Johnny Ryan’s comics will probably offend you on several different levels—before you start laughing despite yourself. His Angry Youth Comix takes extreme behavior to such absurd levels that it’s simultaneously shocking and silly. His main character, Loady McGee, is an acne-riddled bully who does not hesitate to do whatever he feels like. And, to put it mildly, this results in very un-P.C. activities that often devolve into surreal explorations of dark places. Meanwhile, his graphic novel series, Prison Pit, is an ultra-violent science fiction tale of battling alien criminals that started in 2009 and is concluding this month with Book 6.
How did these unremittingly gross images ever find their way into print? Is there such a thing as going too far? Mr. Ryan explains.
Originally posted January 2005.
* * *
What comics did you read growing up?
I read a lot of comics growing up. Of course, whatever was in the Sunday funnies I would read, except for Doonesbury—hated Doonesbury. Still to this day, any kind of political comics doesn’t interest me very much. And, of course, I was a big Marvel nut as a kid—any piece of crap that Marvel would put out. This was back in the ‘80s, too, and that was like the golden age of garbage for Marvel. I remember U.S. 1, in particular, was a comic about trucking; Team America was their motocross comic; Micronauts; and the New Universe. When they tried to start doing that, I would get all the number-ones of those thinking, “This is a collector’s dream!” They would come out with so many number ones of things, because there was that whole collector boom, and now it’s all worth crap. But I should mention MAD Magazine, too—I would read that all the time, I had a subscription to that.
Had you been drawing this whole time?
As a kid, it was something I was good at. I was a pretty proficient little cartoonist; I would copy all my favorite Marvel characters and whatnot. In college, too, I was an art major for a period of time, but I wasn’t doing this art major because I wanted to go into comics—I was actually thinking seriously about doing serious art, not stupid comic art. Thinking back, I do wish I had drawn a lot more than I did, I wish I had applied myself more in that direction. I think I sort of lost my way a little bit. My parents were sort of, “Art’s nice, as a hobby, but you have to do something serious.” So I think somewhere in my mind I was thinking, “This isn’t something real people do—this is just some sort of weird fantasy thing.” It wasn’t until years later that I was thinking that this was what I always wanted to do—I really enjoyed doing it, so I should just do it. So there were gaps of doing nothing, and I think it shows in my work.
What inspired your first comics?
There were periods of time through college that instead of writing letters to friends, I would draw little comic strips starring them, and they would have horrible things happen to them. I was producing those on a regular basis, but it wasn’t until I got out of college that I started to develop the characters I use today. I would just send them off to friends, these little three-page adventures, one of which I put in the back of my Portajohnny book, the first collection of my comics that Fantagraphics published. I would send it to one friend, then another friend would be like, “Hey, I want to see some of that,” so I started Xeroxing them and mailing them out.
Also, when I got out of college, I didn’t really have any intention of being a comic artist—I majored in English and I wanted to be a serious novelist. I wanted to be like William Faulkner or something, so when I got out of college I was seriously applying myself. I mean, I would wake up in the morning and I would write like really hardcore, modernist fiction all night long, and it was a real chore. I really wasn’t having a lot of fun with that, but I felt like I had to do this for some reason. But at the same time, I was still doing these letters; they were more wacky and retarded, and people would see my letters and they would see my writing, and they would say, “You need to focus more on this funny stuff—that’s what you’re good at.” So at that point I kind of abandoned the Faulkner dreams and focused more the illustration and comic stuff.
Eventually, I sent my stuff out to Peter Bagge. It was about ’99 and at that point he had stopped doing Hate Comics. But he immediately wrote me back just a few days later, and he was really excited about my stuff. I think it was because of the fact I was doing retarded humor comics, something that now in this age of alternative comics is extremely rare. Peter introduced my stuff to my editor, Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics, and really pushed for me to get published. He’s pretty much the reason why I got published. It’s also funny because at that point I had never read Hate in my life so it had no influence on my work, and he was sort of offended by that.
Did you ever expect such material to get nationally distributed by a big publisher?
