Saturday, May 23, 2009

Under The Skin: Part 1: Johnny The Homicidal Maniac

The First in a series of looks at the pop culture that shaped my formative years.

One of my favorite critics recently noted that “The Stuff that gets under your skin at seventeen never really leaves you.” That’s true, but it’s also true that sometimes under the skin is where it should stay.

It’s hard to describe the effect this book had on me when I thumbed through the well read copy that got passed back and forth along with the joints, around the theater group where I made a brief sojourn on in my long quest to fit in at highschool.

The novel starts out with a cuddly cartoon critter recommending the book to you as his children are tortured, which is then followed by a neglected child being terrorized by our obstinate hero ending with a schizophrenic rant as he stabs the boys teddy bear to death, at this point the comic is interrupted by a screaming stick figure who declares himself “Testicles God Of The Rash Covered Scrotum” and is popular with the insane homeless, before moving on to the wall “THAT WON’T STOP DRINKING BLOOD!!!” after which we get to the first Mass Murder, talking rabbit head, and sentient Pilsbury Doughboy who urges Johnny to kill himself with the phrase “Your body is an anchor that keeps you from flying over the stars.” At this point you’re around page 10.

This wasn’t a book it was a freaking Vaudeville review from hell. Humor so black that it actually made well lit rooms go dim, nihilism at it’s punk rock finest, A view of humanity that made John Water’s grotesqueries look angelic, a book that took no side hating all the subcultures as much as the mainstream but never making itself out to be some perfect entity either. IT flipped the whole earth, other worlds, and the after life (Heaven is a bunch of folding chairs and a taco bell, Hell a slightly dingier version of the San Fernando Valley) a very angry bird. Coupled with a uniquely simple and beautiful art style, like Ralph Steadman made horrifically clear and a sense of metaphysical absurdity to rival Achewood, all timed with a Chuck Jones like sense of the gag.

To an alienated suburban kid experiencing rebellion and weed for the first time, as well as having grown the teenage ego necessary to truly believe to the core of your being that the world is the one that’s got it all wrong, not you, this book was like a bomb going off in my head. It was like what hearing The Sex Pistols back in 1977 must have been like, dark, funny, free and more then a little truly scary. I’d never read anything so gleefully amoral, and the effect was as liberating as it was terrifying.

So you can of course understand the glee with which I picked this thing up on the 50% off table.

Of course the thing could never hold up. Nor could it ever recapture the rush of the forbidden I felt reading it for the first time. But it still holds it’s own. There are parts that are giddy perfection. If I ever grow too sour to appreciate the site of a Nun using her psychic powers to make everyone in heaven’s head explode, I know it will be time to end it all. While the book does feel a bit adolescent and mannered and our buddy Jhonen isn’t exactly afraid to hit something directly on the nose using the heel of his hand, it still does feel surprisingly subversive. Which is nice in a cultural landscape that throws that word around like it’s fucking confetti (“Look they made a funny about The President’s accent that’s raw”) It’s refreshing to see something that’s truly warped, that truly does not give a fuck. No one’s going to be co opting Johnny The Homicidal Maniac anytime soon. He’s going to remain safely under my skin.

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