Comics Vixen: Pretty Deadly Vol. 1, The Shrike
I put off writing a review of Pretty Deadly for a long time. It’s been on my mind for a while since it was one of the first Image Comics series I started reading, when my friend gifted me the first trade paperback for my birthday last year. But I put off writing about it. I put it off, I told myself, because Pretty Deadly was just so dense, because there was so much to talk about, because I was waiting for #2 to come out, because I had bought #2 but was waiting to find the time to read it. But those excuses weren’t really why I put it off for so long. I’ll be honest with you all: I waited this long to review Pretty Deadly, one of the best comics out there, because I didn’t get it.
Not that I didn’t like it. I mean I literally didn’t understand the book on the first read-through. I loved the art, and the characters, but what was actually going on in the plot? And I was worried that even with a second read-through it would still go over my head. Me, the writer, whose job it is to understand books, couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on in one—a comic book, at that. So I waited and waited before writing about it. But here I am.
(I’m not even going to touch Pretty Deadly Vol. 2 yet. There’s too much in each book to not give each one its own separate post.)
Oddly enough, the thing that sparked me to finally go back and reread it was that I stumbled on an online store selling Pretty Deadly themed perfume. Really! It’s right here. It’s a great gift idea for your local comic enthusiast. (Seriously. I want the “Ginny” one. And “Beauty.” Please and thank you.) I’m really into the idea of perfume inspired by an esoteric comic—that’s the stylish nerd in me, I guess. But I realized that even if I were to splurge on it for myself, I really couldn’t justify buying something related to Pretty Deadly until I understood the damn book. So I finally picked it back up again.
Because this is a review, I guess I should take a moment to tell you what this comic is actually about. But it’s not an easy thing to summarize. This is a break from traditional Western story arcs, using a layered method to tell a story that jumps in time and between worlds. Death is a character, as are various Reapers—Vengeance and Cruelty, to name a couple—and Good Luck and Bad. The relations between these characters are complex, fraught by the troubles of Earth and worlds beyond and beneath. But they are ultimately working toward a similar goal: to restore and maintain balance in the world, to make things function as they are meant to. Life and Death are integrally intertwined, but the relationship between them has been complicated every since Death fell in love with Beauty and made a child with her.
It made a lot more sense the second time I read it. This is a dense, difficult book, so don’t be intimidated if you’re just as confused as I was. Keep reading, and read it again after you’re done. And enjoy the process. Because there is so much to love here. The artwork alone is breathtaking—I mean, these are the prints you want framed and hung on your wall. These are the pages you can find yourself staring at for 15 minutes and still picking out new details. The colors. The clothes. The intricacies. The visualization of time and space. It’s all there. It’s art.
Still, at times, it’s very difficult to parse out what’s happening visually, as well as in the story itself. Pretty Deadly has been compared to manga a lot, and part of the reason for that is the way it breaks from conventional Western story arcs. This is reflected in the visuals as well as the story, and for those who, like me, are accustomed to a more “straightforward” narrative coupled with simpler images, it can make you feel lost. But that’s part of what makes this book so good. There are so many layers, stories with in stories, leaps between time, worlds within worlds. There’s just so much happening. And peeling it apart as you read is a challenge, but that’s also part of the fun.
To call this a “Western,” or “manga-inspired,” or “magical historical realism” doesn’t do justice to the level at which this book plays with genres and defies definition. This is true art, and as such, it pushes boundaries and takes steps that haven’t been taken in the comic form before (as far as I know). It’s risky, but the end result came out beautifully. This is one of the amazing things that can happen when talent like Kelly Sue Deconnick gains enough recognition to take these kinds of risks without jeopardizing her career. She has a powerful enough name to play with fire and take on projects that could fail. She’s one of the only writers in comics who could pull a book like this off. And oh, how she did.
I was comforted by an interview between her and the book’s artist, Emma Ríos, which was republished at the end of the second trade (I’ll review that one later, but you should read it sooner). In it, they are discussing one of the visual pages, and asking each other what is really going on in this image. Neither of them—not even the artist who drew it—had simple, clear-cut answers. When you’re making art, real art, I think that’s how it is. You’re not really creating it; it comes to you from somewhere else. You follow the inspiration. And when it’s done, you might not fully understand what you’ve made. Nor will others, at least at first. But those boundaries of understanding need to be pushed.
And that’s how you get a comic so cool that the fans turn it into a perfume collection.