Robot reviews: Prison Pit & The Squirrel Machine

Prison Pit Book OneBy Johnny RyanFantagraphics Books, 120 pages, $12.99

The Squirrel Machineby Hans RickheitFantagraphics Books, 192 pages, $18.99.

These are not nice books. They are not for children. Or people with easily upset nerves. Or stomachs. Or are prone to nightmares. Or who hang paint-by-numbers pictures of kittens with big eyes on their walls.

You get the idea. These books do not want to be your friend. They do not seek your approval, or love. They do hope to entertain, though not at the expense of having to be friendly or pleasant. Mainly what they seek to do is freak you out. If you're the sort of person who likes being freaked out (and I am, on occasion), or can admire craftsmanship and artistry despite the high proportion of freak-out material (and I can), then perfect. If not, oh well. You were warned.

Let's begin with Prison Pit, which is nothing less than a continuous, no-holds barred, violent assault on the eyes. It is literally one god damned, bloody fight scene after another, with only the barest smidge of dialogue and plot allowed to get in the way. The book's genius lies in Ryan's sheer nerve and imagination in setting up these battles; he constantly ups the ante in the most bizarre and inventive ways possible. It's certainly the first time I've ever seen pus used as a deadly weapon.

The story, what there is of it, involves a convict, known only as C.F., being exiled to a harsh planet. Right away, Ryan sets the tone as C.F. attempts to break out by grabbing a guard and threatening to kill him. "I don't give a shit," the other guard replies. "I hate that asshole."

And then suddenly both guard and convict go spinning Alice-in-Wonderland-like, all the way down the Grand Guginol rabbit hole. Once upon the planet they encounter a world of continuous horror and violence, where the body and its various excretions are mutable things.

Ryan's love of body functions goes into full gonzo mode here. Apparently influenced by some of the more extreme action manga around, each evisceration is merely an opportunity for a surreal transformation. Intestines that wrap you up like snakes or sentient bandages. Semen turns into giant monsters. I already mentioned the pus. Include C.F.'s has an apparent fondness for literally consuming his enemies (when he says "I'm going to eat your fucking face off" he means it) and you've got a book where body horror extends far beyond the repulsive into the truly sublime and inspired.

It's important to note that Ryan is not trying to be cute or funny here. There's humor in Prison Pit, but emerges out of the characters and situation. There's none of the ironic distancing present in Ryan's more well-known series Angry Youth Comics. He's completely serious about kicking ass this time around.

But it's not just the straightforwardness that's different here. Ryan's whole sense of pacing seems to have gone up a couple of notches. While he never attempts any formalistic tricks that would get in the way of the story, he nevertheless varies his style considerably compared to his earlier works. From tracking shots to full-page spreads to pull-backs and slow reveals, Ryan shows that he's absorbed and acquired a sense of comics pacing and storytelling that few of his contemporaries have. Despite the gore, or perhaps, because of it, Prison Pit is a fantastic, accomplished work.

But if Prison Pit is open about its display of guts and gore, The Squirrel Machine, would prefer to hint. It's not that it's squeamish, mind you, it has no problem with strewing entrails all over the floor. It would just rather tease you a bit, make you sweat for panel or two before discovering the menace lying just around the corner. Unfortunately, whereas Pit feels like the work of an accomplished artist at the top of his game, Machine feels like the work a relative newcomer, noteworthy to be sure, but lacking a bit in structure and form.

The book deals with two young, eccentric brothers named Edmund and William Topor (note the last name). They live in an unspecified Edwardian setting and keep themselves busy by combining dead animal carcasses with various homemade appliances to create unique musical instruments. The townsfolk obviously tends to look down on this type of thing, especially after the one concert leaves bits of cow strewn across the fairgrounds. What really threatens to drive the brothers apart, however, is not the local bourgeois mentality but two young women, one rich and one dirt poor and possibly a simpleton.

And already you can no doubt mentally line up a checklist of themes to be explored here: Otherness, family, the transformative power of sex, the onset of adolescence and adulthood and how that can divide formerly rock-solid relationships, the artist and his relationship to the outside world, and how obsession can lead to insanity and cruelty.

But the book isn't really concerned with those themes as much as it is with the idea of exploration. Page after page features one of the brothers traversing through some odd, off-kilter landscape, either out in the woods, or, more often, in their home. Between the floorboards and walls seem to exist an endless array of paths and rooms, each cluttered with an endless array of junk, machines and the occasional disturbing, inexplicable oddity. The end result resembles more of an old-style adventure video game than a comic. It's Myst, directed by David Cronenberg.

This is all rendered in exquisite and sometimes exquisitely nauseating detail. Rickheit makes sure to no leaf or shingle or jelly jar label gets missed (you could potentially accuse him of an artistic sort of OCD). That eye for detail only serves to make the more grotesque parts, like when a human head is squished in a press and then has its brains  scooped out with a spoon, that much more nauseating.

Richeit is able to create moments of genuine dread, and he knows how to elevate tension, but the narrative doesn't really build at all. It's just corridor, surreal scene of horror or disquiet, corridor, repeat, the end. That's not to say isn't an artist worth noting -- he is -- but I kept waiting for the images in Machine to build upon each other towards some sort of satisfactory emotional climax, and they didn't. At least not to my satisfaction. Perhaps Rickheit freaked me out too much. Perhaps he didn't freak me out enough.

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