I don’t know much about Johnny Ryan other than a handful of his short strips passed onto me by friends with an “oh, man, look at this,” so when I got the chance to read his newest full-length story, Prison Pit: Book One, I leapt at it.
I’m glad I did, because it gave me the chance to read a story about a brutal alien protagonist dropped onto a prison planet inhabited by strange plants, hideous creatures, and a gang of inmates even more brutal and ridiculous than the lead.
We’re never shown why the protagonist ends up on the planet. He’s unceremoniously dropped, along with one of his captors, through a hole in a spaceship, and that’s all we know. The plot, much like a video game, is “fight this guy, fight another guy, fight three guys and, finally, fight a huge guy who is tougher than the others combined.”
Amazingly, I was sucked in by the whole enterprise, laughing and groaning and shaking my head. The escalation of violence includes the protagonist chopping someone’s head off with the ax-adorned hand of a third character. As far as gross goes, a drooling, drug-addled slug is enough on its own, but Ryan carries the nasty creature to a surprisingly logical conclusion.
Even more amazingly, particularly to me, it left me thinking about why I enjoyed it so much and why I enjoy the other books, movies, and shows I enjoy. Most would dismiss the book as juvenile and amateurish, either due to Ryan’s reputation or a cursory flip through the book itself, but I was grabbed, and quite unexpectedly.
Mostly it boils down to taking a story’s own internal logic and running with it, which I admire. Ryan makes sure his super bad-ass protagonist doesn’t make it out unscathed and, much like Inglourious Basterds, you’re not sure just how happy the ending is going to be. (The “Book One” appended to the title offers some small clue in this instance.)
I’ve never had much use for indie comics, finding most of them live up to the stereotype of ugly art and self-indulgence. I prefer my fantasies a little more fantastical and a little less “I’m going to tell you about all the chicks I whack it to” accompanied by amateurish art.
But this book isn’t as amateurish as I may have thought. It’s scarcely what I would call “elegant in its simplicity” but with subject matter like this photo-realistic art and emotional weight aren’t called for. These are ugly characters in a gross situation, and Prison Pit treats them with all the indulgence and nastiness needed.