Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Comic Book Holocaust
by Johnny Ryan

It would probably not be much of a stretch to call The Comic Book Holocaust Johnny Ryan's magnum opus. It's hard to imagine Ryan topping this one, even if he lives to be 110 years old.

Ryan's technique is built on minimal application for maximum effect. While there is no doubt that he is a supremely confident cartoonist, his style is so simple and straightforward that it would be easy to mistake his economy for sloth. He knows exactly how to draw what he's drawing in order to put across his jokes with as little extraneous content as possible. When your primary vehicles are scatology and obscenity, it doesn't really matter how well drawn the feces is.

The Comic Book Holocaust is comprised of a number of self-published minicomics produced by Ryan over the last few years. The only material in here I'd seen before was the Marvel Comics-specific gags produced for the Marvel Super Pages volume. By compiling all this material together between two covers, Ryan has elevated what would have otherwise been fairly throwaway gag pages into something resembling a significant statement. Of course, you can only take it so seriously considering the fact that it's a bunch of jokes about shit and boners, but considering Ryan's skill as well as his absolute and unflinching commitment to the subject matter, it reaches a level of zen stupidity almost unparalleled in comics history.

The key to the book lies in its repetition. Every page contains a single strip, and every strip consists of exactly twelve panels. Every single panel contains either a joke, a set-up for a punchline or a punchline. Every single inch of real estate on the page is dedicated to the goal of producing a joke -- even the cross-hatching is funny, used as it is to parody artists who overuse the technique.

The first fourth of the book is dedicated to famous comic strips -- "Little Orphan Ass Hole", "Krazy Kunt", "The Baboondocks". The second portion reprints the Marvel Super Pages material, with strips devoted to mainstays like Spider-Man (here spelled without the hyphen, for comedic effect I'm sure), Thor, Rom (Rom?) and all the rest. The third takes on the crop of serious "graphic novels", stuff like "Rectal Nerve", "Ghost Turd" and "American Spleandouche". The fourth section is a catch-all, featuring a little bit of everything not covered in the first three sections, a couple token manga, as well as some oddballs like "The Cross & The Switchblade", 1970s romance comics and, er, "Silver, the Lone Ranger's Horse".

Considering how repetitive many of these gags can be, it's amazing that Ryan is able to get so much variety from such a basic formula. Sometimes he alters his basic drawing style in order to parody the artist in question, with simple calligraphic brush-strokes to ape Ivan Brunetti's later style in "Shitzo" or George Herriman's skewed art-deco for "Krazy Kunt". But he's hardly the stylistic chameleon that someone like R. Sikoryak is -- more like, his facile adaptations are the kind of primitive aping you'd expect to see if a small child was replicating the drawing style of their favorite sunday cartoons.

But Ryan is also pretty canny at switching the focus of his punchlines, running the gamut from merely putting familiar characters through their scatological paces (Spider-Man putting together an Ikea bookshelf to hold all his tranny porn), to lodging clever satirical broadsides. "Shitzo", for instance, takes on the perpetually depressed Ivan Brunetti: sick of hearing Brunetti whine about wanting to kill himself, another character urges him to get it over with and put himself out of his misery. Brunetti does not actually kill himself, however -- he decides to procrastinate suicide because he "just thought of a really funny child rape comic I want to draw!" Joe Matt gets it in the shorts for being such a hopeless loser, Art Spiegelman is repeatedly mocked for being a pretentious egomaniac, and Chris Ware's disturbing lack of self-esteem is similarly lampooned. Even the seemingly anomalous "Silver, the Lone Ranger's Horse" page has a purpose: those with fairly long memories might remember that Steve Weissman of Yikes fame* once wrote a glowing tribute to Silver in the pages of The Comics Journal. And, come on, anyone who has ever been creeped out by the very concept of "Casper the Friendly Ghost" will be amused by the thought that Casper was really the aborted child of rape.

The repetitious format produces a hypnotic effect on the unwary reader. Ryan's comics are so easy to read that it is impossible to resist turning the pages. It may be filled with shit and fuck and anal rape and giant sky pussies (wow, that's surely one of the oddest recurring motifs in the history of literature), but I'll be damned if The Comic Book Holocaust isn't one of the most satisfying compendiums of pure cartooning I've seen in many a year.

(For whatever reason, I can't find a copy of this for sale at good old Amazon.com. So if you want to buy it, I suggest you go here - although, it must be noted, I get nothing from the transaction. Sorry.)

*Thanks for the correction, Milo - that's what I get for depending on my memory.

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