I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people, perhaps even the vast majority of us, feel pretty alienated by the world we’re in. I’m sure we’ve all had days where we feel like the world is filled with stupid and belligerent assholes. Humans have an astounding capacity for cruelty, and often times it feels like people indulge their cruel impulses far more often than they use their compassion and kindness. It’s easy to feel like you’re the only thinking, feeling person on the planet – you just have to step outside your door and let your fellow man show you their worst side.
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is a comic where this hyperbolic worldview of humanity is literally true: a comic where society is composed almost entirely of irredeemably cruel and stupid assholes. The titular manic, Johnny “Nny” C., also believes, as many of us are tempted to, that he is the only person who sees the world for what it is. Freakishly skinny (not just as a result of the comic’s artstyle, which heavily exaggerates the proportions of its human characters), highly intelligent, and deeply sensitive, the audience is definitely given reasons to understand why he harbors a lethal grudge against, well, most people. The vast majority of people in the comic are cruel – sometimes in an exaggerated fashion, and sometimes in the petty, little ways humans are callously cruel to each other in small interactions. They make snide comments about others’ appearances, they’re rude for no particular reason, they condescend while placing themselves on a pedestal. It’s easy for a person to buy into Johnny’s mindset – the vast majority of people in his world are just fucking awful, and they’re awful in ways that we are all painfully familiar with. They’re awful in that special way that only human beings can be.
Of course, there’s one hitch when it comes to being on Johnny’s side: he’s the absolute worst person in the comic.
It’s not just that Johnny is a homicidal maniac – he is, of course, and has one of the most impressive kill counts of any fictional murderer. Like a lot of charismatic slashers in fiction, Johnny generally picks victims who you can’t really sympathize with. Again, he lives in a world that’s at least 90% populated by raging assholes, and the comic shows pretty clearly that the vast majority of the people Johnny kills are unrepentantly evil themselves and will never change. Most of the people Johnny kills are people the world would honestly be better off without – people who contribute nothing except for an increase in human misery.
Of course, you may have noticed I used the word “most” a lot in that paragraph. As much as Johnny sees himself as a punisher of the wicked, his aim is, as one character put it, “blurry.” From the very first issue of the comic we see Johnny pick undeserving victims from time to time. His reasons for his choices can range from “this person is genuinely horrible” to “this person asked an innocent question that made me uncomfortable for reasons they couldn’t have been aware of.” And sometimes those aren’t the reason at all – though Johnny generally pontificates on why his victims deserve to die, and tries to frame his actions as a justified reaction to humanity’s viciousness, sometimes he just kills a person to paint a wall in his house with blood.
Why does he need to paint the wall with blood? Well, that’s simple – because something is trying to break through the wall, and painting it with blood is the only way to make the something settle down.
One of the major themes of the comic is the issue of control – are we ever actually in control of our actions, or are we slaves to the world we live in and our own base animal impulses? For all his ranting and wanton bloodshed, Johnny is a person who has no control of his life. He’s a tool, a patsy, a pawn in a larger scheme. The thing in his wall isn’t just a delusion – it’s very, very real, and as the comic goes on, it eventually escapes, forcing a higher power to intervene to set things somewhat right, and more importantly, to explain to Johnny (and by proxy, us, the audience) what the creature was.
What is this sinister monster, then? An eldritch god? A demon? No – the monster behind the wall was pure, concentrated human cruelty, the “sewage” produced by humanity’s collective inhumane actions.
To put it even more plainly: Johnny set out to kill the worst of humanity, and in doing so fed into and eventually unleashed the very same wretchedness that inspired him to kill. His attempt to stop human cruelty with violence only produced MORE cruelty.
That’s the cycle that Johnny’s mindset inevitably perpetuates – by obsessing over the awful actions of humankind, one only contributes to that awfulness in the end. Cruelty begets more cruelty, and if we define ourselves as “the only good person,” you will inevitably be twisted into one of the wicked ones. Johnny defines himself in contrast to others, and as a result he is their tool – an extension and exaggeration of what is already an exaggeratedly wicked world.
Many people approach Johnny the Homicidal Maniac as a power fantasy, and in some ways it is – there is a base, animal pleasure in imagining horrible things happening to people who have been horrible to you. But the story eventually turns on that fantasy, and reveals how dwelling in that mindset – how making it MORE than just an idle fantasy – is poisonous. A good deal of the comic’s fans misinterpret Johnny as an aspirational, tragic antihero. But he’s not – he is, in his own words, “the villain in this fucking story!”
Which isn’t to say he’s completely unsympathetic, mind you. As much as the comic goes out of its way to highlight the fact that Johnny is just as awful as anyone else in his story, if not moreso, it also shows that he’s acutely aware of how terrible he is. A great deal of the horror the comic employs lies in Johnny’s lack of self control – that while a part of him doesn’t want to be a ghoulish murderer, his other impulses, combined with some forces outside of his control that evolved from those impulses, are too strong for him to overcome. While it is still ultimately Johnny’s choice to be a murderer, his agony over his own nature still pulls at the heartstrings. Not only is Johnny a tool of the very cycle of cruelty he actively loathes, but he’s not even happy about it. What many initially view as a power fantasy is ultimately a story about how being the villain really sucks.
Johnny’s story thoroughly explores human cruelty and how it is perpetuated. It shows how people who should know better – who know too well how much humans can hurt each other – can still end up contributing to the cycle simply because they are too focused on their own pain to realize that others suffer too. It is ultimately a cautionary tale – one that says yes, sometimes the world is full of assholes, but don’t get too high and mighty, lest you become an asshole too.
But Johnny’s world, like ours, isn’t exclusively populated by human monsters. In a spinoff story, one character showed how we can break the cycle of cruelty – but she deserves an ICHF of her own…