Sunday, 18 May 2014

Pretty Deadly, Volume 1: The Shrike Review (Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios)

Pretty Deadly Volume 1 should come with a beret, it’s so art school-y. Writing-wise that is as, while Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing and storytelling is dull and pretentious, Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire bring their A-game to the art. 

Pretty Deadly’s a western set sometime in 19th century America during the frontier days but the story is heavy on the magical realism/mythologising brand of storytelling that makes it feel like a fable of sorts. And that’s what the first volume is, very broadly: the origin of how Sissy, a little girl wearing a vulture’s skin, became Death. I say very broadly because DeConnick throws in a ton of other stuff to confuse the reader which turns the story into an absolute mess by the final chapter. 

I’m going to talk spoilers for the rest of the review so if you want to avoid all of that and just get my quick takeaway now, here it is: DeConnick is a crap writer and storyteller and Pretty Deadly is a woeful reading experience most of the time. But Emma Rios’ art has never looked more incredible and, coupled with Jordie Bellaire’s amazing colours, this is easily one of the best looking comics I’ve read all year, if not the best. So it’s worth picking up and taking a leisurely look through it, enjoying the gorgeous panels and breathtaking covers. But if you’re looking for a great western comic, that also incorporates magic and the supernatural, check out Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt’s The Sixth Gun series, where the writing matches the quality of the art. 

‘kay? Spoilers a-hoy-hoy! 

Right from the start the book has the quality of a creation myth as a butterfly and a skeleton bunny tell each other the story of Deathface Ginny, Death’s daughter. If Pretty Deadly fully committed to the idea of a myth-like story, I’d be more lenient on it, but it doesn’t so I won’t. If it were just a myth, I’d not mention the non-existent character development and often bizarre plot developments as these are qualities in myth stories. 

The point of myth/creation stories is not to tell a convincing story in the conventional sense but to impart a message or moral. Myths are also usually straightforward in that sense as they’re a disguised message, but an understandable one - Pretty Deadly is convoluted to the point of indecipherability.

Sometimes Pretty Deadly is a myth, but quite often it wants to be both an action movie and a hip anime, and it wants emotional resonance with its characters. So it effectively takes itself out of the myth genre and tries to go for a plethora of things, all of which means character and plot critiques are fair game. 

But it’s more than just the vague vision it’s sort of aiming for that bothered me, it’s the way it staggers around to get from point A to point B. I think this is the story of Sissy becoming Death because that’s where the story ends up but if you asked me before it got to the end what it’s about, I’d have to say: I have no idea. Big Alice is hunting Deathface Ginny, while Sissy’s guardian, the old blind Fox (this is another quality of myths - animals/animal names feature prominently), who’s an old dude and not a real fox, is trying to save Sissy from something and also trying to find redemption, and Death is involved somehow. And what’s with the framing device of the skeleton bunny and butterfly?! 

The more deeply you look into Pretty Deadly the more superficial it seems as DeConnick fails to join the dots in her story to make it’s story meaningful to the reader. And all it does is raise numerous questions that for the life of me I can’t answer. 

What was Johnny Coyote’s story - something about giving Sissy a note that somehow brought Big Alice to her attention? What was he supposed to get out of that and how does he know her? And then why did he get involved later if he fulfilled his purpose? 

What was Big Alice’s story - bring in Deathface Ginny? Why? And, after a pretty epic fight with her, why did she return, reincarnated, for a second round without any game plan only to die again, for no reason? 

What was Ginny’s story - run away from domineering dad, Death? Running away from her destiny as the next Death? Did she have a story?

What was Death’s story - kill everyone? Seems straightforward, he IS Death, but why does Death have such a problem meting out death? 

Why was Fox hiding Sissy - did he not want her to become Death? Was that his wish or hers? Because Sissy does become Death, so is that a happy ending? And, while it was important for her to live life to become the avatar of death, to appreciate the burden, does it really qualify as living if you’ve only “lived” for a few years - wouldn’t it be more meaningful if you lived a full life, ie. ‘til old age, BEFORE becoming Death? And why were they tooling about the old west putting on shows anyway?! What was Fox getting out of telling his life story to an audience?

I paid attention to the story, I even made notes, and I went back and re-read entire chapters, and I still had no idea what the point of anything was in this book. If these “characters” had stories, DeConnick doesn’t pursue them much, choosing instead Sissy’s fight and flight story over all else, which didn’t really make much sense in the first place. The final chapter really underlines this as characters, shoot one another, die left and right and I still had no idea who I was supposed to root for and why. I think Sissy, because she’s an innocent, right? Whatever. 

DeConnick’s a bad writer because she’s unable to create 1) characters whose motivations are understandable, 2) characters who feel remotely real, and 3) a coherent plot. She’s able to conjure up scenes that are interesting in themselves, like having a biblical flood happen in one issue, or a trip to hell in another, and gun and sword fights in canyons between two supernatural beings, but when you slot them against one another and try to make them flow as a single story, it fails completely. 

Like I said, Emma Rios’ art is outstanding. The frontier vistas are stunning, her action scenes fluid and well-paced, and her character designs really eye-catching - I guarantee Deathface Ginny’ll be a con staple for years to come! Jordie Bellaire’s colours perfectly complement Rios’ art, using bright colours to give the drab ol’ west a feeling of otherworldly vibrancy that suits the supernatural tone of the story. 

I’m not going to keep reading Pretty Deadly as this is my third DeConnick book now (I’ve also read her Captain Marvel at Marvel and Ghost over at Dark Horse) and I can tell this writer isn’t for me, but if I see it on the shelf of my local library, I’ll pick it up and enjoy the art. 

And that’s Pretty Deadly - pretty terribly written!

Pretty Deadly Volume 1

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