Saturday, June 3, 2023

Kontemplating Komix: I Feel Sick (1999–2000)

I will not be unconvinced that the title is an
End of Evangelion reference.

When we were talking about The Good Old Days some years back, my hometown friend Dave said: "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac was our Catcher in the Rye." The observation was too on-point not get permanently stuck in my memory. Dave certainly has his moments.

Jhonen Vasquez's seminal indie comic (which ran for seven issues between 1995 and 1997) and its spin-off, Squee! (four issues, 1997–98) were a fucking revelation for kids like Dave and me—socially askew goth bois with a morbid sense of humor, and who maybe thought a little too highly of ourselves. Johnny not only made us laugh ourselves hoarse and inspired us to imitate Vasquez's idiosyncratic art style in our classroom doodles, but reaffirmed us in our belief (one not uncommon in teenagers who wore fishnet sleeves and painted their fingernails black) that virtually everyone in the world was stupid and horrible, and if we were fucked up, it was because we were surrounded by mean-spirited and obtuse assholes from wall-to-wall.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had every Johnny and Squee! poster on my bedroom wall. My wardrobe contained no fewer than four different T-shirts with Vasquez's characters on them, and I quickly wore them out and kept wearing them anyway. I ordered the Bad Art Collection from the Slave Labor Graphics catalogue and actually read it—multiple times. I sent Vasquez a long email and saved his reply on my hard drive. (I remember it involved Final Fantasy VII.) Yes, I was obsessed. Vasquez has that effect on people; he's like David Foster Wallace for young moth goths. I meant for that to read "mall goths," but I'm going to let the typo stand.

Let me get something out of the way: I am not sentimental about Invader Zim. I hungrily awaited its debut, and was tuned in the night it aired on Nickelodeon. I recorded most of the first season's episodes on VHS, and watched them repeatedly. I rocked the T-shirts, gave a Gir plushie a home on my bookcase, routinely quoted lines from the show on my LiveJournal, etc. But in the long run, it didn't tunnel into my skull the way Vasquez's comics did.

I should also say that I haven't paid much attention to what Vasquez has been up to since Invader Zim's first season. I know he directed a few music videos and animated shorts, and put out the occasional comic strip here and there. I lost interest in the Invader Zim comic book immediately after glancing at the credits page and seeing that Vasquez wasn't writing or drawing it, but taking more of a producer's role. Maybe someday I'll watch Enter the Florpus, but I'm not in any hurry. At the risk of coming off as an insufferable OG type, I would gladly live in a world without Invader Zim if it meant Vasquez  had focused exclusively on his comics for at least a few more years.

Johnny and Squee! were exemplary late twentieth-century indie comics. They were rough and raw. Gritty. Full of misspelled words. Artfully obscene. Irregularly published. Clearly the work of someone who, like Herman Melville, wrote (and drew) precisely as he pleased—and Vasquez was exceptionally lucky in that the stuff he wanted to do was what the kids in black were craving to read. I remember Vasquez saying that working on Invader Zim was miserable because it meant having to accept feedback from people who had their own ideas about what he should be doing.

What made Johnny and Squee! such unusual indie comics was that they were fucking brilliant. Most of the other titles published by Slave Labor Graphics were zine tier, and I don't mean that as a pejorative. Indie comics, as an aggregate, are like a compilation of obscure punk bands distributed on cassette: you know you're not getting rock stars, but polished commercial pop anthems aren't what you're looking for. But for the Nickelodeon producer who reached out to Vasquez, stumbling upon Johnny must have been like listening to a mix tape of underground alt-rock bands from Seattle circa 1988–90 and being like "huh, what's this group called? ...'Nirvana?' Hmmm."  Vasquez was so obviously and so profusely talented that a rep from the big leagues was bound to poach him from the indie scene sooner or later.

The comic I want to look at today is the third and final "chapter" in what we might as well call the Johnny Cycle, and the last book Vasquez published before Invader Zim changed everything: the two-issue I Feel Sick.

To explain its main character, Devi, we need to recap some events from Johnny.

Devi was literally the one that got away. In issue #2, she takes Johnny out on a date. He's not unattractive, and she's had some nice conversations with him when he stops by the bookstore she works at—so why not? The night goes magnificently. They have similar interests, complementary senses of humor, and wonderful chemistry. Johnny, being a homicidal maniac, decides to murder her so that their budding relationship will never have the opportunity to wither into tedium and resentment, as relationships are apt to do.

