How Far is Too Far?:

Excessive Violence in Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

For centuries, writers all over the world have seen the word censorship as a dirty word. And rightly so. No self-respecting writer wants his/her intellectual property to be covered up as though it wasn’t good enough; as though it were something that needed to be changed, because changing it makes it something other than what was envisioned. Censorship has been a hotly debated topic in varying forums from novels to television to sequential art. It’s not going away. Some people think that individuals need to be stricter in regards to what is seen and read while others believe that individuals should be free to create and consume whatever they want whether ultra conservative or utterly depraved. Is there a middle ground? Is there a way to make everyone happy? Doubtful.

In the mid-90’s, Jhonen Vasquez published Johnny the Homicidal Maniac through Slave Labor Graphics. It was a character that Vasquez had been drawing in one form or another since his teenage years. Admittedly, Vasquez created Johnny as a way to vent his anger towards those he felt slighted or teased him as he was growing up. Many artists use pain, anger, or even guilt to fuel their work. Vasquez is not alone in this practice, however, the problem with Vasquez’s ‘venting’ was that the visions he was creating were almost all singularly graphically violent. This character would eventually land a cult following as Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (JTHM) would be published here and there before being picked up by Slave Labor Graphics. Soon after being published, the character became controversial and cannon fodder for conservative censorship groups.

The ‘Director’s Cut’ of JTHM is a hodgepodge of insanely dark and creepy pages as the story starts by Johnny breaking into the house of a young boy that is psychologically abused by his parents and constantly told that he is the source of their resentment and therefore rationalize their own neglect. The poor boy is designed to be pitied from page one. Johnny, covered with blood, is looking for ointment to spread over his wounds after a particularly difficult murder. This is indeed how the character is introduced. The darkness just continues to ensue from that moment.

The reader learns that Johnny had just moved next door to the boy (now nicknamed Squee). Johnny lives in a house that looks like a small shack from the outside but it is a labyrinth of underground rooms and torture chambers. It is during these pages that the reader learns that there are massive gaps in Johnny’s memory. He doesn’t remember how or why he got the house or even why he started killing in the first place. All that he knows is that he needs fresh blood to paint a particular wall in the house. The blood is constantly being absorbed by the wall which gives a clue to the reader that something supernatural is occurring though Vasquez’s writing style is more than just fragmented. The disjointed nature of the fragments of plot don’t quite fit together. It is obvious that there was very little planning in the execution (forgive the pun) of this book.

A reader would hope that there would be some sort of exposition or even character revelation that occurs during the numerous scenes that Johnny is torturing and killing “innocent” people. But instead, there is incessant gore that honestly has no point whatsoever. It is simply what has been coined as “torture porn”. This idea can be simply defined as film makers and writers that use violence and gore for no point other than the fact that their audience gets some sort of sadistic pleasure for it.

The “victims” of Johnny are almost all the sort of people that a large portion of society would deem as annoying. They are “tough guys”, “brats”, “social elitists”, etc., basically anyone that made fun of the disenfranchised. They all fit a certain social cruelty that many readers may be familiar with from their own “bullied” experiences. However, Vasquez’s world is full of these people. In fact, there is a very small percentage that is even readably tolerable in way of characterization and depth.

As the reader continues, it is revealed, after several suicide attempts and a trip to hell, that Johnny is a “flusher” meaning that he flushes the negative energy and sickness that humanity produces via avarice, greed, hate, and so on by killing and feeding the wall human blood. This revelation is explained by none other than the devil himself (who prefers to be referred to as Senior Diablo). Johnny is then sent back to Earth because he does not belong in heaven or hell. He is essentially cursed to live. Even though after returning to Earth he no longer has to “flush,” he still continues to kill those that annoy him. Eventually, he decides to take a vacation and says good bye to Squee, whose utilization as a plot device is weak at best. As Johnny hides from Squee’s father who comes into the room to explain even further why and how Squee has ruined his life, Johnny attacks him causing severe brain trauma in an effort to make him stop talking. This does show a bit of symmetry by ending the series in a similar way to how it started. Breaking into a young boy’s room to scare the crap out of him and then bash in the brain of his emotionally abusive father.

Throughout the book, Vasquez is aware of his audience and critics by addressing things such as the excessive violence by explaining that it’s just a comic book in the introduction and in the story itself by mocking its own gore by pretending that the book is a movie shoot and the director is creating commentary via dialogue. He even attacks the fans of the book by stating in a few issues that are actually light in violence that they just want gore without cause. This insertion of Vasquez’s assertion only furthers the point of the excessive violence by trying to make it seem that all of the violence up to that point in the series has some sort of higher purpose. It is one those moments that the reader can hear Queen Gertrude from Hamlet saying “The lady doth protest too much…”

How does a reader decide what is to be censored and what doesn’t? Is there some sort of internal warning when a consumer of culture comes across something that needs to be covered or changed? One could wish it were that easy. Movies, music, painting, television, writing, and of course sequential art all fall under the vast umbrella of “art”. And it’s impossible for there to be a black and white standard to arbitrarily toss art into. Perhaps the better standard would be for those creating to censor themselves with a simple self-policing question: Does this have a point?

