by Nicole Keating
My comic-reading history started at age 15. A little later than most, I’ll admit, and I envy my fellows who have been enjoying comic books and graphic novels from childhood. Who had their minds molded from the first by magical tales told in words and pictures. Who left picture books behind for the more sophisticated framing of comics. Who developed a knowledge of heroes and villains so deep that you cannot see the bottom. However, everyone has their first time. My first time was a little book called Watchmen. You may have heard of it. A friend had given it to me for my birthday, and I devoured it. Sandman and V for Vendetta followed shortly after. My holy trinity of comic books. Through the many years and many comics since, I have had a place in my heart and on my shelf for titles in the same vein: heightened language, complex storytelling, a hint of dark comedy, and allegorical characters crafted to seem almost human.
It should therefore come as no surprise that I was instantly drawn to Image’s new mythology-meets-western tale Pretty Deadly. Written by Kelly Sue Deconnick–leave it to a gal named Kelly Sue to pen a western–with art by Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly offers a female-driven story about Death. Yes, capital-D Death. Plus cowgirls. I KNOW, RIGHT? The elevator pitch obviously already had me interested, but I was truly hooked after cracking the cover. Deconnick’s poetic script and Rios’ eerie artwork craft a world pulled by opposing forces: body and soul, fact and fiction, man and monster.
Rios’ art reveals this delicate balance from the first. Extreme close ups on eyes, repeated images of dead or dying animals, and a tarot-like layout haunt the pages of Pretty Deadly. Rios advances the ominous tone with nuanced expository panels. I find the most striking of these accompanies, “And from high on the hill, the two sentinels watched.” A simple sentence, but the panel takes us beyond the horizon to an impossibly-structured rocky landscape lit by yellow-green flame. Images bleed into one another, the rocks becoming hills becoming smoke becoming water that weeps onto the page and distorts some of the images. The lines between the spiritual and the physical are blurred, stretching our characters between two realities.
Jordie Bellaire’s colors enhance this tension. The world is dominated by sickly yellows and fleshy pinks, like an ailing sunset. This is a universe at the end of its life. The characters that populate these pages feel the pressure of the coming storm. There’s an anxiety, a nauseous sense of waiting and watching, as Sarah indicates in her striking speech to a supernatural acquaintance:
“This is me and mine, right here. Scorpions, spiders, ants… You don’t see them, don’t think about them at all, ‘cept as the occasional nuisance when one of ‘em manages to bite. But they watch us like their lives depend on our whims… ‘Cause they do. I lived this long and I seen three babes before these two into manhood and I done it by watching your kind…And doing my damndest to stay out of your way.”
As they struggle to stay out of the way, everyone gets into mischief, sex, and violence. Pretty Deadly is therefore TV-MA graphic: there are multiple-page spreads of explicit brothel activity as well as plenty of blood. The combined forces of Rios and Bellaire relish these visceral scenes, and their care allows horror and beauty to equally permeate the visuals.
That all sounds really cerebral, but fear not! Pretty Deadly has all the fun of a traditional Western, too. Shoot outs, vengeance, mysterious strangers…Pretty Deadly has them all! Kelly Sue Deconnick’s script offers all these tropes for you cowboy fans out there. Then she ups the ante with beautiful language:
“Her father was violence and her mother was grief and she was meant to live and know love… so that when she took your daddy’s place, she’d feel the weight of that duty. Do you understand?”
And we do understand. Pretty Deadly’s script is not just beautiful for beauty’s sake. Despite the poetry–or perhaps because of it–the story is very clear. Lines like Molly Raven’s call to action, “We gotta find the girl and hope death don’t find her first,” at first sound abstract, but, no, they are literally trying to outrun Death. The words bridge the gap between the abstract and the literal, allowing you to experience the story without constantly wondering, “Wait, did I miss something?”
That is not to say that you should remain on the surface of this story. Read closely! If you’re up for it, I’d even say read this one twice through. Pretty Deadly plays out on many levels, and I discovered something new every time I went back to the text in writing this review. Animals abound in this world, yet it took a second read to realize that every single character has some sort of animal association. Some are obvious: Molly Raven, Johnny Coyote, or The Girl in the Vulture Cloak. Some are a little more nuanced, like Sarah with her scorpions and ants. Then there are those nature-spirit personas who have yet to make their connections known. For example, the whole story is narrated by Bunny and Butterfly. One character has a bunny skull for a head, another turns into butterflies, but how these folks relate to our narrators is shrouded in mystery. The suspense generated by the symbolism equals that achieved by the plot, pulling readers in and not letting go.
I recommend picking up Pretty Deadly, especially once the trade is released, because you will not want to wait for the next issue to keep reading. Talking animals, spirits at war, and the people who get in their way… No one is safe when “Death rides on the wind!”
TL; DR? Emma Rios (art) and Kelly Sue Deconnick’s (script) Pretty Deadly is a next-level Western with a plot driven by three ladies: an assassin, an avenging spirit, and a mysterious young orphan. The art perfectly compliments the poetic script, but neither detracts from a really cool and hypnotic story.