Dazzling, Filthy Violence: ‘Prison Pit 2′ by Johnny Ryan [Review]
It's hard to write about Johnny Ryan's new book from Fantagraphics, "Prison Pit 2," without resorting to profanity, if only because the three most common thoughts blurted out while reading it rhyme with "Holy spit!", "What the duck?!?", and "Jeeeeeeeeebus Diced." "Prison Pit 2" is mental, obscene, and grotesque, and I'd guard most normal people against even venturing further into this review. But the book is also pretty astonishing and at least several parts awesome, so to my fellow freaks in the audience, venture forth past the jump and we'll talk disgusting violence, blood-soaked symbiotic sentient prosthetic limbs and other such fanciful notions. To envision "Prison Pit 2," try to imagine the kind of juvenile, sex-and-violence doodles your average angsty young schoolboy might fill up a notebook with during math class, if those feverish doodles could somehow appear on the pages as extreme and bombastic as they seemed in his head. "Prison Pit 2" operates on an engine of rolling, escalating action scenes -- there's almost nothing else in the book -- in which Ryan manages to stack extreme moments in such a way that each moment constantly feels as though it must be the climax, but on the very next page the energy somehow goes up yet another notch.
It put me in mind of a compositional technique I once heard Stephen Merritt explain on NPR (and "Stephen Merrit on NPR" is about the last thing I'd expect to be referenced in a Johnny Ryan review, but there it is). The technique is called a Shepard tone, and it involves layering ascending tones in different octaves to create the illusion of an ever-rising musical scale. Ryan pulls what seems to be a similar trick: He saves the most ridiculous, over-the-top moments for right after a brief lull in the panel-to-panel action, giving you the sense that it never descended from the previous peak.
If it seems odd that I have yet to mention the plot of the comic, it's because I have no idea how to explain what happens. The book also purposefully leaves out story elements like motivation and exposition, and all that's on the page is straightforward, if deranged, action. Our main character, CF -- the guy on the cover -- comes across another guy who apparently ripped off his arm and ate it. They proceed to fight for something like 40 pages. Later on CF is kidnapped by a scientist living in a cave who installs a computer in his penis and sends him out to rape a pterodactyl with the torso of a woman. The book ends on an almost 100% literal cliffhanger.
It sounds like anarchy, but it somehow it all seems to make sense in context. There's a certain logical progression to be found in a fight scene that starts with poop and ends with vomit. It feels right. It doesn't necessarily feel good, but you find yourself nodding as you read it, and thinking "Oh, well, of course. Makes perfect sense." There's a craft to the crudeness, something you see in the art itself; Ryan's drawings are in his signature childish, thick-line, squished-perspective style, which lends to the "schoolboy doodling" mood of the piece, but they are arranged with a keen sense for composition and implied motion that betrays the level of skill Ryan brings to the table.
The enjoyment in "Prison Pit 2" is largely on the level of spectacle, of having your jaw drop at Ryan topping himself in the progression of each set piece. The K.O. move in the first fight, in which a defiant rude gesture is transformed into a blistering kill-strike, is a brilliant marriage of vulgarity and cartooning ingenuity. I'm dazzled by the bloody chutzpah and dirty bravado of Ryan's fight comic, the sheer devotion he shows to violence for violence's sake, thoroughly removed from any hollow "redeeming values" or "character development." While I may not actually fully enjoy the book, there's a respect to be had for that kind of commitment to an aesthetic principle. I don't know if I could in good conscience recommend this book to most people, but to anyone wondering if "Prison Pit 2" really delivers all the weird, filthy violence it promises, the answer is a resounding yes.