By Nola Pfau
What does it mean to tell a story? To craft a fable or to create a myth? I’ve had a lot of discussions lately around this as it pertains to comics; why we do what we do when we set out to make them. I’ve also had a lot of discussions about death, so I guess life was preparing me for this one.
I don’t…feel prepared, though, you know? It took me weeks to figure out how to write about Pretty Deadly, and about a half dozen failed drafts. Pretty Deadly #1 is a dense comic, a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, and it’s hard to crack, so to speak, because you have to address that in the discussion. It’s the story of a man and a girl, and it’s also a story of creating a myth.
It’s also hard to crack because not very much happens in this first issue – it’s all worldbuilding and mythbuilding. We are introduced to all of the players, the stage is set…this play analogy actually works very well, because it’s like nothing so much as the opening number of a show–everyone swans on and sings a few lines about their arc in the narrative before the story begins proper. I’m not generally a proponent of the #0 issue, but perhaps it was necessary here? With an entirely new world, a new folklore, a new fable, understanding these characters is paramount to understanding the role they play in the story.
Bunny and Butterfly are the first narrative we have to address, and they are certainly the most fable-like of the three; being named literally “Bunny” and “Butterfly” gives them an almost Aesop quality, and that creates a certain headspace in the reading, so much so that it becomes disorienting, jarring when they don’t live up to that expectation. The thing about Aesop’s fables, as everyone well knows, is that they are inherently moral tales, and generally very short. When I see these two characters here, speaking in the way that they do, I’m primed for that, but I don’t get it – there’s no morality to be offered, simply some musings on the nature of fear and death before Bunny begins to tell the second story. Because Bunny’s story lasts for the entirety of the first volume, I’m also denied that fable-like brevity; this isn’t a complaint, however. I think it’s interesting that DeConnick borrows from these toy boxes and uses what she takes in her own way, regardless of the success or failure of each bit. She’s trying something here, and that’s a reward in its own right to read.
The second story veers the other direction; it’s less… ceremonial in its telling, far more like a standard comic tale. I suppose it could be considered the “main” story of the issue, as much as that word has any meaning here; it’s certainly the largest of the three, with the broadest cast of characters. Bunny starts by telling us about Fox and Sissy, and the traveling show they put on. This journey causes them to intersect with a man named Johnny, who in turn is later caught by Alice. Alice wants something Johnny has – or had, as Sissy had picked it from his pocket earlier. This begins a chase across the desert, built on tension that is palpable, if unclear; there is a mystic element to the way that Alice is able to track Fox and Sissy over this bit of purloined paper. We don’t get to see what is actually written on it, and it gets burned over the course of the story, but Alice can find them anyway, based on nothing but a feather from SIssy’s cloak, left behind as she and Fox move on.
The third story is the myth – the tale of Deathface Ginny. Separate from the other two, it exists as the show put on by Sissy and Fox as they travel; it’s here that the work becomes its most interesting. DeConnick and Rios play with the bounds of formalism in the telling; they use the pages in such a way as to elevate both the story and the medium in which the story is told. To begin it, Fox unfurls a banner. On it are depictions of various characters and important things in the story that Sissy begins to tell. They’re presented tarot-like, framed in panels of their own with neat, serifed captions underneath – simple names that will stick in the memory. Beauty. Mason. Death. The Blood. Sissy moves through them, poking at each with a pointer as she recites her lines; it is a story that is built specifically for the retelling, every bit of it engineered to make it memorable and repeatable. The Tower. Covetous Men. The Summoning. The Babe. They are simple concepts, but expansive.
Additionally, Sissy tells her entire story in rhyme and meter, following in the tradition of oral tellings that dates back millenia. The way that DeConnick and Rios have crafted this is truly a marvel for the way it functions alone; it is careful and concise, such that Deathface Ginny is the most memorable character in the issue, though she’s hardly in it. In Sissy’s song we hear the tale of her conception and birth, the nature of her character. Ginny is a whirlwind in the desert, disquiet personified. The plume of dust on the horizon that, instinctually, people know to fear. We know all of this despite the fact that she doesn’t say a word, because Sissy’s story is so carefully crafted.
It’s important to state that this is Rios’ story as much as it’s DeConnick’s, and her distinctive visual style is only a part of that equation. The creation of the above tarot panels, the way they’re arranged on the page, the way that Sissy moves between them, her dialogue partly spoken directly and partly in caption boxes, these are all visual choices that are important steps to making the tale what it is. It creates nothing so much as the sense of watching a movie or a show on screen – an image of Sissy appears and begins to sing as you stare at her mismatched eyes, then one of those framed drawings appears, caption boxes providing the distinct sensation of voiced narration as you stare at it, take it in and memorize it. It’s fascinating work; we’ve talked as a community about the way that comics and film interact with one another, and lamented things like the widescreen movement decompressing comics to make panels seem more film-like, but here Rios demonstrates that you can do the opposite as well; nothing about this book feels decompressed, as I said, it’s dense, but no less film-like for being so.
That all of this myth and fable can be discussed without even broaching the presence of Death as a personified figure says a lot; it is here, looming over the narrative in a powerful and persistent way. We see it in Bunny and Butterfly first; as Bunny briefly muses on the feelings of fear in those last moments. It is surprising, shocking and immediate, a moment in time, an Event, marked and immediately becoming past. We see it again in Bunny’s story, this time as the abstract spectre, something intangible like the sky, haunting everyone who moves beneath it. It’s fascinating, because everyone in this story is concerned with it – bullets fly and men bleed, fearing it, though it doesn’t claim any of them, at least not yet. The final appearance is in Sissy’s tale, this time in the form of a man, explicitly referred to as ‘he’ and with the skull of a rabbit. Death is a character here, one who loves and loses in his own right, and when I say he’s looming, I mean it; here more than most myths, Death as a person feels like a coalescence of abstract concept; in becoming a ‘he’ there is a sense that the idea of Death has pulled itself together into this form.
These three Deaths are perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pretty Deadly for me – they too are an example of the formalism on display, an intimate, in-depth examination of what it means to be aware of death–as a figure, as a concept, and as an event in one’s life. The End is something to be feared, but also expected – it cannot be escaped. Look, now here it comes for this essay.
Pretty Deadly #1
Script by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Emma Rios
Colours by Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Edited by Sigrid Ellis
Nola Pfau is the Editor-in-Chief for WomenWriteAboutComics, as well as a frequent contributor to the site as a writer – for more of their writing, check out the work under their byline. You can also find Nola on Twitter here!