An Essay on Sub-Cultural Politics & Identity

Discuss the way in which a concern with the politics of sub-cultural identity and difference animates the work of an artist of your choice.

As Carol Hanish was paraphrased1 with the title of her essay The Personal is Political, I would like to explore the way an artist examines the sub-cultural personal politics of those who self-identify within the Goth / Industrial subculture. In the spirit of the post-Modern denial of a natural or valid distinction between “high” and “low” culture, or of the arbitrary assigning of labels such as “good” and “bad” to these culture-forms respectively, and to do my bit, however small, to push back against the stigmatisation that comics and comics practitioners have suffered2 at the hands of cultural and academic hegemonists, I will be basing my exploration on the work of American artist and writer Jhonen Vasquez, and in particular, his graphic novel work Johnny The Homicidal Maniac (JTHM)3.

While JTHM acts as a commentary on many facets of modern consumerist society, it is the inter-personal politics, arising out of selective conformity to, and difference from expected norms, and the implied hierarchical power structures these create, which will be the focus of this essay.

Since comics, sequential art and graphic novels are generally not considered a part of the traditional canon of “high” art (unless “produced” by an anointed “real artist” like Roy Lichtenstein, whose blatant plagiarism of existing comics is now well documented in David Barisalou’s Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein project4), a brief introduction to Vasquez and his work is appropriate, since he has tended to be excluded from even the rarefied company of graphic novelists whose work is taken seriously for its critical literary value5.

Vasquez (b1974) is a Latino-American artist and writer. In addition to JTHM (1995-1997) he has written and illustrated two spinoff works expanding on supporting cast members – Squee (1997-1998) & I Feel Sick (1999-2000). He has also collaborated as a writer on a number of projects, was the creator of the short-lived but Emmy Award winning animated series Invader Zim, and has branched out into directing music videos.

Vazquez’s ethnicity is a useful jumping off point for questions of difference within sub-cultures. As a Latino-American with an olive complexion, he has become a near-ubiquitous cultural favourite worldwide for the Goth / Industrial subculture, a defining feature of which is an aesthetic bias towards pallor and white face makeup. This difference is transferred to Johnny, the title character of JTHM6. Indeed, it is remarked upon by a copycat serial killer who turns up on Johnny’s doorstep and reveals he has styled himself upon his half-glimpsed impressions of Johnny7.

Sub-cultural hierarchy politics was examined in the final standalone JTHM page Vasquez created prior to starting on the series itself. In it, Johnny encounters “Raven”, a retail clerk in a music store, whose response to Johnny’s question about the availability of a new album by the band “Sonic Bowel Movement”, is to accuse him of mispronouncing the name, and tell him they don’t have it in stock. He then criticises Johnny’s taste in music by stating, “I didn’t think anyone actually liked them”, and tries to ignore him, as if his presence as a customer is an annoyance. Since most subcultures arise as an attempt by the disempowered to fight against cultural hegemony8 by creating a cultural space of personal control, the placing of high value on obscurity, on how close one can come to the centre of the inward spiral away from the periphery, where mainstream hegemonic culture abuts, is a near-universal phenomenon. More obscure equates to more hardcore, equates to higher status within said subculture.

In this case however, Johnny calls Raven out on his attitude (perhaps gained from the book he is depicted reading – “The Art of Arrogance”), questioning the basis for his air of superiority9. Raven is, after all, a retail clerk – hardly an occupation worthy of a high-status attitude. Yet, as a music vendor, Raven is a gatekeeper to culturally specific obscurity, and perhaps from that derives a sense of superior status. The page then takes an absurdist twist as an armed robber bursts in and demands the contents of the till, which is empty. He shoots Raven in the head exclaiming “AAARGH!! YOU FRUSTRATE ME!!!” before running out, leaving Johnny unfulfilled in his plan of retributive mutilation and murder.

It would, however, be a mistake to assume the issues being tackled are unique to the Goth / Industrial scene. Indeed, Vasquez has stated that he didn’t so much go out to create a parody of any particular group, merely that he reflected upon what he saw10, and it just so happened that was the subculture within which he was moving11. One such example is the sort of interpersonal gender politics that are universal, yet nuanced through the lens of subculture. Vasquez presents a scene in which “Dillon” and his female partner “Tess” are leaving a cinema, having just seen Soderbergh’s Kafka. Despite their aesthetic appearance, they are an almost archetypical pair, as Joel T. Terranova describes them12. Dillon is dissatisfied with the film, complaining that they could have rented Alex Proyas’ The Crow, a far more consumer-friendly (and highly Goth targeted) action film, for a presumed repeat viewing.

