There has never been an alternative comics artist who makes work that’s more divisive than that of Johnny Ryan. Shit, piss, farts, dicks, and pussies are his vanilla material. When he really gets rolling, he’ll deal in rape, murder, genocide, 9-11, AIDS, baby fucking, and the end of the world. The style of art in his humor comics—all cute and cartoonish—both undercuts and ramps up the disturbance factor. It’s dizzying. But when Johnny draws, for example, an airplane and one of the Twin Towers engaging in mutual oral sex and titles it “69-11,” it’s just too damn cute. How could anybody be offended?
Of course, many are. Ryan, over the course of his career, has acquired a significant amount of skeeved-out detractors along with an army of hardcore fans. And that’s fine. Squares wouldn’t be squares if they weren’t freaked out by what Johnny does. What’s really strange, though, is when people who are supposed to get it don’t get it. As we’ll learn in the interview that follows, no less a grandfather of comics disgustingness than R. Crumb is unwilling to cross the Johnny Ryan Line. And some of the most prominent of Johnny’s peers also, he suspects, find their mouths filled with vomit at the mere mention of his name. Ok—maybe it’s not that bad. But the alt-comics A-list (because such a thing, hilariously, exists) seems loath to accept that one of its brightest talents, both as an artist and a writer, is Johnny Ryan.
I believe that Johnny’s comics can serve both as a barometer of the conscience of the contemporary alternative comics world (ouch) and as an acid test to see if someone is one of us or one of them. Find out where any of his fellow artists stand on Johnny’s work, and you might be able to see that artist’s own insecurities reflecting back at him or her. I also believe that Johnny is the only true satirist at work in comics today. There is other satire—fine satire—out there. But it’s safe. Johnny is the one artist who continues to push satire into increasingly dangerous places, and that makes him a true satirist because to satirize is to tell a truth, and to tell a truth is to take a risk. Conscience and satire seem to me to be linked. Do I want to take the space to go into that much more here? Probably not. But consider that conscience is the inner voice that tells us our subjective rights and wrongs, and then consider that satire is one way to put conscience into action. Then look at Johnny’s Comic Book Holocaust series of strips and zines, in which he lampoons everything from indie heroes to classic funny-papers staples. The satire in these stories is so utterly disgusting and base, the drawings so ham-fisted and ugly, that it’s almost a satire of satire. Johnny, you see, is smarter than he’d like people to think.
Now, writing about something as funny as Johnny’s work can suck the life out of it. Maybe I’ve done that in the preceding paragraph. If so, I’m sorry and I’ll say here, clearly, that besides being more complicated than a first glance might reveal, Johnny’s funniest comics are also the absolute funniest comics I have ever read. I have a certain laugh that I reserve for his stuff. It sounds like a horse having an orgasm in reverse. My wife, upon hearing it from halfway across our house, will call out, “Johnny Ryan?” So that’s how funny he is. He gets his own laugh.
Here’s the Johnny Ryan CV 101: He started his career in ’94 with a thing called Angry Youth Comix, which mainly starred two miscreants named Loady and Sinus. For almost a decade, he also did a weekly strip starring a little creep named Blecky Yuckerella. My favorite so far of his recurring characters, as Johnny and I discuss below, is the ultimate insult comedian named Boobs Pooter. All that I’ve just mentioned is Johnny Era 1. And even though Johnny was trucking along just fine with his harsh comedy comics, he took a big risk a couple of years ago and made a radical turn in his work when he started creating one-page comics that exhibited the influence of H.P. Lovecraft and David Cronenberg. Thus began Johnny Era 2. Though still occasionally funny, these pieces mainly offer images of horror, bewilderment, and bodily transformation. These are the sorts of comics that Buffalo Bill might have kept in his basement next to his skin-suit. And then, in 2009, Johnny put out the first book of his current ongoing series Prison Pit. Here we can see all the strands coming together. There’s humor (both grim and sophomoric), ridiculously over-the-top violence, humanoids metamorphosing into monsteroids, and a serial storytelling instinct that has been honed through almost two decades of practice. Prison Pit 3 was just released this month.
