By august (in the wake of) dawn
The fourth issue of Pretty Deadly’s first volume, titled ‘The Shrike,’ begins as each issue does: with a prologue focused on Bone Bunny and Butterfly. The skeletal rabbit and their butterfly companion are the framing piece of Sissy’s narrative; a narrative retold by the sage Bone Bunny to the naive Butterfly in order to illustrate the moral of Sissy’s part in the cyclical nature of life and death and everything.
The fourth issue doesn’t continue Bone Bunny’s telling of the story, but instead highlights a moment between Bunny and Butterfly as they both take shelter from some oncoming rains. They hurry to shelter, but Butterfly spots a hummingbird who does not shelter from the storm. Instead, the hummingbird continues about their task of (as Bunny puts it) drinking from a thousand flowers before nightfall. How, asks Butterfly, how does the Hummingbird weather the rain drops and continue about their task?
Because, replies Bone Bunny, the hummingbird simply must work harder in the rain.
When we meet Sissy in issue four, she is being fished from the river by Johnny Coyote after being separated from her guardian, Fox, when the heavens opened at the end of issue three and the river washed them away. And she is reckoning with the fact that her world has been rocked by revelation. Last issue, Fox revealed to her, just before the waters of the river took them, that she is the girl at the centre of the story of the Mason, a story she and Fox had used to con simple townsfolk in the first issue of the series.
Initially a story about the danger of man’s covetous nature, a possessiveness that took the Mason’s beauty from him and granted Death a new daughter, now that story is of how the Mason, after having lost the thing he coveted the most, sought to bargain with Death for the return of his beauty. Tasked by Death to kill a monster birthed from a river of blood, the Mason instead takes the girl to raise as his own in order to show her the wonder and hardship of mortal life, refusing to be a pawn in Death’s plan to break the cycle of ascension.
And now Sissy is burdened with the destiny of being that monster birthed of the river. Of being the girl taken by the Mason, who is now Fox, to be raised in the real world so she would know the responsibility of what Death reaps. Of being the Ascendant in an endless cycle of personifications of Death Itself and of being the target of the current Death in his plan to break the cycle of ascendancy and halt the reaping.
A through line of “Pretty Deadly” is the importance of cycles; of allowing things to end in order for what just happened and, in turn, what is about to come next to matter. As Fox says in the fifth issue: “It’s the dying that makes the living matter.” Issue four places on Sissy the weight of being the Ascendant, of being the monster that was to be slain by the Mason. No longer is she just a dirty, little beggar girl going from dustbowl to dustbowl, swindling common folk from their silver with tall tales. Now, she is the embodiment of the cycle of Death Itself.
And it’s a heavy burden to deal with. But, like the hummingbird in the opening, Sissy must simply work harder in the rain. She is young, too young to be wrapped up in the destiny of all life and all death and the cycle of everything, but it is the destiny that has been weighed upon her.
While Sissy contends with this destiny and rides out with Johnny Coyote, Fox is fished from the river by Ginny, Death’s daughter. This is, in many ways, the crux of this issue. It’s a culmination of the story that’s been in the background of “Pretty Deadly” since the first issue. The Mason, now Fox, left his beauty to wilt, alone, in a tower for he was too covetous of her beauty to lose her to another man. And in her isolation, she called out to Death who fell in love and bore her a child, a daughter: Ginny.
This confrontation between Fox and Ginny is one of years of built up hate and blame and guilt and grief, all bubbling to the surface in a brutal fight of fists and swords and rocks and anything else to hand, rendered beautifully by Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire. But it’s not about the fight, it’s about the story. Their passions are past, the guilt and the blame are secondary to Fox’s attempts to make Ginny understand why he did what he did. Why he refused to kill Sissy when the river bore her, why he took her to the mortal world and why he harboured her from Death.
Between the rain of blows that Ginny lands on him, Fox works harder than ever to make her understand. Because telling stories is what he does. Because he knows the importance of Death. He knows the weight of that responsibility and he refuses to let it be weighted upon that girl without letting her experience what pure life the world has to offer. As he puts it: “…whatever fleeting moments of joy or laughter or love that girl had in her life… the world only gave her so she’d know the pain of taking them away.”
The Mason was a covetous man and a fool. He tried to cage the life of his beauty so she could be his and only his, untouched by the hands of another. But, in doing so, he strangled all life from her. In doing so, he drove her towards the embrace of Death and he paid for that mistake dearly. As Fox, he is burdened with that guilt and so fights the heavens and the stars and Death Itself to ensure Sissy experiences the joys and the pains of life for her to appreciate the weight of the responsibility placed upon her.
And it’s ankle deep in the river, at the end of Ginny’s blade, that he tries to explain this to the girl birthed of Death by his beauty. It’s to the daughter of the beauty he coveted and entrapped that he explains why he took the monster from the river and raised her as his girl. Because she had to know the weight of living.
This issue of Pretty Deadly is one that illustrates the importance of its two main themes, as I see them: cycles and the weight of burden. Both are linked, to be sure, for the cycle is in and of itself a burden. And as DeConnick and Rios explore Sissy and Fox as they are separated from each other and struggling to continue on despite the weight of the water, we see them work harder than ever to survive. They feel the pressing weight of their burden – a burden to continue the cycle and to protect the importance of living – and they cannot give up. They cannot seek shelter. They must simply work harder in the rain.
Pretty Deadly #4
Script by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Emma Rios
Colours by Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Edited by Sigrid Ellis
august (in the wake of) dawn is a writer, poet and critic most often seen writing for websites like Multiversity, as well as for their Patreon subscribers – you can pledge here! You can find them on Twitter here!