Ian Burns interviews Johnny Ryan about Prison Pit

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

BURNS: Prison Pit is also in black and white, just like most of your other comics, but the manga influence on Prison Pit has been widely commented upon, and you’ve already talked about it a little bit. In comparison to your more “big-foot” style strips like AYC, how has your technique changed? Have you just been working on, other than obviously using a pen, have you been working on going for a flatter image,or…?

RYAN: Well, no, I think the Prison Pit approach … it’s definitely a lot more realistic, comparatively speaking.

BURNS: Right.

RYAN: You know, the bodies aren’t all noodle-y and big-footy. So in that sense, there’s that difference.

BURNS: Have you had to do any research on anatomy for the more visceral stuff—

RYAN: No, because — and that was something I thought about initially — I felt, by doing research, I’m completely undermining the work. It goes back to my whole thing about seeing like a teenager’s action comic. Teenagers don’t think about, “Well, I need to take an anatomy course,” [Burns laughs] “before I draw my mutant planet war.” They just fuckin’ just go and just jump into it. So I had that same vibe.

I was also influenced by a lot of younger cartoonists coming up now, who are alternative cartoonists, but they’re working in genres. They’re not doing the typical alternative comic stuff. They’re doing science-fiction stories or action stories or horror stories. But they’re not things that would normally fit into some kind of mainstream book: Their drawing style’s a little off. Their sensibilities are weird. Artists like Benjamin Marra (Night Business) or Powr Mastrs by C.F.: those books influenced me as well. I felt like I could do that too.

I’ve never really been a fan of the the comedy superhero type thing for the most part; here might be a couple exceptions. So that was what made me want to do the story in the first place. I wanted to do an action-type book. But I didn’t want to make it a comedy. I didn’t want to make it like the funny superhero guy, or a lampooning of superheroes or action comics. I wanted to do a straight-up, sort of action/horror type comic. That was the main influence, I wanted to do something like these books. Approach it in sort of the same way.

BURNS: Do you feel like you’ve been successful?

RYAN: As far as taking it seriously, I’m totally approaching it that way. And there’s not too many moments where I feel like,”I really need to stick a joke in here somewhere.” Because the book can get really gross and over the top with the violence, the humor is in those elements, not necessarily in just the jokes and the comedy. So when you open the second volume and you’re looking at a guy taking a shit … I mean there’s comedy there of course. But it’s not the same kind of slapstick type stuff that I was doing before.

BURNS: Yeah, the character needs to take a shit so he’s takin’ a shit. He’s not takin’ a shit to be funny.

RYAN: There’s comedy in the whole aspect of a guy turning into a big, gigantic tentacle spider, a guy having a worm on his arm. There’s a certain comedy to those things, you could argue that. But I feel like by approaching these subjects seriously they have more power than if I was trying to take the piss out of the whole action/superhero/fight comic scene.

BURNS: And that serious approach has allowed you to put in some subtext with masculine and feminine elements, that’s the other trend I’ve noticed is the needle penis, needle vagina, and then on top of that there’s just the macho attitude that Cannibal Fuckface embodies too. Have you been consciously putting in some subtext under that?

RYAN: No, the whole idea behind doing these books is I wanted to do a book where big, ugly monster men beat the shit out of each other. So, I mean you can’t do a book like that and think, “Oh I need to have a positive feminine character, I need to have this kind of sexual message that this is wrong and this is right.” You know? I’m not thinking on those terms, and I guess I’m … I don’t know what the fuck I’m trying to do. [Laughter.] I’m just trying to do a comic, I’m trying to make it as action-driven and weird as I possibly can. This has been my whole career, is that I’m just trying to make something that I would like to read. I mean as if I’m trying to have some kind of subtext about sex, or my unconscious feelings about sex. [Laughter]: stuff like that. I’m sure people can pick that apart in any of my books. But it’s not something I’m consciously trying to do.

BURNS: Do you want to stay in a genre for a while? Or…I don’t know how long you’ve planned Prison Pit, but do you plan for this to be your little genre story or do you want to stay in it for…

RYAN: I don’t usually think that far ahead … [Laughter.] I mean it was the same thing with Angry Youth Comix. I just rode it, and I never officially ended it; I just moved onto the next thing.

Right now I enjoy working on Prison Pit, and I like doing these types of things with the characters and fighting, and all that stuff. Superficially I have an idea of a six-book series or something like that, but I couldn’t say that officially. I mean, after doing four books I could be like, “Fuck this.” [Burns laughs.] Or after six books I could be like, “I’m still enjoying doing this and I think I can go some more interesting places with this.”

So … I don’t know.

BURNS: Speaking of fight scenes, how do you choreograph your fight scenes?

