Ian Burns interviews Johnny Ryan about Prison Pit

Posted by on October 11th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit series is spontaneous, frantic and gruesome — each page-turn reveals something unexpected. At no point does it require the reader to stop and analyze the proceedings (despite a certain interviewer’s attempt, an account of which you’ll read shortly), which is just as well; readers are too busy urgently turning the pages because they’re enjoying the story so damn much. There just isn’t time to stop and think. And that’s what makes it special.

In the following conversation, Johnny Ryan and I speak about his objectives and inspirations for the Prison Pit, how it relates to his previous work in Angry Youth Comix, and how Prison Pit has affected his cartooning.

— Ian Burns

IAN BURNS: You’ve committed, in Prison Pit, to a longer story, the longest one you’ve done that isn’t solely humorous. What have you been able to do with the extra room and the extra pages that you weren’t able to do with Angry Youth Comix?

JOHNNY RYAN: I guess I should start by saying that when I approached Eric [Reynolds] with the Prison Pit idea, I didn’t really know what to do with it. I felt like, “Oh, should I just do a different comic book? It doesn’t really feel like I should put it inside Angry Youth Comix.” It didn’t seem like it fit very well.

So I wasn’t really sure, and Eric said that Fantagraphics isn’t into publishing comic booklets anymore, so if I wanted to do it I would have to do it in book form. With that in mind I decided that when I would write the story that I would try to take my time with it. That was a real departure from the Angry Youth Comix series, because in those books I was trying to cram as much shit into every panel as I possibly could, sometimes literally [Burns laughs].

And so with the Prison Pit series I’ve completely changed my whole approach. I draw on a smaller page now. The pace is slower, so I guess you can say I’m taking my time with telling the story, letting the story unfold. Angry Youth Comix was primarily drawn with a brush, and Prison Pit I’ve decided that I’m just gonna pretty much use, primarily, pen. I changed a lot of things when I started this.

BURNS: And what about different narrative devices? You mentioned pace, which I was going to touch on, but Vol. 2 also ends with a cliffhanger; you weren’t really able to incorporate those types of things in Angry Youth because they were just little contained things.

RYAN: When I first started publishing with Fantagraphics and Eric was my editor, that was something that we both agreed on: that each book would be self-contained. You could pick up any issue of Angry Youth Comix and you’ll understand what’s going on. But with this series I was fully influenced by a lot of the manga that I’ve been reading. And I saw that these books are popular and I felt, if you’re doing these types of books — if you’re doing comics in a longer form —  I think you can get away with doing cliffhangers.

BURNS: Was it the pace of manga, was it the drawing style of manga…? Just in a little more depth.

RYAN: Not so much the traditional drawing style, ’cause I don’t feel like I’ve ever tried to really ape that. A lot of the outsider manga guys, like [Yusaku] Hanakuma who did Tokyo Zombie — it’s a great book. This guy has a traditional style, Kazuo Umezu, The Drifting Classroom: That influenced me. And Junji Ito who did Uzumaki. So a lot of the horror guys: I think I mentioned Berserk [Kentaro Miura] before; Yoshikazu Ebisu; Takashi Nemoto; Suehiro Maruo and Radio Wadja.

When I was reading these books I felt like, “Wow, they’re really doing these crazy, horror adventure-genre type stories, and I’m really enjoying them, why can’t I? I should be able to pull this off as well.”

BURNS: So it was mainly that horror influence, that kind of extreme—

RYAN: I’ve always been a big horror fan, so that was also a heavy influence on doing the book.

BURNS: You mentioned smaller pages and going back to the pen, but has a longer form changed any other part of your drawing process or your creative process in general?

RYAN: Not really, other than the pace and using the pen, and I think that in Angry Youth Comix — where the style was very cartoony, and even though the subject matter could get pretty vile — the look of the characters was always fun. I felt that you couldn’t really get that upset about what was going on in the comic: They were fluffy, bouncy, roly-poly type characters. Whereas with Prison Pit, when I’m working with the pen, I’m trying to go for a more scratchy, more jagged-y style.

BURNS: Was that the main reason for switching back to pen? Because correct me if I’m wrong, but you started with a pen when you were self-publishing, then you moved to brushes…

RYAN: Right.

BURNS: … when you were hanging out with other cartoonists, and now you’re back to pen.

RYAN: There was part of that where I felt I was going back to my beginnings, trying to recapture that vibe. I think that was also just the idea of the book, that I wanted to do a type of action/adventure book that you might find if you opened up some 14-year-old kid’s notebook and you saw what he was up to. So I wanted to capture that as well, and I felt I could do that with a pen and by doing it in that style.

BURNS: You use a lot of prop-based humor in Angry Youth Comix and Blecky: cigars, suits of armor, weapons, fecal matter … How did you adapt prop-based humor to an alien planet in Prison Pit?

RYAN: I should say that when I was approaching Prison Pit, I felt like, “I’m going to approach this subject without any kind of irony.” So, the type of humor that you’re going to find in Prison Pit: it’s not a humor book, and I don’t feel that it’s a humor book. I liken it to when you watch some action movie, or when you’re watching wrestling or something like that: and the guys are trash-talking each other; or somebody’s head explodes in graphic detail; and usually when I see stuff like that I can’t help but laugh. If you’d want to qualify that as humor, then there is those elements of humor to it. So when I’m doing this book, I’m not really trying to be funny in the same way as you might think of Angry Youth Comix … I’m just trying to take it seriously; by taking the subject matter seriously it then kind of becomes funny, but —

BURNS: Right, so you would say, in AYC where you would use props to add to the humor, in Prison Pit any props that are used should be part of the story?

RYAN: Right.

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