Monday, January 2, 2012

Trade Waiting: Prison Pit and Officer Downe

Prison Pit is a decadently nasty book many of you will not have read and all of you should try. Well, maybe not all of you, but those who might like it could just love it. Then there’s Officer Downe. This strange little one-shot from Joe Casey and Chris Burnham is the sort of comic you don’t get often enough. There could be a reason for that. Anyway, let’s delve into a double shot review from guest poster Taylor Pithers. What better way to start the New Year than some hyper violence?

Prison Pit Volumes 1-3

Written, Pencilled and Inked by Johnny Ryan
Published by Fantagraphics

Primarily known for his (incredibly offensive) gag strips, Johnny Ryan switched gears in 2009 and released Prison Pit Vol.1, a marriage of pro wrestling, manga, bromance and filth. The book stars our hero, CF (his real name is probably not a good idea to publish on this family website), and chronicles his adventures after being dumped on a prison planet to fend for himself. The reason why he is put there is never explained nor does it have to be, the goal of this comic is purely to show Ryan’s ability to throw CF into ludicrously brutal and graphic fights scenes with increasingly eccentric and horrific monsters. This gives the story a somewhat video game feel and leads you to wonder where Ryan will go next and what new obstacles he will create for CF to face off with.

Ryan stays close to a four panel grid for the page layouts giving the book a rigid feel but also making sure you are only concentrating on what’s actually within the panel. This makes the violence, whilst cartoonish, even more shocking. The style he has adopted for this book looks like a cross between Mad Max, Masters of the Universe, and the sick kid at school’s exercise book doodles. Anatomy and simple things such as literal physical impossibilities are thrown out the window so Ryan can get his point across. A good example of this is at the start of Vol 3 when a greasy haired skinny zombie looking creature arrives on the prison planet on a mission to find CF only to be confronted by four imaginatively designed creatures. A fight scene ensues and the grease zombie effectively gets eaten by one of the monsters only to then climb out of the monsters nether-regions whilst he is relieving himself. This is not a book for the faint hearted.

The story is incredibly decompressed and it is quite possible to read each 120 page book in about ten minutes. In an age of austerity this could be seen as a waste but instead it gives you time to marvel at the simple elegance of Ryan’s line and adds to the sense of desolation that CF feels whilst occupying this barren planet. Johnny Ryan has an almost Kirbyesque level of character design, but with obviously more genitalia, and it can at times be a joy just to see what is going to come on the next page.

As this is a column about trade paperbacks, I must make a comment on the books presentation as a whole. As a publisher, Fantagraphics are arguably the best comic book company out there when it comes to packaging their books, using care and attention of the highest order. Unfortunately they dropped the ball on Prison Pit by using a weak glue to attach the cover to the rest of the book. This means that the card cover can come away from the spine. Just a small niggle and it doesn’t detract from the fact that the innards are still there.

Verdict – Buy It, if you can stomach. Johnny Ryan is a cartoonist at the top of his game right now and he may just be the closest thing the comic world has to marmite. He is also the antithesis of the modern American comic book marketplace, a man who is willing to throw it all out there and not worry about what has come before or what the fans want. He seems to be doing it purely for his own enjoyment and really that is how all comics should be.

Juxtaposed to this is a very American creator who chooses to do things a little differently from time to time. Let’s look at:

Officer Downe: The Bigger, Better, Bastard Edition

Written by Joe Casey
Pencilled and Inked by Chris Burnham
Published by Image/Man of Action Comics

Officer Downe was originally published as a one shot by Image in 2010 to fairly decent critical acclaim and virtually no commercial acclaim, and has now been packaged into an oversized hardcover with extra ‘deleted scenes,’ sketches, and pinups. Telling the story of an almost Robocop style character who the police use to hunt down and arrest/maim/exterminate various colourful villains within the world that Casey and Burnham have created. Downe is a guy that lets his actions speak louder than his words and his actions tend to be pretty over the top in terms of violence. The problem is the local crime bosses (made up of the best kind of gangsters: suit wearing anthropomorphs) have had enough of it and hire a zen hip hop master and his crew of Adidas wearing ninjas to wreck havoc on the city to draw Downe out and take him, erm, down. What ensues is a mass of violence that is rendered exquisitely by Chris Burnham.

When this book was first published, Chris Burnham was a talented up and comer who deserved to be in the big leagues. This has since happened with him getting increasing amounts of work for DC Comics, mainly on the Morrison bat-books. Burnham has a style that seems to spiral directly out of the Moebius, Darrow, and Quitely school of creating hyper detailed artwork yet still retaining its fantastic lack of realism. The backgrounds of this book are filled with multiple easter eggs and there is no corner cutting. You can understand that Burnham may not be an artist to hit monthly deadlines with this sort of attention to detail. There is almost a Where’s Waldo feel to the book as in most panels there are multiple things going on that are not directly linked to the story but are nonetheless entertaining. It would be interesting to know if these were prompted by Casey or were Burnham’s own doing. Either way, it’s not within the realms of impossibility that this time next year Burnham is the hottest artist in mainstream comics.

Casey, like Johnny Ryan, is like Jack Kirby in terms of his throwing new ideas out and utilising the medium to tell stories that are on a different track to everyone else. He seems to realise that comics can be adult yet fun at the same time, something that seems to be lacking from a lot of other books out there. Along with Butcher Baker and Doc Bizarre; Officer Downe has marked a remarkable year for him and there is no doubt it will continue in 2012.

Image has gone above and beyond with their presentation of this book. It has an oversized trim and the cover has been printed directly onto the book, meaning no pesky dust jackets getting in the way of your enjoyment. The back matter doesn’t feel tacked on either, the sketches and character designs from Burnham are worth admission alone and the pin ups by talented indie guys and up and comers are a delight to see; particularly the Nick Pitarra ‘Officer Downe action figure’ page.

Verdict – Buy It. After their great first collaboration, Nixons Pals, Casey and Burnham continue the tradition of making forward thinking, stylish and just plain fun comics. It’s a shame that Casey and DC don’t seem too friendly as this could be their last team up for some time. As with Prison Pit, if more comics were made like this the world would be a happier place.

Both of these books enjoyment levels can be amplified by listening to Rage Against the Machine whilst reading.

What are your thoughts on Prison Pit and Officer Downe? Do you like violence in your books or not?

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