I think on some level I did—I wouldn’t have continued doing it unless I was thinking, “People are gonna love this.” I mean, in my mind I’m thinking there’s nobody doing humor comics like mine out there in the alt-comic world, so when they see my stuff it’ll be very refreshing. Well, that didn’t really happen so much. The scene now is basically the whole thing about “comics aren’t just for kids anymore”—they keep repeating that over and over again. Alternative comics just want so desperately to be accepted by adults and be seen as something for adults: literary and important. Essentially, the stuff that I’m doing—the retarded humor comics—is sort of marginalized and ghettoized because I’m not doing something serious. Ten or 20 years ago, it might have been a different story; there were four or five mainstream humor magazines on the newsstands. But today, humor comics and magazines aren’t really around much anymore. So I’m hoping to hang in there; maybe eventually it will change and the comics scene will be more accepting of humor stuff.
Do you feel that “alternative” comics aren’t very alternative anymore?
There are some alternative elements to it, but a lot of it would depend on what your interpretation of alternative is. Lots of alternative comics are accepted by the New Yorker type of crowd—Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware. Those types of comics are very accepted by that intellectual crowd, but I wouldn’t really say that was the mainstream crowd—it’s not like Joe Six-Pack is going to go out and pick up the Acme Novelty Library. But at the same time, their audience is a lot bigger than the type of audience that I have.
When you draw your parodies of other cartoonists, are you doing it with affection or because their work irks you?
It depends on who it is. There are some people I parody that I really like. In the Marvel Super Pages and The Funny Pages books that I did, I would take a particular character—Spiderman, Charlie Brown, or Smokey Stover—and I would start somewhere and fill up a whole page of a comic with that character. It started out as an exercise to come up with ideas as fast as I can and try to be spontaneous. I started doing that on my website with alternative cartoonists—Dan Clowes, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and others. I guess the main point of the stories is that it’s fun to make fun of people, whether you like them or not. I guess if you don’t like their work, it’s even more fun.
Have you gotten any reactions from the artists in question?
I saw Charles Burns at a convention a year ago and he told me he enjoyed the parody I did. I don’t know if he was lying, but he claimed to like it. Other than that, nobody’s ever said anything. I did a parody of Seth, the guy who does Palookaville, in Angry Youth Comix #6 and I hear that he’s somehow incorporated that in some kind of slide presentation that he does. But I hear that he refuses to read it; whether that is true or not, I don’t know. Other than that, I don’t think I’ve really heard from anybody; they don’t usually seem to respond. And I think that in itself kind of reveals the attitude of a lot of these cartoonists—it’s hard to tell if they have a sense of humor about themselves at all. Or maybe they just haven’t seen my stuff, I don’t know.
Where did Loady McGee come from?
It’s a combination of things. It’s partly me, my sense of humor—I think I have a Moe Howard kind of aggressive sense of humor, which isn’t for everybody. The Young Ones was also a big influence on me; the name of my comic was slightly borrowed from that. There’s a little bit of Vyvyan in Loady McGee. But I also knew a kid in high school that sort of had that Vyvyan look. When he showed up at my school—I went to a tiny private school in Cape Cod—he had a Misfits jacket on, he had bright red hair that was all spiky, and earrings and stuff. Back in 1980-whatever, you didn’t see that all the time; today, it’s like who cares. But back then it was like, “Whoa! Who’s this guy?” The best part of all was that he had a face full of acne; he looked like he was beat up, the worst acne I’ve ever seen. So I employed a little bit of the physical attributes of that guy. And also a little bit of The Little Rascals—the sweater he wears is a typical bully sweater that you’d see Butch in The Little Rascals wear. I just find bullies to be somewhat funny. A lot of the comics today sort of take the nerd’s side of the story: “Everybody hurt me my whole life. In school I was beat up.” I always found the bullies to be a lot more entertaining, in the same way that Darth Vader is more entertaining than Luke Skywalker—more intense, funnier, more interesting. So that’s all the elements of Loady McGee that have come together over the years.
When you draw these comics, do you have a plan or do you just let them spew out from your darkest recesses?
