Daniel Robert Epstein interviewed Jhonen Vasquez in May 19, 2003 for SuicideGirls
Jhonen Vasquez invades SuicideGirls by Daniel Robert Epstein
Yes Jhonen Vasquez, Goth icon, people hater and purple people eater. As creator of the dark comics Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Squee one might expect him to be this dark brooding angry. Instead he's this hysterically funny dark brooding guy. I was lucky to be talking to him because the last interviewer to talk with him was from Nickelodeon. Also he appears to hate me but that doesn't make me too unique.
Check out the website forJhonen's publishers, SLG.
Daniel Robert Epstein: When we first talked about doing this interview. From some of your emails it seems like you feel your fans have been diluted. Maybe from having a hit cartoon?
Jhonen Vasquez: Well I wouldn't call it a hit cartoon. In certain ways it is incredibly damaging considering the stuff I did before certainly wasn't for kids. I was never thinking "I hope the kids love this," When I was ripping out a guy's intestines. But now I have a lot of little kids who watched Invader Zim whenever they could find it on television. I get emails from kids saying I'm 10 or 11 years old, I love Invader Zim. GIR is cute and I just picked up your Johnny book. They get online and do a search on my name and see my other work. They think my comics are more of whatever they're into. Then they buy my stuff, Johnny and I feel Sick. I'm not entirely comfortable with that.
On one hand it's kind of cool that some little kid is maybe being somewhat messed up by my older work and is being prepared for a future of zombie-like allegiance to my cause, whatever my cause may be in that future. But it changes the kind of response you get. I could go through a lot of my old emails from when I first started doing comics. Back then the lowest age of fans was like 15 or 16 up to people in their 20's and 30's. Now so much of my response is from kids 11, 12 who have gotten my e-mail address from my old books or from horrible fansites. Not only does it change the kind of person that sees my work but it also changes the IQ level.
DRE: They must spell your name all sorts of different ways.
JV: "Dear Joehononoonannim, I'm your biggest fan." If you're my biggest fan why can't you just fucking spell my name right. It gets me so angry sometimes I just have to stuff my ears with cud and throw myself down the stairs until I am so messed up I can focus only on my shattered bones and not the sanity crushing horror of how badly some of these people write. And it's not all kids, either. You get 16, 18, 20 year olds who "cant fome a sentince 2 save their lifes. LOL!!".
DRE: Any parents ever attack you because of your previous work before Zim?
JV: No. A lot of these parents are young themselves. Usually when I get a letter from a parent it's because they buy my stuff. I don't really get a whole lot of negative response in general. It sounds like I'm completely dumping on fans but...
DRE: No it sounds like you're dumping on little kids.
JV: There you go. I don't want little kids reading my comics. I just don't. I did a kid’s show. I was very well aware of who watches kid's shows. But I regret it to that extent. I don't think I will ever be comfortable with being someone that little kids can like too, unless those little kids are goblin babies and have the power to shoot flames from their eyes, because shit, who the hell doesn't want kids like that looking up to them?
DRE: It’s almost silly to point out that you're big with the Goth crowd. That's just a fact. Do you consider yourself part of the Goth culture?
JV: I think I can't help it now [laughs].
DRE: A lot of Goths are probably very self aware like "I am Goth." But you're not like that.
JV: [laughs] It's very theatrical and I don't think I ever get that bad. I don't particularly dislike any kind of person that might be reading my stuff. They like it and that's cool, but I don't do the work for any kind of group in particular, except for hobos, who just plain kick ass and light up my life.
DRE: Did you go to things that could be considered Goth events?
JV: Yeah I go to concerts. I'm definitely incredibly attracted to the aesthetic of what is typically deemed goth stuff, but. A lot of my experience growing up was in being around that kind of thing, and it's just what sinks into a person's brain. I incorporate that into a lot of what I do. Not because I'm consciously doing it but because it's what I know and what I like to draw. I've always been more into the science fiction kind of thing though, future fuck sort of imagery.
Goth culture, as mired in the past as it is, even it goes through changes, so Goth when I was growing up is not what it is now. When I think of Goth culture as it is at the moment I think of mall culture.
