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Prison Pit, Vol. 1
posted November 10, 2009


Creator: Johnny Ryan
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, softcover, 120 pages, October 2009, $12.99
Ordering Numbers: 160699297X (ISBN10), 9781606992975 (ISBN13)

I wish to add my voice to the chorus of those who really, really like Johnny Ryan's left-hand turn into violent fantasy with the promise of more to come, Prison Pit. Not only has the first volume been well reviewed, audiences have reacted strongly to the work in other ways, making it a San Diego Con sell-out and pushing the cartoonist right into a second volume. A violent science fiction story based on various fight comics from around the world may seem like an abrupt shift for Ryan, but he's obviously long been capable of working in multiple genres. Close observers of Ryan's comics over the years know how effective an artist he is: his joke comics have always featured a really fat, lovely and ultimately natural-looking line; his four panel and traditional comics-page comics are always impeccably staged. In fact, Ryan is the kind of cartoonist other cartoonists mention when it comes to achieving a certain kind of equivalent visual quality in their own work, a below-the-radar reputation as a cartoonist's cartoonist that is almost completely divorced from his wider identification with comics readers as a master of filthy jokes and, before that, as the Fantagraphics talent that doesn't bring enough to the table to deserve that company's support (all by itself a proud tradition filled with great cartoonists).

imagePrison Pit should help anyone paying attention to appreciate how carefully Ryan designs and executes his work. You could not achieve the gruesome effects and consistent energy Ryan does here without being absolutely on top of that style; there would be an element of parody perceived in the final result, and there's none of that in evidence. Ryan's general intelligence -- I think he's one of the smartest cartoonists -- is also on display in how quickly he picks up the rhythms of the kind of sprawling manga and art-comics fantasies that this book frequently recalls. Ryan seems to understand those comics to the same degree he's displayed over and over again with his intimate knowledge of gag comics and alt-comix humor. This gives Prison Pit a confident, mature sensibility, as if it were the 100th comic book of its type that the cartoonist had done. Yet he also gets the advantages of new: Ryan is essentially starting from ground zero in terms of story, with very little in the way of thematic hangovers to dog him on this job.

In Prison Pit, the reader follows a nasty-looking brute through his first steps, first encounter, initial crisis and eventual rebound of what looks like an extended say on some sort of distant planet's penal area. Everything and everyone our hero meets is as vicious as they come. In a few cases, those he encounters are possessed of a secondary, nastier level of physical threat and outright meanness buried within their bodies. Taken as a series of plot points, reading Prison Pit is sort of like eavesdropping on a role-playing game where the world-builder is convinced that everything at his disposal needs to punish or harm the protagonists. Any let-up in the action tends to be the pause for the next vehicle for punishment to lumber into view, step up to the plate. Crucially, I never knew exactly where Ryan was headed but every scene in Prison Pit seemed to flow naturally from the previous one right up to the brutally funny, icky and appropriate ending. I hope there are ten more.