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Angry Youth Comix #6
posted June 19, 2004
Johnny Ryan had his first Fantagraphics Books comic published in December 2000. As expected from all humor cartoonists publishing their work through alternative comics publishers, Ryan immediately underwent a lengthy initiation period (known in the trade as an "Altergott") where at every opportunity he was angrily denounced for the asserted obvious lousiness of his work. If you heard of Ryan before January of this year, you were probably made aware that his comics are stupid, crude, and ugly in the way that anyone with a sharpie, twenty minutes and an unhealthy amount of self-loathing could replicate. It takes a brave critic to express his admiration for a cartoonist when they are being held up daily as evidence in nerd court of a thriving publisher's decline. I am not that critic. It is only because Ryan survived humor comic purgatory entirely on his own that everyone can now nod in agreement with me as I safely extol his many virtues, long after it would have done the most good.
If Johnny Ryan exhibits one special skill, it's in the way he uses single moments of humor as both punch lines and narrative building blocks. In longer serials like Angry Youth Comix #6's Loady McGee/Sinus O'Gynus feature "Alien Encounter" and the stand-alone "The President of the United States of America in 'Kidnapped,'" Ryan judiciously strings together panels in a way that forces each beat to act as a combination of concept and immediate follow-through. "Battle of the Century," featuring a nastily stupid embrace-the-past contest between doppelgangers of the cartoonists Seth and Jason Little, provides Ryan an obvious escalating narrative structure, which in the cartoonist's hands becomes an avalanche of gags and nasty jokes piled one on top of the other. This kind of furious pressure, like children on PCP rushing to the front of the stage to deliver Christmas pageant lines, is much harder than it looks to simply maintain; that Ryan also manages to keep his narratives moving forward is a feat just short of stunning.
Ryan's approach makes for work unique in its relentlessness. Even Robert Crumb in the Mr. Natural comics went crazy for a page or two at a time before settling back into a conventional narrative rhythm. Johnny Ryan is always on. You can definitely see him working. The visible flop sweat the panels exude during one of Ryan's gatling gun assaults makes clear the phrase "naturally funny" involves a gigantic misapprehension. Instead of some sort of organic quality or easy facility, the expression is frequently perverted to describe an artist's precocious grasp of an already pre-existing vein of humor. Actual humor trumps natural humor every time, and if Ryan has had to scramble over the seats to find a rhythm that reflects his view of life as an unremitting series of humiliations, at least it's all his own.
Ryan was attacked early on in his career for the relative simplicity of his artwork, but his drawing is some of the slickest and most utilitarian in comics. Ryan's line has become much lovelier as he's published more work, and he has a fine sense of character design within the overall look he's established. The best thing about Ryan's artwork is the way characters act out each piece of action, something his style encourages. Feet shoot outward in reaction shots. A happy thief in "President" dances a little a jig. When Nelly (hit in the belly with jelly) has a stomachache in "Sherlock McRape," she clutches her mid-section and moans. People jump up in the air in order to hit things and they fall down with legs akimbo when something hits them. Johnny Ryan may be the first adherent to the Jack Kirby school of Harvey Comics art. His punch lines are a combination of that energy and a sly playing against it in facial expressions or even the occasional restrictive graphic element. As Ryan has developed consistency with this visual approach, it has allowed him to shift back and forth between modes of humor -- gross-out, silly, or satire -- on a whim or desire to get at a new joke. The reader is likely to be too overwhelmed by the onslaught to note the collision of styles.
Ryan's stand-alone pieces preen in their brutishness. The "Boobs Pooter" strip in AYC #6 offers little more than relentless crudity, violence depicted on hapless victims for no particular reason. Ryan's shrewd use of recurring characters makes the Loady McGee strips his most compelling work. The cartoonist has unbalanced the relationship between his leads, but only to one side. Instead of mining humor from competing, rigid impulses in classic comedy team fashion, Ryan has made Sinus O'Gynus more of a blank slate. At times O'Gynus is a moron; at others a contrary, motivated actor; and in strips like "Alien Encounter" he seems a less brave, slightly more clueless version of incompetent sociopath McGee. This ambiguity keeps the stories anchored on McGee but allows the pair to conspire or fight or exploit each other depending on the funniest outcome. This moves the humor away from discovering gradations of their relationship onto whatever subject is being savaged. This should help Ryan keep the feature fresh for a lot longer than works where characters live in a world that exists to manifest their disagreements. If there is anything to dislike about Ryan's work right now is that it feels like virtuoso performance more than organic storytelling. Ryan is like the guy with 18 Star Trek commemorative plates spinning off of his body, his genitalia on fire, farting tiny ping-pong balls across the room into a plastic cup. And then in the next panel he's something else.