Going back to the audience thing. When I first started, I loved doing comics and the response I got from a comic reading audience. As fucked up and as sad as some of these people might have been they were still into something. They had a focus on what they were into. They liked comics and they went to comic book shop to get their fix. It was just a part of their life. It wasn't always easy, especially with my books since a lot of stores didn't carry it, or would only order just a few of each issue. There was something literate about these loonies.
Now there are stores in the mall. Not so much comic shops but clothing stores and places where you can get your Goth outfit. Will I be a punk, a Goth or whatever band is dressing up like clowns today? Next to the hair dye and nail polish there are my comics. That’s cool for a lot of people who don't have easy access to comic shops, or whose comic shops simply suck ass, but it introduces my stuff to a whole new population of people who make me sad to be human. It's an entirely different attitude with these people, where the most common questions have nothing to do with the work but with what color my hair is, or where do I buy my clothes, and such.
DRE: It's interesting that you say that because most comic book creators would love their work to appear to any other venue besides comic book shops. You seem more comfortable in the niche you carved for yourself.
JV: I don't know if I've ever been comfortable [laughs].
DRE: Just from the nature of your work and your responses now you obviously "enjoy" being an outsider.
JV: I think there is something a little too self conscious about enjoying being an outsider. Certainly there is a whole culture built around being different and yet not showing any sign of individuality. I think it's just something I'm used to. Growing up I didn't have a shitload of friends but I wasn't thinking "I'm so alone". I was thinking "good I'm alone. I can do some work." Which I did. But even now, with the thing that I have done sort of well for myself in, comics, I'm not exactly held in the highest regard. It's not a conscious effort on my part either, it's just the way it is.
DRE: I did find that out in my research. It's not like The Comics Journal ever talked about you.
JV: No those people would never come near me. They'd come near me if I was unknown, doing terribly and writing a very matter of fact series about my true life experiences making a sandwich.
Because of the audience I get and the fact that these people aren't traditional comics buyers I don't think the comic industry looks at that and thinks that is a very respectable thing. I'm very used to it. I'm not the guy who wins awards and gets mentioned in magazines.
Put my name into any web search and you'll come up with fan sites full of photographs with captions saying "I like him better with the red hair" [laughs]. You're not going to see me in Comics Journal. Everyone hates me. I am so alone.
DRE: You mentioned your last interview was for Nickelodeon Magazine.
JV: That's when Zim was just starting up. They had me do a bunch of press stuff until they saw what kind of interviews I gave.
DRE: What kind of stuff did they ask you at Nickelodeon Magazine?
JV: A lot of the typical questions. Very boring stuff.
DRE: Almost press release type stuff?
JV: Yeah. I don't understand why they can't just use a press release. If I do an interview especially if I'm doing it with someone who is just being a question robot that doesn't seem to give a shit about who they are talking to. Every time they would ask me "What's it like working at Nickelodeon?" You just can't help but say "It's horrible. I'm in hell. HELL." Because it was hell. That doesn't make for good press, I guess.
It got to the point where some of the suits from the network flew in from New York in their invisible jet and had to implant an Intestinator™ in me to keep me quiet. But I didn't stay quiet, so my stomach blew up.
DRE: Did you have an office you had to go to when you were working for Nickelodeon?
JV: Everyday I would report to a neon green and orange building in Burbank, California with gigantic statues of The Rugrats and Hey Arnold on the top. The giant Chucky would spew molten lead at passers by and cackle insanely while Arnold would occasionally vomit out some half digested little brat who pissed off security.
DRE: Did the fury ever go away of seeing that stuff?
JV: The truth is everyday I would drive up, go up to the very top of the parking structure where there were no cars. Be very quiet for a few minutes to let whatever song I was listening to finish playing, take a deep breath, I'd walk down the stairs to take in the sweet horrible air of Burbank. There was a big glass door that you have to walk through with a cold glass handle covered in animator germs. Opening that door would give me horrible shudder down my spine each and every time. No joke.
