The Cages of Pretty Deadly: Part 2 of 3 (Layout and Composition)

This is part 2 of 3, of my review of the comic Pretty Deadly.  Part one can be read here.  Once all of the parts are up, I’ll just post them as one big long article as I intended them to be.  Part 3 I’ll put up tomorrow night.  Less a preface than an fyi.  Anyways.

Pretty Deadly is a comic series put out by Image Comics with art by Emma Rios, Coloring by Jordie Bellaire, Script by Kelly Sue Deconnick, letters by Clayton Cowles, and edited by Sigrid Ellis.  It is a supernatural western comic that nods to exploitation and pinky violence genre films.  Issue #1 available now at where ever.

The interior narrative of Pretty Deadly opens with this montage of Ginny Deathface’s origin story as told by Sissy and Fox through a twelve-panel grid comic that they unfurl and hang from the gallows.  Just in case, you needed a more over mission statement of just what Emma Rios is doing with page layout and composition in this comic.

Rios’ page composition in Pretty Deadly functions primarily as a tension between the rigid grid system that is favored in much of western comics, and the montage/animation/collage of images and time that make up her strength as an artist.  Every page in Pretty deadly plays on these elements of constructed tension, but in this page you get the thesis statement.  She quite literally has the traditional grid system of comics drawn up on the gallows–and in this section of pages she plays around with the constrictive nature of that system and how its rules are at their foundation simply about the management of time and composition, and allowing imagination to animate the movement between those moments.  Look how she stretches out the panels from the traditional grid that Foxy is pointing to at the bottom of the page–usually your mind fills in the gaps between panels, but Rios has instead filled in those gaps with all of the story that wouldn’t fit between those grids–this is the world beyond the traditional bars that make up the comic page.  She is playing with the core magic of how comics work both to press against its walls and by contrast in the following pages, show how regressive the other approach can be.  What makes this all doubly impressive is that she has two different montage sequences going at the same time, but from completely different places and time, and they are laid over the top of each other in between these traditional panels.  All moments, both at once, and singularly.

For the rest of the comic Rios operates in this 2 X 3 pattern oscillating between liberated full bleed open spaces, and dark thick black gridded squares and rectangles that entrap characters in the way a Leone Close-up does.

A similar game is played with the coloring by Jordie Bellaire.  Bellaire sections off Pretty Deadly into smaller and smaller segments, simply by her color patterns.  There is a chaptering effect that creates these almost concurrent parallel worlds within the book.  There is the world where Sissy and Foxy sit in a blue and purple desert, where pink ray guns zap out at them from the shadows, and then this is next to a world of yellow, orange, and brown where Big Alice trods heavily up a saloon’s stairs.  All of this separate from the amber yellows and golds of Ginny’s mythology story, which is completely separate from the present netherworld that Ginny rides through at the end of the book, almost devoid of color.

This page is probably one of the more grid-restricted pages in the entire first issue–but it does show you somewhat the 2 X 3 sectioning I’m talking about.  On this page it’s two open sections cut up with 3 paneled sections.  So the bottom section bleeds down off the page, and has an insert panel within it, and then the top section fades out into the white space on which the top bank of panels sets.  And then you have the three sections of constricted grid panels–1) the top two rows that are above the middle open section, 2) the middle rows that are on top of the middle open section, and then 3) the bottom insert panel which is cropped by the page cut.  As I said, this is a formula that for the most part informs the layout and composition for most of the rest of the pages in the book.  This is the baseline on which Rios is bending most of the notes of the book.  The construction of these rules allows for a perception of their modulation–you can see the walls because they are uniform–but they are more vital than a rigid traditional panel structure like in a book like Watchmen.  There is a soulfullness here.  The blues had soul because they were the expression of liberation with the constriction of the few notes being used.  To bend a note is to express pain.  Soulfullness comes from pain.  Comes from trauma.  Bronson’s harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West.  Skip James.  There is musicality here in the format.  But it is a blooded musicality.

Another element of this restriction is the way that Rios consistently has her top and bottom panels cropped off by the page cutting process of having them printed.  They are clearly drawn for this effect. Not only does it add to the claustrophobia of the work, it also creates a tripping exploitation film type stutter to the pages.  she invokes a tripping stuttering film roll–every page kind of stutters into being–and besides this, it creates a sense on each page that you are kind of hitting the page running–that the world has already started moving before you have arrived–and that you are always turning the page just a hair late.  Which again falls in with the idea that not only are the characters imprisoned within the book, the pages imprisoned within the book, the images imprisoned within the book–the very act of reading the book imprisons you without the book.  You become cognizant of your own inability to reach fully into this world.  The only page that doesn’t have this cropping on it is th the last one, which is of Ginny Deathface riding alone through some sort of ash swept snowy other world–I mean it’s not a literally a netherworld–but the impact that is set up because of these choices–creates a netherworld on that last page.

This page, which comprises the first of two pages which are sort of the climax of Pretty Deadly’s styling points also represent its cage at its most constructed.  Notice how on this page the building itself plays a part of the paneling.  Note the door frame that Big Alice just squeezes through is drawn just like the a panel itself.  We see the door as another window out of the imprisonment of the comic world, and we move farther and farther away from it.  Notice how the sink from the top open section bleeds down to create the door frame and cut off the lower open section.  On these pages, even the open sections swirl in on themselves and create boundry.  Notice the wobbling effect of how the panel with the guy in bed jitters out to the left past the edge of the open section, and then provides the new outer edge on the right side of the page, which folds down into the close up of a bloodshot eyed Big Alice.  Again bent notes.  Rios is playing with the rules of the pages to this point.  And using them to squeeze tighter and tighter upon the space the comic inhabits.  There’s a slight blurring on, where even as the open sections swirl to contain each other, the way the same sink that closes in the lower section, bleeds over the prostitutes hair, causing her to almost pop out of that gridded panel–the rules are defined, and now they are bending.

In the second page, the borders of the room itself ape the panel borders and create a prison barred effect that oppresses further and further until at the bottom of the page you just get one big thick black bar on which the panels are squared.  Also the way Bellaire pops that panel with the gun by dropping that orange in there–which causes a slight jitter in your perception, as it forces you to the right of the page, before coming back in with a gun only slightly less black than the border it protrudes from, coming the complete opposite direction, whipping you back toward the middle of the page.  This is the claustrophobic tension informing all of Pretty Deadly.

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3 comments
  1. Anonymous said:

    Previously I overlooked this comic, dismissing it as mediocre after a few passing glances. This absolutely splendid analysis has convinced me otherwise. Criticism of the highest caliber, bravo.
    My only question is: why does everything have to be compared to Watchmen? This is so incredibly not Watchmen.
    That third page is delicious. A true cinematic effect. You’ve converted one non-reader, if nothing else.

    • The Watchmen is famous for how it uses the grid system. It seemed like an appropriate thing to compare PR’s rebellion against that system, with. I was trying to use an example that was easily understood.

      Also thank you.

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