Tuesday, September 02, 2008

From the vault: Comic Book Holocaust

Note: This review originally appeared in issue #283 of The Comics Journal

As the title implies, “Comic Book Holocaust” is not a friendly, warm little book. It doesn’t want your love, nor your respect. The only thing it demands is your laughter, and it’s willing to debase itself in the most thoroughly degrading and offensive ways to ensure that you do so.

Good thing the book’s actually funny then, ‘cause it would really be kind of pathetic and just plain disgusting if it wasn’t.

The book collects a number of sketchbook strips Johnny Ryan did (in between bouts of Angry Youth Comics no doubt) parodying an assortment of revered funny book characters, from Beetle Bailey to Harvey Pekar and anything in between. Each strip only lasts for one page and are exactly 12 panels long. And in those panels some of the lowest sort of gross-out humor occurs, usually involving sex organs, fecal matter, vomit and various others sorts of unpleasantries.

There’s no comics cow so revered that Ryan isn’t willing to grind it up into hamburger. Linus, for example, smacks Charlie Brown with his balls. Joe Sacco interviews just his. Krazy Kat builds a concentration camp. And Chris Ware ends up digging through Mort Walker’s soiled garbage. No one is safe from his shit- and semen-stained rampage.

Ryan obviously takes great pleasure in being obscene and shocking as possible. And if that was all there was to the book, then you could pass this off as the work of an emotionally immature cartoonist – someone who’s sense of humor never made it past eighth grade -- and be done with it.

But it’s Ryan’s sense of absurdity, his equally strong willingness to be as utterly bizarre and silly as possible, that makes all the scatological humor work. The strips have a loose, haphazard, anything goes feel to them that suggest Ryan is just following his muse and not worrying too much about where it takes him. That leads to some interesting and often hilarious back alleyways. A strip about Dick Tracy, for example, might start off with him crying over jury duty, have him dress up like Mr. Spock and end with the appearance of a giant floating vagina. A parody of romance comics begins with someone getting hit on the head with a giant McNugget and ends with a boy sucking off a rainbow. The non sequiters build on top of the other at such a furious pace that it’s all but impossible not to grin at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

What also makes Ryan’s strips work is the injection of mundane pop culture banality into his otherwise off the wall parodies. Jimmy Olson’s shameless neediness is funny enough in and of itself, but the fact that he wants to play Cranium with Superman is priceless. Having Tubby dress up as a testicle in a top hat is worth a smirk, but having him decipher the secret of The Da Vinci Code as “Ain’t no party like a West Coast party ‘cause a West Coast party don’t stop” is worth several guffaws.

Ryan seems to save his purest venom for the alt-comix crowd, who have comiited the unpardonable sin of being boring and self-indulgent. His “Every Auto-Bio Comic Ever Written” can easily be read as a manifesto. Some will no doubt blanch at seeing revered icons like Art Spiegelman put through the wringer. I dunno, I like “In the Shadow of No Towers” and I still laughed out loud at the line “I’ll have to borify it by 30 percent.”

Obviously your mileage is going to vary pretty wildly with a book of this nature. Those with weak stomachs or easily rattled consciences are going to be less forgiving of this sort of material than those of a more forgiving (or less sympathetic) nature. Were there jokes in here that offended or disgusted me? Sure. I fully admit to not being tickled by all the overly racist ethnic gags. And the constant references to fecal matter tended to blur some of the strips together in an unappetizing way by the end of the book. Anyway, I actually don’t mind being offended in this manner every now and then. It’s a good reminder to myself that there are things I still care about. That I’m not completely dead inside. Yet.

Besides, that sort of inconsistency is to be expected with a book that has such a scattershot, off the cuff approach. It’s part of its appeal really. The bottom line is, there are enough pure gems here to make the book worth your time. Assuming you’re the sort of person who laughs at the thought of Spider-Man having an immense collection of tranny porn of course.

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This book is to crack wide open of laughter. It is so clever that i am amazed every time i read it. There should be more books like this one.


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