Prison Pit: Book One

Posted by on December 3rd, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Prison Pit: Book One by Johnny Ryan; Fantagraphics; 120 pp., $12.99;  B&W, Softcover;  ISBN: 9781606992975


Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit is probably as close as comics are likely to come to exploitation cinema. Like the best exploitation dreck from Texas Chainsaw to Death Race 2000, Prison Pit is pure, bottom-dwelling schlock, with nothing crawling through its syphilitic brain-fluid except gross-out humor, uber-violence, bodily fluids, sex, and maybe a few worms choking on their own worm-vomit. Set on a prison planet wasteland, the heinousness starts out hyperbolic — a guard who uses his prehensile intestines as a weapon; our hero (?) feasting on said guard’s corpse — and escalates rapidly, taking time out only for occasional sneeringly gratuitous cultural references. (“C’mon. What’re you waiting for?” our hero taunts one opponent. “Want me to send you an evite?”) By the time we reach the end of the book, we’re talking hideous monsters made out of cum and symbiotic slug creatures performing fellatio on their hosts. It’s hard to imagine how Book Two could possibly be any more repulsive … though it’s kind of fun to try. I will note that there isn’t nearly as much shitting in this comic as you’d expect. So, Johnny, if you’re reading, I’m officially putting in my request for more anal in future volumes.

Even without the poop, though, I think it’s fair to say that Prison Pit has utterly no redeeming value, and should be immediately burnt if some way could be discovered to do so without forever defiling fire. And yet, again as with exploitation fare, the single-minded commitment to vileness is so perversely pure that it goes right past lowest-common-denominator entertainment and on into snooty, fancy-pants art. The first page — four stacked horizontal panels, opening with complete blackness and pulling away to reveal a black circle in the middle of a white field covered with short squiggles, like some sort of negative sun — could easily have run in Andrei Molotiu’s recent Abstract Comics Anthology. Nor do things get much less highbrow when we actually enter into the “plot.” Ryan’s world is essentially Waiting for Godot, from the bleak landscape to the slapstick violence. Though, to be fair, Ryan’s taciturn action sequences — interrupted only by sound effects like “Hack,” “Splat,” “Slik Slik Slik,” and the ever-popular manga-borrowed “Silence” — embody the empty aesthetic of modernism more fully than anything the wordy Beckett ever managed.

And then there’s the art. Ryan’s drawing has always been appealingly sketchy, but he’s never really paid that much attention to layout or panel composition. Prison Pit, though, seems consciously inspired by Japanese sources. Ryan’s drawing is still crude, and the line-work still looks like it’s been chiseled out of wood, but there’s a much more conscious use of space and of panel-to-panel movement. The sequence where our protagonist falls down a mountain, for example, is done in a two-page spread, with each page divided into four-panel grids. The mountain is a rugged diagonal across each panel, with the small figure of the hero bouncing between black rock and white space. The repetition is so aggressively, blankly repetitive it could have been pinched from Chris Ware, if Ware drew like a disgruntled middle-schooler. Though, of course, drawing like a disgruntled middle-schooler would only make Chris Ware fit in better at most art galleries. Ryan would probably be horrified to hear it, but this is the kind of book that’s going to get him acclaimed a genius in France.

Image [©2009 Johnny Ryan]

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