When Words Collide

Mon, September 12th, 2011 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
0

Johnny Ryan has probably been described as something like the enfant terrible of American comics for his viciously irreverent comedy in his own self-published minicomics and his books from Fantagraphics. He has cultivated a reputation as the grown-up version of that nasty little kid in the back of study hall -- the one carving offensive drawings into desks, mocking the teachers and earnest students with brutal pen and ink parodies in his Mead spiral-bound notebook. It's no surprise, then, that he has spent much of his adult life writing and drawing a series called "Angry Youth Comix."

For the past three years, though, Ryan has been quietly crafting a subtle work of graphic narrative that brings an aesthetic sophistication to the medium. A heady mix of drawing-room mystery and austere beauty, his recent work recalls the prose of Henry James blended with the delicacy of a Merchant-Ivory film.

Just kidding! He's been pumping out volumes of "Prison Pit," a gruesome fight-fest starring a character known as Cannibal Fuckface. Come on, people, who do we think we're talking about here!

"Prison Pit" may not be anywhere near Henry James meets Merchant-Ivory (and for that we should be grateful), but if you're looking for hilariously extreme violence, unrepentant, scatological gore and a cast of characters that look like they were designed by an insane janitor from Mattel who cut-and-pasted his own creations from rejected "Masters of the Universe" designs, then you will enjoy the heck out of "Prison Pit."

Volume 3 hits the shelves soon. Fantagraphics lists it as a September release to comic shops and the book stores look to be getting it in early October. If you haven't read any "Prison Pit" yet, the two previous volumes are certainly worth picking up. It's all one, long battle royal, really, with breaks in the action for bleak moments of Samuel Beckett-style absurdity, so it's not as if the previous volumes have any essential exposition that will clarify who these characters are or what they are thinking. This isn't that kind of comic book. It's pure id, bleeding all over the page. Hilariously so.

I got a chance to read "Prison Pit" volume 3 a bit early and it's a worthy addition to the series, although it shifts the focus from Cannibal Fuckface to a new addition to the Prison Pit -- a sleazy, venomous character who will make a suitable opponent for our "hero" when they come face-to-face. Like the first two volumes, this one is funny, bloody and enthusiastic about the comic book medium. No hold barred, here. Nothing barred, holds or otherwise.

Johnny Ryan and I recently carried on an email conversation about the book and about his approach to "Prison Pit" in general, but I wanted to start by getting to know the man behind the work. Knowing that he, like me, was a former English major, I decided to start with something far from his uber-violent Fantagraphics series and see how we could connect the dots back to Mr. Cannibal Fuckface and the world of the Prison Pit. It didn't take long to see that Ryan feeds his interests directly into his comic book work and that there's an incisive, thoughtful creator behind the inky violence.

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Tim Callahan: Johnny Ryan, what kind of books do you read to recharge? What's a good novel that I probably haven't read that you might recommend to me?

Johnny Ryan: That's a good question. I don't think there are specific titles that I return to over and over to recharge. I find more inspiration from discovering new things that I haven't seen before. Like last year a buddy of mine who knows how I love crazy, outrageous manga sent me a volume of "Cyber Blue" by Tetsuo Hara and the violent insanity of it really blew me away and it had a big influence on "Prison Pit" volume 2. So, I guess I'm always on the hunt for new weird shit to inspire me.

"Prison Pit" volume 3 is coming...

Have you ever read "Diary of a Rapist" by Evan Connell? I always thought that was a pretty great novel that never really gets mentioned anywhere, maybe because of the off-putting title. And although it's not technically a novel, everyone should also read all three volumes of "The Mutiny on the Bounty." Maybe one of my all-time favorites.

Woah, I just checked out some "Cyber Blue" online and I can completely see how you would tune into that level of madness. It has the look of "Fist of the North Star," but ridiculously excessive violence and, of course, weapon implants. Classic.

I actually haven't even read "Fist of the North Star" -- I'm mostly familiar with it through the covers I've seen and the NES game from 20-something years ago.

