JOHNNY RYAN INTERVIEW BY Josh Bayer with Joaquin delaPuente,
Johnny’s answers are reprinted verbatim, my questions have had to occasionally been pared down. I was pretty nervous and Johnny put up with a lot of stammering. For a cartoonist with such vicious attitudes, he was a pretty nice guy.
I learned a lot from the interview and have referred to it often. If you have never had a chance to interview your heroes, I recommend it.
This was originally done for the unreleased Starfucker Zine 5, in Feb 2008 via speakerphone at Anthology Film archives. The questions with political and social relevance were written by Joaquin delaPuente. I wrote the rest.
Josh B- Everything you say from here on out is being taped.
Johnny R. -Oh shit.
Josh B. – First question, if we go back in time, to a younger more impressionable Johnny Ryan, were there any brushes with gross-out punk albums that had an influence on your cartooning? For example, The Meat Men? It seems like a lot of 80’s punk bands were tied with cartooning like The Circle Jerks and Black Flag…
Johnny R- The Meat Men, that was the first time I ever saw a real hard core gross out punk rock record. But the album cover was really sort of adorable. If you listen to it, it was almost a novelty record as much as it was a punk record in that a lot of the songs were just funny like Tooling for Anus. I’m not sure of the other ones…
Josh B-One down three to go…
Johnny R- Crippled Children Suck, that was a good one, that was wrong. I think that was the only album of theirs I ever heard; I don’t think I ever pursued it more than that.
Josh B- It’s easy to forget how electrifying it was at that time, even to have a name that was a slang word for jerking off like in the case of The Circle jerks was so radically unpretentious…
Johnny R-When I heard that Meat Men record, it was a record that I bought for my sister who was going through a punk rock stage, I wasn’t really much of a punk rock kid, I was listening to more classic rock like Pink Floyd, it wasn’t ’til college that I branched out and encountered more of Black Flag and other bands you could list.
Josh B- At the same time it’s not everyone who can really take the message behind those bands and do their own thing with it.
Johnny R-I don’t know if I’m deliberately taking those messages to heart or if they just stuck with me naturally.
Josh B- At the time when you first came out with your comics, they were similarly against the grain. At the point in the late 90’s when you first made yourself heard from, almost everyone was doing these sort of serious navel gazing…
Johnny R-For starters, I was pretty unaware of what everybody else was up to when I first started. It wasn’t until later, when I first started in the mid 90’s I was pretty focused on the Robert Crumb comics and maybe a little Daniel Clowes, Eightball, thrown in there, but it wasn’t until much later that I started to notice everyone was doing these navel gazing, like you said, autobio comics.
Josh B- So without them to influence you, it might have seemed that the most natural reaction to seeing Crumb’s stuff was to make these comics instead of the others…
Johnny R- I just thought,” this is how they’re made, this is what people talk about in comics”, I wasn’t really exposed much to the serious stuff, or the limited amount of serious stuff didn’t resonate with me as much as the cruder humor did.
Josh B-Why do you think there was this generational shift to wards ducking from that kind of work?
Johnny R- Well if I understand your question correctly … there was this natural progression, well not a natural progression, more of just a gradual progression, starting with Maus, that comics in general wanted to be taken seriously as a viable art-form, and they had to be important and had to be about important things, and they kind of pushed humor aside and the craziness that was brought up in the 60’s. They kind of decided they had enough of that kind of stuff.
Josh B- So you mentioned Spiegleman…that reminds me of how when I was preparing to do this interview and rereading all your stuff, my friend pointed out to me that the comic you did about Loady ignoring all the signs, where he has to do the opposite of what each sign says, each sign making him do increasingly crazy things until he finally reads a sign that says “Do not slit your throat” causing him to slits his own throat. I should ask you if that’s anything like what your doing, for example, in this recent comic where you bash Crumb and Spiegleman and Chris Ware and David Heatley all these people who are in this New Yorker Cartoonist club…
Johnny R. – I never thought about it. There’s something to that. I guess I have a certain inclination to be destructive on a certain level. Burning bridges and hurting people’s feelings is par for the course.
Josh- Have you had any fall out from any major cartoonists?
Johnny R. – No, well when I did Comic Book Holocaust, I guess I don’t think I heard from anybody I wasn’t already friendly with. Nobody ever contacted me to say, “Hey you’re an asshole”, or “Hey, that was funny” or whatever. Then there were other people I already knew who’ve said hey, “I’m disappointed you didn’t do me, what about my comics!”
