52 Pick-Up Week 4:
For those who don’t recognize the name, Jhonen Vasquez is the mad genius behind Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Invader Zim. While Zim has a twisted playfulness, JtHM shares its bizarre and foreboding macabre tone with I Feel Sick, and reading the latter and attempting to read the former has brought me to a grateful realization. There is some sort of bizarre phenomenon that exists in, about and around Vasquez’s work that ensures that it is only ever approached by those who will appreciate it. There is no subterfuge. There is no grey area. It is what it is, and it makes no apologies for that. Honestly, though, I know plenty of people who are familiar with Vasquez’s books and love them, and far more people who have never touched them, and I think that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Allow me to elaborate.
I Feel Sick brings you into the life and — to a lesser extent — the mind of Devi (apparently a character from JtHM), a struggling artist working a corporate campaign to make ends meet while trying to pursue her own art, which currently takes the form of a painting of a Burton-esque looking doll. Over the course of two issues, Devi’s friend Tenna tries to alleviate our protagonist’s tensions and — through this exercise — we’re given glimpses into the past that made Devi who she is today, including but not limited to a date with an actual zombie.
Yeah, the book is pretty twisted, and that’s before the doll from the painting has an existential conversation with Devi while running about on scythe-like legs it made for itself.
Here’s the point: There is a certain subset of the population that is going to love this book, like JtHM before it. I’m making no qualitative analyses thereof; I’m not labeling them in any way, shape or form. I’m just saying that there are people out there who really dig Jhonen Vasquez’s work and, in my experience, these people always seem to find the books on their own. Similarly, those of us whose tastes just don’t sync up with this style almost invariably steer clear, as if following some sort of literary spider sense warning us of impending conceptual dysphasia.
The simple fact is that while I’ve no doubt that Vasquez has likely written a brilliant and insightful story that dissects the human experience and criticizes the lifestyles we lead as matter of habit, I couldn’t care less because the delivery mechanism was so odd that my brain shut off halfway through. It would be like having Homer’s Odyssey translated into German, then pig latin, and then sung to you. It’d still be an amazing piece of literature, and for those with a mind pliant enough to appreciate that particular conceptualization, it would be an amazing artistic experience, but for the rest of us… it’d just be weird gibberish.
Before wrapping, I must address the art. If you’ve seen JtHM or Zim, you’ve got a good feel for it. If not, take the comparison I made to Burton’s style and add more angles. They’ve a similar aesthetic quality, a somewhat dark and skewed take on the world that is a twisted reflection of the filters we apply to our surroundings; a visual contraposition of our own myopic tendency to warp the world around us to fit our cookie cutter perceptions.
We see this in the writing, too, as Devi works an unfulfilling job and Tenna offers with redundancy the same hollow and irrelevant advice and everyone assumes that the fat woman is psychic instead of the woman’s fat being psychic. The book in its entirety seems to be a study of skewed perception and rote presupposition, and so it’s only appropriate that the art be an exaggeration of the forms that it is based on as a visual Klaxxon alarm alerting the reader that things are hardly ever as they appear.
Still, it’s all a bit more off-the-wall than your average episode of Lost and that can be a huge stumbling block to the reader’s enjoyment. Were I to step back and rate the book on its artistic merits as objectively as possible, I’d no doubt give it 4.5 out of 5 something or others for being a truly unique and intriguing exercise in the artistry of both written word and drawn form. That’s not what I’m here to do, however.
I Feel Sick gets 2.5 out of 5 restaurants oversimplifying life into binary equations, with a simple caveat – if you’ve ever heard of or seen any of Jhonen Vasquez’s written work and liked it, or even thought you might, then please seek out I Feel Sick. You’ll almost certainly love it. If you’re like me, however, and the mere thought of a book being called “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac” is enough for you to dismiss it, you’re probably best taking a pass on this one as well.
This week’s book reminds me of Asterios Polyp from a couple of weeks back. Oh, trust me, the two books have nothing to do with each other aside from elevating the medium. I can recognize on an intellectual level that it’s books like these that are the future of comic books, moving them away from superhero brawls and utilizing them as “legitimate” avenues for artistic expression. I can recognize that. Hell, I can appreciate that. But, as I said before… that’s not what I’m picking up comic books for. I want a knock-down drag-out soap opera with long established characters whom I know and love, fights that shake the very foundation of the universe, and females whose anatomies pose the question “where are her kidneys?” Still, this experiment is all about shrugging off my preconceived notions of what I want comics to be and experiencing something new. To that end, I press on. I fear, however, that I may never become a true convert. See you next week!