The following interview was conducted over the phone in three multi-hour sessions. Disclosure 1: I was one of Johnny’s employers for most of a decade because I was the editor-in-chief of Vice magazine until I quit last December. Disclosure 2: Johnny and I are friends, which may constitute a conflict of interest. I just visited Johnny and his wife Jenny in LA last month and took them shooting guns for the first time (they’re both naturals). Together, in person, we studiously avoided talking about any of what you’re about to read.
Jesse Pearson: Being self-employed can make a person feel like they’re in a black hole during the day. Do you have strategies for using your time well so that it doesn’t get weird?
Johnny Ryan: I’ve sort of created my own schedule, and I’ve had it for so long that if I don’t adhere to it I go into a real funk. I get really depressed and sort of Rain Man-ish. [laughs]
You’re often emailing me at six or seven in the morning.
I get up between five and six.
What time do you go to bed?
Around eleven or later. It depends what’s on TV.
Waking up that early without having to rush to a job job can be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
Oh, definitely. [laughs] Totally.
So do you have nightmares every night?
Not every night, and I wouldn’t even qualify them as nightmares. They’re more like “anxiety-mares.” Like… fightmares.
You have recurring dreams about fights?
Yeah, like I’m fighting zombies or… just that I’m in a fight. Fighting for my life or fighting against people who are hassling me. I wake up and I feel exhausted because I’ve been fighting all night. [laughs]
And how often do you have these fightmares?
I guess often enough to mention them. It gets to be nighttime and I’ll be like, “I can’t go to sleep.” I don’t want to fight Freddy Krueger all night. I wake up and my teeth hurt from clenching.
So you wake up at five in the morning, exhausted and sore, teeth throbbing, and then what’s the first thing you do?
I usually walk the dog. Then I check my email, see if anything’s going on, if anybody has bought anything from me or if there’s any work coming my way.
And then you have a regular work schedule?
I usually start working around nine or ten. That’s when I actually sit down at my drawing table. The stuff that pays is what I do first. That always takes precedence. And then everything else, the stuff I do for Fantagraphics or whatever, is almost like a hobby. I don’t really get a lot of money for those things, so they’re always going to take second—or sometimes third—place to other things.
How often do you sell stuff?
Things have been kind of slow since the Great Depression set in. In the fall of 2008, it was pretty good. I was selling prints, books, dolls… and they all sold at a pretty steady clip. I wouldn’t have been able to live off it, but it was a nice little extra income. Now everything’s gone to shit. Orders just kind of trickle in every once in a while.
So you work for a few hours and then what? You take a break and go get a sandwich and walk around some more?
No, I’m just kidding. Actually there are probably a million breaks. Throughout the course of the day, maybe I’ll get a commission. Something might pop up. But if none of that happens then I’ll just work until about five or six and call it a day. It’s pretty nine to five.
And you work very fast. When I was your editor, I’d see you turn around a great comic in a day.
A lot of people in comics are pretty slow. But I’ve always been like, “I want to make a living at this.” The only way to do that is to fucking work as fast as you possibly can. And of course that causes fightmares and anxiety. [laughs] The same goes for my books. I try to get them out as fast as I possibly can.
Do you ever worry about putting out too much, causing a glut, and wearing people out?
Not really. In comics, if you’re not putting something out on a regular basis, you’re immediately forgotten. This isn’t like other “respected” art forms, like fine art, music, or film. This is comics—the most forgettable art form out there.
And this has become a cliché, but you generally have to be an actual good draftsperson to make comics. You work harder than a lot of fine artists do, but art snobs kind of see comics as a ghetto.
Well, totally, and then you’re even further ghettoized when you’re not just doing comics, but you’re doing alternative comics. And then you’re not just doing alternative comics, you’re doing alternative humor comics. You’re in the toilet of the ghetto.
You, specifically, are not even just doing alternative humor comics, you’re doing offensive and disgusting alternative humor comics.
Even the people in my own industry ghettoize me. [laughs] So it’s fun.
But pretty early on you were getting blurbs from established kings of that world, like Peter Bagge.