Josh- Well, I know for example In one of your early comics there was a slam of Mary Fleener’s Slutburger, but then you invited her to contribute when you were a guest editor of Vice.
Johnny R- I do like Mary, I think she’s one of my favorite among people who came out of the 90’s and then’ve been forgotten. I also think I get this bad rap that I hate all serious comics or I hate all auto bio. There’s some people that can do those comics well and Mary is one of those people who is doing interesting auto bio’ comics.
Josh B- Do you read that stuff? I got the impression from Comic book Holocaust that you’d read From Hell and you seemed to be familiar with other stuff.
Johnny R-I pretty much read everything I parody. Some stuff I hadn’t read and had to, like actively seek out, like Persepolis and Epileptic
Josh B- Could you get through those?
Johnny R- Yes, I got through them, and… Persepolis was Okay, Epileptic was horrible. It was a real chore. From Hell is a book that I like. Acme Novelty Library I think number 17? …Was a real chore.
Josh B- Um. This is a techno-nerd question, I noticed in comic book holocaust, you did a couple of them where you started with a big brush and then you seemed to get your groove where you developed a way to approach each page in a pretty uniform way in terms of the grid and so on…
Johnny R-I wasn’t thinking this was gonna be a great book collection, I was just sort of fucking around. Fucking around with brush. At first it was a wash gray tone, I even posted those online that way. It didn’t come across well in printing and it made me say, “lets just stick to line work.” the first idea wasn’t about turning it into a long term project, it was just fucking around that (laughs) kinda turned into a long term project.
Josh B – It evolved naturally.
Johnny R- Yeah. That’s the way I work usually, I follow my instincts, I don’t try to make some grand concept, that this is what I’m doing next this is what I’m going to accomplish, I just try to follow my instincts and what I should do is what I do.
Josh B – Sometimes you’d choose to emulate the artists style In Comic Book Holocaust, like with Frank king, but then other times, like with Milton Caniff, there’s no…
Johnny R-That’s sort of…I cant draw like that. I can’t do what Milton Caniff or the Marvel Comics artists like Jack Kirby do… I mean I guess if I really tried… but that in a way would undermine the whole project where I wasn’t concerned if that art looked good, I didn’t care if It made sense, I just wanted to bomb through these stories as fast as I could. And in the cases where, like Frank King, where I did try to imitate the way they draw, it’d be something where I’d look at the way he’d draw his characters and then I’d close the book and try to sort of go with the way he drew it. For the harder ones, when it came to Mary Worth or Milton Caniff, I just said fuck it. Ha! That’d take too long.
Josh B – On the topic of your style and your choice of tools, there’s a big leap when I look at your old stuff. At some point, your approach to the page, your treatment of the word balloons, the panels, all seem to change and get upgraded drastically at some point. For an untrained artist, if I understand correctly and you’re untrained, how do you account for that?
Johnny R-I was working on my stuff every day, all the time.
Josh-If you’re gonna draw an object, a bush or a big pile of crap, this form that’s rounded off at the edges. And there’s this way that you use crow quill, and you have these feathered lines and its like you understand its gonna gain depth of you add straight lines on top of it?
Johnny R- Your question’s way too nerdy for me, and I don’t know how to answer that.
Josh- It’s nerdy but its something that people go to school to learn and it shows and ability to turn what you’re doing into an abstraction to get an effect across.
Johnny R-Maybe It’s me trying to find what looks good, and me, through trial and error, looking at and trying to emulate other artist work, and maybe its me trying to move on and grow, on an unconscious level.
Josh B – How did you end up be coming an English Major at, uh..?
Johnny R- New Mass English. Initially I went there and didn’t have any major at all, and I had to pick a major. I think there was a couple of reasons I didn’t pursue art, my sister was an Art major and she always seemed like a loser to me or something, and I didn’t want to emulate that and my parents always looked down on the art thing as not-a-viable- career-option. Not that English was any better, but there was always the idea I could get a job teaching or working at a newspaper. Towards the end, I did do a double major with Art, and I took basic drawing and figure drawing but then I just dropped it because I wanted to graduate on time. Not that there’s anything I learned from what I did in those classes, so I just decided to learn all over, to start all over again.
Josh-Moving away from the nerd-tech questions…do you think that your depictions of rape, slavery and the holocaust -do you think they desensitize people more than they already are, or do you think they don’t desensitize them and its impossible to desensitize people more than they already are?
