I still remember the first time I read Sandman. I didn’t read comics back then: I thought of them as longer versions of the strips in the Sunday paper and didn’t give them much other thought. Then one day, I was sitting in the metal working classroom in High School, and Morley, a red-haired skinny punk rocker I still wish I had gotten to know better, handed me a comic book and said, “You should read this. It’s awesome.”
I knew from the cover, a strange collage that was both enticing and off-putting, it wouldn’t be what I expected. But I had no idea what I was in for. I didn’t like the art, and some of the references confused me, but otherwise, I was completely blown away. It was one of those life altering experiences: not only did I discover Neil Gaiman, I discovered comic books. That first volume completely changed the way I thought of storytelling and visual design, the way that myth and story could dance together, and the way the mythic and mundane could crash together.
Twenty years later, I had that experience again. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’ Pretty Deadly is a lush, gorgeous and lyrical graphic novel, a mythopoeic western that plays with the conventional gunslinger tropes while bringing in elements of horror and folklore. And what ties it all together is the song of Death-faced Ginny.
The story itself is told by the corpse of a rabbit to a butterfly. The image is jarring, but it works: the butterfly symbolizes resurrection and metamorphosis while the rabbit is some kind of strange, rotting fecundity. Appropriate, as we learn, because the aforementioned Ginny is born well after her mother’s death.
We move from one story-telling to another as Sissy, a young girl with mismatched eyes and a raven cloak tells the audience at a traveling show the story of Ginny, born in death’s realm. Ginny’s mother was a beautiful woman whose husband loved her so obsessively that he locked her up in a tower rather than let others see her. She eventually despaired and killed herself, but when Death came to take her he too fell in love, and would not release her spirit into oblivion. Thus Death-faced Ginny was born, and she was raised to take vengeance for those wronged as her mother was.
At first Ginny is merely a myth. The first chapters are spent with Sissy and her guardian, Fox, her blind guardian. But as events unfold, the line between myth and reality quickly disappears and, as Sissy sang, death rides on the wind.
This kind of mythic play isn’t new, nor is the idea of mingling the mythic with the Western. The Western is America’s own strange little myth. The Old West is our Neverland, a strange and exciting and yet terrifying place that is sometimes far more violent and foul in myth than it was even in reality. Pairing it with more fantastic elements seems a logical step, and one that artists as disparate as Stephen King and Emma Bull have ventured.
What keeps Pretty Deadly fresh is the fundamental strength of the work. Emma Rios’ art is beautiful, capturing a desert landscape that is harsh and spare without being monochromatic. And of course the earth tones set off the blood. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s prose is beautiful, written with a real ear to lyric that is never pretentious. Her dialogue manages to lilt while retaining distinct character voices, which is a difficult feat to accomplish.
And as is usually the case, those characters are what give the story real breath. There are no bystanders in Pretty Deadly, and nothing is wasted. Every character we see is given life and depth, even when they appear for only a few frames, and each moves the story forward.
That story is necessarily simple: the first volume of Pretty Deadly contains 5 individual issues, which isn’t a lot of room. But while the bones are spare, the story is powerful. It’s mythic in scope as Death’s daughter seeks his revenge and Death himself tries to avoid his own fate. But it is played out on an intimate scale, between Ginny, Sissy and Fox, and in the end the questions it addresses are simple and most difficult ones. The questions about letting go, and holding on, and what it means to love.
Not only do I strongly recommend Pretty Deadly, I suggest keeping an eye out: the second volume is scheduled for release by Image Comics this coming September.