Alright, so then you go to college. I know you went to UMass Amherst when you were 17. Was is it a big shock not having to be so isolated anymore?
Kind of. I wasn’t looking forward to having to share a room with somebody and having to use a public shower. But I got used to it. I had a pretty good roommate, which made the transition a lot easier.
Oh wait, I forgot that I wanted to ask what kind of music you listened to in high school.
It was when that wave of classic rock radio was big, so I was listening to a lot of Pink Floyd and whatever the fuck else. A lot of sixties stuff.
You weren’t a punk?
No. At that private school I had hair down to my shoulders.
I can’t imagine you ever not having the same fashion sense as you do now. I picture you coming out of the womb with the 50s hair and the hornrim glasses.
I didn’t have these glasses in high school.
And you had long hair? I have to see a photo of this.
It was almost like Easy Rider back then. You’d go into a restaurant and you’d be sitting there and literally hear people at the next table going, “Look at that guy. I’d like to cut his hair.” They’d get really angry. It was amazing. Now you see someone with long hair, and who gives a shit? But even in my high school I could sense the rage that my hair was causing with people. They were just so angry that I was walking around with this hair.
Hippie Johnny. I love it.
The hair I had before that was really fucking humiliating. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a barber, and for some reason he felt that the best haircut for me was the Prince Valiant.
For some reason, I knew you were going to say that.
It was serious. It looked like he used a fucking protractor. Each angle was 90 degrees. It was a total Nazi helmet head, and I had that until I was probably eleven or twelve.
Goddamn. I would have beat you up too if I were your dad.
[laughs] He was the one who allowed it.
He just wanted to make you an easier target for his rage.
He was the one sitting there like, “Yeah, give him a haircut. You know the one.”
“Make him look like something I want to hit.” But let’s move on. What was your first girlfriend like?
[laughs] Um… She was a divorced woman with four children.
I’m not bullshitting.
This was in college?
No, it wasn’t until I was 23 or 24. I can’t remember now.
Where were you living?
I was living back at home in Manomet. I got out of college and I didn’t know what the fuck to do. I had an English degree, and my initial plan was to go to grad school. I had gotten accepted to some university in England. But I didn’t have the money for it, and I had to fucking bail. So I was stuck with an English degree. I wanted to become some kind of writer.
A fiction writer?
Yeah. It was a real difficult period because I would be writing whatever book I was trying to do during the day while my mother was at work. She would come home around four or five in the afternoon and I would go and hide at the library.
Things were very tense in the house. My mother was extremely pissed that I was just sitting there not doing anything. I remember once she came into my room and was like, “You know there’s an Oprah on right now about sons that leech off their mothers. I want you to come down and watch it with me.”
No. At that point my relationship with her was incredibly strained. It was like living in a Bergman movie—a couple of people in a small area completely not communicating with each other.
What kind of fiction were you trying to write? Who were you influenced by?
Faulkner and Joyce. A lot of the modern people.
So you were doing complicated, ornate stories?
My intial thinking was that the more opaque your writing is, the more important it is and the more profound it is. I would have these fantasies like, “Hundreds and hundreds of years from now when people are reading my stuff, they’ll be trying to figure it out and writing all these books trying to decipher what I was saying.” It took me a while to get out of that and be like, “You’re a fucking idiot.” What’s the point of writing if you aren’t able to communicate what you’re thinking? So I did a 180 on that and quit trying to be so obtuse.
Your comics, at least up until recently, which we’ll get to, couldn’t have been more direct in terms of story.
That was something I was very concerned with from the start of doing comics. Visually, am I getting my point across? Is the writing clear? I would even do this thing where I would go over the lettering to make it as clear as possible. When you look at something like Nancy, the lettering and the drawings are so clear that you can’t help but read it. I wanted to do that too—make comics that were easy and simple to read.
How did you go from fiction to comics?
I would spend all day writing my novel, but then I was doing these comics—just things on notebook paper—and I would mail them out to a few friends, who were very encouraging. They were like, “These are hilarious, we love them, keep sending them.” And then another friend would hear about it and say, “Hey, send them to me too.” It started to accumulate. And then these same friends were like, “You know that writing you’re doing? You need to fucking put that to the side. Comics are what you’re good at.”
If you had been successful as a writer of this serious, baroque fiction, would you still have been ‘Johnny’? Or would you have been ‘John Ryan’?
That’s a good question. Probably John.
I think so.
The Johnny sort of came later, because at that point I was still going by Jay. My father’s name was John, his father’s name was John. I’m the fourth. John Francis Ryan IV. So in order to stop the insane confusion, my parents decided to call me Jay. While I was growing up I was Jay, and I almost found it kind of humiliating when people would find out what my real name was. Then when I got out of college and I had to apply for jobs, I’d have to apply with my real name. I didn’t want to be like, “Yeah, my name’s John, but call me Jay.” It just seemed like such a fucking headache. So I was sort of like, “Whatever, call me John.”