DRE: So doing Invader Zim wasn't fun?
JV: Feces, man! It was the most golden time of my life! I'm kidding. I made all of that shit up about it being golden and me having a life. You are very gullible.
Making the show was increasingly difficult, mostly because I didn't want to make the sort of show that would have made it easier for everyone involved.
I think they didn't expect what they got which is incredibly stupid of them. Because I'm not just some person without a history of work. When they came to me they knew exactly what I did.
DRE: What did they want from you?
JV: I'm sure they would have been very happy if every episode was a sort of a pint sized Mork and Mindy. A very sitcom, dull predictable show. It probably would have flown if it had looked like the very UPA style [characterized by flattened perspective, abstract backgrounds, strong primary colors, and "limited" animation. Instead of using perspective to create the illusion of depth] everything thing seems to be nowadays. I like the shows like that, Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack. But good Christ I love seeing things that look different. Everything these days looks like something from the 1950's.
Retro looking stuff but a lot of these guys doing these shows are my age or younger. I was just disgusted. I hated being around that kind of thing. Not that it affected what I did because when it comes down to it I was doing my own show.
DRE: How many episodes did you do of Invader Zim?
JV: We did like one and half seasons really. We got up to 26 episodes including the Christmas episode. I got to draw monsters, robots and write funny stories. I loved doing that stuff and working with the actors. But it got to be less and less that stuff and more about trying to be everywhere and not being able to do one thing very enjoyably. It was hell and you had to argue over every little thing. Stupid little jokes. There would be sections huge portions of hour long meetings devoted to a joke. Some robot who never made me laugh didn't think was funny or didn't think the audience would understand. I guess that's television.
DRE: That's what they say. You have to keep fighting for what you want.
JV: But I can never shut my brain up with asking, why do we have to argue about this stuff. Why does this person who is sitting behind a desk and never watches cartoons is arguing about what cartoons should be like. Its so creepy realizing that this person is a lunatic. This person doesn't get this joke and you're talking about cartoons. Whether this little robot is going to blow up. That becomes other meetings where other people have to come in. Its like you're talking about heart surgery. Things get blown out of proportion and all you want to really do is make a silly, innocuous cartoon about a genocidal alien lunatic bent on annihilating all traces of human life.
DRE: It seems like that's what everyone wants to do is cartoons.
JV: I can't speak for everyone else. I would still love to do cartoons but there are so many factors that determine how the product ends up. Depending on who you surround yourself with it could be hell and I don't know about it ever being heaven. In the case of ZIM, it was my first time doing anything like that, and some people I knew, many I didn't. Some were the most talented people I had ever met, but not all of them really fit the show. Others were just outright horrible and had to be incinerated in the ovens I had installed in the stomach of one morbidly obese crew member.
DRE: Maybe if you're Klasky Csupo [creators of Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys and many more].
JV: Yeah there are people who love what they do. But I look at what they do and I don't love it. All the power to them but I'm not interested in making yet another show that looks like some other show.
DRE: Like a variation on a theme.
JV: I don't feel at all slighted because the show was cancelled because I look at some of the shows that are doing incredibly well and I'm not jealous. I don't want to do that. I wouldn't give up having made my hideous little show to still be producing something that doesn't thrill me.
DRE: You obviously made some money from it.
JV: Yeah, but it's all gone. The last thing that I wanted was to be sitting around in this pile of cash, which is what I did for way too long before deciding it was bad. I had this Hefty bag filled with cash that I would get into and have one of my slaves seal twist tie closed. I'd roll around in it, giggling and laughing like a monster baby until I was tired. But it was dirty money, dirty children money printed on the skin of flayed children. I needed to find an evil way to it so that Nickelodeon would be contributing to something unholy in the world.
DRE: What'd you spend it on?
JV: Just whores. Whores over on Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica. Whores and robots. Some of the whores were robots.
Money is not happiness. Being able to pay your rent is happiness but a third season of being in hell would not have been worth it. But I do have a lot to show for it. I love the show and a lot of what came out of it, like some of the people I met and got to work with, but those were truly some of the unhappiest days of my life.
