Johnny Ryan’s “Prison Pit” is nasty, weird, gory, violent, disturbing, and lots of other words that are typically used negatively. But when you’re talking about this series — which has just seen its 4th book released — it’s a stunning compliment. Ryan’s work on “Prison Pit” is bravely adolescent and immaturely brilliant. It plumbs the depths of good taste, but serves as an illuminating peek into the subconscious of a man raised on manga, superheroes, cartoons and craziness. “Prison Pit” is consistently one of my favorite series and Book 4 keeps it going in bloody, mutilated, shape-shifting spades. I had the chance to chat with creator Johnny Ryan about the future of main character Cannibal F#@kface, the inspiration for the comic and whther or not it’s okay to be totally grossed out by “Prison Pit.”
MTV Geek: Where are we with Cannibal F#@kface when we pick up in Book 4?
Johnny Ryan: It picks up right where 3 ended. Cannibal F#@kface is imprisoned inside the mind of the Caligulon.
Geek: What was the original inspiration for this series?
JR: There were a bunch of inspirations. I was reading a lot of manga, like “Berserk”, “Drifting Classroom”, “Tokyo Zombie”. I thought those books were really exciting horror/adventure stories. I wanted to do something similar. Also, at that time, there was a wave of new alternative cartoonists that were doing genre type stuff, like Ben Marra’s “Night Business” or “Powr Mastrs” by CF. I liked how they were taking this genre stuff seriously. Also, a few mainstream books, like “The Walking Dead” and “BPRD”.
Geek: I’ve always kind of considered “Prison Pit” to be an exploration of the subconscious of the wrestling/comic/cartoon fan, do you think that’s fair?
JR: I guess so. It’s definitely an exploration of my subconscious.
Geek: Can you talk about the style of “Prison Pit”? It’s constantly changing, morphing, dripping, oozing…Yet backgrounds are very stark…what made you settle on this look?
JR: I wanted to approach the book differently than my previous work. “Angry Youth Comix” is all thick, clean lines, with pretty dense backgrounds at times. I wanted “Prison Pit” to look rougher, scratchier. I also wanted to put the main focus on the guys fighting and not really worry so much about the backgrounds, so I decided to put them in a kind of negative zone.
Geek: There’s a real feeling that a reader could get from “Prison Pit” that screams “Where does he come up with this stuff?” Are you okay with reactions like that? Is that your intention?
JR: Yeah, I actively try to come up with the most f#@ked up stuff I can imagine. It’s exciting to have that kind of effect on people.
Geek: I think it’s okay for me to say that “Prison Pit” gets gets pretty freaking gross, what draws you to the gross?
JR: Haha. I’m not sure. Maybe it’s some kind of delayed adolescence?
Geek: Is there a plan before you sit down to work on each volume or do you work on the fly?
JR: It’s kind of a combination of both. Sometimes I have a plan. Sometimes I just work spontaneously. Then there’s times I have a plan and then the plan changes as I’m drawing.
Geek: How many more books do you have planned?
JR: I plan on 6. I’ll see how I’m feeling at that point, if I think the story should continue.
Geek: This series has inspired a lot of cosplay and custom toys, etc. What is it about Prison Pit that connects with fans?
JR: Well, I think it connects to comic fans because it’s the stripped down essence of what popular superhero comics are, which is men beating the living s*$t out of each other. People love it.
Geek: Can you speak about underground comix in general and how “Prison Pit” fits into the tradition of work by Crumb or Kitchen Sink Press cartoonists? If at all?
JR: Haha, I’m pretty sure Crumb would have zero interest in something like Prison Pit. I think most of those underground guys have little patience for this kind of stuff. When I was coming up in the alternative comic scene there was a lot of distaste for superhero action genre type comics. So maybe “Prison Pit” is a reaction against that? I dunno. I mean, it’s not like sit around thinking about my place in comic book history when I write this s*$t. I’m just trying to come up with exciting stories to entertain and hopefully shock people.
Geek: What’s next?
JR: Prison Pit 5.
Geek: Thanks, Johnny!
“Prison Pit: Book Four” is available now from Fantagraphics.