Posts Tagged ‘Pretty Deadly’

PrettyDeadly_Vol2-1What is the point of the “natural order” if the world appears to operate in chaos? Can we change our role, our destiny, or are we servants to a greater calling? What is courage in war? What is fear? Is there a difference between the two or are they companions of a sort?

These are only some of the questions the second arc of Pretty Deadly poses.

None of them have clear answers. Well, most of them.

What I admire about Pretty Deadly and its creative team of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, artist Emma Rios, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterer Clayton Cowles is the ambiguity, deliberate or otherwise. We ask big questions all the time, drilling our own psyche on ideas too vast and nuanced to have an ultimate, or, at the very least, satisfying conclusion. Art is one of many platforms we use to tackle those questions; making sense of what seems impossible to understand and still we only scratch the surface. Pretty Deadly‘s sophomore tale doesn’t worry itself with definitive answers. Instead it lives and breathes in a realm where equilibrium is constantly in flux, allowing for even the smallest action by the smallest of creatures to alter the course of events.

Before diving in, however, it’s important to acknowledge the craftsmanship of Rios, Bellaire, and Cowles on the unique and devastatingly powerful images in this book. In case you didn’t know, it’s gorgeous! Rios is a master of implied motion, which make for some amazing fight sequences, but it’s in her two-page layouts and splash pages where the enormity of her talent is on full display. Her repetition of patterns is stunning, specifically the gnarled rivulets of blood that feed the faceless Reaper of War contrasted with the intertwining branches and brambles of Sissy’s pastoral realm. It’s life and death performing the same dance. Equally strong and unique is the color palette, which Bellaire turns into its own form of storytelling. The heavy blues of the WWI trenches hauntingly contrasts with 640the bright green of oncoming mustard gas and the heightened red of the War Reaper so well that when they all come together the clash of color amplifies the intensity of the wartime setting. And Cowles’s skill as a letterer remains a constant and vital component of the storytelling process; one bubble out-of-place and the flow stops, the mood dies, the story falls flat. These three artists, combined with DeConnick’s prose, make Pretty Deadly what it is, a piece of art.

That being said, the plot goeth thusly: It’s been about twenty years since the events of the first arc and Sarah Fields is on her deathbed. Fox, now a Reaper, arrives to bring her to the flourishing World Garden but Sarah’s daughter pleads for more time to give her baby brother Cyrus a chance to return home and see Sarah before she dies. Unfortunately, Cyrus is fighting in the trenches of France and the errant Reaper of War has him and his fellow soldiers in his sights. Devastated by the flood of deaths, Sissy sends her Reapers to protect Cyrus and end the war.

 

Man on the Run

The themes of change and adaptation are mapped out from the very beginning. Still engaging in their stories in the Soul Garden, Deathbones Bunny and Butterfly happen upon a bee. Bunny just barely recognizes her noting that she was once a nurse but is now a forager for her hive. When Butterfly asks why Bunny didn’t recognize her old friend, Bunny replies, “Her changing role has changed her.” When Butterfly asks how, Bunny remarks, “It’s changed her body. We are all shaped by what we do.” Fittingly, the words hover below the approaching Sissy, Death Incarnate, whose body changed when she embraced her role in the natural order and who, in turn, changed the Soul of the World.

Her story finds its parallel in Cyrus as the young man contemplates the chaotic world around him. Like Sissy before him, Cyrus is hesitant to embrace his future. He may not be a supernatural Ascendant, but the unknown of a war-torn world inspires just as much fear and anxiety. And with that anxiety comes a crisis of identity. Throughout the story, but more specifically under the gentle razzing of his fellow soldiers, Cyrus is identified by several nicknames and personality traits. His home in the American West and affinity with horses make him a “Cowboy” while his mile-long, dreamy gaze into the moon dubs him “Moon-Man.” In his protest of the Cowboy moniker, a 9French soldier teases that he’s a knight searching for adventure and nobility, noting that his kindly treatment of a mouse in the trenches indicates he has a soft heart. Though he protests being called soft, Cyrus self-identifies with the horse that knocked him in the head. He’s a runner, willing to go halfway around the world to escape whatever it is that spooked him.

