Silva: As opening lines go ”Bunny, do you remember when we met?” possesses great import.
Such a simple address sends English Lit. nerds like moi to hear echoes of fairy tales or the opening to a classic children’s story — best when read aloud, of course. Such a line reads as nothing short of epic; a declaration artist Emma Rios, colorist Jordie Bellaire, letterer Clayton Cowles and writer Kelly Sue DeConnick plan to give no quarter. At least that’s the intent; however, these creators know ‘intent’ is bush. Intent gets a name on a bill, only proof creates legends like Jesse James or Janis at Monterey.
To punctuate this solemnity, Rios draws a white rabbit in tall grass, its ears akimbo. This isn’t that white rabbit, neither watch nor waistcoat pocket in sight. To be clear in its intent (its proof) in the panel that follows Rios reveals the precise moment a bullet separates the bottom half of this particular rabbit’s face from its neck. On her end, Bellaire encircles the whole messy business in gory bloody red. This ain’t a kiddie story, it’s Pretty Deadly and this wild bunch plans to make it so.
For all its dead rabbits and for ”the girl in the vulture cloak,” the one with heterochormia iridum who answers to Sissy and takes center stage in the opening pages, I’m not certain whose story Pretty Deadly aims to tell. There’s Sissy, Fox her blind caretaker (a cop of Master Po from Kung Fu) and their posse. Another (?) thread follows ”Big Alice.” She has to stoop to enter a whore’s boudoir and is handy with a thumb-buster. Alice and Sissy seem to be two sides of the same coin. For her part, DeConnick plays coy. For now, she wants to hint and act all mysterious, Page to Rios’s Plant.
There’s also the story of Beauty, the Mason Man and Deathface Ginny. It’s their tale which stands as the most bravura sequence in Pretty Deadly #1. From below a gallows pole, Fox and Sissy tell the story of this human triumvirate and how Death came into their lives. Fox unfurls a banner, a twelve panel grid, to serve as a comic guide. I’d love to know how DeConnick and Rios came up with this little detail, either way it’s cartooning and visual storytelling done well.
In rhyming verse DeConnick tells the tale and Rios draws the hell out of the sequence. She imagines a vulture’s skull in place of Death’s head, a proffered babe and a lone rider. Rios uses the cane Fox waves to help the audience follow along and break up the panels. Brilliant. Bellaire’s sepia scrim allows the past to mix with the sober palette of the present. Words, images and colors weave like a shuttle in a loom to sing a song of the past which foretells a future.
Am I on the right trail, Giampaoli? Is Pretty Deadly the ‘barbaric yawp’ I think it is? Or is this a mere bustle in a hedgerow? Maybe I’m the timid rabbit alone among the leaves of grass, my brains blown out on prairie floor? Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Giampaoli: Oh, I hear you talkin’, Silva. You’ve twigged onto the words I, too, want to hurl at Pretty Deadly. Words like ”epic” and ”foretell” and ”fairytale.” There’s a lot going on in this book, in what the backmatter reveals is actually a very personal story from DeConnick. For some reason, for me, it was hard not to imagine the bunny, the butterfly, and the daughter of Death as some sort of id-ego-superego trifecta swirling around in DeConnick’s brain, aspects of psychological self projecting onto the page. Sides of the same coin, you say, the arc of that ”D” she talks about reaching ahead, but drawn back to origin on the descent.
The line that got me was the magical parity of ”The end of the world began when Death fell in love” balanced against what we see visually on the cover. It’s an image of a woman kneeling with her hands dipped in bloodied water, perhaps an indication that the world of Pretty Deadly is like a dark fairy tale reflection of a very primal and powerful fact. It’s a universal truth; young people yearn for a sense of self. Are you the hero of your own story, or are you the reaper? Can the devil and the angel coexist, and what are the multi-faceted results of that? Pretty Deadly tells the poetic tarot card style origin of Deathface Ginny, the product of Death and Beauty. The hard lesson learned for old Mason might be that if you truly love something, be willing to set it free, because locking it up catalyzes a sort of soul cancer.
Death is a popular figure in pop culture; I enjoyed this striking personification, as a figure clad in a late 1800’s military uniform with that hollow avian skull. It’s creepy as fuck, blurring the line between the irrational things of nightmares and plausible speculation set in this time period. Rios’s lines feel thicker and bolder than usual, perhaps due to heavier and more deliberate inks, yet somehow also more energetic and loose. It reminded me of Paul Pope in places, calling to mind an ethereal story Pope did as a guest artist in an
old issue of Dynamite Entertainment’s The Lone Ranger about wandering coyotes, of all things — there’s something about the draw of these animals. At times, Rios’s transitions are perhaps a little busy with several small inset panels that don’t always flow optimally, as if the ”camera” needed to zoom out for greater context, but there’s certainly no arguing that she knows how to evoke mood and a sense of place. Rios has a terrific collaborator in Bellaire, whose work only grows stronger with each successive project, here pulling off an amazing sequence with two layers of visual storytelling, one in the hard foreground and one in the sepia background, as the origin of Ginny unfolds.
I was thrilled to find another modern book with strong backmatter. I wrote a lot recently about examples of this unique storytelling tool and the differences between ”traditional” backmatter (ie: ”process-driven” bonus material) and ”story-driven” backmatter that’s in-continuity, or in-world, if you will. DeConnick offers a little of both, with a prose excerpt set in-world that’s reminiscent of what Antony Johnston does on Wasteland, and also a behind-the-scenes personal history with select vignettes that led up to her own discovery of self, or finding an authorial voice, and the creation of this series. It’s good meta-eats. It pulls the curtain back. It demystifies the process of ”making art,” something we always struggle with how to convey to the audience during my day job at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Image Comics is on such a roll, reestablishing itself as THE home of Creator Owned Comics. I capitalized that on purpose. I hope you don’t think that’s pretentious. It’s a palpable movement that’s occurring. Image is able to attract a wide swath of talent and provide venues to let imaginations run wild with personal fuel, fantastic worlds, and compelling ideas that are slowly eclipsing the creative bankruptcy of Marvel and DC’s intellectual property catalogues. You know me, Silva, I’m prone to make elevator pitch comparisons, so if you want the cold shorthand, my critical calculus tells me that Saga + East of West = Pretty Deadly. That’s not meant to denigrate any of the works or to rob them of originality with the lazy comparison. It’s only meant to suggest that there’s something very good and very workable in the ethos. Pretty Deadly has the epic and emotional sweep of a book like Saga, but with the mystery and intrigue of East of West, that willingness to engage readers to work for clues in a post-apocalyptic setting that leverages more dusty dirty western elements than sci-fi infusion.
There’s no doubt we’ve just talked up one of the buzz books of the year.
Silva: A buzz book bound to end up at the printers, once, twice, thrice … now that’s Pretty Deadly.
Justin Giampaoli grew up on 1970s Bruce Springsteen tracks and Green Lantern comics by Len Wein and Dave Gibbons. Award-Winning Writer @Thirteen Minutes, Host @Live From The DMZ, Freelance Contributor for Dark Horse and DC Comics. Follow @thirteenminutes.