What happens to the shock of the new when the new is subtracted from the shock? I’ll always see Portajohnny, the first Angry Youth Comix collection, as cartoonist Johnny Ryan’s single most stunning shot across the bow, if only because it was one of a small handful of books that introduced me to the idea that “humor comics” could be funny instead of corny. But Prison Pit marked a major turning point as well. Turns out Ryan could cartoon as well with a pen as he did with a brush. He could eschew his punchline-oriented gag-strip pacing for a preposterously languorous wallow in science-fantasy/action-horror world-building, journeying, combat, and transformation. He could make scatology and gore work as well for a genre comic as for dirty jokes. And in each subsequent volume he could alter the emotional or visual tone, to dramatic effect: The brutal smackdowns of Book One give way to the genuinely disturbing sexual violence of Book Two; the fleshy body-horror and rubble-strewn wastelands of the first two books are supplanted by menacingly crystalline geometry-horror in the third.
By contrast, we’re not seeing a whole lot in Prison Pit Book Four that we haven’t seen already — we’re just seeing more of it. Prison Pit has always been gross, but this volume, in which the unstoppable protagonist Cannibal Fuckface attempt to break free of the subterranean psychemechanical prison ship he was stranded in last time around, was the first that made even a seasoned hand at the rough stuff like me emit weary moans of repulsion and disgust with seemingly each new pustule-encrusted beast that appeared. Do I really need to see a mindless ogre made from genital warts and capable only of saying the word “FUGG” crush people’s heads like overripe tomatoes? Do I really need to see a testicle-headed thug called Undigestible Scrotum pull a morning star from his/her vagina while his/her spike-studded testicles dangle obscenely? Do I really need to see a small detachable anus extend a poisoned spike that causes its victims to shit out white, brain-like egg-feces out of which skull-faced hellhounds emerge? In particular, do I really need to see Cannibal Fuckface hijack his prison ship by chopping a hole in its navigational computer and fucking the vaginal orifice he uncovers with his barbed erection?
The answer to all of those questions, of course, is god no. Which I think is the point, at this point. Point to any individual sequence in PPB4 and you’ll see exhilarating action cartooning, deliriously inventive creature designs, and funny black humor. (My favorite, which I won’t spoil, involves the resolution of CF’s battle with Undigestable Scrotum, a chainsaw on a stick, and extremely disproportionate revenge.) But the overall impression is not exhilarating but exhausting. Cannibal Fuckface inhabits a world with only one setting: HARD. Any joy, any beauty, any kindness he or we encounter is accidental or ironic. To spend a prolonged period of time in Prison Pit is to open your mental orifice to Ryan’s razor-studded art-cock. By the time the book’s “explosive conclusion” rolled around, I thought to myself, “God, just die already, asshole.” That’s something one of these characters might say, now that I think about it. Establishing that kind of psychic link between the book’s awful world and our own is dark magic indeed.