By Ryan Kelly
Funrama: You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. LOL JK, nah it’s a dimension of chaotic bomb-tossing cat mutants, super-heroic acrobatic teenagers with congenital amaurosis, and dudes with cacti for arms, all delivered with the fervor of a thousand birds being flipped at once. And it is devilishly awesome on virtually every level. Funrama is clearly a passion project for Ryan Kelly and his enthusiasm for the subject matter is evident on every page. Incorporating a little bit of everything from the comic genre buffet, these three issues are a hilarious and stylish “getting the band together” journey through time and space fueled with a punk-rock affectation that screams “fuck it, let’s have fun!”
Ryan Kelly makes his first foray into the superhero realm with this entirely self-published work as both writer and artist. As anyone who’s familiar with his work (Three, Local, The New York Four, The New York Five, Lucifer, DMZ, Northlanders) he’s an enormously talented illustrator and storyteller, and an enormously busy dude. As such, Kelly has been working on Funrama when he’s had time outside of regular paying work, with issue #1 being released in 2010, issue #2 in 2012 and issue #3 just last year in 2014. With three issues in the bank, it’s a perfect time to dive in and check out the gorgeously illustrated roster of dimension-hopping metahumans he’s assembling. Each of the issues could very well stand on their own, like a sort of superhero exploration akin to The Multiversity, but Kelly deftly ensures each is being driven to a common point; an event horizon of comic book conflict.
The most impressive aspect comes from how radically different each of these three issues are from each other, but there’s just enough connective tissue between them to make it feel like a cohesive narrative building towards something brilliant. The first issue, “The Mutant Punks”, is the lovechild of Millar’s The Authority and Comedy Central’s Drawn Together featuring a deplorable and misguided cadre of super-powered…well, punks. Dedicating to bringing down the American establishment in the name of just wanting to see the world burn, they set their sights on the pinnacle of Western Capitalist society: The Mall of America. Violent hi-jinx ensues and it’s a thrill ride of irreverent action and humor. Kelly intentionally goes over the top and tonally keeps things raucously light throughout as he simultaneously takes shots at American consumerism and political hypocrisy, and the notion of the hyper-violent comic book anti-hero. Honestly, an entire series of just these characters and their predictable chaos would get exhausting quick, but Kelly let’s them run loose in this spotlight issue to introduce a team that’s sure to be just one supporting facet of a richly diverse cast of characters in the Funrama universe. Kelly blends physical and narrative comedy to great effect, allowing long patches of text to serve as set-up for a pitch perfect one-beat payoff, as well as relishing in the sheer joy that is having a mohawk-spiked rodent humanoid threaten Santa Claus with explosives. It’s a blast (get it?…sorry).
Veering sharply to the right, Kelly takes on the successful Spider-Man template in issue two and introduces a brand new batch of characters, specifically the aforementioned teen superhero with a rare eye-disease named Raccoon. Together with her costume-challenged, flora-communicating sidekick/best friend Flora and a…shape-changing ghost (maybe?) named Freakshow, Raccoon (aka Rachel Larson) balances a complicated school and home life with the rigors of taking down moronic super-villains high on theatrics and short on brains. Kelly tonally grounds this issue (despite the oddities already mentioned) in a believable, relatable scenario focusing on the angst and self-doubt of a socially outcast teenage girl questioning what she’s supposed to do with her life. Whereas the previous issue was delightfully absurdist in dialogue, the down-to-earth witticisms and snark of teenagers is a breath of fresh air here and exaggerated third-person narrative has given way to the inner thoughts of Rachel. It’s smart and heartfelt and encapsulates everything great with the teen superhero trope, culminating in arguably the best (or perhaps, most well-rounded) of these initial issues.
Finally, there’s the hard-nosed redemption story set against the backdrop of 1930’s union-busting. Oh and yes, a dude totally gets to have cactuses (screw your proper plural nouns!) for arms. Again, Kelly ensures that this venture is starkly different from what’s come before while still maintaining the little details that tie it together. Floyd Macaloon is a bully, the strong-armed puppet of big business in the battle against organized labor who’s starting to see the error of his ways. An act of spurious violence finally gets him to make the right decision, only to see it blow up in his face. And then, y’know, cactus-arm time! This issue is appropriately quasi-noir, heavy on mood and terse-talking tough guys in a world of moral ambiguity and visual shadow. Floyd isn’t likable, nor is he supposed to be and Kelly ensures that we see a good guy trapped in the sad sack former bad guy through rhythmically controlled story pacing. Not until the end is it even really evident how this could possibly tie into the two prior installments and again, it’s this type of genre-hopping that helps build the tense anticipation that Kelly does so well.
Look, if you’re not familiar with Kelly’s art, then you’ve missed out on a damn truckload of great comics. Utilizing the same free and simultaneously meticulous attention to detail style seen in Local, Kelly renders characters with just a hint of lively exaggerated expressionism and vigor. There’s subtle differences between each issue; a pop style, almost Allred quality to the Raccoon adventure and a grittier, shadow-rife early 20th century industrialism to Cactus-Man’s solo tale, and a large cinematic element to the Mutant Punks. There’s great weight to his art, but his heavy inks are only ever used to enhance the line and never obscure it, giving each lock of hair, fold of fabric or bristled brow the appropriate heft to make it feel real. And it’s all set against elaborately detailed backgrounds, never allowing a single panel to exist in a nebulous space. Everything has texture, be it through stippling or brush or pen, and the extraordinary has a wonderfully familiar, painstakingly ordinary world to run amok in, in all its black and white and grey-toned beauty.
A smorgasbord of superhero conventions, Funrama is an absolute celebration of comic books. Zigging where you thought he would zag, Ryan Kelly is building a unique world that wants to reach off the page and high-five you. Beyond simply proving yet again he’s a masterful artist, Kelly is showing his writing chops are nothing to sneeze at by delivering sharply written dialogue and cleverly structured scripts that are heavy on character and atmosphere. Funrama playfully and tortuously teases you along the way of what’s to come (uh, Boxing Robots and Health Goddesses? Yes, please) but delivers more than enough through these three issues to ensure that it’ll be worth the wait.