Pete was a special case. He was the reason I got published in the first place. I was living in DC at the time. It was 1998-99, and I was pretty oblivious to the comic scene. I didn’t know who was out there. So I said to myself, “I’m really going to pay attention now and try to get involved.” At that point I had never read Hate. I saw it at the comic store and thought, “I’ll check it out. See what all the fuss is about.” I really liked it. I saw in the back—and little did I know that by this point Pete had stopped Hate but they were still selling back issues on the stands—that he would review and promote other people’s things. I sent him some stuff and he emailed me back pretty quickly. He was very enthusiastic about what I was doing. He sent some of my stuff to Fantagraphics—to Gary Groth, Eric Reynolds, and Kim Thompson—trying to get them interested. Gary and Kim were pretty lukewarm, but Eric was a lot more into it. It took him and Pete and some other folks another year or two to convince Gary and Kim that I was worth publishing.
What did you send Bagge? The first issues of Angry Youth Comix?
Yeah, the self-published stuff. It was probably issue seven and onward at that point.
And was there kind of an audition for Fantagraphics? Did you show them what was going to be the next Angry Youth and they thought about whether they wanted to put it out or not?
By that point I had done ten issues and was working on my eleventh. And then I think the eleventh issue got some attention in the minicomics world. Also, I had a bunch of sketchbooks and I showed them that stuff. I think Kim and Gary started to see that I was willing to do the work—that I had a work ethic. I think that was important to them. They were used to publishing people who petered out after an issue or two. They saw in my ethic that I was in it for the long haul, and they liked that. Then they—and this was sort of unique at the time—handed off the editing position for my first Fantagraphics book to Eric Reynolds. At that point, I don’t know if Eric was an editor yet. I think he had just edited Dirty Stories, which was that erotic comic anthology.
I remember that. So he was just getting started as an editor when he first worked with you.
He was the PR guy at that point.
Now, not being into comics in the late 90s was just a lull for you, right? You must have been reading comics as a kid.
Oh, when I was a kid I loved comics. I loved newspaper strips and MAD magazine. Then I moved on to Marvel. I was reading Marvel titles all through the 80s, collecting them no matter how fucking shitty they were. I got money to spend on comics by delivering newspapers, and I think there were periods of time when I’d have an allowance for a little bit, or Christmas money that accumulated. Shit like that.
And what were the first underground comics that you got?
Probably a Crumb comic. I think it was Uneeda Comix. The first time I saw that shit, it sort of scared me. I used to go this comics store in Harvard Square in Boston. It was called Million Year Picnic. That’s where I would get my superhero stuff, but they had a lot of underground shit hanging around and I was curious about it. I remember looking at this one comic where there was a story about a guy buying a Cabbage Patch Kid during that whole craze. He bought a Cabbage Patch Kid and he took it home and he fucked it. [laughs] It totally blew my mind. I was like, “What the fuck?”
Which comic was that?
It was called Gay Comics, so I guess it was a sex comic. It disturbed me, but it was sort of intriguing too—because it was so disturbing. As a kid, I would usually find that kind of thing horrifying yet strangely compelling. But, yeah, just by being a customer at this store, occasionally I would check out a couple of things. I remember finding another Crumb comic, the one where the guy fucks Bigfoot, and that disturbed me. He was checking out her hairy vagina, walking inside it and shit. That was fucking disturbing. I don’t think it was until late in high school or early in college that I started to kind of get into these things. I wasn’t disturbed by them anymore. I was more open to them. When those RAW collections were coming out, I was intrigued by them. They were running guys like Mark Beyer, Gary Panter, Richard Sala, and Charles Burns.
I remember buying a Zap-era Crumb compilation when I was in middle school, and my stepfather told my mom it was dirty, and she threw it away. Did your parents ever see the shit you were bringing home and give you a hard time about it?
No. Because even when I was a teenager, it was pretty much superhero stuff. I had a subscription to fucking X-Men. My parents didn’t care. And then when I started finding those RAW artists and their books… those guys are weird, but they’re not filthy. And those Crumb books? My parents, probably because they grew up in the sixties, had an affection for him in some way. They didn’t really know how vile and disgusting he could get.