What becomes apparent by the story’s end is that Cyrus is the sum of his disparate identities and, like Sissy, it’s only when he understands how they work in tandem that he is able to make the greatest impact. As the Knight with a soft heart the mouse he kept alive goes on to spook the corrupted Reaper of Fear, a ghostly horse mounted by the Reaper of War, causing Fear to buck War from his back, severing his heightened power. And as the Cowboy and the Runner, he forms a bond with the equine reaper, easing his anger and calming him enough to send him into the fray once again. This time on the side of the better angels, so to speak. These facets of Cyrus culminate in his true calling, a final identity, the Reaper of Courage. Like the bee, like Sissy, Cyrus is given cause to adapt in the wake of change. It makes good on the Moon-Man name as well – an apparition of bravery in battle riding a mount made of eerie moonlight.

 

Always Two There Are

Duality plays a significant role in the world of Pretty Deadly. In the first arc, Fox and Death’s parallel treatment of Beauty led to one’s downfall and the other’s redemption. Their shared story served as a window into the state of the supernatural world and how the previous Death had subverted the natural order. The second arc offers a similar window, this time into the machinations of the Reapers. They ride in pairs, though their partnerships fall somewhere between the complimentary and the combative. Molly Raven and Johnny Coyote are the Reapers of Good and Bad Luck, though it’s never quite clear which is which. Deathface Ginny is the Reaper of Vengeance and Big Alice is the Reaper of Cruelty, which doesn’t sound like a good fit until one considers that vengeance can easily turn to cruelty and cruelty can be conducted in the name of vengeance given the right circumstances. If anything, Ginny and Alice keep each other in check. The creation of these dynamic duos, however, is essential to understanding how they operate and how they influence each other and the mortals around them.

The setup leads to the big reveal that the Reaper of War’s gas-mask toting horse is actually the Reaper of Fear and it’s their spurious partnership that keeps blood spilling on the battlefield. A veiled metaphor for the incomprehensible death and destruction surrounding WWI, War’s success lies in his corruption of Fear, taking away the flight instinct of otherwise sane men and leaving only the push to fight. It fuels his blood lust and the fervor of war experienced by soldiers, without a healthy sense of fear, ensures that Sissy’s garden of souls remains unnervingly full. When War is thrown from his mount, thanks to Cyrus’s mouse with an assist from Molly Raven, Fear is free of his control. It’s when Cyrus calms the spectral stallion, though, that he becomes the Reaper of Courage. Yes, he masters Fear, but he also respects it with an understanding that Fear is necessary, if not vital, to survival. Through the symbiotic partnership of Courage and Fear, sanity appears to have returned. For a while, at least. Duality, however, goes beyond the Reapers and is constantly reinforced through the discussion and presence of more relatable and “observable” concepts like luck and fear.

 

God Bless the Cowards

Thematically, fear presents an intriguing obstacle within Pretty Deadly. Its manifestation as a horse rings true considering the quiet, almost calm, exterior of such a majestic beast can easily swing towards panicked outbursts in a split second. How we interpret fear and our response to that interpretation makes all the difference, which DeConnick and Rios capture beautifully as Ginny struggles to overcome her potentially mortal wound delivered by War. She’s hindered, however, by the suffocating spiral that fear creates in dire situations. Beautifully rendered by Rios, we see Ginny fold into herself, naked and afraid, falling into an abyss of her own mind. The focus on her hands gives her struggle a visceral quality as she tries to claw her way out despite the weight of fears dragging her down. She manages to snap out of her fugue, but only because Molly Raven’s warning is so sudden and startling. It’s the power of fear, which makes our ability to surmount it all the more courageous. But is courage only found in overcoming fear or is there  just as much, if not more, courage in acting on fear?rios-pretty-deadly-10-cowards

There’s a fascinating moment, probably my favorite of the series, between two nurses discussing cowardice. The two are clearing the battlefield of bodies but one, Claudia, can’t stop crying over the thought that the soldiers – brave, young men – died alone and afraid. The other nurse, let’s call her Kelly (wink, wink), rebukes the idea that fear is something to be pitied. Instead, Kelly praises fear, commenting that there’d be more living men if they’d had the good sense to be afraid sooner. She drives her point home with the example of German soldiers opting for mutiny instead of drowning in a sinking ship. Not only did they save their own lives out of fear of death, but their actions turned the tide of the war by sending the Kaiser on the run. It’s also worth mentioning that this nurse sports one of my favorite expressions in the whole book.

