This is what looks to be the first "book" to arrive from Pigeon Press. Similar in format to Ryan's Comic Book Holocaust and Klassic Komix Klub, New Character Parade is a collection of one-page gag strips--many of which were previously available online--which stretch the boundaries of what some might find tasteful. (There's a few rape jokes, plenty of racial slurs, the occasional fecal/penile/clitoral humor.) In keeping with his non-Prison Pit/Blecky work, Ryan's gag comics are a hit-or-miss kind of experience, with the ratio on this one skewing funnier than it was in Holocaust or KKK. The misses need little introduction, you can usually just check the last panel: if it seems clever or odd, it's a good one; if neither, it probably isn't.
The big change to be found is in the hits. Whereas the most spot-on strips in the previous collections derived their zing from the painful accuracy of their victim's satirization (Art Spiegelman's attempts to "borify" his comics even more, the politically correct update inherent in giving Captain America "AIDS breath"), the best moments in New Character are when the comic takes bizarre left turns, abandoning the offensive for the strange. The first time it happens--when an attempted chainsaw rape results in an absurdist shout out to "generation stink", complete with fist bump--the pace built by the prior pages is thrown off, leaving the reader completely unprepared for "The Chris Benwah Story", which might be the darkest piece of comedy in Ryan's entire career. Here's a taste of that:
There's no comparison, even to Johnny's 9/11 strips: this is harsh. From there, the book jarringly reverts to form, with the next page delivering a lazy (and toothless) attack on the Pope. And while nothing else in the book ever gets as dark as "Benwah", Ryan's contempt for "popular" humor quickly returns, with a one panel punchline focused on the idiocy of Larry The Cable Guy that contains such withering disgust ("git 'r done" being the obvious byproduct of castration) that one questions whether Ryan just isn't as irritated by the Catholic Church as he is by a comedian who eats out the lowest common denominator. But as the book continues, the strangeness starts to dogpile.
The comics above have nothing in common in terms of "plot", they don't share the same punchlines, but what they do all have is an unbelievable weirdness, a wholesale rejection of the types of jokes that Ryan's done so often before in this type of work. Oh, you'll still find plenty of funny, mean shit here: Ronald Reagan's Oval Office assault on Q-Bert will fill a gap that most would take to their graves, and there's something inherently satisfying to the concept that Kenny Loggins lives inside everyone's toilet. But then there's "Casino Splatz", with a street hustler (dressed like a silent movie villain) being forcibly inducted into the Maggot Brotherhood by way of a Prison Pit style body possession, or an openly desperate plea that Americans never forget their inalienable obligation to "kick it up a notch". The joke in "Neato Keitho" isn't that he was trying to rape the infant descendent of Hitler, it's that he used his last breath to apologize to the American flag for failing to give it the revenge he knew it deserved.
In mainstream comics, there's no reason to concern oneself with intent: they exist to make money, they have no other purpose. But in the outskirts, in something like this, where Ryan's reputation so far precedes him (and his content precludes so many of the regular channels)--intent and motive become an active component of the work while reading it, no matter its unknowability. "Why did he go that far" might be the popular one, but that's usually a sham question, designed just so that his critics can smugly respond "because he's not any good". The better question, the interesting one: Why is he doing it like this, now?
The change could be Prison Pit, it could be Angry Youth # 14, but more likely, those are mere outgrowths of a more exciting development: he's moved on. He's written the best shit joke, his best rape gag, his funniest story about two kids who kill one another. What he's doing now--toying with a formula he arguably perfected back in the early pages of Comics Book Holocaust--is exploring the tangential gags that made that last issue of Angry Youth such a revelation. (You might not remember how Boobs Pooter's joke finally ended, but few forget that throwaway moment in the middle, when a paramedic looked at his partner and said "Are you crying?")
It doesn't seem to have totally caught on. For some reason, Ryan includes two painful strips near the book's conclusion--one made up from the ceaseless stream of negative comments left on his Vice comics, and the final strip, where a man happily abandons suicide after hearing that Ryan has shut the project down. Both the strips aren't funny, worser still, they seem a bit clueless, as if Ryan was disappointed that he failed to find a large audience for hyper-offensive shaggy dog stories, anti-jokes, and a gleeful depiction of a horrible double murder.
He'll never be everybody's cartoonist--there's too much he does that people will get turned off by, too little time for his fans to continue the fruitless conversations about why dangerous comedy enthralls them more than observational bullshit and corny pop cultural referencing. But the truth is that he could've kept going, dropping a yearly Prison Pit and a couple of self-published "Fuck Spiegelman, Wolverine Too" comics, and the praise would have kept rolling in. Instead, he's letting his past triumphs stand behind him, and plunging forward. And if it seems clumsy at times, even embarrassing, it's a price worth paying.