From what you’ve told me in the past, it seems like you had a shitty childhood.
I mean, I wasn’t sexually molested. There are people who have had shittier childhoods. But it definitely wasn’t great.
Your dad was a physically abusive drunk.
He doesn’t sound like the kind of dad who would have been digging on Crumb.
But he was totally Mr. Hip. Have you read that 1976 story from Angry Youth Comix #5?
So you saw that he was very into being a hip guy. He was pretty much a hippie, but a weird kind of hippie. He had an enormous record collection. Chicago and all that shit. And he’d walk around the house nude. [laughs] And then, you remember back in the eighties when you’d see a guy with his fucking ear pierced and be like, “Holy shit, what the fuck’s going on here?” He was that guy.
See, I’d been picturing a character from Mystic River.
No. But even though he was into the hippie culture, he was still really angry and, of course, a drunk. He was very Catholic too. We all went to church. It was a weird juxtaposition of stuff.
Weren’t you pretty dedicated to Catholicism yourself as a kid?
I remember enjoying the taste of the communion wafer. It was like a nice treat at the end of mass. And I guess I was pretty intrigued by the stories of Moses and the plagues in Egypt, but that was probably from the Ten Commandments movie.
But you’ve told me that when you were around eight years old, you thought you might want to be a priest.
That’s true. I guess as a kid I must have enjoyed being Catholic on some level. I had an uncle who was a priest, so becoming one didn’t seem so crazy. He was a pretty fun guy. Priesting seemed like a cool way to make a living. I guess as I got older and my parents got divorced I began to lose interest. Also, celibacy doesn’t sound like a big deal when you’re a kid. But when I got to be 13 I was pretty sure that was a sacrifice I didn’t really want to make.
Are there any vestigial Catholic things in you now? For example, do you think Catholic guilt is a real thing?
Catholic guilt is real. From an early age I was taught that everything bad that happened to me, I deserved because of something I did or didn’t do—and that I didn’t deserve anything nice. If something nice happens to me now, I honestly have no idea how to deal with it. And even though I’m pretty much an atheist today, this shit was so pounded into me that I will never completely eliminate it from my mind.
So, your dad, what was he so angry about?
You know what? I don’t know. [laughs]
You never delved into it with him?
There are all these people who can tell you their parents’ whole life stories, but that’s not me. I couldn’t tell you my father’s birthday. I think it’s in November. My grandfather was a Boston cop, and I’m told he also had a drinking problem, so I’m sure shit runs downhill.
As a kid in that environment, were you scared all the time? Or were you pissed off?
Probably both. I remember my sister and I formed an ‘I Hate Dad’ club. [laughs] We would have regular meetings. He finally left when I was about 14. You see all these shows where the kids totally break down and scream and cry when that happens, but we were very matter of fact about it. We were just like, “Oh, ok. Whatever.”
You were probably relieved.
Yeah, and in a way we were thinking, “Something interesting has happened. That’s cool.” I still think we didn’t realize the amount of incredible mental damage that was being done to us. [laughs]
Sometimes when you’re a kid you don’t have a context. You only see what’s going on in your own family and so you don’t know things are fucked up until you get older.
It was just, “Well, that’s the way it is and now let’s move on to the next thing.” I still feel like that’s kind of how I deal with everything. Something bad happens and I go, “Well, ok. We have to keep moving forward.”
You’re totally Irish, right?
All of this sounds pretty damn Irish to me.
There’s some disgusting dago in me too.
You know the old chestnut from Freud about the Irish, right?
He said that they’re the only group of people that are impervious to psychotherapy. It was in The Departed. I think that the actual quote from Freud was something about how psychotherapy is of no use to the Irish race.
Oh really? I’ve always heard that the Irish are “inside out niggers.”
I’ve heard that a couple times too.
I think Jung said that. [laughs]
How did your life change when your dad split? Did you have a lot more freedom at that point?
It kind of fluctuated. My mom quickly started dating. She also had to work an extra job, which meant that she was gone a lot. My sister and I were left to take care of ourselves. And our high school was 45 minutes away, which further isolated us—or at least it isolated me.
Why did you go to school so far away?