DRE: Was it cool bringing on a few of your friends to work on it?
JV: God yeah. A lot of people just weren't being recognized and weren't able to live as well as they could have. They would come on to the show and not only were they doing something they enjoyed and they could pay their rent. All I asked was they worship me like some kind of pagan god, because I am a pagan god. And though they never did, I enjoyed having them along for the hellish adventure that was working on a television show.
DRE: I know you brought fellow cartoonist Roman Dirge [Lenore] to work on Invader Zim. You guys are friends I'm assuming. What was that like?
JV: It was great being able to bring some friends in for a project, but in the case of DIRGE-O-TRON (as we liked to call him after we found out he was a robot), it was sort of a pain in the ass, what with his drinking, and the children on studio tours.
JV: Yeah, a lot of kids came into Nickelodeon on tours. Well they used to. See, Roman was seriously into drinking floor polish, and when he had too much he'd just start beating the children with children from previous tours that he would just pull out from...well...I don't know from where. He was uncontrollable sometimes. A monster.
DRE: Is he a big guy?
JV: I guess so, for a robot.
DRE: From what I've seen of your comics it didn't seem like sex and pornography made a big portion of your work?
JV: You obviously never read Porny the Pornocidal Porniac, a lesser known of my works, but one for which I still receive damp napkins of praise in the mail from fans. Other than that, sex and such just didn't seem to have the lady-getting appeal as the "dooky " and "stabbing jerks in face" kind of humor I opted for in the earlier work. My choice backfired however, as most of the women I met thought I would stab them while shitting at them, and when I refused they got surly.
DRE: Johnny [the Homicidal Maniac] never seemed to get laid.
JV: No that's a very conscious thing with him too. There are shades of a romantic inside of him but he's got this absolute disgust of intimacy.
DRE: You can see that within him [laughs].
JV: Stop laughing at me. But yeah, to him, the idea of inviting a romance to begin is inviting it to inevitably die. He's a coward and I think it manifests itself in many ways. One of them being the fact that's he's disgusted with sexuality. I don't think he has a sex drive and if he does it finds its way out through other means, mainly a knife through the flesh. Which isn't that far off from some romances, the kind that get deep under your skin and bones and twist up through you, letting spill out all the things you keep for yourself, and you struggle and struggle to pull your insides back in but they're too slippery and you slide on your own splashing mess and fall back on your head which cracks open. Then the demons gnaw on your groin or something.
DRE: I found that when I read your comics but I can't read more than 20 pages at a time.
JV: [laughs] It's dense.
DRE: Its dense stuff and it's like a spewing. Was it a spewing when you did the work?
JV: You're probably talking more about Johnny. Squee is much more lighthearted. There is no real intent there other than to just have fun. After doing Johnny I wanted to just do something, I wouldn't say innocent, but to not have any care in the world. Lots of setups and horrible happenings but its funny. Johnny was a mess. It was a mess and I don't think it would be the same if it weren't a mess. It is exactly that, a spew. As I got farther and farther along in the series I did less and less preparation. I didn't use outlines or sketches. I just had a vague idea of what I wanted to tell and then the dialogue just came to me as I was inking the page. I can't say that I had any plan for it to come out the way that it did. I'm happy with that effect of it seeming very spontaneous. A lot of the time I read and I can't fucking stand it. I wish I could have planned it out more because of some of the dialogue.
DRE: Well it's always tough to go back and look at your old book. That was one of the first things you did, right?
JV: Johnny was the very first book I did.
DRE: You shouldn't go back and read that stuff.
JV: I know. I look at it and I think it's so fucking pretentious. When I'm writing the book I'm laughing at just how overblown the characters seemed. How full of himself he seems. But I didn't get far enough in the series to really drive the joke of it home. It ends on issue seven and I still think it leaves off with a feeling of that's what I'm trying to say to the world as opposed to this character saying it then getting kicked in the nuts. I think that's unfortunate because a lot of people write to me saying "I believe in what you say." It's obvious that I didn't make it clear enough that most of that shit isn't me. It's really just a character and not my diary. I take little bits and pieces of ideas that I may or may not believe in but I give them to this character and he runs with them. I have fun with however he handles the situation.
