All images courtesy of Johnny Ryan and Fantagraphics. Johnny Ryan portrait by Ben Marra
Brilliantly insane, brutally funny, and fearlessly outrageous, alt-comics legend and Nickelodeon kiddie cartoon creator (!) Johnny Ryan has a book titled A New Low set to drop on July 4th. Expect it to go off with full pyrotechnic impact.
Published by Fantagraphics, home to the equally-genius illustrator Simon Hanselmann, A New Low consolidates 13 years of Johnny’s VICE comic strips, which the magazine’s readers reacted to with consistent fits of hysteria and/or horror. The book also features non-VICE material that packs no end of punches smack to the colostomy bag of a cute little bunny with a Hitler mustache, to say nothing of the plain old human funnybone.
Signing in from Stately Ryan Manor in Los Angeles, Johnny spoke to MERRY JANE about A New Low, what makes him laugh, and even a bit about how he evolved into the mirthful madman who so savagely slays today with pen, ink, and exquisitely rendered lines of stink.
MERRY JANE: A New Low is upon us. How were you able to sink to such unprecedented depths (i.e., heights of hilarity)?
Johnny Ryan: A New Low mostly is a collection of strips I drew while working for VICE magazine from 2002 to 2015. VICE readers were a particularly angry and jaded crew, and their hatred and heckling really pushed me. VICE wouldn't really let me get away with sex stuff so my comics became increasingly more violent and dark. Also, there was a lot of rough stuff going on in my personal life during that time: the death of my first daughter and my second daughter's medical problems. That caused my work to take a murky turn.
Among even the most casual Johnny Ryan fans, one question comes to mind: how the hell did you get to be this way?
I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts, near the Pilgrim Nuclear Power plant, in an Irish lower middle class family with an alcoholic father. Dad and I didn't get along so I turned to more fantastical fathers for love and support — like Alfred E. Neuman and Steve Martin.
As a kid, Mad magazine was a life changer, particularly [cartoonists] Al Jaffee and Don Martin. Then, in my teens, when I found a copy of R. Crumb's Sketchbooks at Tower Records on Newbury Street, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
How are you able to stay so consistently over-the-top after all these years?
Probably because I'm still angry and I like to irritate people to the point of career destruction. As long as my life sucks, my work will continue to stay funny.
Unlike so many other artists, you’ve managed to avoid any typical “politically correct” backlash. How is this possible?
I guess I have an enormous reservoir of apathy. But I think also with my work, I'm not simply trying to be offensive or offend people. That's pretty easy to do. My main goal is to be funny, even to the point that easily offended people are like, “I'm offended, but I gotta admit that cartoon is still pretty funny.”
Does anything makes you censor yourself?
If I draw a personal and insulting attack on a specific person that I know or I've had a shitty experience with, I'll think twice before publishing it.
Tell us about your Nickelodeon cartoon, Pig Goat Banana Cricket. How did that come to be and how did you balance the show with being the Johnny Ryan of A New Low?
Once I got the Pig Goat Banana Cricket job, I pretty much stopped all comic work, except the VICE strip. I just didn't have the time. I felt I would keep the VICE gig so that when the TV gig fails I'll at least have one job to fall back on. Unfortunately, VICE dropped me in November 2015. They were moving in a new direction with HBO and all that shit.
Nickelodeon was actually pretty cool about my work. They never gave me any grief about it. There was talk about truncating my name in the credits to J. Ryan early on, but they eventually decided that it wasn't a big deal and used my full name. And guess what? Nobody cared.
What are some of you non-cartoon influences?
I'm a big horror movie fan and H.P. Lovecraft fan. You can probably see those influences in A New Low — the body horror and the creeping unknown, all that kind of stuff. Also, listening to a lot of black metal and death metal was very influential on my Prison Pit series. The brutality, violence, and unreadable sound effects all come from my fascination with heavy music.
Does weed figure into the world of Johnny Ryan?
Sometimes I smoke socially, but I can't work on weed. It knocks me the fuck out. The last time I tried to smoke and work, I wound up lying on the floor listening to a Mortiis tape on repeat for two hours. That stated, I wouldn't be the person I am today without Snoop Dogg.
So what’s up next?
Prison Pit 6. The final book in the series!
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