I’d been waiting for the collection of Pretty Deadly for a while. When it began its serialization, it earned an enthusiastic response from a segment of comics that I have no personal interaction with, a world of readers that considers itself in terms of “fandom” and channels its energies into making costumes, a world closer to conventions like Otakon, which I have seen only from a distance on the streets of Baltimore, than to conventions like SPX, which I have actually attended. I don’t know these people, I assume we have drastically different temperaments, but my sympathies are always with the women when the “mainstream culture” aspect of “mainstream comics” rears its head to remind people that “nerd culture” is a still a subsection of current civilization’s rape culture, and proceeds to act like human garbage. The world of women that find strength in images of Batgirl is distant from me, but the world of men who virulently and misogynistically threaten such women is farther still, thank God. I literally have no idea what sort of comics the latter group likes - Surely they don’t actually LIKE New 52 Teen Titans comics, right? I was under the impression no one liked that garbage - but the former group seemed to take to Pretty Deadly pretty happily, as did Sarah Horrocks, and with a few more reservations, Abhay Khosla and Joe McCulloch, three people whose opinions I take fairly seriously. I’d seen Emma Ríos’ art and liked it, although I’d never read a comic of hers, since most of her American work seemed to be tie-ins to massive Marvel Comics events and I haven’t read that stuff ever. (Even when I read Marvel Comics, I think I pretty much stuck to things that seemed self-contained, and it seems there’s been a dearth of that for the past ten years.) All in all, I think I was probably interested in reading the comic since it was announced, and I certainly wasn’t the only person looking forward to it. If memory serves, the world of cosplay had people dressing as the main character before the book even came out, when there were only promotional images floating around.
After the comic started to come out, and more characters were introduced, a small perfume company started selling scents inspired by the characters. This feels closely related to the cosplay impulse, but it seems also to speak to the book’s spirit, that there are scents alive in its sense of texture. It takes a weird comic to inspire that sort of response, and it’s the sort of thing I find interesting as a response even if I am not at all the market for such a product. Now that I’ve read the collection of volume one, The Shrike, I can say that Ríos’ line seems lived-in, smoky and earthy. It’s the grain of a brush applying ink like there’s enough dirt in it to communicate the texture of the desert. Her storytelling works in tiers, alternating between wide panoramas and sequences of inset panels focusing on details, small movements. Stacked on top of each other, the sky ends where the ground begins, and figures occupy the space between. She’ll do away with panel borders in all the ways that occur to her, and put multiple images of characters within the same panel. Her approach to fight scenes is really interesting, although the way these sequences tend to revolve around the swordfight betrays the influence of samurai manga enough that I shouldn’t paint it as unprecedented.
Kelly Sue DeConnick’s script lends a narrative heft, a different density than I think Ríos would achieve by herself. I remember Tom Spurgeon saying something at The Comics Reporter, maybe around the time this book was announced, about how DeConnick’s approach to writing and story-structure felt more novelistic than many people in mainstream comics, whose approach seems inspired more by film. I hadn’t read any of her work, and was wondering how that would manifest. (Actually, she worked on the English-language translation of Taiyo Matsumoto’s Blue Spring for Viz, which I have read.) There is, at least initially, a reticence for the narrative to explain itself, an expectation that the book will teach you how to read it in time. Until then, there are framing devices, calling attention to the idea that the story being told to you is that of the telling of a story, as in John Barth novels inspired by Scheherazade. There’s a lack of high-concept hooks, and when the plot reveals itself, it’s revealed that characters are contingent on themes, positioned so centrally that their relationships are being defined more by the poetics of myth than psychology.
Despite the trappings of the western, here the characters’ roles are not dictated by society organizing itself, but instead each are assigned a bit of folklore to explain the functions of a more primal world. Characters include Death, Death’s daughter, a human male who can claim relation to Death’s daughter, a beast borne by violence who will inherit the role of Death, etc. Some characters are personifications of vast forces; others relate to them primarily owing to an elemental connection by blood. The western is its own emblem of American folklore, the story of land being settled, but that myth is backgrounded here, to tell a version of the Orpheus myth. This is a western more about descending into the underworld than it is about westward expansion.
With the characters posited as these abstract forces, the book’s dialogue is “poetic,” which is to say it’s generally vague, occasionally cutesy, and when not being expository, hints that there is more to be revealed and explained. Characters, at their most emotionally direct, yell “NOOOOO!!” There is a part of me that wants to attribute this to an approach worked out through working in manga translation where the intention is to “get out of the way,” and tell what needs to be told in order to understand the images, as the images themselves do not need to be translated, and can carry their artistic intent themselves. This leads to an approach to dialogue different than, say, a former playwright might arrive at, and certainly, Ríos’ approach to a page dense with panels and movement doesn’t leave much room for sustained back-and-forth. Over time, the scripting seems analogous to a flaw some might perceive in Ríos’ art, that page design is being prioritized to the detriment of panel-to-panel storytelling. This sort of tendency might raise a page’s value on the original art market, but in terms of a writer building a personal brand, this sort of lack of characterization seems to lend itself to the cosplay aspect of fandom, where strong character designs are definitely an asset, but perhaps a definitive personality reduces the reader’s ability to identify. Much like in the earliest stages of a relationship, a vague enough surface to project qualities onto can be preferable to the revelation of human weakness. The aspirational quality of fandom might be attracted to the alternate world an all-encompassing tone of voice posits, where no one really says anything true.
The comic concludes pretty resolutely, for something meant to be an initial entry point into its world, with more installments to come. The ending wraps up in a way that ties up all loose ends, kills some characters who seemed important, and it’s a little unclear what can come next. The narration asks what happened to the characters left alive and the inside back cover promises a volume two. In this moment, the narrating dialogue seems particularly like a child’s voice; for its misunderstanding the nature of storytelling, that stories have points to them, and they conclude after they’ve been made. This sort of maneuver, presenting the narration of the book like the reader is a child, is a weird note to conclude on.
The framing device, of two animals talking to each other, supplying the narration, is easily the most superfluous thing about the comic, the aspect that could most easily be jettisoned for a second volume about something else, but considering all the plot points tied up, it seems likely that will be an element retained. This framing device, a dialogue between a butterfly and a dead bunny rabbit, is similar to one found in Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s Enigma, where the omniscient voice that inaugurates the book is, in the end, revealed to belong to a lizard, talking to his fellow lizards. (Peter Milligan, by the way, is a great example of a writer who put out serial comics that worked really well, in Shade The Changing Man and X-Force, then killed off characters the books were about and kept on going, confident that the tone he created would continue to be entertaining, as if unaware of the realities of diminishing returns.) These bits with animals, that to me read as whimsy, are emphasized, with the back covers of single issues given over to close-ups to one animal or another. Elsewhere, there’s a scene with scorpions reminiscent of The Wild Bunch, but because this follows a precedent set by animal narrators, one of which is walking around skeletal, it comes across as part of an overlying affect of literary motif rather than make the argument that humans are violent as animals.
The comic is fine. It just feels like, in order for it to keep going, it needs to get better, and be about something other than a well-worn myth. Something real needs to be pursued, if not necessarily by avoiding fabulism, than by engaging more in a sense of human feeling, emotional realities. Its fantasies need to originate out of something other than an inherited sense that fantasy is valuable.