Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Graphically Speaking: Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit - You can smell it from here



Words: Jared Gniewek

In Lynda Barry’s amazing book,
What It Is, she writes about the creative impulse of youth. She reminds us that there was a time when almost all of us drew pictures and how most of us at some point give it up as it left “too much evidence”. She writes about the “good kind” of drawings that people like to see… the houses, families, dogs, flowers. Then she talks about the “bad kind”. These are the kinds of pictures that get you into trouble. The ones the grown ups don’t want to see. The naked ladies, the violence, the just plain strange.

Johnny Ryan draws the bad pictures. Unapologetically and lots of ‘em and I hope to god he never stops. He has consistently put out pure and uncensored strips, cartoons, and books that defy every politically correct bone in your body. Drawings that cock-slap America.

His new book is out. It’s called Prison Pit and it kinda’ sorta’ kicks serious ass.

It’s not his funniest work, but if you’re familiar with his comics, you know that’s pretty much impossible. Everyone who loves Johnny Ryan has a favorite gag and once that gag becomes their favorite then they kind of own it.

They drunkenly and failingly try to describe the comic to friends and end up sounding like a monster (laymen trying to tell a Johnny Ryan joke is like Michael Richards trying to channel Sarah Silverman --and we all remember how that ended up).

The joke becomes a part of them. They will be doing something completely unrelated and it will pop into their head and cause spurts of spastic laughter.

When on hallucinogens they will see the gag floating before their eyes with trails and neon rainbows beckoning them to join it in a magical place.

They will find themselves unable to make love to their significant others as the social and physical reality of the just plain ugliness and retardedness of sex keeps them from enjoying it with a partner. Vomiting becomes more sexual to these poor souls.

They fall into despair and become fueled only by the joke that put them in the state in the first place and writhe and twist as masturbatory creatures sobbing softly to themselves in darkness, consumed for all time.

So if you’ve never read him, one of the bits in Prison Pit could very well become your personal Johnny Ryan joke. In a way I envy you because there is a sophistication to the book that he hasn’t had a chance to achieve before. It reads as a satire of the very idea of the intellectual graphic novel through a subversion of the tone and rhythms.

The way he uses light to dark transitions and long meditative silences as the prisoner/protagonist stumbles about the alien landscape reminded me of many of the graphic novels I’ve read in recent years. I kept thinking of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel in the way that the energy of the landscape was reflected in the drawings.

The design of the book has the veneer of a fancy modern graphic novel (or a nineteen thirties proto-graphic novel) as it is broken up into a mainly four panel grid and has the size of many of these types of books.

The cover, with a blood drenched warrior holding the decapitated head of his foe, mouth frothing postmortem, is almost a proclamation to take your intellectual fare and stuff it!
The cover lettering is garish and electric. Much of Johnny Ryan’s work reminds me of the types of doodles barely literate head bangers used to scratch into the detention desks in my younger days. Ryan has taken that aesthetic and refined it. I could see the lettering choice for the cover being used by a really shitty thrash band in 1988. Perfect.

The art in the book is a huge leap forward. He has taken a scratchy approach to many of the textures. I always thought I preferred his use of fat lines but have totally been proven wrong here. The mountains, the sand, the jizz exoskeleton all have a proper weight to them.

The only problem I had was in the panels where he is conveying motion with a doubling of figures and motion lines. It doesn’t feel smooth or fast, it feels clunky. This only occurs a few times in the book and only slows it down a touch for me, though.

The constant careful working of the electrical subterranean sky paid off in creating an oppressive atmosphere. The bleakness of the landscape is evoked nicely with skulls and spiky headed corpses nailed to cactuses and the remains of long dead warriors scattered about the desert floor.
The story definitely puts the GORE in phantasmagorical as characters twist and mutated into strange new forms while pounding the stuffing out of each other. The plot is very straight forward and simplistic, which is great because all we need as readers is an excuse for getting the pleasure of seeing how disgusting and depraved Johnny Ryan can get. I mean, would you really want to hear GG Allin singing free jazz? Well…some of us would but not many.

The sequence where the animated intestines of one of his futuristic prison guards encases the prisoner/protagonist in a sausagy cocoon is as “spaghetti and meatballs” as the best of Basil Wolverton. I did flips on the subway reading that section as the violence escalated putting attitude atop action then repeating and layering. The rendering of the meaty encasement was perfect and his freeing of self by blasting through the bloody mulch of the ripped tendrils was absolutely disgusting in the best and most bad assed way!

Each encounter with a foe kicks the disgusting and strangeness factors up a notch. Like the works of filmmaker, Takashi Miike, there is a violence to his imagery that transcends even the very idea of violence. Pain is impetus for transformation, nothing more. The physicality supercedes all moral compasses. Only the act of metamorphosis and growth is holy. The protagonist is reborn time and again through blood and semen.

Put plain, in Prison Pit, Ryan creates art out of the steaming piles of human waste that litter our cultural landscape. The bodies and excrement are grist for his mill. He erects mountains of shit and semen, carving the faces of sacred cows in them, and then sets them afire so even if you can’t see the work… you can smell it from miles away.


Jared Gniewek
has worked in the music industry as a back line technician, performer, and promoter. He has also been a freelance writer whose work can be seen in the recent re-launch of Tales from the Crypt and heard on The Dark Sense, an audio anthology of the macabre for which he is also the story editor. Jared’s blog, Die By The Pen, outlines his philosophies and personal quest as a writer while he also masterminds a demented karoake game called Scary-Oke.

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