DeConnick And Rios Weave Eastern Myths Into A Western Tale In ‘Pretty Deadly’ #1 [Review]
It’s a rare thrill and kind of a pain when you come across a comic that so stubbornly defies explanation it easily wriggles out from the grasp of any words that you hope to entangle it with. Such is the case with Pretty Deadly, the new Image series by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Ríos, and Jordie Bellaire. I’ve already written and undone four descriptions, wincing every time I found my fingers typing words like “mashup” or “genre-bending,” then leaning on the DEL key to undo my lame attempts to classify such a mercurial book. So let’s try this: Pretty Deadly is an Eastern myth incubated in a Western womb; a story within a story within a story; a dark fairytale about bad men, worse women, and Deadface Ginny, the reaper of vengeance, the daughter of Death. Commence head-banging now.
Within two seconds of cracking open Pretty Deadly, it’s apparent that it’s not your typical Western. Narrated by Bunny and Butterfly – an actual butterfly and an actual rabbit – after a dream-like flashback opening, the story quickly jumps ahead to pick up the story with another pair of narrators, the blind old man Fox and his partner Sissy, a girl with heterochromia of the eyes and a cloak woven from vulture feathers. Traveling minstrels, Sissy and Fox bring their show to a small frontier town, where they tell the tale of a mythic beauty held captive by a venal man, praying to Death for release. But Death fell in love with the beauty himself, and before he finally granted her wish, she left him with a daughter, who he raised as “a hunter of men who have sinned,” a spirit of vengeance known as Deadface Ginny.
If you’re not hearing “Shura no Hana” (“Flower of Carnage”) from the Lady Snowblood and Kill Bill soundtracks at this point, it’s because you’re not listening hard enough.
From there, the story goes on to introduce the rest of the primary characters – a dandy ginger named Johnny, Fox and Sissy’s band, which includes a rider called Dog, homesteader Sarah and her family, and a hard-assed female hired gun called Big Alice – without involving the lead at all. Instead of showing us the main character within the first few pages like most comics would, DeConnick and Ríos use the first issue as a long introduction, exploring the strangeness of the world and slowly accumulating eerie energy for the character’s eventual appearance on the final page.
DeConnick takes a lot of risks with the first issue, using strange narrators, structuring it more like a Manga than an American book, using the mise-en-abyme device, and saving the first appearance of her main character for the end, but they’re all risks that pay off. Bunny and Butterfly lend an odd fairytale quality as narrators; the Eastern approach within a Western framework recalls tales of vengeance from both traditions, reminding one of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter as much as it does Lady Snowblood, both the movie and Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura’s epic Manga; and the tales within build up Deadface Ginny’s legend so much, when the pale rider finally does emerge, she sweeps through the book like a sandstorm from Hell.
By drawing on the rhythms and traditions of oral narrative and fairytales, DeConnick establishes an inventive structure for a story that might be as much about a spirit of vengeance as it is about stories about spirits of vengeance. With its central concept and tone, Pretty Deadly simultaneously references Ghost Rider, classic western themes, and Japanese folklore like “Goze no Yurei,” which translates as “The Ghost of the Blind Woman Musician.” To create a new myth, she examines the ones that came before, from both the East and the West, and finds a world in which they can both live.
A Spanish artist with strong Manga and Manhua tendencies, Emma Ríos is perfectly matched to both DeConnick and the material. Ríos channels all the style and energy of great Manga while imbuing the book with a desolate, decidedly western feel. Her characters are simple and lithe, given just enough exaggeration in their movements and facial expressions; her desert backgrounds are spare and effortlessly elegant.
She’s especially good at conveying motion without the use of speed lines, and relies on the sweep and consistency of her brushwork within the figures to indicate action, an effect especially interesting given how much thought she appears to give to the wind. Without relying on the old trick of whisper-thin exterior motion lines, blades of grass shuffle convincingly in unseen breezes; coats and cloaks flap frantically in invisible gusts. Like the first appearance of Deadface Ginny, the first appearance of swopping wind-lines is reserved for the final page, and their sudden inclusion adds mystery and power to her emergence.
Jordie Bellaire – who is quickly becoming one of my favorite color artists – brings a muted palette that goes from ruddy to eerie at a snap, adding another strange layer to a book so comfortably situated between two worlds. Between the two artists, Pretty Deadly is one of the most visually interesting debut issues in recent memory, an odd and beautiful book that emphatically defines a look all its own.
It’s a very interesting alchemy that the creative team have achieved with Pretty Deadly. It brazenly defies conventions of modern American comics while keeping with the traditions of Westerns, Manga, and folklore; it ignores the three-act structure to go back to older forms of storytelling and finds power in them. Dark, alluring, and original, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Ríos’s Pretty Deadly gambles on itself and wins.