The English writer Walter Pater said that all art aspires to the condition of music. I’m not so sure about that, but PRETTY DEADLY certainly does. It wants to inhabit the haunted space from which country songs like “Long Black Veil” or “St. John the Gambler” emerge — the bleakly spectral west of lost highways, of fiddles at the funeral pyre, of hangmen and heartache. It sounds a high, hollow note as its lonesome melody unwinds, echoing through the canyons.
The plot is oddly structured, and so driven by revelation and backstory that to describe much of it would be to ruin part of the fun. But the narrative is driven by Fox, a grief-stricken blind man with a dark past, and Sissy, the little lost girl with whom he shares his travels. They make their living, such as it is, as roving storytellers, moving from town to town and singing the dark ballad of Death-faced Ginny, the Grim Reaper’s daughter. After a few twists and baffling machinations, they wind up with Ginny herself on their tail, and the apocalypse rumbling behind.
The end — the crashing-down, the river of blood, the fire next time — that, more than the daughter of death, is the great ghost haunting the pages of PRETTY DEADLY, whose characters live lives on the fringes — snake oil salesmen, traveling troubadors, streetwalkers, cowards and liars. Their existences are tenous, itinerant, bound together only by weird, damaged love, by the few connections that refuse to wither and die. Ginny turns out to be just like them — an abandoned nobody who wants the world to burn. But everybody cares about something, and they wind up holding existence itself together with dirty fingernails and gunsmoke.
How art this densely detailed, this packed with panels and ambitious storytelling choices so effortlessly evokes the open plains of the American west I’m not sure. Emma Rios has taken the style of Paul Pope — the wayward, manga-inflected storytelling and sloppily precise brushwork — and weathered it, barrel-aged it til it started to fray at the edges. Like Mike Mignola, she favors big, splashy illustrations with lots of small inset or intercut panels, turning every page of into a collage-style design piece in its own right, an experiment in the form which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. She tells Kelly Sue DeConnick’s story as a accumulation of tiny, fragmented moments cascading over one iconic image — the mess of reality spilling over the myth — rather than a progression of linear story beats. It can be awfully confusing, but it can also be riveting. For all the recognizable influences, there’s a magnetic, original voice here, as soulful and ambitious as those of her forebears.
DeConnick’s script, too, favors off-kilter storytelling and fractured rhythms, dropping us into an already-unfolding narrative with almost no context, barreling forward and gradually filling us in with hints, flashbacks, and recollections, letting us sink or swim. Reading it as a monthly book I found it difficult to follow to the point of frustration. Having it all in one place, that weakness can be read as a strength — here is a book that demands your full attention, a book with no course charted through its pleasures and dangers. It wants to be puzzled over and figured out. Its joys are not the joys of suspense, or of plot at all — it operates on a poetic plane, in a mythic mode of storytelling.
There is a framing sequence, for instance, in which a skeletal bunny speaks to a dead butterfly — there has been, to this point at least, no explanation of how these characters relate to the main plot, or why they are our narrators. And yet, from a poetic point of view, it seems like a fitting choice, even an obvious one: the story is being told the way it wants to be told. It sounds like the voice of a dead rabbit, and so a dead rabbit speaks it.
The cleverness of this book’s conceit is the blending of the oldest, most worry-weathered of American genres, the western, the ancestral mythology of our still-embryonic nation, with something older, deeper and more mysterious — the ancient gods and monsters of religion and myth. For all its spells and curses, its talking crows and prophesied beasts, PRETTY DEADLY doesn’t feel “supernatural,” the way zombies and vampires do — it feels hypernatural, the way the Odyssey or the epic of Gilgamesh do. It brings the old world gods to the American west. They seem angry and vengeful, like they know they’re on their way to being forgotten.
I find it very odd that PRETTY DEADLY is an ongoing series. If ever a comic felt end-driven, this one does. (Quite literally, with armageddon hanging in the balance.) There doesn’t seem to be anything resembling a balanced status quo that you can hang a serial structure on, no sensible way that I can see to keep the line indefinitely moving. Once this current plotline is resolved, I have no idea what this series will even be about.
Maybe DeConnick and Rios don’t know either. They’re certainly not afraid of making a big mess from a narrative standpoint. But they’re channeling something pure, mysterious, bafflingly recognizable. I am firmly in favor of this flawed book with its startlingly lyrical voice and its delicate, haunting song. It seems to emerge from some dusty, mythic back country, some weird old American ghost town at the end of an endless road. These stellar creators have the courage to follow that song. Some spirit tongue has their rapt attention, and they have mine.