At this point, if Kelly Sue DeConnick is involved, I’m guaranteed to be there front and center. She could reboot the phonebook and I’d have it in my pull list the second it was announced. It’s more than just being a fan of her work. Yes, she’s a feminist icon and a comic book powerhouse, but more than that she uses an old medium to tell new stories, well, maybe not new per se but overlooked and ignored. Her take on Carol Danvers reinvigorated a wasted character into a truly amazing run on Captain Marvel. By blending the lost art of Blaxploitation and age-old fears of a patriarchy run wild she created Bitch Planet, a high watermark graphic novels will spend decades trying to match. And with the hook of a genderbent Spaghetti Western, Pretty Deadly came roaring onto shelves.
Pretty Deadly is the story of battling women, the men who fuel their fury, and the not-so-innocents caught in between. As narrated by Bones Bunny and Butterfly, we learn the myth of the Mason who trapped his beautiful bride in a tower to keep her away from the lustful eyes of other men only to lose her to Death. While Beauty trades one prison for another, her daughter becomes a Reaper of Vengeance. Deathface Ginny rejects the will of both her fathers so fellow reaper, Big Alice, is sent to bring her back to the Underworld. Above ground, a blind old man named Fox protects an orphan in a vulture cloak named Sissy from all manner of evil. Johnny Coyote, his talking raven, and a Black frontierswoman named Sarah are yanked into Sissy and Ginny’s intertwining fates.
The first arc—entitled “The Shrike,” presumably after the bird who earned its Latin name Lanius, meaning “butcher,” after the way it impales its prey on thorns before consuming it—deals with what happens when Death shirks his duties for love and the underlings are left to pick up the shattered pieces. As of this review we’re just one issue into the second arc, but it looks like the new storyline will explore the fallout from the choices made by Sissy and Deathface Ginny in both both the magical realm and the real, war-torn world.
Pretty Deadly is written by the incomparable Kelly Sue DeConnick, and the artist is the immensely talented Emma Ríos. The colorist is Jordie Bellaire, letterer Clayton Cowles, and editor Sigrid Ellis. The series has been running since October 2013 but with a 3 month pause and 17 month hiatus. Issue #6 just released, with #7 scheduled for late December. Like Bitch Planet, these issues tend to sell out quickly, so if you have a pull list at your local shop, add this to your subscriptions ASAP.
To Pull or Not To Pull
A series like Pretty Deadly could only exist under Image Comics. Never in a million years would the Big Two put out anything even close to like it. The story unfolds gradually until you find yourself drowning in it. Its opaque references and sudden introductions can be overwhelming, but it’s worth sticking with it. The cast grows but it feels less like overpopulating the world and more like adding threads to a cobweb—the bigger the cast of characters the more intimately they’re bound together and to the plot.
It reads best when read through several times. Dialogue isn’t sparse but context is often oblique. In other words, be prepared to work for your supper with this one. Nothing is given but the answers are there if you’re willing to let them find you. The plot is a bit top-heavy, sometimes confusingly so, and the art can veer from dreamy to frantic in a single panel. Patience is necessary but rewarded. DeConnick and Ríos are playing a long game full of whispered secrets and unfurling mysteries and are in no hurry to get to the big reveal.
On the face of it, Pretty Deadly is a story about death. But look a little deeper and you’ll find the bigger theme is really life itself in all its infinite permutations. Life is full of blood and chaos, of love and lust, of births, deaths, illnesses, and torments. To live is to die and survive and hope and fear. Old age happens to the luckiest of us, even if the journey there is fraught. Good things make their way in from the edges and settle in amongst the nightmares and regrets. Beauty can be grow from pain just as grief can spring from love, as Fox, Johnny Coyote, and Sarah know all too well, no matter how much Ginny and Sissy may not wish to admit it.
Emma Ríos’ work evokes a manga-like style, drawing characters with slightly exaggerated features, dramatic and unconventional angles, and implying motion and energy without relying on traditional comic book tactics. Its hand-sketched quality complements the fable and builds a weary, rusty atmosphere. It’s a story rife with folklore from the time before the city slickers closed the frontier and won the west. A tale like this deserves a rougher hew than most artists offer. It feels like something found buried in a box under the floorboards of a ramshackle cabin in a desert ghost town or a half-forgotten dream made hazy by time and old age. There is depth to the simplicity of Ríos’ style—in that way her work reminds me more than a little of Fumi Yoshinaga—and when her ragged, heavy linework is paired with Jordie Bellaire’s bold palette, the results are hauntingly vivid, like a peyote-induced fever dream. Jordie Bellaire’s talents cannot be under-praised. She’s breathed life into DeConnick’s words and added layers of tone and mood to Ríos’ pen strokes.
Speaking of unsung heroes, lettering is one of those jobs that most people overlook but just like bad ADR can kill a movie or television episode, poor lettering can absolutely break a comic book. Fortunately, Pretty Deadly lucked out on scoring Clayton Cowles. Cowles has quickly become one of those names I look for in a series to know whether or not it’s worth my time. He’s been involved in nearly all of my favorite titles of the last few years—She Hulk, Bitch Planet, Spider-Gwen, Phonogram, The Wicked and the Divine, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Black Widow, and on and on and on—and his work is always superb. In her own words, Sigrid Ellis’ role here is as “an extra set of eyes, a helping hand when needed, a reminder system, a cheerleader, and an eager first reader.” She says the “creators do the heavy lifting,” but she’s an important cog in a great and glorious machine, and I was pleased to see her return to the series with Issue #6.
This is absolutely a must read series, but it could be a steep hill to climb for newcomers. There are hints of similar titles swimming in the same genre soup, but it is ultimately unlike anything else. The closest comparison I can think of in terms of tonal and textual influence is ODY-C by DeConnick’s husband Matt Fraction and artist Christian Ward. Both comics feature characters steeped in legends suffering through harrowing experiences thrown at them by mercurial deities, but where Fraction and Ward have a vast universe of gods and humans at their disposal, DeConnick and Ríos have narrowed their focus to a few small corners of life and death. DeConnick’s story isn’t nearly as dense as Fraction’s but it’s just as challenging.
In Pretty Deadly, DeConnick and Ríos have crafted is a ferocious series of powerful characters born of gorgeous art. It is Sergio Leone crossed with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a hellish yet alluring mix of epic mythology from the ancient poets, the relentlessly unforgiving fairy tales of the Old World, and the blood-soaked folklore of the Old West.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.