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The Johnny Ryan Interview

A page from Prison Pit 3.

 

Now let’s talk about the fairly recent shift in your work. The subjects—and to some degree the style—started to go into a contemporary H.P. Lovecraft kind of a thing, a horror and sci-fi place. There’s still anger and guts and violence, but the humor is very different—when there even is humor. You really took a risk making that change. You built up a reputation and a fan base with one specific kind of work and then you totally started to switch it up.

It’s hard when you spend your whole career shitting on everything and not taking anything seriously, and then you want to do something serious yourself. [laughs]

Right.

Or at least something that’s attempting seriousness. When I was first doing book one of Prison Pit, I felt like even though it was about monster men and fighting and all that shit, it was revealing more about myself than any of my earlier works. I removed a lot of that aggressive humor that was working as my armor.

Prison Pit is a lot more abstracted in the way that it tells stories. It’s more mysterious, whereas your comedy stuff is super direct. And it’s true—although it’s counterintuitive—that you seem to be revealing more of yourself there.

With the Angry Youth stuff and the Blecky stuff, I was always very concerned with telling as many jokes as I possibly could, with cramming as much fucking shit inside a 24 or 28-page comic as I could. I wanted people to get their three bucks worth. So it’s all really hyperkinetic. Things are flying around and you’re constantly being bashed over the head with jokes every single fucking panel. And then with Prison Pit, because it was sort of a longer format, I thought, ‘With this one I am going to slow it down and take my time and not have to constantly be throwing shit into the reader’s face every second.’

Were you developing stuff like Prison Pit all along while you were doing Angry Youth? Or did you make a shift that was kind of total?

When I initially pitched Prison Pit to Eric Reynolds, I was thinking I would just do it as a regular comic book and it would run simultaneously with Angry Youth Comix. Because it didn’t seem like it would fit in Angry Youth, even though that was something Fantagraphics suggested—have a Loady McGee story, a Boobs Pooter story, and then a Prison Pit story all in the same magazine. [laughs] I was like, “That doesn’t seem like it would work very well.”

No.

So I thought maybe it could be its own separate comic book. But Fantagraphics isn’t doing comic books anymore—or at least they’re phasing them out. They want books that are going to be able to be sold in a bookstore, not just at a fucking comics store. That’s when I was just like, “Fuck it, I’ll do it as a book.” And that, in turn, made phasing out Angry Youth Comix easier. If I was going to be making a book, I was going to have to devote myself to that book.

A page from Prison Pit 3.

Is Prison Pit in any way a response to Powr Mastrs?

It was definitely an inspiration, but Prison Pit is a combination of a couple different things. I’ve mentioned my interest in horror movies, and how I used to like superhero comics. I liked wrestling too. Powr Mastrs excited me in that here was a guy who didn’t have a traditional drawing style. He has a great style, and it’s definitely a weird, off-center approach even though it’s totally in the straight-up fantasy/sci-fi genre. And he was taking it seriously. There was no irony. This wasn’t like Flaming Carrot where it was, “Let’s make fun of superheroes and let’s show people how ridiculous science fiction can be.” CF is obviously a fan of those things and he wanted to include them in his work. I was like, “I kind of want to do the same thing.” I think that a superhero, a science fiction story, or a horror story can be good. Actually good. It’s weird that a lot of alternative dudes will go to the movies and they’ll see Spider-Man, but as far as the comic goes, they’ll take a shit on it. Then they’ll go see Batman at the movies or watch fucking Lost on TV, but any of that kind of shit in comics and they’re like, “Fuck this, this is fucking gay.” I was thinking, “Well, I like those types of movies and I like that kind of stuff. Why should I not include it in my own work?”

I know that you’ve been really into manga for a while too.

I was reading a lot of manga when I was starting Prison Pit. And I was reading Berserk, and that was a huge influence on me. I was totally amazed by this crazy alternate medieval era, all this superviolent insanity. I loved it.

Were you already at work on Prison Pit when you saw Powr Mastrs for the first time?

No, Powr Mastrs definitely came out before that.

So you ripped CF off basically.

Totally. I don’t know what he thinks about my book or me or my stuff. I don’t know if he fucking thinks I suck.

You guys have met, haven’t you?

We met briefly at a gallery show. He was perfectly nice.

Does he wear pantaloons and silk scarves and special tri-corner hats and carry a laser sword?

