You sounded kind of uncomfortable when I asked you about your first girlfriend, so let’s get back to that.
How did you meet her?
It sort of came out of work. When I got out of college I was going from one shitty job to the next. I probably had 20 or 30 jobs. I had a really difficult time with authority, so when somebody would yell at me or tell me what to do in a way that I didn’t like, I’d just quit. Then my mother would get all fucking pissed off. It was a nightmare. But at one point, I was working in a bookstore in Hyannis. It was a Borders. I worked there for about a year, in the back scanning books into a computer. There was a woman who worked there and we started up a relationship. She was six years older than me, she had four kids, and she was going through a divorce right at that moment.
Her husband was a fucking maniac. It wasn’t one of those divorces you see on TV where the husband and wife get along. It was really acrimonious. They were crazy.
What attracted you to her?
She was the first person who seemed to have any interest in me sexually. [laughs] So that was a big attraction, I guess.
So you lost your virginity to her?
How long did that relationship last?
Three and a half years.
Would you go out with her and her kids to Chuck E. Cheese?
No. It was almost like dating somebody who was in prison. She couldn’t leave the house because she had to take care of these kids. Every once in a while, when the kids would be off with their father, we could do something. But most of the time we had to hang around her house and the kids would be there too.
It was pretty rough.
How did it end?
She got a job as a receptionist somewhere, and I think she might have met somebody at her new work. All of a sudden she started to get real cold, and then it was just over. Although she kind of tried to bring me back every once in a while.
She bootycalled you?
Yeah, I guess. And then I got a new girlfriend, and the older one kept creeping around trying to break that up. That seemed to bother her.
What a blast. [laughs]
I’ve had a fucking disturbing life.
Pretty much. I mean, it’s no more or less disturbing than lots of people’s, but I’m surprised by some of it.
Which part is surprising—besides the long hair?
Well, your first girlfriend being some lady with four kids is out of the ordinary.
I became like the fifth kid. I was there to be the older brother who would taunt them and tease them.
And then fuck their mom.
I’m also surprised by how much of an abusive jerkoff your dad was, because most of the people I’ve known who grew up being seriously physically abused are messes in much more overt ways than you are. They’re drunks or they’re violent. It’s kind of a cliché, but it happens a lot.
Sure. But I think a lot of it does come out through my work. And also, my mother’s side of the family are experts in repressing stuff deep down. I think I get that from them—a combination of incredible, insane rage and enormous repression.
Which comes out in your work.
It’ll probably come out in my health too. [laughs]
You’re going to have a heart attack when you’re 50.
At this point, Johnny and I adjourned and made plans to have another session a few days later. In the interim, his wife Jenny (who some of you may know from her previous life as brilliant zinester Queen Itchie, of Everything I Touch Turns To Shit And Garbage fame), sent me some interesting messages on Facebook.
Jenny Ryan: When Johnny has his crazy “fightmares,” he sometimes wakes up in a pool of sweat—like his entire side of the bed is soaked through down to the mattress as if he really has just gone through a life-or-death fight. It’s insane. I think he needs a lobotomy. Also his mom used to gather the kids and have them help her photograph his drunk dad passed out naked on the floor. He stole their college money to buy designer clothes too. Crazy shit!
Jesse Pearson: That is some really good stuff right there. I’ll follow up on it when I talk to him again. Please send me more Johnny tidbits as they come to you. You’re my informant on the inside.
Jenny Ryan: I’m your mole!! He has many characteristics which make for a good serial killer but he is actually pretty gentle and kind. He loves animals (we have two cats and a dog he dotes on) and regularly donates money to animal welfare charities. After Dan Clowes had open-heart surgery it scared the shit out of Johnny and he started working out regularly. He runs & lifts weights 3-4x a week. He doesn’t drink caffeine b/c it gives him arrhythmia and a doctor once told him he may have Marfan Syndrome, which I think Abe Lincoln had too. Something to do with long arms and circulation issues?
There is nothing he will not joke about and sometimes this is his only way of coping. When our baby was stillborn last October and I was lying in the hospital bed, he said he hoped our next baby wouldn’t be such a fucking wimp. It sounds horrible but at the time I needed to hear something like that a lot more than I needed the greeting cards people kept sending that said our baby was a fucking angel looking down on us. I think he has trouble getting close to people because of this kind of thing, but I’m a bit like that too so I found it reassuring. Of course he did cry too but only for a bit.
He has the best work ethic of any artist I know, and I’ve known a ton from my time working at NY Press & Fantagraphics back in the day. Most work very sporadically & are lazy. Johnny treats it like a real job and can barely keep up with the crazy ideas coming out of him. He has two animation deals in development right now. One for kids at Nickelodeon with Dave Cooper (Johnny’s the writer) and one for adults with Warner Bros for Adult Swim (he’s the co-creator/artist/writer). I think he’s a really entertaining writer and will probably do more and more of it in the future. I think he is writing a horror movie, or planning to, but I’m not sure.
He hates flat-chests and short hair on ladies. I’ve probably babbled way too much, sorry!