As an aside, The Crow movie, whichwas released the year before JTHM, is itself an adaptation of James O’Barr’s graphic novel of the same name. Published in 1989, it is one of the original comics in which Goth readers could self-identify aesthetically with the protagonist. Interestingly, that same year also saw the release of Neil Gaiman’s opus The Sandman, which shares a similar self-identifiable aesthetic for Goth readers. Vasquez acknowledges both these works on a number of occasions in the form of parodic posters on the bedroom walls of the character “Anne Gwish”.

Returning to the scene, Dillon is busy fantasising about physically bullying a patron who has asked him to be quiet during the film. It is revealed in the subsequent page that Dillon is in a band, and in this Vasquez repeats the theme that those in an alpha social position within a subculture are corrupted by this, or are perhaps the corruptible that seek alpha status. Tess points this out13, acting as both the viewer’s conscience and the artist’s voice. Dillon then shows an out of character self-awareness, effectively laying out Vasquez’s primary criticism of the very subculture he inhabits14 – that it is a shallow cult of appearance and style. Tess then falls back into character by exclaiming “HEY! LOOK AT THAT FAT GIRL!!”, reinforcing the point.

Dillon is then used to comment on another phenomenon in sub-cultural power dynamics – the “get off my lawn” attitude older members display to newer participants. This is nothing more than an attempt to create difference between otherwise undifferentiated people, purely on a chronological basis. Dillon is criticising the “Fat Girl” for wearing a new band merchandise t-shirt15. It’s a shirt by the same band he used to see before they became successful and left the local scene behind. The band whose shirt, though presumably an older version, he is also wearing. Dillon then continues his rant, returning his attention to the patron in the cinema, accusing him of buying clothes in order to fabricate a persona16 – the “instagoth” phenomenon of a “normal” who walks into a store, and springs out fully-formed like some parody of Athena from Zeus’ forehead. This is something Vasquez comments on in an interview, describing the fact that his early fanbase were already comic readers, whereas later it was people who bought his work in mall fashion stores17. The conclusion of the scene involves a taser, an anonymous basement, and the revelation that the “dork” in the theatre was none other than Johnny.

One could not conclude without touching on the character of living stereotype “Anne Gwish”, who is perhaps the epitome of everything a self-aware member of a subculture must recognise in themselves – the cringe-inducing memories of their own early fervour. Anne, her walls adorned with mocking riffs on goth-culturally popular posters (including a pig-nosed “Johnny the Hamicidal Maniac”), is a parody with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. She revels in her solitude, yet participates in online forums dedicated to how alone the members feel. She requires the affirmation of her peers for her sense of self, while criticising them for their “petty high-school mentality”. Everything about her is tailored to emphasise a fundamental point about many subcultures, and the Goth / Industrial scene especially – that they are based upon rigid adherence to the norms of group identity. This is enabled by a remarkable piece of doublethink on the part of the participants – they are expressing their individuality by conforming to a group18. One could speculate that the cognitive dissonance that should arise from this situation is avoided or invalidated by the relative weakness of any subculture in the face of mass-culture hegemony, or is simply unnoticed due to the relative youth of the participants.

In his first Anne Gwish scene, Vasquez spends the entire page setting up this one point, possibly a universal critique that one can level against subcultures and the way they handle the politics of difference in general – the caption “Where I can be appreciated for my originality” appears over a sea of identical male and female Goth archetypes. In the background, a speech bubble depicts someone exclaiming “Oh, my gawd! Look! Somebody’s wearing blue jeans!”.

In the bottom right corner is a note from Vasquez – “With only a touch of self-mockery – J.V.”.

Bibliography

The Personal Is Political  – Carol Hanisch. http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html

– Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein – David Barisalou. http://davidbarsalou.homestead.com/LICHTENSTEINPROJECT.html

– Jhonen Vasquez invades SuicideGirls – Daniel Robert Epstein. http://suicidegirls.com/interviews/Jhonen+Vasquez+invades+SuicideGirls/

– Art of Killing – The Literary Merits of Johnny The Homicidal Maniac – Joel T. Terranova.

– Culture and Stigma: Popular Culture and the Case of Comic Books – Paul Lopes.

– Subculture The Meaning of Style – Dick Hebdige.