Like Inside Out‘s conclusion that Sadness is a necessary and healthy part of growing up, Pretty Deadly turns Fear into a facet of heroism, subverting the typically conditioned response of patriotism in wartime. Courage and cowardice are two sides of the same coin. They exist simultaneously, but we make the conscious choice to interpret them one way or the other. Claudia calls Kelly’s notion that cowardice should be praised “disgusting” because her idea of heroism and courage can’t accommodate a positive place for fear. We claim to support our troops, but it’s amazing how fast that support turns to opposition over any perceived cowardice. The very thought that someone wouldn’t want to sacrifice themselves becomes offensive when it’s really more disheartening that we measure bravery based on that willingness. The conversation between Claudia and Kelly could easily be shifted from the trenches of France in 1918 to the blast walls of Afghanistan in 2015 and remain relevant.

 

Chaos, Luck, and the Like

One of the many reasons I admire Kelly Sue DeConnick is her fearlessness when it comes to storytelling. She’s willing to kill her darlings, but there’s always purpose behind the loss. The events of this book, however, have the feeling of a preemptive strike, a means of preparation and reassurance from DeConnick that something else is in the works. For the time being, though, this is the story that needs to be told.

Once again, the opening pages set the tone for the second act of this four-part story. The perceived chaotic madness of the bee hive troubles Butterfly, but Bunny is quick to remind her that order isn’t so easily seen except in hindsight. As the story progresses, the nature of luck is explored through the parable of the Lucky Farmer. Roughly told by Molly Raven to Johnny Coyote, then retold by Bunny to Butterfly, the story within a story posits that luck is neither good nor bad until the story ends. In fact, it’s both at thetumblr_o23dsquo1g1qeeerco4_500 same time; a construct used to make sense of what cannot be explained but only takes on meaning after the fact.

As the story of the farmer unfolds, the ups and downs of war play out. Cyrus and his fellow soldiers fight the enemy and the Reaper of War’s influence with each moment punctuated by a similar occurrence of good or bad luck within the parable. As readers we believe we have a certain amount of savvy when it comes to storytelling and the rules of drama, which makes Cyrus’s death that much more excruciating despite DeConnick’s early warning of his impending demise. There’s a cinematic quality to the writing and the art that gives us hope Cyrus will survive. It’s a war movie, right? Surely the hero survives since so much effort was made by Sissy and all of her Reapers to get him home?

The salve on the wound, however, is the nebulous duality of this world as seen in the spiritual hymn recited at the beginning and the end of the arc. With Sarah close to death, the wording and imagery takes on a menacing, fearful tone as flames engulf the people sitting vigil outside her home. But by the end of the story, when Cyrus arrives to help usher his mother into the afterlife, the hymn becomes a joyful eulogy as a ghostly mist fills the panels. Like the Farmer’s luck, like our perceptions of fear, Sarah’s passing is both a time for mourning and a time for celebration of a life long-lived. How we frame it alters the tone. Cyrus is dead, but he “lives” on as the Reaper of Courage. Will more come of his new role? Or does his story end here? It remains unknown until the next event and, like the Lucky Farmer, Pretty Deadly has yet to have its ending.

One has to wonder, though, if the world, or Ginny, could possibly survive without Big Alice? And does Alice’s absence mean Fox, the Reaper of Grace, and Ginny are destined for a dynamic duo of their own? Would there be any survivors of such a pairing? We’ll have to wait to find out.

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If you happened to have your finger on the pulse of the comic book community, then you might be aware that Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction found some time between writing some of the best comics of the last five years (seriously: Pretty Deadly, Bitch Planet, Sex Criminals, ODY-C, and Satellite Sam to name a few) to create their own production company, Milkfed Criminal Masterminds Milkfed(MCM). With comic book adaptations on the rise and showing no signs of stopping where Hollywood is concerned, DeConnick and Fraction first made headlines last year when it was reported that their newly conceived of company would be used to adapt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals for television after signing a deal with Universal Studios. Going forward, MCM would serve as a platform for adapting other comic book properties, specifically creator-owned books.

