Pretty Deadly: Vol. 1 relates the story of Deathface Ginny, the Reaper of Vengeance. I say it this way because Pretty Deadly is really about the people who tell that story, and what it means to them. Ginny is out for blood because of an injustice done her long ago. The ones telling that story are Sissy, a small girl who wears a vulture crown, and Fox, her guardian, an old, not-quite-blind man with a mysterious past. The stories of Fox and Sissy, in turn, are told by a bunny skeleton shot through the skull—DeConnick calls him "the Bones Bunny" in her dedication—and a butterfly. Butterfly and the Bones Bunny carry us through a story that always feels a little bit like it's waiting for something else, even when we get a big reveal at the end. This might be because it's a first volume (Volume Two is now set to come out in September), but I think it's also just in the nature of how the comic is made. Image Comics recently announced that the first issue of Pretty Deadly: Volume Two would be coming soon to bookstores near us, after a few months of silence.
In the blog post announcing Volume Two, Kelly Sue DeConnick speaks a little about what she wanted Volume One to do. "The thing about the first arc that we most wanted to preserve was that sense of ‘myth space.'" What is a "myth space?" Is it a place in which mythical things can occur, and is this different from the myth itself? The comic certainly succeeds at creating a place where myths can happen, but whether or not it spins a myth entire out of that material is a difficult question to answer—especially since the end of Volume One is a break before Volume Two, not something meant to be self-contained.
Pretty Deadly is highly aware of style, of how a story can feel. When I say this, I don't just mean that the art is beautiful, even though it is. I mean that it has an awareness of genre—that, when we can categorize a story as being of a particular breed, we can go ahead and guess that certain things are true without the story having to say so. Pretty Deadly often gets described as a fantasy western, and, when we open the comic, it immediately becomes clear why that is. Our awareness of genre begins to shape our reading of the comic even before we know what's coming. We have a mold to fit the basic parts of the story into, even though we can move beyond it. Sometimes the comic pushes us to move beyond it, gives us a way to do it. Other times, it remains stuck in developing a tone that doesn't seem to do much for the actual stories it means to tell.
The core story is Fox and Sissy's. They travel from town to town with a small band of men, singing to locals the song of Deathface Ginny. The song tells about "the Mason" who "took Beauty for his bride," and, fearing that he'd lose her, locked her in a tower. Beauty is so miserable that she begs Death to take her; she does, and the two of them give birth to Deathface Ginny, a reaper of vengeance whom you can summon by singing Fox and Sissy's song. We eventually discover that Fox is the Mason of their song, and he was made to take baby Sissy with him whilst trying to reclaim Beauty from the underworld. Sissy is part of Death's masterplot—to end all death forever, thus upsetting the balance of the world. The other characters, too, have varying degrees of connection with the underworld—some of them, like Sissy, are part of the myth, whilst others simply experience it as humans in a larger-than-human world.
Bones Bunny and Butterfly narrate all of this—mostly, Bones Bunny narrates, and Butterfly asks questions. The specific reason for their existence, and who exactly they are in relation to the rest of the story, is left largely unexplained, but they have a symbolic connection to the main narrative: Death also has a rabbit skull, for example. The book begins with a girl—who has the same orange eyes as Ginny—shooting a bunny through the head, in an image that mirrors the book's final showdown, which is between Death and an adult Ginny in the land of the dead. This showdown is what frees Fox, and allows Sissy to achieve her destiny.
Pretty Deadly is always aware of the "mythic space" it is creating, and, in its best moments, it starts to create a myth all its own, one that can only exist in the comic’s own particular environment. But sometimes, the story doesn't quite reach the level of myth, and when it doesn't, it feels more like a pastiche of its parent tropes, not like something newly born from them. Pretty Deadly's western and fantasy sources are often fairly obvious. We recognize that Pretty Deadly is a western because of its desert setting, because of the outfits of the characters, and because of the way characters talk. All characters have the same sort of twist to their dialogue that seems half to come from the world of the comic and half from a generic idea of what "western" is supposed to sound like ("I know more'n you think, girl," says one character, while "If you done been wronged" is a line in Sissy's song). The fantasy element is more original almost by default, because it has to fit into the "western" parts of the comic, and not the other way around. Some of the fantasy elements clearly draw from elsewhere (there's some stuff about Coyote and Rabbit in there, and some of the underworld scenes feel inspired by the Greco-Roman underworld). When the various story elements achieve a feeling of "myth," however, they grow into something that feels fully alive on its own terms. The influences, the taste of "fantasy" and "western," don't disappear, but they become part of something unique to the story.