When I saw him he sort of had a fancy haircut and he had… I don’t know if they were cha-cha heels or what. Some thick-heeled boot. He’s definitely a cool customer.

Would you say he’s handsome in the face?

[laughs] Totally. We’re talking fucking Stud City.

The lead character in Prison Pit is named Cannibal Fuckface—which abbreviates to CF. Was that a little nod?

Not really. That name happened by accident. I was going to call him Fuckface because that’s sort of what the guards call him in the beginning of the book. But then I happened to be reading a Garth Ennis comic. It was part of a run of Nick Fury for Marvel—the Marvel Max line for adults. There was a bad guy called Fuckface in there. I was like,”Ah, shit.” So I added ‘Cannibal.’ Then when Fantagraphics did the press release, they just called him CF. I didn’t even realize, so maybe it was an unconscious thing on my part. Maybe it annoys CF that I accidentally named a character after him.

What do you remember about the reaction when Prison Pit first came out?

When I was working on it I was very concerned. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I wasn’t sure if it was the right move, or if I was going to be laughed out of the fucking business for the wrong reasons. But the reaction was pretty positive and it continues to be. I’m actually getting a better reaction for this stuff than all the stuff I did previous to it.

When I first saw it, I felt strangely relieved. I never thought about it before then, but when I read Prison Pit I was glad that you were trying new things. I wouldn’t want to see you at 60 years old, cranking out Sinus and Loady stories.

I don’t want to be one of those cartoonists, like Tony Millionare, who’s doing the same fucking shit over and over again.

Oh my. Is that on the record?

[laughs] Sure, what the fuck.

Aren’t you guys friends?

Yeah. He can take it. Almost every comic artist gets into these rhythms where they have the same characters that they’re doing for the rest of their lives. I wondered what would happen if I didn’t do that. What if I came up with a different character in a different book and a completely different approach to how I was drawing?

Do you have any über-fans who think you sold out or something?

I never hear anybody say, “Fuck this shit! Why don’t you go back to drawing Loady McGee?” But I do sometimes get, “So you’re not going to do another Angry Youth Comix again?” There seems to be some sadness about that. I always think it’s funny because when I first started doing shit with Fantagraphics, people were like, “Before he worked for Fantagraphics he was much better.” And then with each issue it was, “I like what you did in the last issue better.”

There are always those sorts of fans, where any kind of progress on the artist’s part is seen as a betrayal.

I’ve never gotten hate mail but I have received a lot of backhanded compliments. “I like this, but I liked what you used to do more.”

A page from Johnny's first sci-fi / alternate dimensions era.

There’s this other side to your more recent work, which I might like even better than Prison Pit. I’m talking about those short stories you’ve been doing that are full of all that interdimensional demon shit. Is that primarily coming out of your horror movie fandom?

Yeah, and my Lovecraft fandom. If you look at the last couple of Angry Youth Comix, things were starting to get darker and more violent. The final Boobs Pooter story ended with him smearing blood all over his face. It’s this psychopathic moment, like a revelation.

It’s the Dahmer version of Boobs Pooter.

Yeah. So if you look at that progression, you can definitely see what’s about to happen. I’m just getting angrier as time goes on. [laughs] I’m getting more pissed.

What I’m waiting for you to do now are longer narrative pieces that have more dialogue and storytelling. Prison Pit is long, and it has a story, but the focus is on the action. Jenny alluded to you writing a horror script. What’s up with that?

It might be a pipe dream, but I kind of want to give it a shot.

What kind of horror is it? Is it slasher? Is it supernatural?

It’s definitely supernatural. My favorite stuff is body horror. John Carpenter’s The Thing and shit. So it’s along those lines. But it’s one of those things where I have ideas that I think are cool—that I think visually could be cool in a movie—and now it’s just a matter of connecting the dots and fucking coming up with characters.

What about Prison Pit? Do you know how many issues it’s going to be?

The plan is six. I’m going to say six, but it depends on how I feel after number six. If I feel like I could still keep going, then I’ll keep going.

And number three just came out. You’re not bored with it? You’re still happy doing it?

I’m still into it. But cartooning can get boring no matter what you’re doing. [laughs] Day in, day out, you’re alone in your room. Facebook is calling you.

You like Facebook that much?

I’m just giving that as an example. You’re just looking for something to distract you. “Do I want to sit here for two hours crosshatching, or do I want to Google ‘tits’?”

