While we’re far removed from their peak in popularity of the 1950s, the Western is a genre that refuses to die. Every so often, we get one that’s a hit with the wider public but it’s not common. The current approach is to fuse it with other genres. Quentin Tarantino did this by incorporating his own flair with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. While television also followed the trend with Westworld, which used the genre to explore artificial intelligence. Comics not immune and the Western is often a setting to tell different kinds of stories too. And one of the best examples of this is Pretty Deadly.
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, art by Emma Rios, coloured by Jordie Bellaire, lettered by Clayton Cowles, and published by Image Comics, Pretty Deadly uses the Western to tell a bloody yet ethereal fantasy tale. And with the series returning from a three-year hiatus next week with Pretty Deadly: The Rat, it’s a great opportunity to revisit the first trade paperback.
This introductory collection, which includes the initial five issues, establishes the Western setting and characters that inhabit it. At the centre of this is Ginny, literally the daughter of Death, as she rides the landscape and enacting her own version of justice. At the same time, were’introduced to other characters which seem unrelated, but as the story progresses we see how they all tie into each other.
DeConnick treats the arc as a slow burn and opts to introduce elements on a need to know basis. Some readers might find that frustrating, but when answers are revealed they do allow for satisfying twists.
Even the fantasy elements are slowly revealed with the first two chapters leaning more into towards Western territory before transitioning into something more fantastical. Instead, the fantasy is hinted through word of mouth first before actually being present.
I’ve spoken about Emma Rios’ art in the past, but in Pretty Deadly she definitely takes it to a new level. Her linework has a delicate and light quality with hair, grass, and dust that flows with every movement. It is then complimented with heavy blacks with rough edges that give her art weight and volume.
Rios explores different ways of laying out her pages from the conventional to the more experimental. Most pages alternate from smaller panels with thick lines to larger borderless images that seamlessly blend into each other. While that might sound messy, it works rather well as their placement directs you in a way where you don’t notice it. Rios also experiments with pages that have no defined borders at all. Instead, these pages cascade images into one another, directing your eyes down the path with clever compositions and Clayton Cowles well-placed lettering. These are welcome additions to the comic which complement Rios’ elegant line work.
But as much as Rios’ art has an ethereal nature she also shows how violent the Wild West was. This is most evident in her impactful fight sequences. She isn’t afraid to get bloody, with characters on both sides gushing blood as a result of their injuries in shootouts and sword fights. It’s reasonable to have the excess of blood when you consider the setting and she takes advantage of the fantasy elements to stylise it.
But blood is not the only way Rios adds impact to her fights. It’s also how she layout her pages. This is where the alternating method of smaller panels and larger panels really pays off. With the smaller panels, we are shown characters reaching for their weapon or beginning to shift their position. This is then followed by a larger panel which shows the motion. Then switching back to the smaller panel again to see the impact, whether it be a slashing movement or swords clashing. We get this structure many of the action sequences and it’s very effective in showing the frenetic pace and add additional excitement to the scene.
Letterer Clayton Cowles goes beyond the usual sans-serif fonts to stylise them based on the action. For example, gunshots have bursting quality with “BAM” coming out from different directions or the sounds of a bullet flying past has a smoky quality to it. These sound effects, and many others, keep the reader in the action and give your mind’s ear an extra dimension to what’s going on.
Jordie Bellaire’s colours contribute to the storytelling as much as the rest of the art. A great example of this is the use of colour to tell the time of the day, whether it be the yellows and oranges to show off the hot desert afternoon or the blues and purples which that signify that it’s nighttime without the need to show the moon. It’s smart lighting like this that keeps the narrative moving without having to spend time establishing things.
Westerns can be a hard sell in this day and age, but Pretty Deadly stands out with its combination of dark fantasy, slow-burn storytelling, and stunning art. By combining the two genres, the creative team has found a way to create something special that will have readers wanting more.