The weird western has seen a resurgence in comics as of late, with titles like THE SIXTH GUN and EAST OF WEST featuring gunbelt-wearing protagonists and villains swaggering around a world populated by drawling, mustachioed men and corset-wearing women. Although these characters occupy the romanticized gunslinger towns of spaghetti westerns and Marlboro Man fantasies, these are not frontier stories. The addition of the supernatural and a few buckets of blood make these stories more akin to fantasy or horror.
PRETTY DEADLY is another quality entry in the sub-genre, and one that features more women than most westerns you’ll encounter. Created and written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and co-created and drawn by Emma Rios, the series centers on Ginny, the adopted daughter of Death himself. To be fair, Ginny barely appears in the first issue, as there are other central characters, including an old blind man with a child on the run, some odd bounty hunters and a man named Johnny. Not to mention the butterfly and the bunny.
There’s a lot going on in PRETTY DEADLY, and even by issue three it’s clear DeConnick is revealing the universe and its rules a bit at a time. The voice DeConnick employs reminds me a little of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s ALABASTER comics, particularly the Boxcar Tales series that has appeared in Dark Horse Presents over the past year or so.
Emma Rios’ lines are swooshy and inky and perfect for the action-packed and dreamlike stories that DeConnick is writing. Combined with the dust-washed color palette employed by Jordie Bellaire, the overall effect is one of astonishing grace and timelessness. I find myself going back over each page, tracing the lines with my eyes and just kind of basking in the glow.
DeConnick writes in a kind of lilting, off-the-cuff manner that leaves much to be inferred between the lines. That, combined with Rios’ sometimes eclectic paneling, can leave the reader a bit bewildered from page to page. Some important details actually fall between panel borders, and if you’re not paying attention, you’re like to miss something. I’m not suggesting that Rios adopt a strict Sean Phillips-esque grid, but some simplification and better hierarchy might make the story read with less of a stutter. That being said, the sometimes-ambiguous panel flow contributes to the overall dreamlike quality of the story.
A slight aside: As much as I like reading this new slate of weird westerns, I kind of long for a straightforward western or frontier tale. The characters inhabiting PRETTY DEADLY and its ilk are not historical frontiersmen and -women. The only characters that seem to have what you might describe as a job are either barkeeps, prostitutes or distant background characters. I wonder where the Willa Cathers and Louis L’Amours of the comics world are, with their homesteaders and hunters and woodcutters. But DeConnick is not trying to be Willa Cather, and perhaps a story about someone who moves away from the city and lives an anxiety-riddled life for 40 years in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t be that interesting. Anyway…
It’s fun to read a story featuring strong female characters as both heroes and villains, especially since none of them are over-sexualized. Even the prostitute that has appeared nude in every panel she’s been in feels layered and powerful in her own way.
There are a couple of old-westy depictions of Death on the shelves at the moment, but Ginny and her father might be my favorite. The characters in PRETTY DEADLY are all delicious, and written with care. This book is clearly a labor of love from cover to cover, and I’m looking forward to the next issue.
I’ve read a handful of other company-owned titles that DeConnick has written, and I’ve enjoyed them. But this book is without a doubt the best thing I’ve read with her name on the cover, and her heart seems more in this than in Spider-Man. I hope the series runs for years.