This tends to be true of the images that carry through the whole story, instead of the ones that just act as background. One of these motifs is the vulture cloak—the bird’s beak across her forehead, its feathers around her body—That Sissy wears throughout the entire story, and that later proves to be a marker of her connection to the underworld. The significance of a vulture, and the symbolism it carries, feels "western," and the importance of a character having a special, mostly unexplained physical marker shows up in fantasy all too often. But here, the combination of these two things works as more than a pastiche. This is partially because mixing the two influences doesn't have a clear symbolic or allegorical meaning; we can point at the sources, but what they mean when they're mixed together is something else. But there's also a sense that there is a meaning, one that comes from the story itself. The crown/cloak is visually distinct, but it's rarely mentioned by other characters, so we experience it as a part of the world that is accepted for reasons untold to us. It also has a specific connection to Sissy, because it's her crown. It's not just a part of her costume, something that allows us to spot her easily. She has to take it off and put it on, and she uses it for different things—as a blanket, as protection, and even as a plaything. The crown helps signify the comic's myth, but it also helps us understand Sissy. Though the crown has roots in "fantasy" and "western" ideas, we can't solely point back at either tradition to explain what it is or how it works in the comic. This helps it define and delineate Pretty Deadly's unique "myth-space," instead of just resembling the ones it came from.
The comic, then, is fully able to go deeper than its source tropes, and often does so in compelling ways, but only intermittently. The "western" half of "fantasy western" acts more like a flavor than a genre. It permeates everything, and in a flat way. The dialogue style mentioned above is one glaring example of this. Characters all speak in the same generic, western-ish style, even though their actual ideas and perspectives are distinct. The only exception is Death and his companions, who speak in a higher, more dramatic style that points to their being fully enmeshed in the myth itself (Death never actually interacts with people in the world of the living, since they dwell in the myth-space, not the myth). Another example comes in the comic's brothel scenes, which largely serve as exposition for the anti-heroic cowboy, Johnny, and one of the narrative’s few actual reapers, Big Alice. The brothel is (of course) on the second floor of a tavern, and is populated by a cast of women who don't get to do much but act confused. Johnny's sex scenes don't really reveal much about his character—or, for that matter, anything about Lily, the prostitute he's sleeping with, which is particularly frustrating in a comic that spends a lot of time making sure its female characters get equal play. The brothel feels like a gratuitous set-piece, which serves mostly to provide a "western" feel, and to solidify Johnny's image as a no-good outlaw/cowboy type. Other scenes in the comic, like the ones that take place in the small house of Fox's friend, Sarah, center on the background detail that's necessary to bring the characters into focus. Sarah's house teaches us about the comic's "myth-space," because it adds to what exists there, but that isn't its primary purpose. It is mainly there for the sake of the myth itself, the events that Sarah has witnessed and understands, although she's confined to their outskirts—she has no immortal relations, and she isn't a reaper, but she knows them all well. The brothel, on the other hand, is there only to provide a swath of feeling. It give us information about Johnny that comes from ideas we've (presumably) seen before in order to tide us over until the story gets to the real meat of who he is. It creates the setting, that myth-space, but doesn't contribute to the myth itself, even though it's clear that the comic knows how to craft settings that can do both at once.
All this also sometimes makes the book difficult to follow, to the point where it can be frustrating: it isn't always clear where the story's meaning comes from. It seems that Pretty Deadly is meant to flow fast and loose, so we can be carried along by the genre conventions we recognize in order eventually to get to the deeper stuff. The borrowed tropes seem intended to paint the broad strokes of where we are, and point us forward to unknown places. The landscapes, the outfits, and the dialogue all create a particular mood—mysterious, foreboding, wild—that's common to a lot of westerns (and certain fantasy stories, too), but once we recognize that, we also notice the way in which the mood is different, how it's unique to the story (Sissy's vulture crown/cloak is a particularly good example of this; it creates a mood we recognize but also has a function all its own). But sometimes the genre staples don't contain their own meaning like this. There is, then, a contrast between background and foreground, against which meaning is permitted to inhabit only particular levels of the text—the parts that make up the myth—and that makes the parts of the comic without this significance feel pointless. What we encounter in these situations doesn't matter except to point us toward something else, to hint at a meaning yet to come. We're left hanging out in the comic's setting, waiting for the story.