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Nathan J. Harmon is a graduate of Missouri State University and teaches English in southwest Missouri

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  1. By and large, Nathan, my approach has been to simply ignore those work that I feel are so poorly wrought. The artist still has a right and the ability to create their work; yet, I also have the right to choose other works more worth my time and effort to review and spotlight. Censorship, as I see it, negates both the creator’s ability to give voice to their ideas as well as the audience’s right to choose what they do not want to consider. There is silence by exclusion and there is silence by censorship. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one to recognize. We saw this take place, to some effect, with the Orson Scott Card debacle with Superman.

    Certainly, OSC has every right to voice his opinions so long as they are in compliance with his 1st amendment rights (apart from hate speech or yelling “Fire”). What we lose track of at times is that while we have certain rights to speech, there are also consequences that may follow–freedom from which we are not guaranteed. As was evidenced by fan outcry, the audience also had the same right to voice their opinions as well, and given the context of sales, this resulted in DC making a cost-driven decision to pull OSC.

    As you suggest, whether or not a subject is worthy of consideration is very much an individual decision; when that decision is widespread amongst a given audience, then the consequences of such transgressive art could very well be mistaken as censorship as it can result in the marginalization or the outright rejection of that respective subject. But this isn’t censorship–a prevention of that item from remaining in existence, but instead, a rejection of its value.

    Good article and thought well worth taking into account given the recents events with censorship in comics (see both Julian Darius’ recent articles on Censorship with OSC as well as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in the Chicago public schools).

  2. This synopsis is a bit misleading, because a synopsis can’t convey the tone of the story. And you don’t quite move beyond the synopsis to give any valid reason for why JTHM should be censored. What are you getting at, exactly?

    The point of the violence in JTHM is that it’s SO violent that it’s ridiculous. Especially when the violence is triggered by trivial things (pointlessness is itself the point). Have you ever noticed how violent Looney Tunes are? Same principle, only Jhonen Vasquez presents it in a darker way for adult audiences. It’s cartoon violence. JTHM is NOT a serious comic book—the whole point of it is that it’s darkly humorous, absurd, and satirical. But there’s also a dose of philosophical, existential examinaiton thrown in there too. And somehow, all of these things work together to create a very distinct narrative style.

    Vasquez doesn’t hold up Johnny as some sort of hero or role model. In fact, he does the opposite. It’s not the author’s fault if some people misconstrue the intent of the comics and choose to latch onto an obviously horrible role model, but he addresses this issue in one comic when a “fan” shows up asking Johnny to be his mentor. Even Johnny himself is disgusted by the idea of anyone emulating him, and he’s further disgusted when he learns the guy is a rapist (something that even Johnny won’t stoop to). He brutally kills the guy, who protests, “But I’m just like you!” Johnny responds with, “I don’t like myself very much.” So by that point in the series, even those readers who were too stupid to realize that it was a work of satire must realize that Johnny is not meant to be taken seriously. And I don’t mean that as the “this isn’t meant to be taken seriously” cop-out; I think the overall tone and exaggeration in the comic make it abundantly clear.

    There is a huge difference, I think, between violence and gore for its own sake, and extremely exaggerated violence and gore for the sake of humor. I can’t stomach much violence in movies, yet I’m a huge fan of JTHM. I think the comic book medium allows extreme violence to be handled in an overblown, cartoonish way, as opposed to a live action movie. In a comic book, the artist has complete creative control and doesn’t have to make the violence look realistic. So it can be completely over-the-top in a way that’s not believable, and obviously not to be taken seriously.

    ” He even attacks the fans of the book by stating in a few issues that are actually light in violence that they just want gore without cause. This insertion of Vasquez’s assertion only furthers the point of the excessive violence by trying to make it seem that all of the violence up to that point in the series has some sort of higher purpose.”

    Vasquez’s overall tone is disparaging and sarcastic. He’s insulting the intelligence of his readers when he says they’re only there for the mindless violence. That’s his form of humor and it fits with the rest of the series; it doesn’t stand out awkwardly like an author trying to justify his work. And he never tries to say that he violence has “some sort of higher purpose.” He’s pretty clear that the violence is supposed to be read as a ridiculous, disproportionate response to whatever trivial problem Johnny is facing, and therefore humorous.

    Have you read any of Vasquez’s other works? There’s one I think might give you a different perspective on JTHM. It’s a short (two issues) spinoff series called “I Feel Sick” about Devi (the girlfriend who almost became one of Johnny’s victims, but got away). In this series, Devi learns that her mind is becoming infected by the same “sickness” that drove Johnny to insanity. Sickness feeds off her mind to gain enough power to materialize through Devi’s painting of a creepy doll. Ultimately, Devi is able to defeat Sickness and avoid Johnny’s fate. In contrast to Johnny, this is the sort of character Vasquez upholds as a hero of sorts. Johnny is weak and manipulated; Devi is strong and self aware.

    There are plenty of legitimate criticisms one could make about JTHM. But “too violent” is not one of them, because it fails to consider the context, tone, and creative function of the violence. Putting an arbitrary cap on the “acceptable” level of violence in a work of fiction would only limit creativity and thought. Depicting violence is not the same as condoning it.

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