But then to go from John to Johnny is a strangely significant leap.
It is. What happened was I started working at this bookstore and this guy that I was working with, who was like the store clown, started calling me Johnny. I thought that was funny, and at that time I was already involved in doing my comics and I thought that it was right for them. But I think if you look at the first batch of my comics, I was always J. Ryan.
Johnny is the perfect name for the kind of comics that you’ve done for the bulk of your career so far. “Johnny” sounds like a creepy jerk who smears shit on the walls.
I thought it was sort of appropriate for doing these crazy, funny books. So I used it. A lot of people think I made my name up. But no, it’s my name. And now that my father’s out of the picture it doesn’t matter. No more confusion.
Is he dead?
No, he’s still alive. My sister’s kind of creepy, she’s been looking on Google… what’s that Google thing?
She’s been Google-Earthing my father. [laughs]
What, like his house?
Yeah. She’s examining his fucking house. My mother was telling me about that and I was like, “Ugh.” That’s something it never even occurred to me to do.
Let’s talk about drawing for a minute. How young were you when you realized that you were good at it?
Fairly young. But it’s weird, I don’t know if I looked at what I did and was like, “I can draw” or if I was more like, “It’s fun to draw.” It seemed to come to me early on, though, drawing and my love of comics. I would also make little homemade newspapers for my family.
“This just in: Dad’s An Asshole”?
[laughs] I don’t think I could have done that without getting fucking beaten. There was one point when my sister and I conspired to steal and hide my father’s belt, and then there was this whole interrogation where we each were brought into a room: “Where is the belt?” [laughs]
What are some of your earliest memories of drawing?
The first comic I drew was about a stupid detective named I.M. Horny. His assistant would solve the crimes, but he would take the credit. At the time I thought “horny” meant crazy. I was seven.
Did you show I.M. Horny to your parents?
Yeah. They laughed at me, but I thought they were laughing at the comic.
What’s the earliest instance that you remember your drawings offending or angering someone?
I was in third grade, I think. I was drawing asses and shitting all over my folder and the teacher saw it. She flipped. I don’t remember what she said. I only remember her white-hot rage.
Did you ever have a teacher who tried to support your talent?
During my last year of high school there was an art teacher who was very encouraging about the comics thing. He used to cut out panels from Mary Worth and have me copy them.
Have you sent him any of your published work?
Yeah. His name is Mr. Neal. I’m still kind of in touch with him. And actually, I had another art teacher, Mrs. Joyce, who took a shine to me in high school and encouraged my artistic talents too. She even gave me a big book on van Gogh when I graduated. Years later I was working in a bookstore and she came in and I told her about the comic I was doing. She said she’d like to see it, so I sent her one. I didn’t hear from her for quite a while. Then maybe a year or so later I saw her again, and she seemed visibly nervous. I asked her if she ever got my comic. She said she had and that it had disturbed her so much she didn’t know what to say. It was just too much for her to take.
When you were very young, did you ever think that comics could end up being a career?
When I was in third or fourth grade, if I had been asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would have said, “Cartoonist.” But as I got older I got interested in other things for a while. I also come from a really practical family. My sister was an art major, and I knew that my family really looked down on that. “It’s just a waste of time, it’s not very practical.” Stuff like that. That’s sort of where I’m coming from—this place where art is really looked down on. I think there was a part of me that wanted to fit into normal society and just be a normal person.
But by those standards, being a fiction writer’s not much better.
That came a little later. When I first went into college, I was going to do some kind of science. Physics or something like that. I was pretty good at math and science. Over the course of my first and second years I changed my mind.
Let’s get back to that time when you were going from fiction to comics. Is there a clearly defined turning point you can remember?
I was writing fiction every day, but it was hard work. It was really hard work. The comics were more fun, and I seemed to be getting a better reaction from them. More people seemed to be interested in the comics. Nobody seemed to be interested in this fucking stupid writing I was doing. So it was almost a relief in a way. “Ok, it’s a lot more fun to do this, so I’ll do this.”
When I told you a few years back that I was interested in writing fiction you ripped on me pretty bad.
No, I didn’t.
Yeah, you did. You totally made fun of me.
You discouraged me.
I don’t even remember what I said.
A bunch of shit about, “Go write your fucking book, loser.” Things of that nature.
Sounds painful. I drew that nice cover for your upcoming novel.
It’s still on my Facebook.
I’m Loving It.
Do you ever think that you might try to write fiction again? You have recurring characters, and you know how to tell a story. Do you ever think that you might, now that you know how to tell a story without being so Joyceian, give it another shot?
I don’t think so, only because I would need to have that urge to do it. If I’m suddenly feeling like, “Oh, I have a good idea for a short story and it’ll be great and doing it’ll be great, and spending the next sixth months, year, two years working on it will be so much fun,” then, you know, maybe. But as of today? No.