DRE: It must have been fun killing who annoyed you in the book. Sometimes it seemed like you would be standing in a movie line, someone would piss you off then you would go home and kill them in the book.
JV: Yeah pretty much. That was like the spark of the character. That's a classic thing that is hardly the most original thing in the world. Just this avatar for murder. The people you wish you could murder. All the stuff that builds up inside of you from when you were a little kid wanting to murder all the clowns. Wait...did I say that out loud? Scratch that last thing, okay? I never killed that clown.
DRE: I was in a New York City coffeehouse recently and I had a small press comic book with me. There were two people reading comic books across from me. One was reading Johnny trade paperback. I tried talking to him and he just ignored me.
JV: Oh man you think that's bad. I was at a club for dancing a couple of years ago. Back then it wasn't uncommon for someone to wearing a t-shirt with one of my characters. In the crowd was someone with a Happy Noodle Boy shirt. I always get a little thrill "Hey that's my shirt", I never say anything. But in this case I turned to them and said I liked the shirt. I didn't say who I was or anything. The person just looked at me with a nasty look, pushed past me and walked away. I just laughed. I thought "you fucken asshole." Not that they should have known who I was or anything but they were such dicks.
DRE: It's that gothy snobby thing. Like they're thinking "Oh you probably don't know enough about it to really comment."
What's the weirdest thing a fan has ever sent you?
JV: A classic one is the dead squirrel.
DRE: Was there a note with it?
JV: I personally didn't open it. It got sent to where all my fan mail goes, to my publisher. They noticed one of the packages was bleeding because that thing was fairly fresh. They opened it up and there was this dead squirrel. They made a big deal out of it. It turned into a mess. Apparently the girl who sent it got into some trouble because of that.
A while back I asked Dan Vado, my publisher, what ever became of that girl and how they handled the whole thing. All Dan would ever say was "It's taken care of". A week after that call, the girl's head shows up in a box to on my doorstep. Dan is cool.
DRE: Have you seen the Adult Swim cartoons [on Cartoon Network]?
JV: Yeah I like Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I like the ones that you have to wonder whether it's some serious show and not just some sketch on an actual television show.
DRE: Like Sealab 2021.
JV: Yeah the ones that feel cheap. Because the cheaper the show the more free reign it feels like the people have. I was doing a show for an outright television network for kids. They still censor themselves though. Cartoon Network touts themselves as this adult television but apparently adults can't handle an uncensored version of Cowboy Bebop. That's just really weird to me. I've seen Japanese versions of Cowboy Bebop and there's nothing in there to make me go out and rape my father...again.
DRE: What are you working on right now?
JV: I'm just doing little bits and pieces for other magazines right now. At this very moment I'm behind on a compilation that Slave Labor is doing for Free Comic Book Day. Ever since I'm done with Zim everyone thinks that I'm going to go back to comics. I've been flooded with emails asking me if I'm working on the new Johnny over and over again. So now I want to work on the new stuff that just says "Fuck you. I'm not working on the new Johnny. Here's a book about a guy eating a cracker."
DRE: You love to undercut expectations.
JV: It can be a very unhealthy thing to play in to, to start working for the audience, to allow them to dictate what you should do. There is a great urge to do something solely to piss them off but then again you're doing something for them even if it is with the intention of undercutting expectations. It's sort of what the Johnny and Devi stories are about, the idea of always being a slave to something.
DRE: Did you check out Suicide Girls?
JV: I did, and I find it morally reprehensible. All that flesh, shooting out of my monitor into my eyeballs. After about the fifteenth hour, I stopped looking at the site and began being appalled. How do I order some of these ladies, by the way? You know...for research?
DRE: They would never call me back if I said that. "I want to order one of the girls in a box."
JV: Under each one of the girls there should put little boxes marked quantity. As though they are clones.
DRE: And gift wrapped.
JV: You are bad, and I hate you.
by Daniel Robert Epstein.