The comic's structure also exhibits a conflict between strange, difficult storytelling—the myth-making part—and a sense of flatness—the scene-setting part. The way comics package information is different from how just-words books do it. In a comic, we can see multiple things at once, but motion can only be implied. Dialogue, too, has to be expressed in a different way. We know what characters look like, but understanding their points of view is more complicated. There's a lot more to this difference, and Pretty Deadly experiments liberally with the implications of its form. Indeed, what the comic does is often beautiful: the colors are vibrant, and the organization of panels flows and carries its own meaning. The images of Pretty Deadly are perhaps its greatest strength, and this is true throughout. They are both detailed and bold, so that you're first struck by them hard, and then keep looking, finding more. A lot of the truest oddness of the book lies here, and we're forced to stop leaning on tropes and examine the images according to what they themselves have to tell us.
And yet, just as genre conventions are repeated, so layout conventions are repeated, too. This largely happens in some of the comic's big, dramatic moments and in its epic showdowns. These are scenes meant to convey a sense of intensity and importance, but the effect is diminished when it's accomplished in the same way each time. The layout of the scenes stops feeling like it means something specific to each moment, and instead comes across as a convenient way for the creative team to get across a feeling of epic, western-esque intensity. Characters glare at each other with bloodied faces—we get many, many panels that just show characters' eyes—and we get close-ups of weapons violently meeting their mark. Multiple spreads consist of small, wordless moments, broken up into panels and zoomed in close—sometimes so much so that it's hard to tell what's being depicted. The approach becomes formulaic, establishing a general pattern for the story's world (which is that all epic showdowns between characters have to be chopped into tiny, intense pieces, and all sweeping revelations need to involve full-page spreads), instead of helping to give us more information about the myth, the core story about Sissy, Fox, and Deathface Ginny.
Indeed, Pretty Deadly works at its best when it relies on its characters, because their specifity is where the myth comes from. Out of everything in Pretty Deadly, Fox and Sissy emerge the clearest. The myth-story doesn't really belong to the mortals—they're compelling, and real, but we only get to see them for a short time. Instead, it belongs to this central pair, straddlers of worlds, the maybe-monsters of the text. Fox's story is a painful one, and Sissy is a child who's treated as a full, real person as well as a girl who wears a vulture crown and has a Destiny—and that's all right, because we care about her more than we care about the Destiny. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sissy and Fox also straddle the genre conventions that make up their world. Neither of them can easily be identified as archetypes, and both of them have very particular questions about their world: Sissy's brave and curious, but also terrified (except at the very end, when she has encountered her Destiny); Fox, in some ways, is typically stoic and secretive, but he's also allowed to show emotion, and he has a love for Sissy that's true and always clear. Other characters almost achieve this fullness: Sarah is fascinating, but doesn't get quite enough screentime for us to get to know her well; Johnny becomes a lot more rounded when he's drawn into Sissy's story—he becomes a lot less mysterious and a lot funnier, too. These characters have histories, and we believe that they're there although we never see them (the stylised showdowns and pistols don't give much up other than themselves).
Pretty Deadly, then, is always successful in establishing a "mythic space," in no small part thanks to its most successful characters, who are vivid and heightened, part of a different set of stories from the ones in which others such as Sarah (and we ourselves) can participate. But anybody in a myth-space can become a part of the myth. That means that ultimately Pretty Deadly, therefore, isn't quite a myth: it's a space where a myth can exist, the myth of "Deathface Ginny and how she came to be." Not everyone in the story is part of that myth, and not everything we see is part of it, either. The comic’s problem, then, is that the spaces outside of the myth don’t really have a compelling life of their own. The fantasy-western tropes act like a stage set, and the world only feels thick and compelling when the mythic characters come to populate it. I'm curious to see what happens in the second set of issues, when Pretty Deadly switches settings and, presumably, starts playing with an entirely different set of tropes. Maybe then the world will get a little more colored-in. The parts that are already fully painted are beautiful.
Phoebe Salzman-Cohen is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where she reads a lot of fantasy, a lot of comics, and a lot of Homeric Greek. She likes writing weird stories about fireworks and magical taco trucks, and is in charge of making up storylines for UChicago's games of Humans versus Zombies. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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