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The Real-Life Underground Cartoonist Who Filled Out Owen Kline’s ‘Funny Pages’

Johnny Ryan shares the instructions given to him by the first-time director: "'It can be as dirty or crazy as you want it to be.'"

Daniel Zolghadri Funny Pages Owen Kline A24

“Funny Pages”

courtesy of A24

When Owen Kline was 14 years old, he wrote cartoonist Johnny Ryan a fan letter. “I didn’t know who he was,” Ryan told IndieWire. “I just thought it was amusing that a child was sending me fan mail.” Featuring characters like Loady McGee and stories like “The Whorehouse of Dr. Moreau,” Ryan’s “Angry Youth Comix” were not exactly age-appropriate for Kline. But the introduction proved fruitful. Years later, the now 30-year-old Kline went to Ryan when he was working on his first feature, the A24-distributed “Funny Pages.”

“Funny Pages” centers on a New Jersey teen obsessed, like Kline was and clearly still is, with underground comics. After his art teacher and mentor dies in a shockingly horrific accident, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) decides to quit school with the idea of devoting himself to his craft.

Kline was in need of drawings to represent his protagonist’s body of work, and, soon, Ryan was on the case. “When you’re looking through the portfolio at the beginning, that was pretty much me riffing,” Ryan said. “And Owen’s direction was just kind of like, ‘It can be as dirty or crazy as you want it to be.'” Speaking to IndieWire, Kline remembered throwing out some ideas of his own: Hanna-Barbera characters Wally Gator and Augie Doggie jerking each other off; a female WWF wrestler milking a cockatiel. That kind of stuff. “I just wrote some sick list out of my head,” Kline said.

To prepare for “Funny Pages,” Kline and his cinematographer Sean Price Williams studied how to best photograph comics for the screen, trying to answer the question, as Kline put it, “How do you shoot a comic book in an interesting way?” They looked at the likes of Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about cartoonist R. Crumb, “Crumb,” and Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of “Breathless,” in which Richard Gere reads “The Silver Surfer.” They considered how to give “context” to the comics, involving the character reading in the shot. “Sometimes you do a little dirty over the shoulder,” Kline says. Ryan’s comics were helpful to have at their disposal because of their “readability,” according to Kline, whose knowledge of the medium is encyclopedic. (The discussion of readability, a comics term, sent him on a tangent about “Spy vs. Spy” and its creator Antonio Prohías.)

Initially, Kline had approached another alt-comics figure, Rick Altergott, but his art was “too lavish” for what a high school senior would produce. “It’s sort of between cartooning and this bleak, Charles Burns, stark realism,” Kline said. Kline decided that Altergott would provide the drawings for Robert’s teacher, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), and Ryan’s style would be a better fit for Robert.

Matthew Maher Daniel Zolghadri Funny Pages A24

“Funny Pages”

courtesy of A24

Ryan reconnected with Kline prior to “Funny Pages,” when the latter stopped by a signing at Desert Island Comics in Williamsburg. (According to Kline, Ryan identified him as “the guy that jerks off in that movie,” referring to Kline’s childhood role in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.”) Ryan didn’t feel like he had to alter his aesthetic in any way to draw for Robert. “Owen was like, ‘I want you to draw like you,’” he says. “I was feeling like, this kid is basically me.” The one time Kline asked Ryan to diverge from his style was when he asked him to recreate a page from an Image Comics superhero book worked on by Wallace (Matthew Maher), the former color separatist who reluctantly agrees to teach Robert after Mr. Katano’s death. “It definitely wasn’t an ideal situation,” Ryan says. “It’s not the type of thing I like to draw or the way I like to draw.”

Though Ryan knew of Kline from when he was just a kid, he also had a relationship with “Funny Pages” producers Josh and Benny Safdie. It was Josh who sent him an early version of the script. Ryan drew the random assortment of fucked up drawings for Robert’s portfolio around four years ago; when he didn’t hear back from Kline, he assumed the project had been scrapped. But then Kline called him up again with more specific requests based on characters that were in the film, including two sweaty older men who Robert moves in with in Trenton, New Jersey. For some of the pieces that feature characters in the film, Ryan would send Kline scanned versions of different stages of the drawing process, so the director could recreate it on screen. In some shots, Kline would film his own hand as Robert’s inking.

There’s a bit of personal anthropology spread throughout “Funny Pages.” Not only did Kline recruit elders he admired, he used one of his childhood friends’ mini comics in the movie. On screen “Afro Bot” is made by Robert’s friend Miles (Miles Emanuel), who Robert treats as a hanger-on. In real life, it was created by a pal who Kline met at the now-closed Rocketship Graphic Novels and Comics in Brooklyn. “It looks so much like a 14-year-old kid trying to do a thing,” Kline says. “It’s one of things that hopefully adds a layer of authenticity that you can’t really put a finger on.”

For his part, Ryan was just happy he ended up liking the movie, which he only saw in its final form. “I was glad I was part of something I enjoyed,” he says. “I liked it. I thought they did a good job and I didn’t feel humiliated.”

A24 will release “Funny Pages” in theaters on Friday, August 26.

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