A year later and Milkfed Criminals has moved on from a tumblr page to a full blown website with the recent official launch at HeroesCon in Charlotte, North Carolina. Complete with a Milkfed panel, signings, fun and games, the team of DeConnick, Fraction, and the many collaborators and staff of Milkfed Criminal Masterminds began what looks to be like an exciting development in the world of comic book adaptations.

When I reached out to Kelly Sue DeConnick to gauge her level of excitement moving forward, she could only articulate it thusly:

 

Crazy excited. And scared. That’s a kind of excited, yeah?

 

And though Sex Criminals was the big property she and Matt Fraction signed on for last year, it seems that, though it’s still in the works, other properties might take precedence. Kelly didn’t offer up any other names but I’ve got my fingers crossed for Bitch Planet or Pretty Deadly finding their ways to television or a digital platform. I’m biased, so sue me.

I also asked if she and Matt would gift me a country of my choice when they took over the world, but Kelly is nothing if not an honest woman about her management style:

 

Oh, I’m not built for world domination.  I’ve got my hands full running our household, shit.

Matt-Fraction_Kelly_Sue_DeConnick

If you’re a loyal reader of Maniacal Geek or a frequent listener of That Girl with the Curls podcast, you’re probably aware of my love for the DeConnick/Fraction household and burgeoning comic book empire. So, yes, I’m excited about the possibilities going forward for some of my favorite books being handled by some of my favorite people. Congrats to Kelly Sue and Matt and all those involved with Milkfed Criminal Masterminds for not throwing away their shot! Long may they reign!

And you should all go pick up the latest issues of Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet that came out last week! Also, you can listen to Kelly Sue’s episode of the podcast here!

 

kellysue

 

Sam talks with Kelly Sue DeConnick about ALL THE THINGS! Specifically Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly, and Captain Marvel but there’s always plenty of awesome when Kelly Sue is around!

Intro: “The Captain” by Adam WarRock 

Oh yeah, I’m gonna spoil some stuff on this one. If any of you are familiar with my reviews, then you know I analyze these books to within an inch of their life and Pretty Deadly is definitely a book that requires deeper analysis. This is the end of the first arc and there’s plenty to unpack, which makes someone like me delightfully giddy to dive into what is, in my opinion, one of the most pretty-deadly-05ambitious and challenging works of literature I’ve read in a while. Which is also my way of saying that I’m smiling like an idiot as I write this because this is fun for me.

Right, you’ve been warned. Spoilers ahead!

In Pretty Deadly #5 Deathface Ginny, Fox, Sissy, Molly Raven, Johnny Coyote, and Sarah confront Big Alice at the entrance to the Underworld. Alice and Ginny have another go at each other before Johnny gets the better of Alice and scatters her butterfly form to the winds. Upon entering the Underworld, the group is confronted by the Shield Maids, the divided guards of Death’s realm who’re the last line of defense between the world of the living and the neglected garden where souls have passed under Death’s care. Ginny is denied passage, but Sissy asks to be let through. She’s the Ascendant, the one who will replace Death, and in accepting her role in the story, she unites the Shield Maids and rejuvenates the Soul of the World, which Death need only destroy in order to stop death from ever happening again. Death and some of his followers confront the group and everything seems lost, even for Ginny, until her mother, the great Beauty desired by Fox and Death, ends her captor’s existence and allows Sissy to assume her place as the new Master of Death’s Domain.

Johnny and AliceLike I said, there’s a lot to unpack here. Though Kelly Sue DeConnick often refers to Pretty Deadly as a “weird little book”, the themes of the story are as old as the genres of fantasy and the western. In the case of this story, those themes of love, obsession, defiance, sacrifice, and redemption are just steeped in a new mythology and symbols.

Death, in the world of Pretty Deadly, is not a single entity that rules for all eternity. In this world Death is a position taken on by someone so that the garden of souls is always maintained. It establishes that death is a part of the natural order of the world, but Death is a finite job, one that has a clear ending before someone else takes over. It’s implied that those who take on the role understand their place, but when Death falls in love with Beauty during her captivity by the Mason/Fox, he begins to warp the natural order. Like Fox, Death’s love turns to obsession and he puts a plan in motion to ensure that no one will ever die, including him, thus ensuring he’ll always be with the woman he loves.

