John Gerald Christopher Ryan was born in Edinburgh on 4 March 1921, son of Sir Anthony Ryan, an Irish-born British diplomat, and his Scottish wife Ruth Marguerite, née van Millingen. He spent much of his childhood in Turkey and Morocco, where his father was consul-general. At the age of seven he wrote a book, The Adventures of Tommy Brown, which he sold to his mother for tuppence.
He was educated at Ampleforth College, a Catholic boarding school in North Yorkshire, where his artistic talent was indulged by his teachers. His first cartoons were published in the school magazine. He left school in 1940, intending to go to art college, but was called up, serving as an officer in the Lincolnshire Regiment in Burma and India, ending up a captain. He kept up the cartooning, drawing for SEAC, the journal of the south-east Asia command.
After he was demobbed in 1946, he studied art at Regent Street Polytechnic in London. There he met his future wife, Priscilla Ann Blomfield. After college he became an art teacher, first at Crusaders Preparatory School in Surrey, then at Harrow School. He married Priscilla in 1950, and as a wedding present a friend introduced him to Marcus Morris, who was preparing to launch the Eagle. Ryan created Captain Pugwash, a half-page pirate strip which appeared in the first 19 issues, but it was dropped as its humour was too young for the audience. Ryan then created a full-page strip, Harris Tweed: Extra Special Agent, about an inept detective, which ran until 1962. He also created Lettice Leefe, the Greenest Girl in the School for Girl, which began in 1951 and ran until 1967 (in Princess after Girl merged into it in 1964), and Sir Boldasbrass for Swift in 1954, and went full-time as a cartoonist in 1955.
He didn't give up on Captain Pugwash, writing and drawing a series of picture books, the first of which was published by Bodley Head in 1954, and made a series of animated films, using paper cutouts operated in real time with levers in time to a pre-recorded soundtrack, for the BBC from 1957 to 1966. The character also returned to comics in Swift (1958-59), the Radio Times (1960-68), Playland (1974-75) and Pippin in Playland (1975-76). He was protective of Pugwash, successfully suing the Sunday Correspondent in 1990 and the Guardian in 1991 for repeating the popular but false urban legend that the series featured characters called "Master Bates" and "Seaman Staines". It was revived in computer-animated form by John Cary Films in 1998.
In 1963 he started working for the Catholic Herald, initially illustrating a humorous column by Paul Jennings, then providing a weekly topical cartoon, often featuring Cardinal Grotti, an amiable but corrupt cardinal, until 2007, joking that the job "kept him in gin". His career in children's TV continued with Mary, Mungo and Midge (1969), The Adventures of Sir Prancelot (1971-72), further Captain Pugwash films (1974-75), and The Ark Stories for ITV in 1981, based on his series of children's books, in which he would appear on camera drawing an animal character, which led into an animated story featuring that character.
He worked in a studio in Kensington for much of his career, moving to Rye, East Sussex, in 1987, where he painted backdrops for pantomimes by the Rye Players. He suffered a stroke in 1990, which slowed his output but did not stop him working. He died of cancer at the Rye Memorial Care Centre on 22 July 2009, survived by his wife and their three children. The Centre for the Study of Cartoons at the University of Kent holds a large collection of his work on permanent loan.
- Mark Bryant, "Ryan, John Gerald Christopher (1921–2009)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2013, accessed 17 May 2014
- Alan Clark, Dictionary of British Comic Artists, Writers and Editors, The British Library, 1998, pp. 151-152
- Denis Gifford, Encyclopedia of Comic Characters, Longman, 1987, pp. 43, 97, 130
- Steve Holland, John Ryan (1921-2009), Bear Alley, 25 July 2009