Prison Pit Vol. 1 by Johnny Ryan

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Prison Pit Vol. 1
By Johnny Ryan
Fantagraphics

johnnyryanprisonpitcoverIn terms of shear, unstoppable, soul-shaking laughter, Johnny Ryan may well be the funniest cartoonist working alternative comics today. His is a humor stripped entirely of the pretension that defines so much of the comedy in this scene, whittled down to it barest essence, the manner of shit and piss jokes that have formed the cornerstone of mankind’s comedic sensibilities for countless centuries. When we don’t laugh at such things, it’s often times because we’ve trained ourselves not to do so, less we embrace something we’ve worked so long and hard to suppress.

There’s something downright primitive in the sensibilities of Angry Youth Comix—not so much in the aesthetics, which have improved as an astonishingly rapid rate, but rather in Ryan’s joke telling. No civilized person in their right mind, after all, would find themselves guffawing at AIDS and abortion jokes, but if such inclinations are bubbling anywhere near the surface, Ryan’s work will almost certainly pry them out of you.

Prison Pit shares a similar sense of the primitive, but where strips like Blecky Yuckerella and the aforementioned AYC owe the large part of their existence to Ryan’s passion for punchlines, this new series marks a turn toward extended storytelling, with humor playing more of a support role to the unfolding plot. That’s not to suggest for a moment that Ryan has taken a turn toward the banal, of course.

While Prison Pit does, in fact, have a definable story throughout, it’s one that feels as though it were crafted in the margins of a spiral-bound notebooks stowed safely away in some backpack littered with the Sharpie penned names of metal bands. And though Ryan didn’t go so far as to in append a listening soundtrack to the back of this volume, one can almost certainly be assured that it contains its share of Cannibal Corpse and Slayer tracks. The artist has managed to distill suburban teenage angst into a formula splashed liberally amongst the panels of this book.

Of course that means that, like the rest of Ryan’s work, Prison Pit isn’t for everyone—or even most people, really. In fact, many of those who wait eagerly for the next installment of the artist’s fairly steady release schedule may well be let down by the artist’s turn from pure comedy. The book has its share of funny moments, but they’re far from the comedic thrust of Ryan’s best work, often tending more toward a sense of laughing to keep from gagging (which, admittedly, is also a bit of a theme in the artist’s other books).

What Prison Pit does demonstrate, however, are the ways in which Ryan has, for better or worse, grown as a storyteller. He’s capable of pacing largely wordless action scenes that no doubt would have been well beyond his capacities in the earliest days of AYC. The desire to witness that growth ultimately falls upon the reader. True enjoyment of this volumes ultimately seems to fall on a willingness to embrace the complementary sensibilities of “aw, fucking gross” and “oh, fucking sweet,” which, in turn require the ability to appreciate this work on its basest level, or, failing that initially, turning up the death metal until the damn thing starts to make sense.

–Brian Heater

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