Pretty Deadly is a supernatural western comic by Emma Rios, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles. Two issues have been released so far by Image Comics.
Blade of the Immortal is a samurai comic by Hiroaki Samura. It is published by Dark Horse.
The above two pages are from a sequence within Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal involving his peerless swordswoman Makie. Make is an untouchable force of war within Blade of the Immortal. So much so that most of the marks that come to be on her body, end up there because of her own self-destructive impulses, not as a result of the way she fights, or as a need to achieve tactical space. Whatever space she needs in a fight, she uses her speed and agility to get there before her opponent. Unlike someone like Manji, who usually has to go through his opponent to get to that space. What is more, Makie’s fights, because of their weight on movement, and grace–they become dances–they become performative in nature. And what’s more because of this, they take on a sexualized gaze as there is almost always an exterior male eye on the fight, orgasming as she “dances for them”. And as you see below this way of depicting women fighting is not solely the domain of Makie–below is Hyukarin dispatching a guy who has just tortured and raped her for a few days. Her rape and torture wasn’t some tactical thing where she allowed herself to be brutalized for some kind of strategic gain. She was raped and tortured ostensibly because her style of fighting was SO distanced and performative that she was ineffective at finishing off her enemies. Even here in her revenge it is being viewed by the fatherly view of Giichi, who has titled the fight in her advantage by cutting off that guy’s arm.
This is not an atypical depiction when it comes to highly capable female warriors within adventure comics. But this is the extreme logical endpoint of the untouchable female warrior archetype within adventure comics. Female warriors in comics who are depicted as fast, shifty, untouchable are inherently at a deficit in their depiction to analogous male characters–because they create two spaces within their existence: one is the space that, if only they could be caught, then they could be conquered sexually(as in the case of Hyukarin–Samura is overt in this way, because almost all of his fights have a section where one fighter tries to mount the other fighter), and the other is that their movement itself is meant to create the image of the beautiful untouchable woman on a pedestal that is the problematic way some men are taught to view women outside of these action packed scenarios.
It is because of these problems that when a fight comes along, particularly in western comics, like the fight in Pretty Deadly by Ginny Deathface and Big Alice–you tend to sit up and take notice.
The fight starts with Big Alice using Ginny’s sword to carve up her own face. She says to Ginny “you think this is the first time I’ve been on the wrong end of a sword, little girl?” Big Alice is a warrior. She has dealt paint, she has felt pain. What’s more pain is not a fear of hers. Her vanity is not based in her face, which she disregards. Her self-worth comes from the pain she can endure and the pain she can inflict upon others. This is juxtoposed against Makie’s self-harm in Blade of the Immortal, which is driven by her desolation at being the untouchable death doll. Her self-harm comes from the depression of the role she serves both for the reader, and the male viewers within the comic.
What is interesting in Pretty Deadly is that Ginny is positioned in a similar role as Makie. She is set up in the first issue as this untouchable spirit of death. She is Queen Badass. But the Porcelain doll of death archetype is immedietely subverted in her very first fight in the second issue. She is most certainly Queen Badass–but she is not untouchable. She gets cut by Big Alice in the very first attacking exchange between the two. But she takes it and just keeps coming. Ginny continually sacrifices flesh and blood for tactical ground. And what’s more the perspective of the fight, and the character design employed for both characters doesn’t allow for any sexualization of this pain. This fight is never anything about two warriors brutally going at each other, doing whatever it takes to land the killing blow. There’s no perspectives, or contortions causing the characters to vogue for the camera. No orgasmic facial contortions. These are two animals at their most basest expression.
It is analogous to a fight in Blade of the Immortal–but not one that involves any women.
This fight is from an exchange between Shira and Manji in the Blizzard chapter of Blade of the Immortal. As Magatsu explains, “this is so brutal [...] you can’t even call it fighting. It’s just an endless war of attrition.” This is flesh as weapon, blood as strategy. It is brutal to read, and that brutality gives this comic an extra weight. If your comic is about people trying to kill one another–and you want to come hard with it–this is how it’s done. And the sad thing is that this is a brutality that is often by design denied women in adventure comics. But it is incredibly effective when actually used. Thinking of that fight where Wonder Woman gouges her own eyes out so she can fight Medusa. Heroism gains its weight in these kind of mutaliations. The hero in giving up their flesh, allows for stakes to be built in the readers mind. So often the tension with female warriors isn’t the stakes of win vs. loss, it’s will their beauty be damaged, will their perfection as a potential mate be lessened by this fight. That’s why Big Alice opening the fight in PR by cutting up her own face is so freaking cool(critical term). You want to know why so many female characters are supporting characters at best in adventure comics–it’s because of this notion of the primacy of their beauty over the brutality of the fight. It is the built in vanity of these characters as viewed objects rather than brutal fleshed out fighters who fully accept the stakes of their choices.
But here’s the thing. Flesh is flesh. Blood is blood. Whether it comes out of a woman or a man, it is still blood. Pain is equal, fighting for your life is an animalistic experience that is not in any way tied to gender.
The notion being that sacrifice of blood for a final victory would be the domain solely of men is atrocious.
In the end of this fight Manji has his plan that he took all of this horrific abuse to carry out. He is drenched in blood, missing parts of limbs, partially frozen–but it was all part of a plan to get Shira to move into the space he wanted him to so he could deliver this winning blow(sans legs, missing an arm, frozen, bleeding).
This is the blood and guts of making a fight have weight in comics. It is a narrative thing, but it is also a visual thing. You create the space to draw these brutal images, and you get that gut punch. To deny this from a comic simply because the protagonist of the comic is female is weak, and misses a trick. Show me your cuts and bruises, dammit.
And that’s what makes Pretty Deadly cool. Part of it. That it is willing to scrap and claw for this kind of real estate in a comic of this stature is important, and more than anything–cool as hell. Ginny, blood spurting off her, Big Alice the lower half of her face covered in blood–all to fight for an inch there or an inch there which decides the battle. And there’s not an inch of this that is anything but fight. Even though Ginny straddles Big Alice, the perspective chosen presents that strategically not sexually. In this whole fight there is not a single panel designed for anything but presenting a brutal fight–and it really makes things like this look silly(and depressing).
You drawing a fight, or giving the reader a blowjob?