I am a vaguely human person of many, many opinions. Sometimes I agree with the general consensus: I enjoy the Harry Potter series and A Song of Ice and Fire. Sometimes I go against the grain: VIII is my favorite Final Fantasy. And sometimes I’m totally indifferent, like with Deadpool. No matter what, good, bad, or indifferent, I have an opinion. Until now.
Pretty Deadly is a western/horror/fantasy comic by Kelly Sue DeConnick with art by Emma Rios, and I have no idea how I feel about it. I happened to be working at a comic shop during its original run (from October ‘13 to April ‘14), and it was popular. When the trade paperback came out, it was the easiest thing to sell, next to Saga and Sex Criminals. Yet, no one could tell me why they liked it. I asked my coworkers who read it, and they couldn’t say why. I asked customers who had it in their pull, and they didn’t know either. I looked online for reviews and almost everything said something to the effect of “I have no idea what is going on but I…” and they would end with either “…like it” or “…hate it.”
At the time, I didn’t get around to reading the book, but since Image Comics recently announced the production of a second arc, I made it a point to give it a try. The verdict? I have no idea how to feel. My brain is screaming “status code: 400”.
The plot is difficult to describe without giving everything away for the sake of clarity, so bear with me. Fox, a (mostly) blind man, and Sissy, a young girl with mismatched eyes, are wandering from town to town singing the tale of “Deathface” Ginny, a reaper of vengeance. Ginny is the daughter of Death and a mortal woman, who’s important to the plot, I promise. After performing in one town, Sissy steals a binder from a ginger man who’s creeping on her, which makes a mysterious woman named Alice hunt them down, and plot ensues. Also, Death wants them for reasons, the world seems to be ending, and the story is narrated by a dead bunny and butterfly. I really can’t go any farther than that; it’s only five issues, and I’ve only described issue #1.
When people talk about this series, they usually focus on five things: the creative team, the florid language, the interesting characters, the art style, and the simple but intricate plot. The first of these points is usually mentioned because the creative team is all female. This is neither here nor there for me. I do like that a comic with a staff of women is popular without being labeled “chick lit”, but this fact does not make me like the series any more or less.
That second item, the flowery language, does affect my feelings, though. There are times when the language works to the narrative’s advantage, like during “The Song of Deathface Ginny” in the first issue. However, there are times when the language gets so out of hand that I have to reread it to figure out what’s going on, like when the Shield Maid is explaining how the world is ending in issue #5. Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for reading with my fancy pants on, but this story is too short and complex to get bogged down by poetic prose. The narrative is pretty, but not effective.
Next up, the characters. The main cast is Fox, Sissy, Ginny, and Death (if you don’t count our dead animal narrators). They’re all complex interesting people with unique backgrounds and deep personal growth over the course of the five issues. Normally, this would endear a book to me regardless of how tired the plot or bland the writing. I will forgive most literary sins for character development. What holds me back is all the other characters.
We don’t know who Johnny (the ginger man) is, why he had the binder (or what it was), or why he has a talking crow. Some brigands shoot at Fox and Sissy, but we don’t know why, who sent them, or why they listen to Fox when he wakes them up and they leave for Sarah’s house together. We don’t know why Sarah is grieving at the river, or why she decides to help Fox. All we really know by the end is that she’s alive and may be a medium. All of the side characters are just plot devices, making their presence in the book feel awkward once the reader figures out what’s going on. I’m not saying that the audience needs a complete history of every creature or person with dialogue. We don’t know much about Bunny or Butterfly (except that Ginny killed Bunny), but that’s fine, because we know why they’re there. We understand their motivation. I can accept that Butterfly asked Bunny to tell him/her/it the story. I don’t understand the other characters’ motivations.
The art style is beautiful and oddly dark, even when using salmon, orange, and other sorbet colors. It kind of reminds me of Sandman, but in pastels. Emma Rios (and sometimes Jordie Bellaire) does a fine job of complementing the ornate language without overshadowing or distracting the audience. The artwork is far from simple, but I could easily imagine another artist trying to keep up with the narrative and cluttering the page. There were times when I needed to rotate the page to figure out what I was looking at, but not enough that it really got in the way. My only concern was how overwhelming the primary use of one color on a page could be, but again, it did not actively encumber the reading.
Lastly, the plot. I find the plot interesting, to be sure. Once I finally got how the world was ending, I likewise found it fascinating, but that’s ultimately the problem with this series. It has a lot of great ideas that are buried under excessive sentences. I like that Death is supposed to die. I like that Death is supposed to experience life so they understand the importance of their duty. I like that Fox feels the guilt of locking Beauty away, leading to her death. I like that Fox is only blind to those he’s unworthy of seeing, and that he can see Beauty in the end. But for as much as I like certain aspects, I can’t ignore others. Namely, everything I’ve listed so far.
Overall, I still have no idea what I think about this series. I don’t dislike it, but I don’t like it, and my feelings are too unsettled to be called indifferent. I’ll probably read the second arc when it comes out in September, if only in the hopes that some of my questions get answered. Otherwise, the closest comparison I can make is that this is kind of like FLCL, but not in any thematic sense. They’re alike in that difficult to decipher but oddly engaging way, and both are something you just have to experience for yourself.