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Dumb It Down

Going back to basics with Johnny Ryan's breathtakingly crass comics

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Angry Youth Comix #10

Johnny Ryan (Fantagraphics)

After a long and painful struggle, comic books are finally more or less indistinguishable--in subject matter, in marketing, in length--from just plain books. Whether it's Dan Clowes or David Foster Wallace, Joe Sacco or John Updike, you can hear the interview on Fresh Air, purchase the tome at the local bookstore, open it with the joy of a humble seeker, and close it with new insight into the profundity of the human condition.

And then there's Johnny Ryan's latest effort, Angry Youth Comix #10. Fifty pages of filthy one-panel gag cartoons in the worst possible taste, this is the graphic novel's drooling, atavistic doppelganger. You can't get it at Borders, you can't talk about it on NPR without violating FCC regulations, and the whole thing takes about ten minutes to read. It has no deeper meaning, no poignant autobiographical details, and no redeeming social value, unless you consider mocking Art Spiegelman to be some sort of philanthropic act. Instead, Ryan's comic consists entirely of dick jokes, tit jokes, fag jokes, abortion jokes, racist caricatures, blasphemy, and the occasional stupid pun.

If it sounds like Ryan is just some snotty shock jock--well, he is. But what's wrong with that? Comics have always been a snotty and shocking medium. Wilhelm Busch's 1865 Max und Moritz--often considered the first comic strip--featured two naughty prepubescent German pranksters who inventively brutalized all and sundry until they were captured, dumped in a flour mill, ground to bits, and eaten by ducks. Most of the greatest work in comics--Jack Cole's Plastic Man, EC Comics's horror titles, Jack Kirby's superheroes, George Herriman's Krazy Kat--relies on slapstick, hyperbolic violence, the macabre, or some combination of the three. Sure, today "comics for adults" may denote politely edifying auteurs like Craig Thompson or Jessica Abel, but it wasn't so long ago that that same phrase referred to R. Crumb, Robert Williams, and other underground artists whose work overflowed with giant reproductive organs, hideous epithets, bizarre sexual conglomerations, and gratuitous everything. And in case anyone had forgotten, the riots that greeted the publication of Danish gags depicting Muhammad reminded the world that nothing offends quite as thoroughly as a really offensive cartoon.

Political cartoons can be plenty dull and predictable, of course. As a non-Muslim, my reaction to the Danish cartoons was basically eh. Still, it's hard to read Ryan without feeling that comics lost something important when artists opted to largely abandon the sight gags and overblown obnoxiousness to the editorial pages. In what other medium (besides comics' bastard step-child, animation) can you show, as Ryan does, the moon using some poor unfortunate as a tampon, or a dead baby in the park with a kite at the end of its bloody umbilical cord? Many of his cartoons are so bizarre they can't be effectively translated into prose--one gag with the caption "Oh, don't mind me!" involves a man, a woman, a blow job, and a discontented bystander, but I'll be damned if I can figure out an economical way to describe the exact mechanics of the scene.

Like many great comedians', Ryan's genius is more conceptual than formal. His subject matter is limited and his black-and-white line art is efficient rather than dazzling, but his longer strips have the surreal creativity of an especially filthy Marx Brothers vamp. The full-length story in Angry Youth Comix #9 includes a sequence in which a bald man is blessed with a wig made out of shit, is propositioned by a passerby, has his penis detach, obtains penis glue, loses his shit wig, and asks another passerby to defecate on his head--and that's just the setup. The single-panel jokes in AYC #10 don't match that manic intensity, but they have their own virtues. The best gags, in fact, seem like humor's distilled essence: smart-ass middle-school witticisms raised to sublime heights.

Many artists who dabble in offensive material--from Ivan Brunetti to Peter Bagge--have hailed Ryan's work enthusiastically. But in the larger comics community praise for AYC often seems to come with a certain nervous backward glance over the shoulder. Ryan's published by Fantagraphics, but both owners of the company have publicly expressed reservations about his work. He gets a fair number of positive reviews in the comics press--but those reviewers hasten to notify their readers that Angry Youth Comix isn't for everyone. Ryan readily admits as much himself, but I'm not sure why it has to be stressed. After all, whose work is for everyone, exactly? Chris Ware's?

I don't wish on Ryan, or on anyone, the clouds of hagiography that hang about Ware's cranium. But I do think AYC deserves better from comics tastemakers than an embarrassed pat on the head. When Ryan has managed to get mainstream media coverage, it's generally been quite positive--he was featured in Rolling Stone's annual "Hot List" last September, for example--and in a country where Howard Stern and South Park make millions you'd think he'd be selling briskly. But most people don't read independent comics, and many of those that do seem to be seeking high art, not belly laughs. It's going to be a long time before Ryan becomes a household name, so for now you've got to make some effort if you want to find his stuff. He does have several excellent trade paperback collections available via Amazon, but I've never seen one in a bookstore. As for AYC #10, it's available online at fantagraphics.com and at a handful of local stores: Quimby's, Chicago Comics, Comix Revolution in Evanston, and Alternate Reality.

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