This is part 3 of my essay on the comic Pretty Deadly. Part one can be read here. Part two here. Once I get this posted, I’ll post the whole thing as one big wall of text, as I wrote it. Maybe I’ll write a legit preface for that? Or maybe all of these were prefaces. Truthfully I don’t know what a preface is. Maybe this is a prologue. Maybe your face is a prologue, and you not knowing that was the preface.
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.
One of the more notable elements with Pretty Deadly’s caged motif is it’s use of familiars. With a familiar, there is a kind of soul exchange that has happened to bond a particular animal to yourself(and vice versa). A part of you is trapped within the animal, and a part of the animal is trapped within you. You are chained together. And because of this relationship the human takes on characteristics of the animal, and the animal takes on characteristics of the human. In the exterior frame of PR we have a conversation taking place between a bunny and a butterfly, both which have taken on human qualities, and both which seem to relate a relationship of identity with the girl who kills the bunny on the second page. Bunny describes meeting her as like “the bud about to blossom fears the sun”–which is important to note, because the blossom may fear the sun initially, but it is the sun which gives it life–this is juxtaposed against the fact that the girl has just given the bunny death–but considering the cover image is of Ginny Deathface at a lake with the skeleton of a bunny whose face is skull is half blown off–one can see this as a binding act. Part of the girl has animated the bunny, and this is what allows it the human characteristics to speak with “Butterfly”. We see a micro-version of this at work with the lizard and Foxy, later in the first issue:
Notice the animation of the lizard in this panel. Foxy is being shot at by unseen gunmen that he is trying to locate. And the way Rios has positioned him, still and with his head slightly turned–indicates some kind of supernatural ability is at play–particularly when the panel right next to Foxy is of the Lizard looking somewhat human, scrambling his vision in all directions, trying to locate the shooters. Also note how it seems as though Foxy has displaced his sense of threat and panic into the lizard–his calmness is played against the panic of the lizard–it is as if he has left his body and taken up possession of the lizard–as he himself takes upon the cold blooded nature of the lizard. There is an exchange here. And importantly the lizard is drawn here within the cage of one of Rios’ panel boxes. As if he has become trapped by both the old man, and our experience as readers.
Once the threat abates, the way Rios’ has drawn the lizard shifts, and he goes back to looking like a normal lizard. Foxy has left the lizard, and the lizard has left Foxy–so the lizard is allowed to leave the book, and it scrambles out of the page. Because it has let go of Foxy’s trauma it is no longer a prisoner of Pretty Deadly and returns back to the wider world which we can’t fully see as readers. The lizard leaves, but the cage remains.
There is a double play going on here with all of this of course, because another version of the familiar, within the larger genre of spirit animals, is the totem–and one of the core strengths of Rios’ as an artist is her ability to handle multi-layered montages across the comic page–montages that, not coincidentally are like totems in design. This goes beyond the simple dramatic effect of cutting away to animals in periods of human drama that you would see in mostly eastern comics(for me, most notably in the work of Taiyo Matsumoto). This is a further entrenching of that device within the fabric of the story’s construction itself.
This type of interplay between story and form extends even to Clayton Cowles lettering choices, which lean heavily into these tiny constricted boxes for the prose sections of Deconnick’s script. This has the double effect of making the prose sparse in terms of the space it takes up on the page as a whole, and the effect of bunching up Deconnick’s words–cinching them tightly into these tiny squares.
This is a good example of what I’m talking about, and probably the most notable. This box for “so fast…” has this claustrophobic feel to it, as if Deconnick had to trim words just to fit it there. It isn’t “like a fire”. It isn’t across “the” prairie. It’s not “fire across the shadowed prairie”–the way it’s written, and the way it’s lettered feels very pulled back, like on a number of letters in the box kind of way. One of the interesting tensions that Deconnick has to tightrope to work within the western genre of writing is that on the one hand, the west is supposed to be this untapped potential of neverending horizon and colorful adventure–western literature pulls elements from southern literature in that you often get these almost cornocopia type descriptions of space that defines southern literature–but rather than being about the plentifulness of nature without end(southern literature arguably got it in the writings of Captain John Smith with the Jamestown colony, where he was trying to put into words the fullness and wildness of early American nature), the western genre is about the wide open spaces, the wide open unfilled areas, the wildness of the void–so you get, like in Cormac McCarthy’s work, pages upon pages of writing on a particular tumblewheed, or a particular moment of how the sun hits the desert. All of this is married to the notion that life in the west was brutal. Life wasn’t so much cheap as it was short. So there is also a terseness in western writing, particularly in its dialog, but even extending to its descriptions–which may be full, but are typically written in a kind of bullet point cataloging way. Modern western comics tend to hang their hat fully on the latter element of terseness, while ignoring the former element of the beauty of prose. An example of this would be Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s work on the Preacher, which completely drops prose in favor of just focusing on the dialog. The notion being that the visuals are the prose. Which I understand on one level. But it’s not entirely true. Writing beautiful spare dialog is a different toolkit than writing beautiful prose descriptions, and removing the latter simply because of the visual aspect of comics is a false step I think. Comics aren’t movies. They are still a medium that you read, and part of that show IS a beautiful turn of phrase. But it is difficult.
Deconnick essentially goes for broke in Pretty Deadly. Not only is there prose descriptions, but there are also songs and poems. There is a tension in all of that, to balance it within the confines of the genre, and the strengths of the medium, and I think Cowles lettering reflects the strain of that balance. You wanna see some shit, notice that the justification on the lettering for the sections of the script that comes from the exterior frame, is different than the justification on the lettering that happens in the interior narrative and is spoken by the characters from within the interior narrative. That changes how you read. Changes something from looking like a poem, to looking like a line in a comic.
In the backmatter section of Pretty Deadly, Deconnick says of Rios’ collaboration with her “I realized that Emma surrendered first. She decided years ago to take the ride with her hands over her head, screaming, and I see that glee reflected on her pages; her lines a tense flirtation between passion and control.” What Deconnick has just described is a ride. What is important to note about a ride though, is that to be on a ride, means that you are a passenger, you are trapped within that experience, and your liberty is not yours to control. The ride is over when someone else decides. You can exit the ride when the worker comes over and unlocks your seat, and they say you’re allowed to leave. The joy of the ride is also the hysteria of that abdication of control. It is the mania, however small, of imprisonment. A ride is another kind of cage. Cages of Pretty Deadly and we’re all cellmates down here.