“Sandman” and “Preacher” are two of my all-time favorite comics and they both employ very different approaches to storytelling. The former is a literate foray into the supernatural and otherworldly that effectively creates its own world with constant experimental and genre-defying approaches to the stories it tells. As for the latter, it’s a far more straightforward modern-era Western that only dips into the supernatural when necessary and one whose outrageous bits of comedy and violence are grounded by the strong characterization of its cast. I’m not sure that combining these approaches would make for anything good, but that’s what the advance hype for “Pretty Deadly” said it was going to do. The first time I read it validated my fears. Surprisingly, it came off better on the second read, but not enough to make me think that this is anything special.
The story opens with a girl shooting a rabbit in the face with a revolver before the scene changes to an Old West town where a rambunctious girl named Sissy with bi-chromatic eyes and a vulture cloak and an old blind man called Fox tell a story to a crowd. It’s the tale of one Deathface Ginny, daughter of a woman whose husband tried to lock her away from others, and who wound up going to Death’s side when she took her own life. Ginny is the child that she and Death had together, and it’s said that if you’ve been wronged all you need to do is say her name and sing the song of her origin to call her.
With a setup like that and given how Ginny has been the most prominent figure in the title’s promotion, you’d think that she’d be the main character in this story. That’s not the case as this turns out to be the story of Sissy, her destiny, and the roles the cast of the story have to play in it. It’s a tale that requires you to pay attention and have a high tolerance for magical realism. Shapeshifters, dialogues between a butterfly and rabbit skeleton, a river made of all the blood spilled in the world, and a man who digs his way into Death’s domain are but a few of the fantastic touches you’ll find here.
That’s to say if you don’t like this kind of stuff, then you’re going to hate this volume something fierce. As for me, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick manages to push up against my threshold for this kind of stuff. Some of it is good, like the story of the guy who digs into Death’s domain and how it ties into the main story. Other stuff, like the flood that comes and sweeps Sissy and Fox away, is just ridiculous. I really got the feeling while reading this that the story would’ve been better served by dialing back on the magical realism and simply focused on a few things more tightly integrated into the plot.
What would’ve really helped this story, however, is if the characterization had been a whole lot stronger. As it is, the cast is barely interesting enough to make following the florid prose and flights of narrative fancy contained in this volume worth it. Though just about everyone has an interesting backstory, it’s these things that define them and not their actions. I can understand why Sissy’s fate is important to the world but she’s so thinly drawn beyond her childishness that I can’t really bring myself to care about her all that much. Same goes for Ginny, who is “grimly determined” from beginning to end with no real explanation as to why she chooses to defy her father in the way that she does. Though I eventually found the story itself to be interesting, things like this are the reason it took me two full read-throughs of this volume to get to that point.
What was easy to appreciate the first time around was Emma Rios’ art. For all of the outlandishness and surrealism of the narrative, it’s clear that the artist is fully committed to realizing it all on the page. From the opening shot of the rabbit being shot in the head to the striking triptych montage at its climax, Rios creates a dazzling vision of the Old West unlike anything I’ve seen in comics. Even if some of the magical realism in the story ventures into the realm of the absurd, it’s rendered with a style that draws you in and almost convinces you that it belongs there. She also gives us some dazzling full-page spreads that may initially come off as hard to follow, but reward those willing to make the effort.
As for the volume itself, I wouldn’t say that it really works out that way. It seemed like a well-illustrated mess the first time through, and then became a somewhat involving supernatural tale on the second once I knew who all these people were and where the story itself was going. Though “Pretty Deadly” is not quite the disaster I thought a crossbreeding of “Sandman” and “Preacher” would produce, you’d still be better off reading through both of those first if you haven’t already. The best praise I can give this title right now is that it’s not bad enough to prevent me from picking up the second volume to see if things get better from here.