Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review - Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

Short review: Fox and the girl in the vulture cloak are on the run from Big Alice, and Deathface Ginny is right behind her.

A mason in love
Runs afoul of Death himself
Then he is punished

Full review: I must confess that I obtained this book almost solely because it was written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, and at this point I am pretty much willing to at least take a look at anything she writes. Pretty Deadly not only met the high expectations I have for work from DeConnick, it exceeded them. This is, quite bluntly, mythic storytelling that manages to be both epic in scale and simultaneously intensely personal. Told via a combination of tight and brilliant writing from DeConnick and stunningly beautiful and evocative artwork from Emma Rios, this story presents a violent and visceral enigma shrouded in mystery wrapped up in magic, gunfights, and swordplay.

There is a long tradition of Westerns mixing in mythic elements - from Stephen King's Dark Tower series and the movie Purgatory to more subtle examples such as High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. Pretty Deadly draws upon this tradition and mixes in a helping of folklore that seems inspired, at least in part, by both the tall tales of the Old West and Native American mythology. This melange results in a story that reminds one of a variety of other stories, but isn't exactly like any of them. This seems to be a recurring pattern in Pretty Deadly: Some of the characters are reminiscent of archetypes from either traditional mythology or various familiar Westerns, but none of them exactly fit those molds. The mythic elements presented tend to remind one of a variety of stories from myth and folklore, but none of them are exactly the same as anything found in those sources. In the end, DeConnick and Rios have managed to create a story that is essentially new, but still feels familiar.

Set in no particular location other than "the Old West", at no particular time other than "when revolvers were the height of firearm technology", Pretty Deadly is a mythic Western that mixes folklore-influenced fairy-tale themes with the kind of grim and gritty gunslinger-mystique found in movies like Unforgiven or programs like Deadwood. The tale follows Sissy, the girl in the Vulture Cloak, and Fox, a blind man who can see, as they are set up by a man named Johnny Coyote and have to flee from both Death's servant Big Alice and Death's daughter Deathface Ginny. The story is part revenge tale, part love story, and part apocalypse, all mixed together into a delicious stew that seems impossible and by all normal logic should be entirely nonviable, and yet fits together so perfectly that the result is sublime in its excellence.

Given that Death is a major character in the story, it is almost inevitable that comparisons with Neil Gaiman's Sandman series will be made, and while they are not entirely unwarranted and Pretty Deadly stacks up favorably to the tales of Dream, DeConnick and Rios definitely carve their own path with this book. Where Sandman is often subtle, focusing on intrigue and trickery, Pretty Deadly is often starkly brutal. The characters in this book are generally direct - even their attempts at deception are generally about as subtle are a slug to the gut or a sword thrust through the skull. Violence and death pervade the story: As minor a detail as the framing device used to set up the action, featuring a butterfly telling the story as an oral fable to a bunny, opens with a moment of sudden violence, prompting the bunny to make the understatement of the year when it tells the butterfly that it was afraid of a human girl only "for a moment".

Despite this pervasive brutality, the story is still full of mystery, in large part because many of the characters don't actually know what is going on, and as a result, the reader shares their confusion. Adding to the chaos, several of the characters have something to hide, and only grudgingly give out the information they possess. This atmosphere also reinforces the underlying theme of the story, that something is fundamentally wrong with the world itself, and because this was the result of the actions of one of the characters in the book, it is up to the characters in the book to set things to rights. The whole book is drenched in an aura of chaos and uncertainty, which one might think would be a detriment, but instead propels it forward, as the mystery pushes the reader from page to page to uncover the next tidbit of lore that has been hiding, in some cases in plain sight. What makes this so very delicious is that every time one question is answered, that answer both seems completely natural and also poses yet more questions at the same time.

As good as it is, the story itself is not the only thing makes this book so good. Instead, the way the story is told elevates it beyond the merely ordinary. One problem some graphic stories have is that they try to explain everything that is going on, seemingly ignoring the fact that the story is being told with a visual medium. DeConnick does not fall into this trap, providing the reader with extremely spare text and allowing the beautiful and arresting artwork provided by Emma Rios to carry much of the story-telling load. This is not to say that DeConnick's text falls down on the job, but rather that the text serves to complement the art rather than dominate it. There are many graphic novels that struggle to find the balance between text and artwork, but in Pretty Deadly, DeConnick and Rios have achieved it in a way that they make seem almost effortless.

Full of eerie atmosphere and a folklore-themed story, The Shrike is an excellent beginning to the Pretty Deadly series. One oddity is that although Deathface Ginny is ostensibly the main character of the story (with the title of the series being something of a play on words that references her directly), and the background folktale that underpins the action in the book is essentially about her origin, the book's contents feel much more like an ensemble piece, with Ginny being an important character, but just one among many. The story is, however, an excellent ensemble piece: A love story gone wrong that leads to another love story gone wrong that leads to a love story gone right, with violence, death, and obsession running through it all and everything presented with terse but brilliant prose accompanied by beautiful and evocative artwork.

Subsequent book in the series: Pretty Deadly, Vol. 2: The Bear by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

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