Johnny R- Um, I’m not sure, for some reason I seem to enjoy working with angry ideas. I think also people have always worked desensitively. If you took stuff from Zap and Robert Williams in the 60’s and brought it out today, people would be even more horrified, especially with the race stuff. And the sex. Crumb is almost this god of cartooning, he’s lauded in museums for what he’s done, I think people just remember the nice drawings he’s done and forget about the Angelfood McSpades and the girls with their heads ripped off…
Josh B- I sense that there’s a lot of cynicism and outright hatred of groups and trends in your work. For example, it’s a group assumption that Crumb’s work isn’t horrifying now.
Johnny R-Just what people want to remember, its almost like they remember selectively, we all remember the good stuff, what we want to remember. And causally forget Angel Food McSpade and other horrible stuffs he’s drawn.
Josh B- People must assume that if your spending so much time dealing with genocide, rape and the racial stuff, well, someone might look at this and think that since you’re preoccupied with these things you must care, another might think are you concerned with these things or are you just a total Nihilist?
Johnny R-I think Nihilism has a lot to do with it; I don’t know what you mean by the fact that I care about things? Does that mean…am I for it or something?
Josh B-Do you have compassion, do you have sensitive feelings on these topics?
Johnny R-On a certain level you can consider what I do to be comedy, and a comedian has to divorce himself from a lot of that I think in order to work the joke, and a lot of times the best joke comes from the most pain, y’know? (Laughs)
Josh B- Do you think that people who see themselves as the butt of the jokes have a right to feel hurt by the comics?
Johnny R-That’s up to them. That’s their call.
Josh-You don’t feel any responsibility toward them?
Johnny R-No, I’m an artist. My job is to make art and to draw and make stories that are compelling and interesting and moves me in some way and then to put it out there. How they react is how they react, my responsibility begins and ends there.
Josh-There’s some surrealistic tendencies in your work, and I read a quote where Salvador Dali said” I don’t feel any more responsibility for what I paint about than I do for what I dream about. ”
Johnny R- Right, I read a quote recently…I’m gonna paraphrase…. “Just like there’s no morality in nature there’s no morality in art. “It’s interesting that you bring it up because people always demand that artists deliver some sort of meaning and truth, and when that truth’s hideous they throw up their arms and get upset and have hurt feelings and it’s “you’re ruining people’s lives” There’s conflict; you want the art to be true, but don’t want to be shown stuff that makes you feel bad, you can’t make people feel good all the time, its not true, the object is to make people feel something. There’s no rule that it has to be something good.
Josh-How do you align yourself politically? Left Right? Liberal? Anarchist, Socialist, Capitalist, Agnostic?
Johnny R-I’m sort of more of a liberal, I’m a registered democrat. Um, I guess there’s some conservative positions that I hold, but my understanding of myself is as more of a liberal guy.
Josh-Your comics portray a lot of abject poverty and there’s a working class origin to a lot of the characters, does that reflect your own background?
Johnny R-I wasn’t in that type of home Loady McGee was in; I think I grew up lower middle class. The look of the house Loady was in was based on that show The Young Ones. That house was always so filthy and disgusting those funny things just naturally happened in it.
Josh-I was looking back at that comic “1976“, and I guess you already said in an interview I read I that was like your version of an Auto bio comic.
Johnny R-Well, yes, but its more about my father than it was about me. Though I do make a special guest star appearance.
Josh B- I like the panel where the dad lifts the 4000 dollar check that he’s gonna steal and though a lot of time you draw these rubber hose arms, in this image when he lifts it, his arm is all like a super hero arm. Almost like, as your father, he’s this icon of heroism. The part where your father collapses nude and the kids take pictures of him, was that a real thing that happened?
Johnny R-Well, I compressed a lot of things that happened into a story which only covered like three hours, but he did collapse in the bathroom and pass out, and we went in and took pictures of him, and later he went nuts trying to find the pictures and when he found one he’d destroy it.
Josh B- a lot of your stories seem to have an anti story structure, where a lot of things happen that seem random, but the structure is there, with a beginning and middle and end with a resolution. The construction sneaks up on the reader. Do you chalk this up to your background as a writing major?
Johnny R- English major, but yeah I guess if there’s anything good that came out of my college career its the ability to read a story and write a story.