Devi kicks the shit out of him and escapes. It's the only time in the series where one of Johnny's victims reverses the situation and gets out alive.

She appears a couple more times in Johnny, where she acts as something like a corrective: a reminder that the comic's hilarious and charismatic protagonist is an irredeemable monster who shouldn't be so carelessly sympathized with. Though her experience with Johnny left her traumatized, Devi's pretty tough. She's a survivor.

In Johnny #7, we see her standing in front of an easel and holding a paintbrush when the phone rings. Devi's an artist. So was Johnny—once. Probably that has something to do with why they got on so well. (Before he tried to stab her to death, of course.)

I Feel Sick has the subtitle "A Book About a Girl." It probably should have been "A Book About an Artist."

In the post-Johnny present, Devi has three problems.

1.) All of her attempts at finding love and companionship have been horrific—at best. The Vasquez fan who picked up I Feel Sick from the comic book store in 1999 was already aware of two bad dates she'd been on. There was the Johnny incident, of course. There was also her first appearance in an interstitial "Meanwhile" strip, where she went out with a dude who shit his pants in the middle of the restaurant.

A smattering of flashbacks throughout I Feel Sick explores more of the grotesque chronology of Devi's attempts at socializing and dating. There was her first date at sixteen; the guy got handsy and wouldn't take no for an answer, and then crashed the car and had his brain eaten by a mongoose. There was the vampire boy who hit on her in a goth club and set himself on fire with his own smoke bombs. More recently, there was the charming, bespectacled fellow who ruined dinner by eating the waiter's brains.

(Yes, this is a Vasquez self-insert. Yes, he has himself going on a date with his own character—who in many ways is his genderswapped avatar. No, I'd rather not analyze this.)

The point these flashbacks are driving at is that all of Devi's experiences in seeking meaningful human connection have blown up in her face. She can no longer pretend there isn't a legible pattern. As much as she might like the idea of having "something nice" with a person who might be able to truly understand her, it increasingly appears that cosmic forces have ordained that she's not meant to be with anyone. Dating and socializing are consistently nightmarish. Humanity is a shit show. She'd rather stay in and paint.

Though her extroverted best friend (only friend?) Tenna insists she'd have a better outlook on life if she got out more, Devi is too busy to go out. This brings us to problem #2. 

2.) Devi quit her bookstore job. An author visiting the shop noticed her doodling on the back of an order form, and asked to see more of her work. He recommended her to his publisher, and now she paints cover art for sci-fi novels.

At first, Devi was thrilled at the opportunity to get paid to do what she'd always gotten in trouble for doing. It didn't last. Between the strenuous hours, the incessant demands for revisions, and the bizarre meddling from executives evidently guided more by madness than method, going pro has made Devi miserable.

Want to know how Vasquez really felt about working on Invader Zim? Read I Feel Sick. His employers at Nickelodeon must have known about the book, and I have to wonder how they reacted to it. This comic wouldn't have happened if the pitch Vasquez was encouraged to make hadn't been accepted; it was the conduit for his frustration with the process of developing a show for a popular cable network after previously working solo with little to no editorial oversight. (The problem with getting the guy who wrote and drew a comic book called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac to create a TV-Y7 cartoon wasn't that his idiomatic sense of humor routinely possessed him to draw ink-spattered scenes of ghastly violence; it was that he was ill-disposed towards working with other people, especially when they didn't really understand what he was trying to do.)

At the risk of overscrutinizing the tea leaves, I Feel Sick also gives Vasquez an opportunity to vent about the oppressive side-effects of his meteoric rise to indiegoth-comic superstardom. Squee! issue #4 already had that fictobiographical "Meanwhile" strip satirizing the fan mail he was getting used to receiving. And now, among the excerpts from Devi's personal diary that introduce each of I Feel Sick's two issues, we have this entry:
I never knew so many people found my conversation so enjoyable. People keep calling me or dropping in on me as though they actually felt I was someone with a modicum of skill in making human organism [sic] feel pleasant in my company. This wouldn't be so bad if I weren't so busy, and especially if I didn't find these mostly all of these [sic] people so repellant. It's like having your bodily waste crawl back up the sewage pipe to tell you how much it wants to be in your bowels.
Devi's moilsome grind for Nerve Publishing is a transparent proxy for Vasquez's experience developing a show for Nickelodeon. This diary entry is an equally obvious expression of (1) being weirded out by Los Angeles people smelling the clout on him and wanting to pal around and (2) his undiminished discomfort with being the adored guru and darling boy of his considerably large pre-Zim fanbase. As I've already said, we were obsessive. A lot of us were creepy about it. (I'm not proud of it, but I shot Vasquez an obsequious instant message when his private AIM handle was being passed around. He dismissed me a lot more politely than I deserved.)