That’s how you find your porn? You just type ‘tits’ into Google?

Tits.com, man.

You ever try Googling just ‘tit,’ singular?

Tit?

Yeah. That leads to really interesting stuff.

[laughs] You ever Google ‘tit’ but with a dollar sign after it?

No, but I’ve Googled ‘tit’ with an infinity sign next to it.

Holy shit, you’ll fucking travel through time.

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30 Responses to The Johnny Ryan Interview

  1. patrick ford says:

    GREAT MOMENTS IN COMICS HISTORY

    Al Jaffe (TCJ #301): “I get a big bang out of it. I think Johnny Ryan is very talented; I think his stuff is very funny.”

  2. patrick ford says:

    Brilliant.

    Johnny Ryan: “My initial thinking was that the more opaque your writing is, the more important it is and the more profound it is.”

    Of course you see this in comics as well where some people think things which are either so opaque or so wispy that they could mean almost anything are examples of intellectual profundity. Greatest comics page of all time:
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_h4TQjdq9GPE/TJL4sRtsCgI

  3. Swampcrotch says:

    i googled ‘tit’ singular and all i got was birds and boobs, i was hoping for some sorta cyclops nipple situation.

  4. Swampcrotch says:

    great interview, by the way. i’ve never read a JR comic, what’s a good one to start with?

  5. Eric Reynolds says:

    I think I’ve read every interview with Johnny ever conducted, and this was hands down the best ever. Great stuff.

  6. My copy of Prison Pit #3 finally showed up. Surprising shift in style. Can’t wait for #4!

  7. Totally awesome, groovy interview, homies. Solid.

  8. COOP says:

    Best Johnny Ryan interview ever! I was laughing out loud! (… if only they were a quicker way to express that.)

  9. Nicholas Gazin says:

    This is the interview I always wanted to do and couldnt get. Incredible stuff.

  10. danieljmata says:

    Am I the only one who thinks Prison Pit is the only good comic he has ever done? I’ve read a TON of his stuff, and it sure seems that way….

  11. Robert Lamb says:

    This was fantastic. You BOTH had me laughing out loud. Great job.

  12. CM says:

    far out, that dan clowes comic looks hilarious

  13. CM says:

    can’t wait to see Johnny giving an anthropomorphized adult swim television a rimjob

  14. Ali Almezal says:

    Is that first picture satire? If so, who is it directed at? It looks like a bit of shock art using an easy target. I mean, I did find it funny, but I don’t see it as satire.

  15. eat my coffinmouth!

  16. kim deitch says:

    I like Johnny Ryan. He has a winning way about him.

  17. Sean T. Collins says:

    I hear that, man.

  18. I think you’re the only one.

  19. steven samuels says:

    “There’s never been anything I’ve done that they were like, “We can’t do this.” Oh, except there was one thing. The original title of my book Triple X Scumbag Party was Let’s Be Assholes. Fantagraphics sort of passed the buck and said, “Well, Norton’s not going to let us do that.” ”

    “Let’s Be Assholes?” Aw, Gary & Kim thought Johnny was talking about them!

    BOOM!

  20. steven samuels says:

    That Spanish comics festival that Ryan mentioned on pg. 5 was covered by TCJ in issue #243 (VERY NSFW):

    http://archives.tcj.com/index.php?option=com_cont

    …….proving without a doubt that Ryan isn’t the only one with a sick sense of humor.

  21. jeffmaxweed says:

    Start with Angry Youth #6. (My personal fave – it includes the first Boobs Pooter cartoons, as well as the autobiographical comic mentioned in the interview)

  22. jeffmaxweed says:

    Fantagraphics: Please consider publishing a complete volume of his self-published works. Portajohnny is great, but leaves me craving more…

  23. rake says:

    please return as soon as possible to angry youth comix and do please forget about prison pit. thank you.

  24. Coco says:

    Wimp. There, I said it.

  25. Henry says:

    Great interview! Thanks!

  26. Tony Solomun says:

    fantastic interview,I’ve only recently come across Johhny’s work,though it is hilarious,and a I like the fact that Mr Ryan is open to doing commissions and prints on his website,here’s to more terrific books from him,best,

  27. stef says:

    “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. ”

    honestly i hate seeing that shit it pisses me off.

  28. Ted Rall says:

    He stole my style.

  29. Glands says:

    Stop doing the same shit over and over again, Millionaire!

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