It was a private school. My mother was a math teacher at the local high school, and she was determined that we were not going to the shitty place that she worked at. She had to get this extra job, and I think her parents helped too. They were able to finagle it so we went to this private school in Osterville, which is on Cape Cod. That was for eighth through twelfth grade.
Were you a misfit there?
In a way. I guess I was sort of invisible. I’m not going to say I wasn’t picked on. There were incidents, but it never got too bad. But, again, it was sort of isolating. I’d go to this school where all the other kids lived a few minutes away, so it wasn’t like I could hang out with them.
So you did get bullied? Did you ever do any bullying?
I guess a bit of both. When I was a little younger, I remember there was this kid on our school bus named Eugene. When you hear “Eugene,” your mind tends to think of a real geeky, nerdy type. But this kid wasn’t like that at all. He was a couple years older than me and he was kind of a wiseguy. He was making fun of my friend Paul Foley and I on the bus one day, and to retaliate we started singing this little singsong rhyme that was a version of “Rock On” by David Essex. It went:
“Eugene the wiffle queen / ugliest thing I’ve ever seen / see him shake on the movie screen / Eugene.”
It was pretty stupid, but he actually broke down in tears and ratted on us to the bus driver, who made us sit in the front of the bus for like a week. My sister told my parents. I got in trouble and my father beat the fucking shit out of me with his belt. The next time I saw my friend Paul I asked him if he got punished by his parents too and he said no, they just laughed.
You don’t talk much about your sister. What’s her story now?
She lives in Portland, Oregon… I think. She works for some solar panel company or some shit. I don’t know.
Ok. So what was the neighborhood that you lived in as a kid like?
I lived in a town called Manomet. It’s kind of a lower middle class suburb. Maybe it’s even more country than suburb. I don’t know what you’d call it. It’s maybe a mile or two from a nuclear power plant, but it’s also near the ocean so there are all these expensive oceanfront houses there. Most of the town was hillbilly country folk or, you know, as “hillbilly country folk” as people in Massachusetts can get. Most of the people who worked there drove around with a lawnmower in the back of their truck, doing landscaping and construction.
How far away did your dad go when he split?
All the way to New Hampshire. [laughs] He couldn’t fucking get farther away from us. When he left it wasn’t, “Oh, I get them on the weekends” or something. He left, and he was gone. Not only was he gone, but his side of the family seemed to be gone too. I had been pretty close with them. That’s where I feel I got my sense of humor, from him and his sisters and his parents. They were really brutal in their humor. It was wild—once he left they kind of tried a couple times to get in touch with us, but they were really lackadaisical. Their effort was lacking. They made this weak gesture and then were like, “Well, they must hate us. We’ll never call ‘em again.” I mean there were no Christmas cards or anything. They all just fucking abandoned us.
Even your grandparents on that side?
Oh yeah. My grandmother on my father’s side died a year or two ago, and my mother or my sister, somebody, found the obituary. My sister and I weren’t even named. We weren’t even mentioned. We never did anything to these people. I don’t know why they hate us so much. They claimed they were really afraid of my mother after the divorce, so they were afraid to call the house. Pretty lame excuse.
That sounds like bullshit, yeah.
I think that those people abandoning me was a bigger blow than my dad leaving. This is becoming a fucking—
It’s like a Barbara Walters Special. I hope you cry. But wait, tell me about the sense of humor on that side of the family. How did it manifest itself? Were they ripping on each other around the dinner table?
Yeah. When I was a kid I wasn’t obese, but I wasn’t in the best of shape. I had some nice tits, a nice gut.
[laughs] I wouldn’t have guessed that.
And they would totally rain insults down on me. “You’re fat,” “You watch TV all the time,” “You wouldn’t understand this because it’s not about comic books.” They were merciless. Sometimes they would go too far and since I was just a kid, I would break down. [laughs] But at the same time, you could tell that was just their way of relating.
A lot of families show affection that way.
That’s sort of where my sense of humor comes from; berating and humiliating other people.
From growing up in a bear pit.
Right. Isn’t that how everybody relates to each other?
Did you give it back to them?