Having this kind of audience fundamentally changes the artist's relationship with his work. It's one thing to paint stuff that satisfies your personal standards, to draw comic strips that make you laugh, or entertain your close friends. It's another to know for a fact that thousands of people are going to be citing lines from your next release on their Xangas and quoting them to you at the conventions you're obliged to attend. The feedback and weight of expectation induces a shift in perspective. You're not looking at your work with just your own eyes anymore, or thinking about it strictly in terms of how much it pleases you.

It must be profoundly unnerving.

This brings us to Devi's third problem. And this is the big one.

3.) Between the illustration work she's being paid to do and her terrible experiences with people impinging on her time, disgusting her, and traumatizing her, she can't seem to muster the energy for her own work, for the stuff she actually wants to paint. Worse still: she should have a backlog of ideas to draw from after being away from it for so long—but there's nothing. The well is running dry.

There is a piece sitting on her personal easel: a painting of a creepy little dolly with empty eye sockets, which she started working on just before Nerve hired her and monopolized her time and creative energies. She gave it a name: "Sickness." The painting is still unfinished.

Recently, Sickness started talking to her. I'll finish myself, she tells Devi.

Maybe it's because she's working too hard and not getting out enough, but Devi is convinced that Sickness is somehow orchestrating all the awfulness that's besieged her over the last few months/years.

Tenna is skeptical.

Devi is right.

Here we're going to have to do a little more poking around in the Johnny lore.

Vasquez plotted the Johnny mythos by the seat of his pants, and it isn't entirely coherent—but let's try to make sense of it insofar as it's relevant to I Feel Sick.

Johnny used to be an artist. We know that as he gave himself over to being a misanthropic psycho killer, he stopped drawing. Part of the whole "psycho" thing involved a series of fetishistic objects in his house that talked to him. The ones most worth mentioning here were a pair of styrofoam Pillsbury Doughboys, painted over and made into horror pieces, named Psycho Doughboy and Mr. Eff. Both of them manipulated Johnny, pulling him toward different courses of action. One goaded him into going on murder sprees, the other tried to get him to kill himself. The reader's natural supposition was that they were each of them a voice in the head of a seriously unwell man. Then they started moving around on their own.

The nature of their agenda and of their eldritch master isn't important here—and the matter of how well it all comports with what happens in I Feel Sick is dubious at best. But the thing to take away is that Johnny had a kind of supernatural infection, and one of its symptoms was the terminal blighting of his artistic practice.

I Feel Sick reveals that Johnny passed on the infection to Devi during the fateful night he took her home after their ride up to the hills.*

* No, not that way. All they did was talk.

Whatever it really is, the spooky mind-parasite anchors itself in reality using the "Sickness" painting as its focal point. Since it needs to harvest Devi's mind and creative faculties to make itself more real, it must ensure that Devi can't engage them for herself. (A muscle resists atrophy by being used, after all.) The possessed painting supernaturally fixes things so that Devi is perpetually distracted, frustrated, nauseated, and exhausted. If Devi is allowed to do her work—her own work, the stuff she's truly passionate about—Sickness will be deprived of her sustenance.

The idea, then, is that Johnny either didn't or couldn't mount a resistance against the monster(s) festering in his head. The infection completely and permanently destroyed his ability to make art, and so it destroyed him. Afterwards he abandoned sublimation altogether and became a homicidal maniac.

That's more or less what Devi has to look forward to now.

I Feel Sick isn't the best of Vasquez's comics. It's not as wheeze-out-loud funny as Johnny or Squee. It has structural problems that might have been mitigated by extending its first issue into two parts. A lot of the unpleasantness that's been plaguing Devi (such as the people who keep calling and dropping in on her) is only alluded to in the dialogue or the introductory journal entries, so it takes multiple readings, some squinting between the lines, and a bit of metatextual knowledge to appreciate what's happening. And the discrepancy between the clean, polished linework/coloring and the slapdash, sloppy letting in issue #1 is damn distracting. (To be fair, Vasquez was pressed for time, what with the whole developing a Nickelodeon show thing going on in the background.)