PS: He has a tattoo of Nancy that he got at an illegal tattoo house party in New England. And children LOVE him because he is wry and sarcastic to them and also makes fart jokes. But he did once make an autistic kid cry when he told him, “Sharing sucks!!”
A day or two later, Johnny and I continued…
So, Johnny, Jenny told me that your mom used to get you and your sister together to photograph your drunk slob of a dad.
Yeah. There was one time I remember when he got so drunk, he passed out on the bathroom floor. My mother thought this was fucking hilarious, so she brought us in to look. We had this camera, and we took pictures of it. [laughs] Later on, when my father found out, he ransacked my sister’s room to find the photos. I must have been nine years old or so.
That story tells me that your mother has a similar sense of humor to you.
She does. But like I said, I think it mostly comes from my father’s side. My mother appreciated that kind of stuff too, otherwise they wouldn’t have been together. Here’s another thing: My father was really proud of his record collection. He had a whole huge stereo and all this shit, with the big fucking headphones. He would sit next to it and listen to his Jefferson Starship record, and he would be singing along. But he would have the headphones on, so we would just hear him singing. My sister and my mother and I used to record it. [laughs] That’s another thing he used to ransack the house for—these recordings of him drunkenly singing along with Jefferson Starship and Steely Dan.
In a lot of families, if the dad was an abusive drunk, everyone would be afraid to make fun of him or to even engage with him at all.
I think we saw it as, “Now it’s our turn to get back at you.” Even though we knew that he would beat the shit out of us at the drop of a hat, there were those moments where it was kind of our turn to do something damaging to him.
Jenny also reminded me that he took your college money and bought fancy clothes.
Yeah. My grandparents started college funds when my sister and I were born. My dad tapped into them. I don’t know specifically what he bought with the money, but my mother told me that he once bought these fancy velvet pants. And then I guess his car broke down one night, and it was pouring rain, and the pants were ruined. So I incorporated those amazing pants into my comic about him. Anyway, yeah, he blew through our college money to buy stuff. In addition to being an alcoholic, he was also a shopaholic.
He sounds like an early metrosexual or something.
Very much so. He was a real dandy. I remember, at the height of that eighties new wave, Culture Club shit, he bought me a shirt. I think it was for my birthday. It was a maroon pullover with a crew neck, and it had these black shoulder pad things. The shoulders were really pointy. It looked like something Flock Of Seagulls or Gary Numan would wear. He presented this to me, and I knew that if I wore it to school I would be annihilated. I was trying to be all, “Oh, thank you,” but he could tell that I didn’t want it at all. And he was pissed.
He probably wanted it for himself.
It was too small for him. My sister actually started wearing it.
I’m just going down the Jenny list right now… She mentioned that when Dan Clowes was having heart problems, it scared you. It made you change your lifestyle.
It wasn’t the only reason, but it was food for thought.
So what do you do? You work out?
Yeah, I go to the gym more regular now. I used to drink soda all the time too. I totally cut that out. I figured that was the easiest thing to cut out of a diet.
And then you go to a gym and lift weights?
I go to the Y and use those lifting machines and I run on the treadmill. I go pretty early, when all the normal people are still asleep. It’s just me and old people.
Do you think about death and ageing a lot?
Not really. I mean, last week, when I thought I was going to have a heart attack, I was thinking about it. But no, I don’t really think about that stuff. I’ve got blinders on. I’m totally focused on trying to make a living. I keep moving forward with that. But then there are points when I take the blinders off and I realize, “God, my whole life is passing me by. I’m wasting my fucking life doing these stupid comics.”
What do you mean? What else would you be doing if you weren’t doing comics? What’s wrong with the job you have?
Well, exactly. That’s my initial thought when I’m talking myself down. What else am I going to do?
You’re not loaded, but you’re making a living drawing comics. I think a lot of people would envy that.
You ungrateful bastard.
I’m getting by.
Jenny also brought up the stillbirth that you guys dealt with earlier this year. I wasn’t sure if I was going to ask you about that during this interview. Do you mind talking about it?
I don’t have a problem talking about it. If she brought it up, I’ll talk about it. Usually when I don’t want to go there, it’s because I’m concerned about upsetting her.
She brought it up in a very specific context, which is how you dealt with it using humor. She told me that when you were in the hospital with her, you made a joke along the lines of, “I hope our next baby’s not such a fucking wimp.”
[laughs] That’s true. But that’s how I deal with everything.
Do you ever consider the time and place and think, “Maybe I shouldn’t say this right now?” Or is it kind of a Tourette’s-y thing that you have?
It can depend. There have been moments when I say stuff and then I think, “Uh-oh, I shouldn’t have said that.”
Years ago, I was on a sort of blind double date with a friend of mine. He was going out with this girl and he said, “She’s got a friend. Do you want to come out too? Come out with us.” So we decided to go see Cliffhanger. [laughs] We meet up with them and this girl that his girlfriend brings is fucking enormous. We’re driving to the movie theater and they’re talking about how she had been on her bike recently and she got hit by a truck. And, not even thinking, I said, “How’s the truck?” [laughs] It took me a couple of seconds before I was like, “Oh shit.” I didn’t even realize that what I was saying was a fat joke. It just came out of me from… someplace. The rest of the date was awkward.