It seems like if I could just work on my own projects, everything would be just fine, but every time I sit down to work on my stuff, something afflicts me: paper cuts, my roommate editing an Ennio Morricone track for voicemail, new deadlines, the lack of clean underwears, other people’s problems, mysterious bruises that must be investigated, the temptation of movie marathons, the endless affliction of kitties (sitting on my work, fighting with each other, Pukeaggeddon), recurring infections. Today, it’s viruses growing within. In short, I feel sick.
Jhonen Vasquez sick.
I Feel Sick: A Book about a Girl was the first Jhonen Vasquez comic I ever read. I read it way before I read Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and before Vasquez’s Invader Zim aired on Nickelodeon. Colorist Rikki Simmons uses pretty much the same palette in I Feel Sick as Zim and it works well with the glossy paper and Vasquez’s spidery drawing. Originally intended as a one shot, I Feel Sick grew into a two issue comic about Devi, a painter slowly being driven insane by a combination of factors including the same entity/entities that turned Johnny into a homicidal maniac, a series of dates with fatal or fatalesque endings and Nerve, a low end pulp horror publishing company that commissioned a cover from her. No matter how many times Devi repaints the cover, there are always new requests for revisions. Meanwhile, her incomplete painting of a creepy-in-a-bad-way doll starts talking. Devi names it, “Sickness” and Sickness wants to be real. She says creepy spambot doll things like, “The screws are coming undone, Mother” (#1) and,” Once inside it’s just a question of silent growth” (#2).
The first time I read I Feel Sick, I took my time between issues. It seemed too close to how I was feeling. I was a little afraid of finishing the story because of what it might mean for me. Since then, I feel better. Got the creative impulses under control. Been avoiding working for the Man. I am not now nor have I ever been likely to become a homicidal maniac. Still, I don’t wear my hair in spiky ponytails anymore.
I Feel Sick’s a pretty clear allegory about the commodification of creativity. Once Devi takes the Nerve job, a job that should be fun, she can’t do any more of her own work and Sickness appears. But I can’t decide if it’s one about the Protestant work ethic. The pieces are there. Devi’s work does keep Sickness and maybe insanity at bay. Devi even has a dream where the Devil tells her that his children are born from the unoccupied space in people’s minds. So, would John Calvin agree with Sickness that an idle brain is the Devil’s plaything? That might be the Cold and Flu Formula talking. John Calvin would disapprove of Devi’s solution—more painting—but art does frequently hold back the crazy. Maybe it’s better to say that a creative block sure fosters the crazy.
Of course, the process itself can cause all kinds of trouble. Vasquez and Simmons’ bios say that Jhonen stayed up for 2 days finishing the comic, Rikki has a scary forehead and they both drove 6 hours to get the second issue to the publisher on time. They made every part of the comic, including the publication info—the part that tells you the date of publication and warns against disrespecting the authorities. Issue one’s publication information warns readers:
Any urges to go out and beat the shit out of strangers without remorse after the reading of this crap are purely coincidental. I’m about to take a 5 hour drive after 2 hours of sleep through a billion miles of sunrisy hell to turn this book in at the very last minute all so YOU can enjoy thos [sic] awful thing I’ve done. I bet you wouldn’t care if I died, huh? Admit it, you just want me for my brain. ME BRAINS!!!
So, it’s easy to see I Feel Sick as all about the process of making I Feel Sick. I admit I’m awfully tempted to write a metafictional article about such a metafictional comic. The viruses are certainly pushing for it, but I don’t want to be a jackass and there’s no jackass like a metafictional jackass. Understanding I Feel Sick as mostly autobiographical and metafictional might avoid the comic’s more unsettling implications, which nearly any person who makes art probably recognizes. There’s the banalizing influence of commodification paired the crazy desire for art to remain pure, and the endless temptation of No Distractions. There’s the fear of silence or emptiness or the loss of art as well as irritating nitpicky fiddlings and inconvenient inspiration and 2 days without sleep.
I can see why Devi just wants to keep her head down and work, Sickness or no.
Carol Borden is infectious and apparently a metafictional jackass. You might want to go wash your hands.
(This piece was originally published at The Cultural Gutter on January 31, 2007)