– JTHM – The Director’s Cut – Jhonen Vasquez

  1. “I’d like to clarify for the record that I did not give the paper its title, “The Personal Is Political.” As far as I know, that was done by Notes from the Second Year editors Shulie Firestone and Anne Koedt after Kathie Sarachild brought it to their attention as a possible paper to be printed in that early collection. Also, “political” was used here in the broad sense of the word as having to do with power relationships, not the narrow sense of electorial [sic] politics.” – Carol Hanisch http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html []
  2. “My interest in popular culture and stigma stems from my research on comic books in America. In reading histories, interviews, columns, and other writings in the subculture of comic books, I found the multiple levels of stigma to be quite remarkable. Comic books have been stigmatized since their introduction in the mid-1930s, and this stigma has affected comic books as well as artists, readers, and fans of comics. I even experienced this stigma in the responses from colleagues when I chose to study comic books, and I found that other comic book scholars in America shared this experience.” – Paul Lopes Culture and Stigma: Popular Culture and the Case of Comic Books. Sociological Forum, Vol 21, No. 3 p388. []
  3. In this essay, I will be referring to the trade-paperback edition “JTHM – The Director’s Cut” which collects the original seven issues of Johnny The Homicidal Maniac, along with supplementary material into a single volume. Since there are no page numbers in this edition, quotes and references contain section numbers only. Referred pages are, however, attached at the end of this essay. []
  4. http://davidbarsalou.homestead.com/LICHTENSTEINPROJECT.html []
  5. As the medium’s rise in respectability among scholars has become recently noticed, so has the study of several specific works within it. Stories such as Love & Rockets X, Maus, V for Vendetta, Church & State, Watchmen and many more have received attention for their groundbreaking content. Curiously, one very important comic book has thus far evaded serious academic scrutiny, despite a decade old cult-following. Entitled Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by its creator, Jhonen Vasquez, this particular comic holds a treasure trove of both deliciously delightful art and incredibly smart writing that is filled with literary merit. – Joel T. Terranova Art of Killing – The Literary Merits of Johnny The Homicidal Maniac. International Journal of Comic Art Fall 2008 p451-67 []
  6. “C’mere, look at this cover painting. Does Johnny look pale-faced to YOU? If there’s ONE thing NNY and I share, it’s that we are most definitely not pale. He’s more sickly yellow, beige or something.” – Jhonen Vasquez “Super Amazing Interview”, endnotes JTHM – The Director’s Cut. []
  7. “I only really saw you in the dark, but look, I even did my hair like yours!…Hey, what happened to your hair? And your boots, your [sic] not wearing your long boots. I like the long ones better.” “Like I said, I only saw you in the dark. But, still, I thought you’d be paler than you are. And you’re shorter. I always thought you would be taller than…” – Jimmy, JTHM – The Director’s Cut, Part 7. []
  8. “Subcultures represent ‘noise’ (as opposed to sound); interference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media. We should therefore not underestimate the signifying power of the spectacular subculture not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder.” – Dick Hebdige, Subculture The Meaning of Style, p90. []
  9. “Heeey! I know you!! I’ve seen you at shows with all those gossipy little idiots you seem to have been cloned from!! I didn’t recognise you without all the makeup!! … Holy, moose!! You look like you’re about 400 years old!! No wonder you hide your face! On some people, the makeup is pretty. On you I guess it’s necessary! And, yet, you and your friends always laugh at me?! Why!? You don’t even know me!! – Johnny, endnotes JTHM – The Director’s Cut. []
  10. “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.” – Jhonen Vasquez, interviewed by Daniel Robert Epstein. []
  11. “I was at a club for dancing a couple of years ago. Back then it wasn’t uncommon for someone to [be] 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.” – Jhonen Vasquez, interviewed by Daniel Robert Epstein. []
  12. “They are fairly stereotypical characters; Dillon is the dictating macho-boyfriend who displays the shallow characteristics of a domestic abuser, such as being closed-minded and violent towards others, while Tess is the pretty girlfriend that happens to be with a man she finds detestable and unreasonable but continues the relationship nonetheless.” – Joel T. Terranova Art of Killing – The Literary Merits of Johnny The Homicidal Maniac. International Journal of Comic Art Fall 2008 p451-67 []
  13. “Dillon? Why is it whenever we’re not talking about being discriminated [against] by people for the way we look, we make fun of other people? I mean, what makes you any different from those jock-holes who were laughing at your hair that one time?” – Tess, JTHM – The Director’s Cut, Part 3. []
  14. “It’s not like we talk about anyone important. Some people just ask for it – like that little shit in the theatre. Besides, if we talked about anything else, we might expose the fact that most of our arrogance is based on exploiting a fashionable alienation rather than on anything substantial.” – Dillon, JTHM – The Director’s Cut, Part 3. []
  15. “Oh, my god! And she must think she’s so cool, cuz she’s wearing a brand new Nine-Inch-Heels shirt that she probably just bought in the mall. Man, I used to see them when they played in the clubs! Now everyone thinks they’re the biggest fan.” – Dillon, JTHM – The Director’s Cut, Part 3. []
  16. “That guy in the theatre – did you see his boots? He probably saw them in a video and bought some thinking they’d make him look special. Just another dork trying to be something they’re not.” – Dillon, JTHM – The Director’s Cut, Part 3. []
  17. “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. … 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.” – Jhonen Vasquez, interviewed by Daniel Robert Epstein. []
  18. “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.” – Jhonen Vasquez, interviewed by Daniel Robert Epstein. []