Josh B -To give you credit where its merited, a lot of people struggle to even get out one story on paper, but after you hit your stride as a cartoonist, you’ve just done story after story. It’s not something that other people could do with the same background and art education. There’s a lot of frustrated writers out there.
Johnny R-Thank you for noticing. (Laughs)
Josh B – That’s about all the questions I have written down, we can stop it here, I guess.
Johnny R- Is it gonna be online or is it something that is online or in an actual zine?
Josh B -Yeah its gonna be for Starfucker Zine, it’s gonna be an all comics issue with an interview with you and another with Gary Panter.
Johnny R- Have you talked to Gary yet?
Josh B -No I talked to him about it. I noticed that he did the art for the end papers of your most recent book. (“What Are You Looking At?“) Is that’s something that Fantagraphics set up?
Johnny R- No, I just asked him.
Josh B -Did he ask you for a drawing in exchange?
Johnny R- No, no, he asked for money in exchange!
Josh B -I know he does this thing and you do the same on your website where you take art requests?
Johnny R- He actually does a cool thing where you give him three words and he draws whatever he wants. My thing is kind of more direct whereas you tell me what you want drawn. I like his idea it sounds more fun but in my case I feel like if someone wants a drawing from me I feel obligated to give them exactly what there looking for.
Josh B -Have you gotten one really unpredictable, original request after another?
Johnny R- No, more often than not they’re a little on the dull side.” Make a picture of me walking my dog” or something, every once in a while I’ll get some crazy cool request like” can you draw Michael vs. 80’s chainsaw hookers”, and that’ll be a fun challenge, but 80 percent are a little on the dull side.
Josh B – Somebody told me you did a mural-sized Howard Stern project.
Johnny R- I made a poster, yeah, and I’ve been working on it a couple years. Every now and then I’ll think I’m done but then I’ll realize I forgot Beetlejuice or something.
Johnny R- My collaborator is here, he wants ask a question.
Johnny R- Ok.
Joaquin D- Is the Brockton Dildo Factory a real place?
Johnny R- I was working for Chadwick’s which was a women’s clothing company, unloading trucks and there was a guy who worked there saying how there was a new dildo factory in town and he was gonna go work there…. I don’t know if he was serious or it was a real place, but I thought it would be funny if they had huge spools of uncut of Ben Wa balls and dildos hanging from the ceiling and massive amount s of butt plugs and stuff.
Josh B – one more question. There’s a lot of articles being written and cultural critics writing about the new ascent of Frat culture, all these movies like Knocked Up and 40 year Old Virgin being made with these slacker idiot heroes and they’re all fat and loathsome but they’re the heroes, and its like a new niche, and with that in mind, how do you feel about your work being considered part of that Frat zeitgeist?
Johnny R- Well I don’t mind.
Josh B – You keep a balance between stuff that’s genuinely dynamic and interesting for you, even if it’s dynamically stupid, and it still seems to be balanced out with an artist’s touch, do you worry about losing the balance and having it become all stupid?
Johnny R- I guess I never think like that. I guess I just do what I do. I guess if anything, I worry about it sometimes becoming too smart. Earlier you were talking about the whole frat boy thing, people use that as a pejorative but I think there some good things that the frat culture has brought. A lot of the humor from the frat movies from the late ’70’s and early ’80s are really funny.
Josh B – It gave you something to do work about, like in your earlier comics like “Mullet.”
Johnny R- I think that, not that I was a part of a frat, but at some point in college I started hanging out with these types that certainly weren’t artistic and are more inclined toward certain things like boarding and comics and art and Dr Who and some of those things are pretty funny and I feel that I was able to start to incorporate that sort of humor into my work.
Josh B – That’s interesting, so it seems your suggesting that concern for being hip is sort of an adolescent stage that you don’t care about.
Johnny R-I guess so, its not like I was ever hip to any degree, so it’s not something I would care about.
Josh B – So you don’t go on a big ego trip about where you are in your life.
Johnny R- Especially as a teenager and until my late 20’s for the most part I tried to remain completely invisible so no one would bother me.
Josh B – then you have invited all this conflict into your life from the aggressive comics that you do.
Johnny R- I think that was the outlet, you know, I was playing the invisible role and not being noticed by anybody and not being a part of anything and it all built up this rage inside of me so now I make the comics and art … like this, so now I’m angry.
Josh B Well, maybe that’s a good place to end it. Thanks a lot for the interview.
Johnny R- Sure let me know when it goes out.