“Restrained” is not a word one uses when describing the comics work of Johnny Ryan. Neither is genteel.
For several years now, Ryan has been breaking just about every sexual, ethnic, racial and societal taboo possible, all for the sake of a good belly laugh. Books like “Angry Youth Comics,” “Blecky Yuckerella” and “Comic Book Holocaust” are a raised middle finger to political correctness and the more rarified, serious sensibilities of the burgeoning alt-comix movement, while frequently being utterly hilarious.
Now Ryan has upped the ante with “Prison Pit,” a Grand Guignol, no-holds barred action tale set in a grim prison world where the brutal anti-hero C.F. (don’t ask what his name stands for) must battle one dangerous monster/fellow prisoner after another. Stripping away virtually all of the jokes, Pit combines Ryan’s interest in horror films, manga, fantasy, video games and wrestling to create a comic that’s thrilling and thoroughly disturbing, but never less than breathtaking in its breadth of imagination and furious depiction of motion and energy.
The second volume of the series recently came out via publisher Fantagraphics. We spoke with Ryan about the new book, the series in general and just how personal a work “Prison Pit” proved to be.
CBR News: I know that manga was a huge influence for you in the making of “Prison Pit,” but which specific manga titles and why? What was it about these series that inspired you to create PP?
Johnny Ryan: “Berserk” by Kentaro Miura and “The Drifting Classroom” by Kazuo Umezo. I really love these series and they inspired me. I wanted to do something as exciting and violent as those books. Also “Tokyo Zombie” by Hanakuma. That’s a great one, too, not only because it’s a great story, but I also love the non-traditional, primitive style in which he draws. That inspired me since I also have that kind of style.
“Prison Pit” is a decided demarcation point for you away from humor and towards a more serious and straightforward (if no less bloody) form of storytelling. Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a while? What made you decide to move away from more humorous material?
It wasn’t something I planned. I just started reading these different manga titles, and I was also digging some of the newer alt-comic artists that were doing straight up adventure titles, like Ben Marra’s “Night Business” and “Powr Mastrs” by CF. I’m also a fan of horror movies, action movies and wrestling. All these things just kind of came together.
“Prison Pit’s” main character, CF, is interesting in that he’s in one way your typical tough guy action anti-hero in the model of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but at the same time his behavior is also kind of reprehensible and it’s kind of hard to root for him at times. Is this intentional on your part? Do you find it hard to create a character that’s unlikeable but still manages to hold the reader’s attention?
Well, these types of characters are always the most interesting and I think if you look back at my previous work it’s kind of a constant. Loady McGee, Boobs Pooter, Blecky Yuckerella: they’re all disgusting, sometimes evil characters, but they’re the “heroes” of their respective stories.
The series has a loose, organic feel to it that suggests you’re improvising to an extent, but you also seem to have a definite story in mind. Do you do a lot of initial planning and sketching or do you try to improvise as much as possible when creating a comic?
I do some character sketching in my sketchbook, but as far as creating the story, I have all the major plot points in my head, so it’s just a matter of connecting the dots. I do like to work somewhat spontaneously. It makes the process more fun. And it also keeps the story malleable, so I can alter an idea if it’s not working.
How long do you hope to keep Prison Pit going? Do you have a definite end in mind?
I’m thinking 6 books, but if I’m still enjoying working on it after that and people are still digging it I’ll probably keep going. This is the type of story that could go on forever.
You mentioned your love of horror films, and I can definitely see that in “Prison Pit.” What aspect of those movies are you trying to capture in this project and what is it about that genre or certain films that made you want to make the attempt in the first place?
I’ve loved horror movies since I was a kid, when my uncle showed me a double feature of “Alien” & John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” I think some the themes of those films show up in “Prison Pit,” like evil parasites and horrible things mutating into even more horrible things.
How does the way you’re working on “Prison Pit” compare to “Angry Youth Comics” or “Blecky Yuckerella?” Did you find that, because you were working on a more straightforward, action story, you needed to adjust your method of working? What did this new focus give you as a cartoonist? Do you feel with a book like this that you’re widening your ability or range?
I pretty much changed my entire approach. With “AYC,” I was working on a bigger page (10″x16″) and I was using a brush. Also, I had a compulsion to cram as much stuff as I possibly could into a 24-page comic. With “Prison Pit,” I’m working on a smaller page (7″X9″), I’m primarily using a pen and I feel because I have a greater page count I can take my time telling the story.
Although “Prison Pit” may be more violent than “AYC,” it’s definitely not as manic. There are quiet moments in “Prison Pit” that my previous comics didn’t have. I do think this book widens my ability and range and that was my intention. I was inspired to do this story, but at the same time it was very challenging in that I’d never done anything like this before. While I was working on the first book, I was feeling very self-conscious about it. I often thought that this might be a big mistake. But the reaction people have had to the book has changed that.
What was the biggest challenge for you? Was there anything specific that you can point to?
I think in a strange way the book(s) are very revealing about myself. I felt as if I was really exposing myself here. I was very anxious about that.
Exposing you how?
Well, I don’t want to break the story down into this means this and this represents this, but I’m sure any armchair therapist could have an interesting time with the book. With “AYC,” and pretty much all of my previous work, everything was hidden behind a curtain of humor. There’s no curtain in “Prison Pit.”
I think you just nailed one of the things that makes “Prison Pit” so great, though. There’s no safe distancing for the reader, meaning they are forced to confront some of the more visceral aspects of the story without being able to laugh at it (and force themselves to admit they enjoy it). Was that at all intentional for you or is it a natural by-product of doing this sort of material?
I wanted to approach the material seriously, without any real kind of irony. I guess in that way, it’s intentional. If I had played the book for laughs, the horrible things in the book would not seem so horrible and would therefore not be as effective.
How conscious are you of pushing boundaries in a book like “Prison Pit?” Are there lines you won’t cross? Do you deliberately push yourself over certain lines?
That’s what makes being an artist enjoyable for me, being able to test those “boundaries.” If I’m drawing something and I feel that it will rattle somebody’s cage, that’s exciting for me. It’s something I’ve done in all my work. It’s always just been my natural inclination.
Another aspect of the book that struck me is its fluidity. The characters are constantly changing shape, altering their appearance, size and form at the drop of a hat. Even many of their powers or weapons are based on body fluids. What inspired that?
It’s something that just carried over from my previous work. With “Prison Pit,” I simply took my fascination with that stuff in a different, more horror inspired direction.
You recently drew a close to “Blecky Yuckerella” as well as your online “improv riffs” that were collected in books like “Comic Book Holocaust.” Why? Apart from Prison Pit, what else are you working on now?
I stopped “Blecky” because it was a lot of work to keep going without much payoff. It wasn’t in any papers and no one was paying me to do it. It was getting to the point where I was dreading having to do it every week. Plus, I think 8 years is a good run for a strip, so I stopped.
Kinda similar with the sketchbook strips. I got sick of doing them. I wanted to take a break for a while. I might go back to it someday.
Apart from “Prison Pit,” I’ve been doing a lot of freelance stuff, including stuff for “VICE.” And I’ve done some prints. I just did an art show at Mishka in Brooklyn.
Last (and possibly most important question): When are you and Seth going to join forces to work together on a miniature cardboard house project?
I don’t think that will happen. I asked him if he would write an intro to my book “XXX SCUMBAG PARTY,” but he refused.