I know of Connell's work, but I haven't ever read a page of it, nor have I read "Mutiny on the Bounty," though I have a soft spot for the Charles Laughton movie version. I am certainly a Herman Melville fan, though, and so I am inclined toward ambitious, crazed, seafaring adventures. Melville wrote "Moby Dick" just a couple of miles from where I now live, actually, and that novel is just a brilliant mess of a book. Ahab seems like a character you could really bite into, actually. I'm surprised Marvel didn't bring you in to do their Marvel Illustrated version of Moby Dick. (Note: I am not actually surprised, but it would have been pretty amazing to see.)

What's in Connell's story or "Mutiny" that you latch onto? Is it the prose or the plot events or what?

Connell's book is about a descent into madness and it's told with a very dark sense of humor. The main character has a terrible marriage and an awful office job and his co-workers are a bunch of wackos. We watch this guy's life fall apart. We watch him make the wrong decisions until he ultimately breaks down mentally and does something really terrible. I guess I have this fascination with stories where the "hero" is not a hero at all. He's a loser or an idiot or a scumbag, but somehow the author makes us give a shit about him or her.

"Mutiny on the Bounty" is a pretty different book, but it also makes us care about the villain. There are three volumes of "Mutiny." The first is from the perspective of one of the crew members of the mutiny. In it, we learn to hate Captain Bligh. He comes off as one of the biggest fucks in history. You want the crew to kill him. You cheer when they kick him and a bunch of his loyal followers off the ship and put them in a tiny boat into the middle of Pacific Ocean. The second volume is about Bligh's experience in that tiny boat and how he uses his amazing knowledge of sea navigation to travel the 2,000+ miles to get to the coast of Australia. After you read this book you think Captain Bligh is the greatest hero in history. Putting all those men in a tiny boat in the Pacific was pretty much a death sentence, and Bligh was able to save all but one of them.

I think this is a strain that also runs through my work. It's about bad people, doing bad things, but I try and trick people into caring about or liking these people.

How do you do that, though? Seems like humor is the way to get readers to enjoy someone who is acting like a complete idiot or a completely arrogant ass, and your work is surely filled with humor of that kind. How much do you craft your humor? Do you ever rework an idea because it's just not funny enough, or do you just let your attitude seep through and it naturally comes out in the characters?

The hero of "Prison Pit"

And are there other things you value above humor in your own work?

I'm not sure how to tell someone how to do that. I have a very dark sense of humor. I'm the type of guy that laughs at movies where people get their heads blown off. I think either you find that dark shit funny, or you don't. Now, my work is funny, but it also contains a lot of stuff that many readers will probably find difficult to laugh at. When it comes to humor, you just have to go with your gut feeling. If something is funny to me, I'll probably use it in my work. It's hard to really gauge what people are going to respond to and how they will respond to it. You simply have to keep throwing stuff out there and see what sticks. If it works great, if not, you try again. I think that's about as crafty as I get. I also don't like to sit on ideas too long. When I get an idea, I have to act on it fairly quickly before it gets stale, which I guess doesn't leave a lot of time for craft.

Yet now you're in book three of "Prison Pit," so that must put you in the territory of thinking about what you can do to make each book different from what came before, no? It's a continuation of the absurd, visceral, hilarious violence, sure, but it also takes the narrative farther away from Cannibal Fuckface and makes him a more ominous figure within the larger world. So are you now in a position where you're consciously trying to top yourself from one volume to the next, or is it a purely gut instinct thing all the way?

But that's something I've been doing since "Angry Youth Comix" #1. How do I make the next book weirder, funnier, crazier than the one before? I'm always looking to top myself, to give the readers something that they totally didn't expect. I think about these things all the time. I'm always trying to come up with interesting ideas, but I guess I don't think thinking about stuff qualifies as a "craft." Craft, to me, is more about the execution of those ideas.

I would say I think of craft the same way, usually, but there's also something to the narrative craft about conflict escalation and the execution of that is something that you do quite well. It reminds me of the George Saunders essay on Donald Barthelme's "The School," where Saunders points out that the narrative structure of that one story is about constant escalation -- if you're not familiar with it, it's basically about an elementary school classroom where things keep dying, bigger and bigger things in every paragraph, until even the African kid sponsored by the class dies and the structure is set: this is a story about the increasing threat of death, revolving around anything associated with this room.