But I Feel Sick is without a doubt the most personal work Vasquez has ever put out.It's also the one I most often revisited—digging it out from the pile of old comic books at my folks' place—after I stopped thinking much about Johnny and tossed out my abraded Happy Noodle Boy T-shirt and my taped episodes of Invader Zim.

* True, I haven't seen much of anything Vasquez has done in the last twenty years (holy crap it's been that long), but I somehow doubt that he poured nearly as much of himself into an animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles short or a MODOK comic for Strange Tales MAX.

Vasquez uses I Feel Sick to shake off some of the aggravation of collaborating on a tremendous creative project with corporate people, and to give voice to some of his apprehensions about where his incipient career as a television developer might be taking him. It seems that in the state of mind he was in at that point, he felt impelled to do right by one of his fucked-up basket case characters and give her as much of a victory as is possible in his creative universe.

The ending isn't altogether happy, of course. Devi learns that she's destined to be alone for the rest of her life. This isn't just pessimistic speculation: it's an absolute certainty. She has Tenna as a friend, sure, but she'll never have a partner, someone she'd be happy to live with and live for (and who can do the same for her). There was one such person in the world who could have been that person for her—but he died. Years ago. And it's this revelation that fires Devi's resolve to wrest back control of the one thing she can live for.

Johnny lost his fight. Devi wins hers.

Not that I presume to know Vasquez's thoughts, but I have to read Devi's declaration over her vanquished nemesis as the author's own assertion of himself against the universe.

This scene is why I kept thinking about I Feel Sick for years after reading it.

Maybe under different circumstances, things would have turned out different for me. Maybe I'd have, I don't know, worked in a lab or as an accountant and took up golf in my spare time. It's hard to say. I have an inkling of how it started.

When we were in kindergarten and the first grade, my friend Brian P and I played with M:Tron and Blacktron Lego sets putting them on a planet whose geography resembled my bedroom, and whose alien inhabitants were the dinosaur toys and random action figures I had lying around. I got out my set of Crayolas and drew a series of comics about the characters and stories we invented. In the second, third, and/or fourth grade (I don't remember), I drew maybe two "issues" of a cargo-cult X-Men comic, and dreamt up a sort of Avengers team based on myself and kids from school. A couple years other, I collaborated with my friends Jeff and Scott in devising a mythos about a bunch of kids who went on wacky adventures fighting mad scientists and aliens, and travelling through time to ally with their ancestors and descendants. The first prose fiction I wrote on my own time was in the context of an "interactive story" located on a secret message board on Nintendo's AOL page. (You got to it by clicking on Diddy Kong's hat on the banner graphic.) The thing's first two iterations were very loosely based on Legend of Zelda. The third, found on Nintendo's new website (as in, it had a URL and wasn't restricted to AOL users), was situated in the Star Fox universe. When the stories were over and the community voted, I won "Most Innovative Plot" for my contributions to the second Hyrule scenario, and one of my characters was voted "Best Villain" after the Corneria scenario wrapped up. That was all when I was in the seventh and eighth grades. A time when I desperately needed some encouragement.

After that I remember writing a series of short stories about a pack of teenage idiots (me and my friends) who turned into superheroes by drinking Jolt Cola. As a freshman in high school I started writing a "novel" which was going to be a solo sequel to an arc from those collectively written stories. (It petered out after fifty pages, if I recall.) I wrote bad poetry. Then came was my sophomore year of high school, where I rode my surge of inspiration from Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and produced a stack of grossly derivative short stories and comic strips. I tried to write a half-baked dystopian novel. There was another comic about a little goth girl who hunted demons. Then there was the webcomic, the less-bad poetry, the abortive attempt at a first novel, more poetry, The Zeroes, and... ...

I write stuff. I don't know how or at what point it stopped being a hobby and became a compulsion. I do prose because it's the tool I'm best at using; my growth as a poet and as a comic illustrator both topped out pretty early on.

Practically speaking, I don't think I'm good for much else. This isn't me rolling around in self-pity; I really am just stating a fact. I never had any interest in learning to code, and I don't have much aptitude for even playing with basic HTML. I'm too manually clumsy and scatterbrained for work in the trades; if I were a welder or an electrician, I'd get myself or my employers sued sooner or later. I'm not a very motivated salesman. I don't have the deportment for managing anybody. The idea of teaching a middle- or high school literature class, dealing with rooms full of kids who don't want to be there and don't give a shit, gives me the hinks. So does the thought of getting a master's degree and expecting the best outcome to be teaching a creative writing course at a community college. I'm lousy at writing commercial copy, and hated my life when I've tried to do clickbait content-milling. The unglamorous jobs I can do, I'm usually lukewarm about, and wouldn't think for an instant of making them the basis of my identity. But I can do them, and that has to be enough. And at least they never ask me to bring my work home with me or answer emails when I'm not clocked in...

