Barely Human – Johnny Ryan

4 out of 5

I had somewhat cooled on Johnny Ryan in the 2010s and definitely by 2020. In part it was the lack of printed material, with Prison Pit and collections of strips slowly trickling out, and his input on Pig Goat Banana Cricket exciting at first but then kind of lost as the show became part of the oddball cartoon stable, which… is a thing. But also: I didn’t know how Johnny’s work “worked” when humor started coming of age, figuring out what border-pushers sounded like when we were realizing that saying something crass or off color with a winky punchline doesn’t automatically make it funny. And I don’t think Ryan necessarily fell into a punching-down category, but there was a line he treaded between “innocent” offensive humor and stuff that felt like it was just trying to push buttons, and that line started getting blurrier… 

Whenever I would visit old issues of AYC or Blecky collections, I was glad to find the stuff held up hilariously. Still does. But still, as you travel forward in chronology, Johnny’s stuff does run thinner – when he transitions out of sequential comics, and gets into social media, you can see him struggling to figure out what plays, what maintains his “brand,” what keeps his interest… 

So a 400+ page collection of that stuff (instagram posts, etc.) felt questionable. Was I just begging to remove another creator from my collection – which has happened when some more noxious aspect of their work becomes too apparent, and I start reassessing everything with that lens? 

While, yes, the try-hard aspect of an offense-baiting artist does pop up on these pages, Barely Human ultimately had the opposite effect of what I was worrying about above: it rather gave me newfound respect for Johnny. The overload – hundreds of pages – helps, not hurts: a psychology emerges, where you can start to see these cartoons as a mix of Ryan working through thoughts and obsessions, which moves it beyond just juvenilia. Johnny trying to process his frustrations into humor; Johnny trying to shake a particular image. And you can allow yourself to ponder the psychology of someone who, when pushed to produce daily sketches, falls back on repeated concepts of eating poop and whatnot. 

I’m not suggesting there’re necessarily deeper layers to this, just that the work oddly becomes confessional in a way. Every now and then we get a run of what might be commisions for shows, and it’s funny pairing those with (presumably) imagined advertisements for mundane items / brands, given the Johnny Ryan treatment. Repeated two-page spreads of various war-ravaged scenery – with anthropomorphic or cartoon characters assaulting one another – are fascinating, and then occasionally Johnny works through some portraiture. 

To be clear: 99% of this is still bodily fluids and violence and sex. And if you want to flip through and either chuckle at the perversion, or clutch pearls and think of the children, or marvel at Johnny’s particular form of artistry, blown up to coffee table size and with gorgeous, organic color reproduction of colored pencils and etc. by Fantagraphics… all of those are possibilities. What I wasn’t expecting was to be able to flip through this thing in its entirety, reading it like a book in a way, and reigniting my love of Mr. Ryan’s output. 

If I had to ask for something more, the lack of some context – a fore- or after- word, something – would’ve gone a long way. Dates on the images, maybe.  It’s kind of weird that the only explanation / reference is the back cover blurb. I just imagine how much more interesting it would be to see if there are trends depending on the time stuff was made, or on what platform.