Reading the first volume of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’s Pretty Deadly got me in trouble. I was visiting my family in Belize, and had bought a digital copy of those first five issues for my sisters to check out. Predictably, I was the first one to get to them on my sister’s iPad, holding the broken screen in place as I maneuvered through my grandparent’s new years brunch. My mom insisted I put it away on account of the fact that I was leaving for Oregon the following day, and ought to do that whole ‘being present with your loved ones’ thing. But Pretty Deadly was too much to put down. Too much pain, too much beautiful imagery, too many engrossing characters, and too thoughtful a dissection and repurposing of death mythology in a Western setting I’ve never seen more lovingly rendered than in Emma Rios’ hands. Therefore waiting these past 11 months has been a pretty difficult wait that’s only been matched by the gulf of time generated between the Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince book and The Deathly Hollows. While little can live up to the weight of all that expectation, the first issue of Pretty Deadly’s second arc manages a sweet aikido move, gently overthrowing reader’s expectations by distancing itself just enough from the previous arc’s story to give it a shot at standing on its own, a move that pays off big time.
Lots changed in the world of Pretty Deadly since we last saw Sissy, Deathface Ginny, and Big Alice, but this issue does maintain some of the familiar in the form of Butterfly and Bunny, simultaneously the most macabre and endearing narrators I’ve seen in comic. While observing a bee hive, Bunny realizes it once knew one of the bees in its former life. Sissy, the new avatar of Death following the events of the last arc, soon enters the scene and Bunny comments that she’s heading out to personally recover someone who’s soon going to die. The comic then takes us to a recognizable desert ranch where Sarah, Fox’s former lover, lies in a bed, waiting on death as her daughter Verine and granddaughter Clara do their best to care for her in those final moments. Lots of other intriguing things happen over the course of the issue that are best discovered through your own reading. Rest assured though, that most of your favorites make an appearance even as DeConnnick and Rios make it clear that this new storyline won’t be rethreading familiar ground.
A lot of what I love about DeConnick’s writing is how much she trusts her readers to understand events as their unfolding without giving into the pressure of stopping the narrative just to make sure the reader knows what’s going on so far, or how the characters know one another. Especially after long breaks between arcs, comics often clumsily insert mid-story recaps that feel inauthentic to the characters’ interactions. Here though, there’s never an explicit breakdown of the previous arc’s events, but instead a charming page where a deceased Fox recounts to Clara the story of the last battle between Big Alice and Ginny through the use of some adorable dolls likely bound for Etsy. Even in this scene though, the main purpose isn’t to rehash what’s happened before, but to show readers that the events of the last arc have become lore in Clara’s house, stories that have shaped her childhood much in the way tales of the Easter Bunny and Santa did for many in our own reality.
It’s also apparent that DeConnick deeply trust co-creator Emma Rios to get across so much of the story and the characters’ emotions through the visuals. In a scene Elbert, newly returned to the ranch, observes Clara seemingly talking to herself through a window. From his response to Clara’s behavior, we learn that Sarah’s family’s association with the supernatural is a point of quiet frustration for this character we’ve only just met solely through a sequence of panels that move from Elbert’s face to his eye, then another larger one as the window and Sarah comes into his focus, and lastly two small panels where he first digest the image and releases a small sigh. And although there’s text on this page, none of it directly refers to this sequence of panels, creating an entwining narrative layer between Elbert’s private moment and the sermon taking place.
Rios’ work in this comic is so memorable because she always employs page design in the service of underscoring the narrative’s emotions. In one page, Rios takes the healed over scar of the man giving the sermon, and metaphorically reopens the wound so that it bleeds out into the page, two separate pools of blood working as panel borders that shift between images of the sermon attendees and then glimpses of Fox and Sarah in the blood itself. The effect is chilling as we see how connected the histories of all these characters are. Rios’s character work is also outstanding as she’s able to bring in several new characters in this story, and give them all distinct looks that are distinct not only in their appearance, but in their range of emotion. This is most evident in a later scene where a group of three soldiers, including Verine’s brother, attempt to groom a couple wily horses and Rios uses a series of six small panels layed over the bucking horses to show how each character responds to the situation. Even without knowing these characters well yet, Rios’ art immediately makes them empathetic and grounded people whose lives I was genuinely concerned for.
There’s a lot more I can say about why Pretty Deadly is one of my current favorite comics, but I’ll leave that for future reviews. If like me you hesitated in checking this out because of its Western setting, I definitely think you ought to give a shot and be surprised by how engrossing this comic is regardless of how you feel about six-shooters and chaps. For a book largely about death, this comic has a ton of vivacity to it that makes each page worth mulling over long after you’ve read it. Death is at the door once again. Say hello.
Pretty Deadly #6 Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick Artist: Emma Rios Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.50/$2.99 Release Date: 11/18/15 Format: Ongoing, Print/Digital