My attempts at channeling my energy and emotions toward something other than passion projects [writing] have been disappointing, at best. Not that I'm not willing to put up with tedium or get my hands dirty without pay for a cause I'm passionate about—but it's just never worked out. Wrong places, wrong times, wrong people. Consistently. It's hard to ignore a pattern, especially when it involves something like an electrical shock.

I got married. She knew it was a package deal: a husband who divides his time between his hang-up and her. She likes me enough to say "I do."

There have been times I've told myself that I can quit writing. I don't have to think about another novel. I don't have to consult the Notepad file where I jot down passing ideas that might have potential. I don't have to keep updating this stupid blog that nobody reads anyway. Self-promotion is horrible. Submitting stuff to lit magazines is horrible. Writing query letters is horrible. In terms of having a readership, I was pretty much done after I stopped writing about video games, and I can't go back to it now and because longform upper-middlebrow game criticism scene has migrated to YouTube. I have no desire to follow it there.

I could quit writing. I could. I could do something else.

I've said this to myself time and time again over the last fifteen years. I've tried to convince myself of it. But I just can't. It's pathological. I'm sick.

I've repeated Devi's triumphant speech to Sickness to myself on hundreds of occasions ("and nothing changes that, even if I wanted it"), as though it were a mantra—along with a line from Sandman. Delirium's observation about "Emperor" Joshua Abraham Norton: his madness keeps him sane.

I'm not sure what I would do if I didn't write. Something tells me I'd spend a lot more time bingewatching TV series, playing video games, and sleeping. I'd sink many more hours into doomscrolling and watching random YouTube videos than I do now. I'd probably not see any reason not to drink more, to start getting high as much as I used to get high, or to start committing money and headspace to Magic: The Gathering again. Maybe I'd rediscover Christianity and become a religious fanatic. I'd have to find something else that can hold at bay that ambient sense of pointlessness—the unapproachable and incontrovertible black hole in the fabric of everything that first made me stop and sit and stare at the light from the setting sun on the wallpaper and not know what to do before I'd even hit puberty.

For all the stupid self-imposed suffering I bring on myself by sweating and clenching my teeth and foregoing sleep to labor over fictions that don't get published and blog posts that don't get circulated, nothing else pushes the void below the horizon of my awareness with such efficacy. Whatever the hell I think it is I'm doing, it's probably what makes me composed enough to be somebody another person wanted to marry.

But enough about that.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac rocked my teenage world, but I Feel Sick is dearer to my heart. As a spooky, angsty kid I wanted to see myself in Johnny; as an adult approaching middle age (hah, "approaching," right) I still can't help seeing some of myself in Devi. Whether the book augured my trajectory or subliminally nudged me onto it—I don't want to speculate. 

This is the must-have comic for Vasquez fans. Not because it's the funniest or the best, but because of the fascination it holds as a transitional work. It's his farewell to comics—not that he quits them altogether, but afterwards he never applies himself to making them with as much gusto—and it's the deep breath he takes before the Gir plushies enter production and an exponentially higher number of teenagers begin aping his art style and quoting his characters than before. Nothing can ever be the same for him after this. His brain[child] isn't in his head anymore; it's out and running about.

Assuming I'm not wildly overestimating the extent to which Vasquez discloses himself through I Feel Sick, I have to wonder if he feels like it was all ultimately worth it. But that's really none of my damn business, is it?


  1. I felt some self loathing coming of JTHM as a teen. Johnny is a sick stick figure like Noodle Boy, just with schizophrenic density of details filling him in. And then the schizophrenia tackles him and they fall into the void. I also read this book too many times.

    Dev, however, decides she will use creativity for herself instead. Even if it means giving up something else she might have been. It might have been a monster, after all.

    I hope Jhonen is doing well. In reading the comics with the stupid people, I came to see I was making mistakes too. "Mommy's ignoring you honey" made me realize I was shitty to my sister, for one.

  2. I like this series, but don’t have anything in particular to add.

    1. (the series of blog posts, I mean. Thanks for writing them, Pat)