This is a review of Johnny Ryan’s work in general, and of Angry Youth Comics #10 in particular. A shortened, less snarky version of this article was published in The Chicago Reader in March 2006.
Comics: They’re Not Just For Pompous Blowhards Anymore!
After a long and painful struggle, comic-books have finally made themselves more or less indistinguishable — in subject-matter, in marketing, in content, even in length — from just plain books. Whether it’s Dan Clowes or David Foster Wallace, Art Spiegelman or John Updike, you hear the interview on Fresh Air, purchase the tome at the local chain bookstore, open it with the solemn joy of a humble seeker, and close it with new insight into the profound humanness of our shared ineffability.
And then there’s cartoonist Johnny Ryan’s latest effort, Angry Youth Comix #10. Fifty pages of filthy one-panel gag cartoons in the worst possible taste, this is critical comicdoms drooling, atavistic doppelganger. You can’t get it in bookstores, you can’t even talk about it on NPR without violating FCC regulations, and the whole thing takes about ten minutes to read. There are no deep meanings (unless you count scatalogical double entendres) ; no poignant autobiographical details (unless Ryan’s private life is exceedingly peculiar); no redeeming social value (unless you consider mocking Art Spiegelman to be some sort of philanthropic act.) Instead, Ryan’s comic is composed entirely of dick jokes, tit jokes, fag jokes, abortion jokes, racist caricatures, blasphemy, and the occasional stupid pun.
If that sounds like Ryan is just some snotty shock-jock — well, sure he is. But what’s wrong with that? The fact is that comics has always been a uniquely snotty and shocking medium. Wilhelm Busch’s 1865 “Max and Moritz” — often considered the first comic-strip — featured two naughty prepubescent German pranksters who inventively brutalize all and sundry until they are captured, dumped in a flour mill, ground to bits, and eaten by ducks. The gore and goofiness wasn’t necessarily Busch’s fault: comics just seem to lend themselves to over-the-top imagery. Most of the greatest work in the medium — Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, the EC comics horror titles, Jack Kirby’s super-hero art, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat — rely on slapstick or the macabre or hyperbolic violence or some combination of all three. Sure, today “comics for adults” may denote politely edifying creators like Craig Thompson or Jessica Abel, but it wasn’t so long ago that that same phrase referred to R. Crumb, Robert Williams, and other underground artists whose work overflowed with giant reproductive organs, hideous epithets, bizarre sexual conglomerations, and gratuitous everything. And in case anyone had forgotten, the riots which greeted the publication of Danish gags depicting Muhammad reminded the world that nothing offends quite as thoroughly as a really offensive cartoon.
Political cartoons can be plenty dull and predictable, of course: as a non-Muslim, my reaction to the Danish cartoons was basically, “eh.” Still, it’s hard to read anything by Johnny Ryan without feeling that comic-books lost something important when they opted to largely abandon the sight gags and overblown obnoxiousness to the editorial pages. Sure, you can use comics to chronicle either a Bildungsroman or an endless fight against evil if you want to. The truth, though is that those kinds of stories could really just as easily be novels or films. But in what other medium (other than comics’ bastard step-child, animation) can you show, as Ryan does, the moon using some poor unfortunate as a tampon? Or a dead baby in the park with a kite at the end of its bloody umbilical cord? Or the tragedy of brain-piss? In fact, many of these cartoons are so bizarre they can’t even be effectively put into prose — one gag with the caption “Oh, don’t mind me!” involves a man, a woman, a blow-job, and a discontented bystander, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out an economical way to describe the exact mechanics of the scene.
Part of the reason it’s hard to imagine many of these gags as anything other than cartoons, though, is simply because it’s hard to imagine anyone but Johnny Ryan thinking of them. His subject-matter may be limited, and his black-and-white line art is efficient rather than dazzling, but there aren’t many artists in any field who can match Ryan for sheer surreal creativity. His longer strips suggest a filthy hybrid of the Marx Bros. and Monty Python; the full-length story in Angry Youth Comix #9 included a single sequence in which a bald man is blessed with a wig made out of shit, propositioned by a passer-by, has his penis inconveniently detach, obtains penis-glue, loses his shit-wig, asks a passer-by to defecate on his head…and that’s just the set-up for the punch-line. The single panel jokes in #10 don’t match that level of manic intensity, but they have their own virtues. The best gags, in fact, seem like humor’s distilled essence; middle-school, smart-ass witticisms raised to a sublime and unsurpassable height. There will never be a funnier super-hero parody than Fucked-Up Man, whose main power appears to involve intercourse with a duck. Nor will there ever be a funnier penis joke than Ryan’s gag about the Salem Dick-Witch trials.
It’s not like I’m the first person to rave enthusiastically about Ryan’s work. He’s been praised by lots of comics luminaries, from Robert Williams to Ivan Brunetti to Dan Clowes to Peter Bagge. And yet, the critical enthusiasm often seems to come with a certain nervous backwards glance over the shoulder. His comic is put out by Fantagraphics, one of the most important independent comics publishers — but both owners of the company have publicly expressed reservations of one sort or another about his work. He gets a fair number of positive reviews in the comics press— but those reviewers hasten to notify their readers that Angry Youth Comics isn’t necessarily for everyone. Ryan readily admits as much himself, but I’m not quite sure why it has to be stressed. After all, whose work is for everyone, exactly? Chris Ware’s?
I don’t wish on Ryan — or on anyone — the clouds of hagiography that hang about Ware’s cranium like some sort of oleaginous shroud. But I do think AYC deserves better from comics taste-makers than a slightly embarrassed pat on the head. Ryan’s work is smart, crammed with ideas, and so funny it will melt your retinas. Moreover it seems to me that whatever the limitations of its appeal, it would be immediately accessible to a huge number of people— fans of South Park, for example — who don’t necessarily read comics.
That’s important, because the audience for American comics right now is vanishingly small, and only likely to shrink further as imported manga from Japan snaps up more and more shelf-space and attention. In the face of vast public indifference, super-hero publishers have basically given up on marketing comics altogether, and have instead shifted their attention almost entirely to selling their properties to Hollywood. Meanwhile, smaller publishers — like Fantagraphics — concentrate most of their limited promotional oomph on relentlessly snooty releases like the anthology Mome. When Ryan has managed to get mainstream media coverage, it’s generally been quite positive: he was featured in Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List last September, for example. But given comics’ low profile, and his own industry’s ambivalence, it’s going to be a long, long time before Johnny Ryan becomes a household name. As it is, you’ve got to make some effort if you even want to find his stuff. He does have several excellent trade paperback collections, though I’ve never seen one in a bookstore myself. As for AYC # 10, It’s available online at fantagraphics.com, and, to the best of my knowledge, at only two stores in Chicago: Quimby’s Queer Store and Chicago Comics.
[I contacted Fantagraphics, and they corrected me: AYC is also sold through Alternate Reality, Inc. (couldn’t find a website) and Comix Revolution.]