RYAN: So far, the first two books, I had a lot of the major plot points in my head. I did do some preliminary sketches and things, but I don’t usually write notes, I don’t plot things out, I don’t write everything out, write a script or something like that. I just jump into it, I just have to connect the major plot points that I have in my head. Yeah, by choreographing the fight scenes, I just do whatever looks good [laughs].

BURNS: Are you happy with that spontaneous approach?

RYAN: That was even the case with Angry Youth Comix, Comic Book Holocaust and Klassic Komix Klub. Those books, I was just riffing and completely going off the top of my head. That, to me, is a lot more fun. Usually when I over-think something and I plot something out really clearly and all that, I get bored quickly and I then start to dread having to draw it. I like the spontaneity of sitting down and I’m really sure what’s going to happen. And if I’m not feeling something I can change it. It’s just more fun for me to not exactly know what I’m gonna do or what’s gonna happen. I also just don’t have the patience to plot everything out. I’ve talked to other comic artists, some people do it that way, they have to have everything plotted out. I’m not saying that my way is the official way, but it’s just the way I like to work.

BURNS: I think that comes through in how energetic those fight scenes are. There’s one panel in Volume 2 where Cannibal Fuckface is flying through that mass of, well, spider legs or tentacles or whatever. It just really comes across as [you] really enjoying it as it’s being created.

Could you talk about your inspiration for the characters in Prison Pit? We could just start with Cannibal Fuckface.

RYAN: Yeah. He’s basically my version of [Stone Cold] Steve Austin [Burns laughs] from WWE wrestling, ’cause he’s got the knee pads and also, as a kid as a wrestling fan, or a teenager or whatever, it was always fun to see when they would like slit their forehead open and the blood would start to run down.

BURNS: Right.

RYAN: So the blood coming down [on Cannibal Fuckface’s face] was an exaggeration of that. But it’s totally Stone Cold Steve Austin.

BURNS: What about some of the villains? I don’t know what to call this guy … Nazi Skull? That’s all I call him.

RYAN: Rottweiler Herpies: I named all the guys in my head. If you look in the book … Cannibal Fuckface … nobody ever really names him. I think at one point somebody calls him Fuckface, but it doesn’t really seem like that’s his official name. I think pretty much all the names, I know them, but they’re not necessarily in the book. I guess that was just a Skeletor, Nazi thing. The other ones, I was doodling around in my sketchbook trying to come up with weird combinations of things. But yeah the Rottweiler Herpies guy’s like a Skeletor-Nazi-Michelin Man. [Burns laughs.]

BURNS: So that attitude of spontaneity bleeds over into creating your characters?

RYAN: It can. The guards at the beginning, the one that he fights was based on a Doctor Who villain: the Sontaran. Sometimes the monsters from old sci-fi TV shows creep in there.

BURNS: After reading Volume 2 … To me it seemed like a trend of you creating monsters within monsters. Rabies, when he gets mutilated, he has that second type of form. With Rottweiler Herpies, the same thing happens when he gets his helmet ripped off. They always have something more concealed.

RYAN: It’s definitely a trend. Maybe it’s a [David] Cronenberg-type influence. Or even something like John Carpenter’s The Thing where things keep morphing into other things and break apart and morph into worse things. That also fascinates me and it kind of opens up this whole … it makes the action fun, when the characters are fighting each other and you think it’s over and then it’s not over and then it just keeps going. It just makes it really gross and exciting.

BURNS: It helps to keep the audience on their feet and to know that —

RYAN: Well, also, you don’t know. I like the whole body/morph thing going on to create the weird … the readers, they might know it’s not over yet, but they don’t know what is going to come next. They might know it might change into something, you just don’t know what it’s going to change into. It adds to the excitement.

BURNS: Have you noticed a change in your fan base in the past year since Vol. 1 was released? Has Prison Pit attracted or repulsed anyone?

RYAN: I don’t know. Nobody’s come out and said it but I do feel that there are fans who don’t like the new direction. “When’s the next Angry Youth Comix coming out, I miss those characters.”

And, what am I going to do? I can’t keep doing that shit for the rest of my life. I mean I’m sure there’s people that would love for me to do that, but I feel like I don’t want to.

BURNS: Were you feeling pretty worn out with them?

RYAN: I felt like I took the series as far as I could take it. And I think even if you look at the last issue of AYC, #14, you see this horror, serious element creeping in. I took everything as far as it could go. I went every place I could possibly go with those characters and that format. Just wanted to do something different. And I didn’t really officially end it. Who knows, maybe in a few years I’ll be like, “You know, I’ve got this great idea for a Loady McGee story,” and I’ll bring it back. But right now I don’t.

BURNS: You could have Boobs Pooter guest star in Prison Pit, and that’ll just through everybody off. [Ryan laughs.] Well, is Prison Pit challenging you and your drawing skills in a different way?

RYAN: I’m retraining myself to draw in this semi-new way. It’s definitely some kind of weird challenge.

all images ©2010 their respective creators

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