I actually referenced that story once in regards to Umezu's "Drifting Classroom" and your work, particularly on the "Prison Pit" volumes, seem to play that same game of escalation.

In both Barthelme's "The School" and Umezu's work, there's a point where the pattern of escalation stops and the narrative shifts its focus to a completely different angle. Because there's no way to escalate forever and ending a story in mid-escalation is unsatisfying to readers. They want to see things drop and resolve, or at least shift to a new dynamic.

Do you see "Prison Pit" volume 3 as your way of escalating and also turning the reader's attention in a different direction? Kind of like, here's this other thing to escalate, so now when this new threat comes in contact with Cannibal Fuckface, it's escalation squared? And, please, if you're familiar with Barthelme, speak to your opinion of his work. And I'm sure you're influenced by Umezu, right?

I'm not familiar with Barthelme, so I can't comment on that. (Although the story you're describing reminded me of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" for some reason). But yeah, "The Drifting Classroom" was another big influence on "Prison Pit." I think especially with these longer narratives it's important mix things up. The foundation of the story is fairly simple, but it's fun to layer more problems and mysteries on top of it, otherwise the continuous cycle of conflict/resolution will get kind of boring. I also wanted to submerge the reader into a universe of bizarre alien culture/thinking that humans couldn't possibly understand. The book "Solaris" was another influence there. I really like how in that book we're presented with these weird outer space mysteries which aren't really resolved, we simply have to deal with the fact that there's weird shit out there we'll never understand it.

In that way, your work on "Prison Pit" also reminds me of what Chris Forgues has been doing with "Powr Mastrs," just in terms of the underlying, foreign, seemingly inexplicable mythology underlying the series that makes the whole thing feel weird and alien, but the characters and conflicts are still clearly defined within that wonderfully strange environment.

Of course, "Prison Pit" is about a zillion times more hilariously violent.

Let's shift over to talk a bit about your linework on "Prison Pit." In "Angry Youth," your characters are wiry and rubbery. "Prison Pit" has shown you bringing a much blockier style to the characters and landscapes and what seems to be a much rougher line. That, I suppose, could be considered another craft element -- your decision to go with something more primal or overtly masculine or I don't even know what I would call it. How do you think about your different approach to drawing "Prison Pit"?

Yeah, well, "Powr Mastrs" was another big influence. I liked how he was doing this strange fantasy comic without any irony, which is usually the way most alt-comic artists deal with genre subject matter, myself included. He has an honest love for sci-fi/fantasy and it comes through in his work. I felt like I wanted to do something like that.

The change in linework and all that stuff was a decision I made at the very start. In "Angry Youth Comix" I had been using a brush, going for a cartoony style and I was drawing my pages much larger, 10x16. With "Prison Pit" I began working on a smaller page, 7x9 and I decided to go back to using a pen, which is what I began drawing comics with. I wanted to sort of recapture the type of drawing I was doing in the margins of my notebook in high school. Also, if I wanted to take this subject matter seriously I felt I needed to slow my storytelling down to a more deliberate pace that was the opposite of the hyperkinetic cartoon insanity of my previous work.

How much of the world-building for "Prison Pit" have you worked out in advance, compared to how much is improvisational? Are there characters you've designed who have yet to appear and you're saving for future volumes? How about the "rules" of your fictional universe? The "Prison Pit" stuff seems so raw and pure and visceral, but there does seem to be some underlying principles at play. Am I totally off base here?

So far I've been approaching each book individually. There's no grand design for the series. Before I start drawing I know there are certain ideas I want to hit in the story, it's all just a matter of connecting those ideas. But I do like to allow for a lot of spontaneity with my work. That's kind of the thing that makes this shit fun for me.

How long would you like to keep doing Prison Pit?

The plan is to do six books, but it's not set in stone. We'll see how I feel about it when I get to that point.

More information on "Prison Pit" volume 3 can be found on the Fantagraphics website.

Johnny Ryan has a website all his own.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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