That’s the thing: they could dish it out but they couldn’t take it. At least not from somebody who was eleven. It didn’t happen too often, but if I did sass them back in a way that they didn’t like, I would really get it.
They would ramp it up?
Yeah. Like when we had a dinner party at our house and I tried to make fun of my father. I had a bald cap that I paired with this really skeezy brown woman’s wig that used to be my grandmother’s. I kind of cocked the brown wig back a little on the bald plate. Then I came down the stairs and pretended to be my father. That didn’t go over well. He was a really vain guy, especially in the ‘80s. We didn’t have a lot of money, we were struggling to get by, but he had no problem buying expensive clothes and wearing perfume. Whenever there was some kind of trend going on, like urban cowboy or whatever, he would get into it.
And a big Stetson hat with feathers in it. Then he got into photography, and he’d buy expensive Olympus cameras, and then he got into hockey and bought fucking every goddamn thing you could ever need in the world. More shit than Bobby Orr ever had.
Was your dad a brawler? I mean, did he just beat up on his kids or did he get into fights at bars too?
No way was he fighting in bars. And it wasn’t like he was beating my mother up or nothing. He just beat us because we were kids. He was a fucking wimp.
So with your grandfather and father being angry, violent drunks, how did you avoid becoming one?
As I got older, into high school and shit, everybody was obsessed with drinking culture. But—and I don’t know if this was because of my father—I was not into drinking. I don’t think I even got drunk until I was 26 or 27. It was really important to me not to be like my dad. And I’m also very much a contrarian, which didn’t really do wonders for my social life.
Did you have a girlfriend in high school?
No. I only had a couple friends at all, and they were people that would take the hour-and-a-half bus ride with me to school every day. We were stuck on this bus for so long it almost forced us to be friends. But as far as other people in the school, there were some I was kind of friendly with, but I never developed a friendship with them. There were geeks and stuff at the school but for some reason I never really clicked too well with them either.
That’s usually the clique for all of the misfits and refugees.
I never could take their shit seriously. I remember this one time, there was this guy who was having a birthday party. I think I was in twelfth grade. I was probably sixteen or seventeen. He had a birthday party at his house with some friends. I was sort of friendly with him so I was like, “Ok, I’ll go.” It was something to do. These were the only other guys in school who actually liked comics. I got there and I realized that they obviously all hung out a lot together. I was the new guy. Then they started getting dressed up and grabbing their toy guns. They were going out in the woods to play Army.
At seventeen? These are high school seniors you’re talking about?
Yes. And whenever they would try to play Dungeons and Dragons, I would be the guy who would sit there and try to get into it but couldn’t help mocking it. Finally they were like, “Get this guy out of here.”
You know, up to a certain point you have the perfect biography for a budding serial killer.
[laughs] I never really killed any people.
And you never tortured any animals?
Never felt sexually attracted to fire?
No, but for some reason the thought of you burning to death is giving me a boner.
I don’t think I ever would have… I wasn’t violent in that way. I never really got into fights. I never really was into that whole, “Oh, if only I could kill somebody I’d be so relieved” thing.
[laughs] OK, OK. I was just kidding. It’s scary how seriously you’re taking the question.
Oh, sorry. [laughs] I’m not!
So what was a social outlet for you when you were in high school?
But wait, I was going to say that sometimes I do enjoy burning ants with magnifying glasses.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
But that’s it.
And you like masturbating to photos of car wrecks.
Yeah. Alarma magazine, that’s what I jerk off to.
Greatest magazine in the world. But come on, what would you do for kicks in high school?
[laughs] This is high school: I would get up at fucking six, six-thirty in the morning. I would probably watch Voltron or fucking Mary Tyler Moore or some shit. Then I would get on the bus, and that would take an hour and a half because we would have to creep along the backroads of Cape Cod to pick up every fucking kid. I’d get to school, and school was from nine to whenever. I wouldn’t get home until five. By then I was totally exhausted and I was so loaded up with homework that I would just do that all night and then go to bed and do the same thing the next day. I didn’t really have a social life other than watching TV.
What about weekends? I mean, throw me something here.
And I did homework.