When a cartoonist sets a comic during the Minneapolis Teamster’s Strike of 1934, such a mise en scène brings with it a cogent and certain veritas, an innate legitimacy, the kind of thing which causes academic’s heads to bob and dominant hands to stroke van dykes with the self-possession of colonial baronets, industrialists or circus ringmasters. Amid this sober setting of snap brim fedoras and street brawls betwixt Trotskyists and the police stands the protagonist, a man not unwilling to compromise his principals, crooked, yes, but an individual whose malfeasance leaves him hollow inside, a man in need of … redemption. All that’s left is to give him a silly-sounding, yet period-appropriate, old-timey name, say, Floyd Macaloon, and watch those big wig investors and Hollywood development types beat a path to the cartoonist’s door. And for the coup de grâce give this Saint Paul of Saint Paul … cactus arms!
Wait … what?
Interlocutor (Imagined) i.e. ‘the reader’
The Floyd fella, are you saying he has saguaro-shaped clubs instead of arms or are his arms more cactus-like? Like he’s got burrs for biceps and spikes sticking out of his triceps and when he punches people in the face they get a fistful of thorns! If so, winner-winner, chicken dinner!
(HUMBLE) REVIEWER i.e. ‘ME’
Hmmmmmm, the first one.
What? The cactus clubs?
Like Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore says, ‘Ryan Kelly don’t compromise.’ Funrama is Kelly’s not-nearly-so-regular-enough irregular self-published superhero satire series. Macaloon, he of the prickly haymakers, represents Kelly’s most ridiculous and heart-on-his-sleeve-wearing character in the series so far.
Nothing in the free to downloadFunrama #1 which features a team of baddies, the Mutant Punks — Concord, The Fog, Twisterella, Lead Head and Bombcat, ”he’s a cat with bombs” — who (SPOILER!) wreak havoc on, among other things, the Executive Office of the President of the United States, the Mona Lisa and the Mall of America. Nor does Funrama #2 — which posits all-artsy-high-school-girls-with-black-eye-makeup-hide-secret-identies-as-crime-fighters (well, duh!) — provide an inkling that a character like Macaloon, with his struggles between nascent Minnesota labor unions and big business, could be born from Kelly’s imagination. Ain’t surprises grand? If superhero satire and silliness in serious (and less serious) settings isn’t your pretty kettle of walleye, Kelly, as the creator of this meta-meat grinder of superheroics … could … care … less. Why would he? He’s having too much fun as he follows his muse over the edge and out past the margins. With a thing like Funrama, a reader either rides along or doesn’t. It’s like Yoda sez, ”there is no try.”
As super hero origin stories go, Funrama #3 is relatable despite any prior knowledge (or lack thereof) one has of early twentieth century American Midwest labor disputes. True, the making (and un-making) of Macaloon doesn’t have the same wit or the irreverence the two previous stories hold in surplus, but that’s to be expected. Many roads diverge through the super hero origin woods and cracking jokes while Macaloon’s goons crack skulls wouldn’t play. There’s sincerity to this character and his ennui is a trait the Mutant Punks and the ring-eyed Raccoon and her sidekicks of Funrama #2 didn’t have and didn’t need. Floyd like the Wolverine analogue he is keeps his own company. He is, after all, the ‘cactus man.’
In a perfect world, Ryan Kelly draws all the faces, all the faces and all the backgrounds. Panels with empty surroundings are as rare as hen’s teeth in Kelly’s comics. Every brick, window and streetlamp gets rendered with draughtsman-like precision. Even the most mundane detail receives special treatment. Kelly puts cracks in the plaster and nicks on the lintels of Floyd’s tumbledown apartment to make it look that much closer to shitty. After Floyd takes his inevitable comeuppance, he’s driven out to a bridge over the Mississippi River, his point of convergence, so to speak. In the foreground Kelly draws what has to be the most ornate grate for fencing imaginable all the way to its inevitable vanishing point, it’s this kind of care and attention to detail which demonstrates Funrama is a Kelly’s baby and a labor of love.
Kelly doesn’t draw ‘just-another-face-in-the-crowd’ faces, besides his borderline insane insistence on detail; Kelly’s faces look distinct, memorable … like only Ryan Kelly draws a face. What separates a Megan McKeenan or an Arcadia Alvarado or a Floyd Macaloon from other depictions of characters in comic books is the subtlety Kelly brings to their emotions. One of his skills as a cartoonist is to draw looks in between the petals on the emotional spectrum, never straight-up distraction or sadness, something more multi-faceted, more human. It’s always a simple ba
nality, how tight Floyd’s eyelids close when he lights a cigarette or the morose melancholia he feels when he wakes up on a desert island with cactuses for arms, that sort of emotional resonance.
Faces and backgrounds are one thing (O.K., two things) a cartoonist renders, but the craft also demands one to, you know, cartoon, tell the story and make still images move. Again, Kelly brings a nuance to his panels both obvious and subliminal. When Macaloon meets his corporate handler, Briggs, for the first time and the reader learns who pulls whose strings; Kelly first shows Macaloon as he walks down the hallway towards an open doorway where someone with their back to the reader says ”we had a citizens [sic] alliance plant initiate a brawl.” At the top of the following page Macaloon enters the room and the reader sees the speaker and his audience of fellow white devils i.e. businessmen. Kelly cants the angle of the image as the room goes from stolid and stately manor to something not on the level. In film terms it’s called a ‘Dutch tilt‘ or a ‘German angle’ in which (normally) vertical lines slant towards the side of the frame, directors ‘go Dutch (or German)’ when they want to show tension or uneasiness. By the time the reader’s eye gets to the bottom of the page, everything is all right angles and ‘normal’ again. Kelly’s made his point. To reinforce Macaloon’s bent, Kelly always draws him at a slouch as he skulks around union meetings and pickets, a man out of place, off-kilter with his surroundings. It’s another example of how Kelly adapts the same ‘tension’ technique to a character’s body language instead of the overall composition or setting of a particular panel. Artful. Smart.
The technical skill Kelly shows in his cartooning goes hand-in-hand with his understanding of how superhero comics work and when they work best. Hero’s journeys only meet expectations, not exceed them. What Kelly understands is the verve of ‘what if?’ and the childlike brio of the unexpected. Funrama doesn’t pretend to be a deconstructive treatise on the role of the superhero in society or an inside-comics-kind-of-way to poke fun at the thing we love, it’s not snot nosed. Funrama is … what’s the word … oh yeah, ‘-rama.’ Well, it’s more of a suffix, I guess, than a word, ‘-rama’ as in ‘panorama’ as in ”spectacular display or instance of.” Comics can be and should be comic, not ‘fun’ in the experiential sense, but imaginative. And few things are more imaginative than a dirty, under-the-table bully who wakes up on a desert island with cactus arms. Now that’s whatcha’ call a ‘funrama.’
The get your FREE digital download of the out-of-print Funrama #1 and for more information about ordering print and digital copies of Funrama #2 and #3 visit: Funrama.
As an eleven-year-old Keith Silva once created a superhero named Gypsy moth man, part Gypsy moth part man, cactus arms and a Midwest labor backstory would have helped that bash, “Doo do doo do doo do do doo …” Twitter: keithpmsilva