Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Review: Prison Pit: Book Two, Johnny Ryan (Fantagraphics, 2010)

 Johnny Ryan | 16.5 x 21.6 cm, black & white | $12.99 | Out Now

Released last year, Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit: Book One was the kind of offensive, polarising piece of trash that readers either embraced like a lovable, albeit rotting, puppy carcass or bolted from in aghast terror. Both camps will feel vindicated then, that Prison Pit: Book Two returns with just as much phallic, alien grappling gore as the original, if not more. I, for one, am content to let the book slam its bloody, jagged-nailed middle finger through my corneas all over again.

It’s hard to write valuable criticism when the author himself states the purpose of the work is that he “wanted to do a book about monster-men beating the shit out of each other.”, asserting that “There’s no real subtext to it. It’s about the fighting.” (taken from’s interview). Like the fat kid who introduces himself as such,  Ryan has beaten reviewers to the punch, placing his book firmly beyond the standard methods of appraisal by declaring outright that it’s not meant to be a valuable book, rather, a fun one. There are no great truths embedded between its panels – unless you count the universal funniness of genitals, monster genitals and robot genitals – just good, old fashioned, mindless action. Who needs Asterios Polyp when the central narrative movement of this comic is a mission titled "Operation Rape Ladydactyl"? Not me, that's for sure.

Just like any Tory MP worth their salt, Prison Pit's wardrobe of depravity contains a swastika-emblazoned lederhosen  

Opening with another kind of movement altogether (figure it out), the sequel immediately puts fans at ease (or should that be "ill at ease"?). Reaffirming that the same brand of winning barbaric grossness as seen in the original book will be continuing, series protagonist Cannibal Fuckface enters the scene triumphantly. Covered in bile and with a bizarre tapeworm creature attached to his left arm (see Book One), he stands fearlessly, tearing the head off of his enemy’s faecal-devouring underling with his pointed teeth. Part Great Muta, part Alice Cooper, with the rest filled in by Ryan’s acerbic sensibilities, C.F. is an action hero for the postmodern audience – a distillation of every semiotic symbol of masculine endurance, strength and ickyness. Adding even more of a "wow" factor, this time out he even brandishes a robotic penis. Ladies, beware.

Because of the book’s purposeful base humour, it’s very difficult to write praise for it without constant repetition of descriptors for viscera and reproductive organs. In a vain effort to sidestep that problem entirely, I’ll dispense with any shred of writerly ability and just list three reasons that you should check it out:

1) Classic sequel concept: how do you make your already awesome action hero better? Make him a cyborg.
2) Ladydactyl is the coolest monster since Destroyah.
3) It contains the phrase “Mechanize Seminal Energies”, which should be understood completely literally.

Words cannot describe how profound this picture is.

Although this may be one of the rare cases where readers can pretty accurately judge a book by its (lurid) cover, there’s a lot of top-notch comic grammar going on beneath the sticky film of blood, sweat, and jism on the surface. An unfortunate side-effect of Ryan’s preference for full-frontal shock is that it’s easy to miss just how talented he is at the subtle, yet all-important art of composition. Whilst the illustration itself might look like it’s straight out of a death-metal-loving, maladjusted teen’s school note book, there’s a truly outstanding understanding of how to pace character interaction and action in a way where it feels natural - and very almost animate - to the eye.

Although it’s not a comparison people are likely to make off the bat, once reader's learn that Ryan cites Kentarō Miura’s much-beloved (and similarly violent) fantasy manga Berserk as an influence, it all clicks into place. Whilst not nearly as ornate or austere as Miura’s ongoing gore-fest, I dare say that Prison Pit ascends above it in terms of sheer depravity alone. As alluded to previously, this series is more an exercise in combining the semiotics of macho fantasy than anything else, and traces of many testosterone-fuelled texts pulse through its dark crimson veins. As crazy as it might sound, the knee-pad and wrestling-trunk wearing C.F. is definitely more pastiche than parody, and his disreputable antics a love-letter to the visual traditions of hyper-masculine excess.

A sample of Ryan's excellent sense of motion and momentum, both in terms of individual panels as well as sequences and pages.

To conclude with one more awkward comparison, reading Prison Pit: Book 2 is like watching the all the best Kaiju movies back to back, only without all the boring guff they use to add context to the fight scenes. Johnny Ryan is a man who knows that that audience doesn't want context, they just want to see one grotesque abomination eviscerate the next in an infinite chain of interspecies schadenfreude. With the carnage only taking a short break midway, so the protagonist (quite rightly) can have a cyborg penis attached in order to violently copulate with a nude-breasted Pterodactyl-monster, we, the audience, finally get our darkest wishes granted. Some things you just can't unsee, and in the case of this book, it feels all the more valuable for it. Roll on Book Three!


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