By Kat Overland
What does an audience think of when they think of a Western? Chances are, it’s not rooted in much historical fact and instead looks like a Hollywood lot. Any realistic view of the frontier has been flattened by media portrayals of the time period (1865 to 1895, give or take). David Lusted wrote that the ‘popular representation of the West is the West to most people.’ (Lusted, The Western) These films generally focus on tropes and stock characters, creating narratives focusing on white men in particular, (ignoring that statistically a good number of cowboys in America were Mexican and/or Black). When one thinks of ‘Western,’ one thinks of Clint Eastwood, squinting in the desert sun, hand reaching for his gun.
Of course, Eastwood found his Western fame initially with the series Rawhide, but became iconic in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. Leone and other Italian directors took a genre already filled with visual shorthand and blew it up. They presented a baudrillardian hyperreality of the American West, distilled down to archetypes and nameless dusty towns rather than detailed character building or historical accuracy, serving up morally grey tales of drifters and outlaws, the “good” characters only considered such in relation to the worse ones. The settings are always familiar: the sand, the rocks, the saloon, the town square, the gallows. The soundtracks are bombastic, the violence brutal, the women either lusty or in distress.
Pretty Deadly is a beast all its own — a Western, but straddling an intentionally fraught and uneasy line between homage and subversion. Emma Rios presents familiar landscapes in the “main” narrative, showcasing the lonely desert, the dusty town, the saloon. But Jordie Bellaire’s colors create a perpetual sunset to dusk, pastel pinks curling into fiery oranges, the expected beige only appearing in the bookends between Bunny and Butterfly. The palette tells the reader that this isn’t just another Western, sandy and sunbleached. This is something more real than even that.
In interviews promoting Pretty Deadly as far back as 2013, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick offered up this origin story for Death-faced Ginny:
What I was trying to do with Ginny is like Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. Ginny is a bit of a cipher. Ginny doesn’t talk very much. But I did do something with Ginny that goes against everything, we know who Ginny is and where she came from. We even see Ginny as a child. The whole power of The Man with No Name is that we don’t know anything about him. I think part of the mythos that I let go of is that I abandoned with Ginny that part of the structure of the storytelling method.
Here, again, is the sharp contrast between the expected and the reality presented in Pretty Deadly — the Man with No Name has no backstory and certainly no ballads. He appears to create action and then recedes again. Death-faced Ginny is known, to an extent, to the reader before she makes a true appearance on the page. Leone’s Fistful of Dollars trilogy is less of a linear tale about Eastwood’s various characters (all of whom are the Man with No Name, despite being named in each film) and more of a triptych of style and themes. Ginny is taciturn and tough in a fight, mysterious and threatening, but she is also all fantastical backstory, a myth walking the earth.
The first two issues of Pretty Deadly adhere to visual cues straight from classic western comics and spaghetti Westerns both — indeed, the two media are linked when it comes to inspiring each other (For a Few Comic Strips More – William Grady). Rios easily co-opts the genre’s open spaces and intimate close-ups in the opening issues, giving the reader a familiar ground with which to plant themselves, even as the characters themselves are deliberately subverting the expectations of who the heroes and villains of this Western are. We’re introduced to an old man and his young, Native American female ward rather than a handsome, squinting man with a gun, and the racist caricatures of Mexican outlaws are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we meet a Black family and sit quietly with the children on the page, telling stories.
Leone’s spaghetti westerns are iconic, visually, but story-wise they’re quite minimal compared to the maximalist approach in Pretty Deadly, a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, as Nola wrote in her essay. But that vision of the Old West and the tightly focused close-ups of his film are both present in the comic, used in one sense to create a tether of familiar ‘reality’ for the reader to hold on to as bodies writhe or butterflies swirl around the pages. Rios is using the visual cues made canon by Leone and others to mimic the cuts between gorgeous full-page landscapes and close-up shots of the characters’ faces, fraught emotion between each glimpse.
The first pages of the third issue allude to the sharp cuts of a Leone film that suggest action just as the gutters of a comic page does — a drawn breath or a finger twitch is implied in between tight close ups of gunslingers facing each other down. Spaghetti Westerns were often considered to be ‘comic book’ -like in their treatment of violence, but the editing also often echoed each other as well. Leone created visual parallels in much the same way two panels of disparate ‘scenes’ can be placed side by side, like an extreme close-up of a face cutting away to a shot of a sentimental pocketwatch in A Few Dollars More.
In issue three, we learn the ballad of Death-face Ginny is real. Death exists, anthropomorphized and alive and heartbroken. The child, Sissy, is not an orphan but a supernatural entity. Rios, similarly, breaks away from the Leone-styled paneling and sprawls the narrative across the page as we are plunged into the underworld and again into a new story, Fox’s and Beauty’s and Death’s.
The panels literally melt on page 69 of the digital volume, giving way to a flood. Here, Rios again breaks away from the more traditional layout as she did in issue #1 during Sissy’s song — as we follow Fox to the underworld, Death is too big to contain in a single panel, and his domain too large for a single page. Foreground panels keep the precision of a Leone shot — an eye, the meatless mouth of death — as bones spiral out of the lush background panels, Death everywhere. Background ‘panels’ lose their gutters and outlines, three rivers of blood stacked on top of each other are separated only by the sky and narrative rhythm.
The creative team of Pretty Deadly borrow from a wide range of influences, including the influences that Leone was also drawing from (Fistful of Dollars, for example, is a stylish retelling of Akira Kurasowa’s Yojimbo). But they use the audience’s genre savvy against them to subvert audience expectations and to create a genuinely challenging experience — we must process that which we know against that which we’ve only just learned.
In that sense, the reader is no longer a detached observer of an inevitable shoot out in the Wild West. We are forced to take Sissy’s journey with her, subsumed under the flood thrown at us by Rios and Bellaire. Issue #3 explodes a long-held secret – one so big that the admission kills the storyteller himself, and so the carefully paced panels of the ‘main’ story must explode again as well.
Pretty Deadly #3
Script by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Emma Rios
Colours by Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Edited by Sigrid Ellis
Kat Overland “The Conqueror” as we call her, is an editor and critic now hailing from Washington DC. She’s the small-press editor for WomenWriteAboutComics – to find more from her, you can follow her on Twitter here!