the most sinister way. This series without a doubt can probably be considered his most offensive, in spite of--yet more likely enhanced by--its deceptively cute artistic style. With a character like Aborto (you can probably guess the offense there), I'm amazed Vasquez hasn't received death threats or things similar, though I could be wrong in making that assumption. On a side note: Fillerbunny makes a cameo in Invader Zim, seen floating in a jar of preservation fluid.
Invader Zim, Vasquez's biggest commercial accomplishment, is a series that Vasquez found to be a frustrating experience, mainly because he had to work with other people rather than alone and on his own terms. The series became a success, smartly teasing its young audience with an ominous, Irken (Zim's alien race) logo-filled trailer vaguely advertising the show's first episode, an ad I found very cool when it aired as an eleven-year-old still invested in everything Nickelodeon.
In the show, Zim is the main protagonist and simultaneously antagonist, whose soul purpose, upon being discarded to Earth by his leaders, the Mighty Tallest (who despise Zim, oblivious to Zim), is to take over the planet and enslave the human race. Zim always manages to fail at every attempt to take over anything, finding the only person smart and open-minded enough to realize what he is to be his main nemesis, a child at his "skool" named Dib. At the same time, Zim is assisted by his alien robot GIR, but GIR usually gets distracted by everything, mostly by food and anything cute.
This series contains much of Vasquez's signature humor, mostly found in certain humorously random phrases, often juvenile, with inexplicably very funny enunciation (“Honey, is it--" "Yep! Diarrheaaaaaaaaaaaaah...”) and any true fan of Vasquez knows his favorite word is “meat”, and man, is it used often in this cartoon in almost every way possible, just missing explicitness. The cartoon is what introduced me to Vasquez in the first place, and I remember reading about him and his involvement in the show in an issue of Nickelodeon Magazine as a kid. I was just barely beginning to grow out of Nick by the time the show ended in 2002, and I think there are several episodes out there I still haven't seen.
have been many other projects Jhonen has worked on since, including a
collaborative storybook called Everything Can Be Beaten
and a browser game called Bloody Fun Day.
I haven't seen his work in any of these, as outside the Internet it's
all somewhat difficult to find nowadays, but I remain a fan of his,
and continue to be on the lookout for any upcoming work, as he's showing no signs of retiring.