It’s through Fox’s redemption, however, that the world is actually saved. Though his obsessive love ultimately led to Beauty’s death, his inability to keep his end of the bargain with Death to see his love one last time results in Sissy remaining alive, preventing Death from putting his plan into place. Fox is a man who sees the error of his ways and devotes the rest of his life to taking care of Sissy, knowing full well that his life is forfeit to Deathface Ginny when she comes to get her revenge on the man who destroyed her mother in life. But Fox doesn’t fight against his ultimate fate, instead he fights to remain alive so that Sissy can reestablish the natural order. Fox comes to terms with what he’s done and knows that what he did to Beauty was an unjust act, one that denied a woman her freedom all for his own pleasure. Death, however, takes his obsession to an entirely different level, if not a heightened parallel to Fox’s actions. He’s willing to defy nature and end death, all to be with Beauty for eternity, but at the cost of millions of souls who would still experience suffering and pain without the release of death to carry their souls to a final resting point.Death of Bunny

But at the heart of this story are three women: Beauty, Ginny, and Sissy; each with their own role to play. Beauty is, for the most part, a passive character. She was a prisoner to the Mason’s obsession and remains a prisoner to Death because neither could let go of her. It isn’t until the end, when she stabs Death in the back, that she gets her revenge while also acting as a protective mother not just to Ginny but to Sissy. In freeing her own soul she saves the Soul of the World and ushers in a new Master of Death who respects the natural order, someone who has told her story her entire life and learned from it.

Ginny, on the other hand, is a woman dead set on avenging her mother. She’s a Reaper committed to revenge. At first, we believe her goal is to kill Fox, but as the story progresses, there’s more to Ginny’s vengeance than just killing the man who imprisoned her mother while she was alive. In the first issue, the opening sequence showed a young Ginny coming across a bunny and shooting it in the head. While the fear in her eyes is palpable, her actions seem to take on greater meaning within the context of the completed narrative. Yes, it sparks the story within a story between the dead Bunny and Butterfly, but was there more to what Ginny was doing than we Death and Beautyrealize? Is it purely coincidence that Ginny kills a rabbit and her father’s form as Death is the skull of a rabbit? One could interpret the scene as a child exerting their curiosity about death or it could be an angry young girl taking out her aggression on an animal that represents her father who has also imprisoned her mother’s soul.

Sissy is obviously the connecting thread as it’s her role as the Ascendant that ends Death’s reign and saves the Soul of the World. From the moment we meet her we know there’s something different about her. Her different colored eyes and vulture cloak immediately invoke other-worldliness as she bounds around telling the story of Beauty and Deathface Ginny. But she’s still a little girl, one who finds out her place in the world is much bigger than she ever thought. When she finally learns about her origin, she fears that she’s a “monster”, equating herself to the monstrosity that Death has become. It’s a child’s perspective of death as a concept, something to be feared, but by the end of the story Sissy has matured to the point that she understands how crucial her role is and what that means for the rest of the world. When she asks to be let through by the Shield Maids, she still fears becoming a monster, but sees that this commitment will give her purpose and a place to call home. For the first time, she accepts death as a concept and her lot in life.Underworld

Even with all of this analysis, it still feels like I’ve only scratched the surface of Pretty Deadly, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s the best thing you could ask for from a work of art. It forces you to think about things over and over again. DeConnick weaves a complex, and as I said before, ambitious story that still leaves us with questions yet to be answered. Ambitious, however, doesn’t begin to describe Emma Rios’ art. More like epic. The two-page spreads are as complex as they are beautiful with Rios flipping the art on certain pages as our heroes enter the Underworld, forcing the reader to either change the angle of the book or accept the altered reality on the page. Rios’ signature frenetic and flowing style seamlessly blends the story together as she defines the reality created by DeConnick. I especially love the way she draws Sissy, but all of the characters have a way of melding with the environment as if emphasizing the connection between them and the world they inhabit.

Rating – 10/10

Final Thoughts: Ginny in the world of the living might aim to misbehave. Can’t wait.

Previously published at Word of the Nerd.