When I first started, it was all pretty much spontaneous. I would just start somewhere and I didn’t know where it was going—I would just go with it. When I started to actually try to make a comic for people to read, I tried to make some sort of story—I would write it out and make sure everything was in order, try to plot out the story some way. But now I seem to find that I get my best material when I work spontaneously. I might have a glimmer of an idea, but I’ll just sit down and spew it all out without any kind of pre-planning or anything. I just saw a documentary recently about Buster Keaton, and it sounds like that’s how he used to make his movies; he would just have a basic idea of what he wanted to do, and then they would just take their camera out, film the beginning and the end, and then just do whatever. I seem to find that that leads to some of the best comedy. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but I think personally that I get my best results working spontaneously.
Do you ever have any trepidation that your fans may expect you to “top” yourself with every new outrageous comic?
I guess I don’t really think of that too much. Primarily, I try to do stuff that will entertain me, that I think is funny. I want to keep myself interested and entertained; I want to do a comic that I would read, that has weird, crazy, strange things going on. But I guess I don’t really think about, “What am I going to do to top myself this time?” I just try to focus on trying to entertain myself and make myself or some of my friends laugh.
Have you gotten a lot of hate emails over the years from people who don’t “get” Angry Youth Comix?
You’d think. Actually, the reaction has been that nobody gives a crap. I’ve gotten no hate mail. I’ve read reviews where people hate my stuff, and I’ve read message boards where people say they hate my stuff. But I’ve never gotten a personal email or letter saying to me that they hate my stuff. At least in comics, when somebody hates your stuff they just ignore it, they’re not really going to bother to write you. The “Gaytriot” story I did caused a kind of furor, and there was a cover I did for Angry Youth Comix #5 which had a French cover—I had Loady McGee with this word balloon all in French and it said, “If you can read this, you’re a faggot.” There’s a message board of gay comic artists, and they had some sort of meeting at the San Diego convention and they used my comic as the number-one example of homophobia in comics. They used that issue in particular, but they were also extremely offended by the Gaytriot story I did, which was about a gay Captain America type of superhero. They were really up in arms and they were talking about picketing Fantagraphics, boycotting Fantagraphics, and writing letters, and calling GLAAD, SADD, and MADD, whatever. That went on for days and days about what they were going to do, and they never really did anything. I never got any personal letters. So I’ve never gotten any kind of personal heat for anything I’ve done.
Do you ever worry about how people are construing your work—that they may think you’re a homophobe, or a racist, or anti-religion?
These are sort of elements that are part of us in some ways. Everybody has that fear of the other or whatever. But it sort of goes back into my whole sense of humor: making fun of people is funny. I don’t have any sort of agenda against minorities, or gays, or religion. I think my comic is self-deprecating in the same way that it is insulting to everyone. I try to insult everybody, that’s just my sense of humor. As far as people thinking I’m those things… I don’t know, I guess it doesn’t really have too much effect on me since I’m still doing it. It’s all for the sake of making fun of people and humor—it’s not some sort of political soapbox I’m standing on.
Artists should be willing to expose these things about themselves. And I also think that as a cartoonist, it’s important to be a little bit of a troublemaker, to get people to be like, “What the hell?! What is going on here?” I’m not into pandering to what the audience wants. People sort of put down things saying, “It’s all about shock. He’s just trying to shock people.” When you think of movies like John Waters makes, those are classic masterpieces of comedy, but there are those elements of shock to them that make it fun. I grew up watching a lot of those old ‘70s B-movies that didn’t have big actors—all they had to offer was shock value: violence, gore, naked ladies, whatever. I feel like that’s sort of what I have to offer in my comics: gross-out bathroom retard humor with nudity and insanity. I don’t have the Chris Ware talent.
Have you ever pulled back on a comic that you thought might be going too far?
Usually, when I’m drawing something and I’m thinking, “Gosh, maybe I shouldn’t do this,” that’s usually when I think, well, I guess I should do it. Because if I’m thinking I shouldn’t do it, then I should actually do it—that’s sort of what makes it fun. After you do something like that, you’re thinking, “Wait till people get a load of this. There’ll really be a big stir.” Like when I did the Gaytriot thing—suddenly, all these people were going nuts, but at the same time people were checking out my website. It’s good publicity.
Do you think you’ll ever draw a personal comic that isn’t “angry” or outrageous?
If you’re asking whether I’ll ever do any serious story or something, I don’t think I’m capable of it. If I even tried, in the back of my mind I’d be heckling myself. I don’t think I could ever do it.