Monday, 21 April 2014

Pondering About Pretty Deadly #5

Or how Pretty Deadly #5 pulled it off.
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

As a rule I try very hard to approach media with an open mind, to unladen myself of expectations and try to judge things for what they are. In my experience being sucked into the hype of a thing, or investing great towers of imagination on just how gobsmackingly good a thing should be just leads to hurt feelings and ruined experiences. This is especially true of beloved culture, stories you love by creators you admire, because the temptation to become emotionally invested in unrealistic expectations is so great, and the eventual disappointment of heroes found lacking is crushing. I did everything I could to stop myself from building up how good the finale of Pretty Deadly could be.

Yet, for all my good intentions, I went into Pretty Deadly #5 with grossly unfair expectations. This was a comic that HAD to be amazing in almost every rspect or else I would be heartbroken at how it let the rest of the series down, how it let me down as a reader. This was a comic that had to be unrealistically good for me to be more than just okay with it.

And for all of that, for all my shitty, unfair hope, Pretty Deadly #5 pulled it off and destroyed me.

It is such a rare thing to go into a comic expecting it to be amazing and to be left aghast at how much better it is than you dreamt it could be. This comic took everything I've loved about Pretty Deadly so far: all of the wild dialogue and thoughtful kinetic artwork, all the brutal violence and the disembowelling emotional weight, all of the mystery and cuss-out-loud badassery, and closed the circle while, magically, showing me new heights of what Pretty Deadly can do. It is, in just about every respect, the ending this chapter of Pretty Deadly deserved and the ending that I needed to be happy.

And I would like to talk to you about the reasons, big and small, this issue cut me so deeply.

This analysis is basically going to be made out of *SPOILERS* so, if ever you have even thought of taking my advice about comics before, track down Pretty Deadly and read it, or wait a few weeks for the trade paperback, and come back here. Pretty Deadly is not a comic to be missed or trifled with.

Seriously, *SPOILERS*

One of my favourite aspects of Pretty Deadly, and really a lot of Kelly Sue DeConnick written comics, is how story theme is introduced right at the beginning of an issue/chapter/whatever and then serves as the foundation for the remaining narrative. The great Bones Bunny and Butterfly parable from Pretty Deadly number five features two giant rattlesnakes fighting to the death, while hidden in the grass is the Kingsnake, who bides his time, allowing the combatants to weaken and defeat each other, before he strikes. Framed in the Bunny/Butterfly vaguely-children's story mode, it's a pretty grim and chilling little lesson. But it is also a really smart indication that Pretty Deadly #5 will feature a climactic battle where an unexpected ambush or betrayal will change the course of the story. We readers are taught to be wary right from the beginning which, whether we realize consciously or not, sets a tone of tension that will carry throughout the issue. As much as Kelly Sue DeConnick receives justifiable accolades for her sense of dialogue, the way she and her collaborators engage with theme on a structural level is pretty special.

This sequence also really crystallized for me just how thoughtful the parables of Bones Bunny and the Butterfly are. All of the little framing narratives really reveal some larger aspect of the story: cowardice, denial, struggling in adversity during issues that deal directly, at least in part, with those themes. For instance, the Hummingbird that simply has to work harder in the rain comes in an issue where the characters of Pretty Deadly barely survive a flash flood and where some truly horrendous violence is dealt. I'm also halfway convinced that the design similarities between Bones Bunny and Death, The Butterfly and Big Alice are deeply significant, and that the opening framing narrative where young Ginny kills not-yet-Bones Bunny is meant to thematically presage the overall shape of Pretty Deadly. Maybe.

An aspect of Pretty Deadly I've loved, which issue #5 continues to have in spades, is an amazing attention to detail and really firm grasp of how composition can convey mood or story in really subtle, elegant ways. This panel here is a great example of this. The characters, Ginny, Sissy, Fox and company are climbing the supernatural path to confront Death himself and are accosted by Big Alice who wants to claim Sissy. The heavy black landscape palette against the seething, unnatural pink/red of the sky is atmospheric and conveys the nightmare aspect of the world and feeds emotions of dread. But the thing I find most impressive about this panel has to do with the relative positions of Alice and Ginny: Alice towers above the other characters from a position of superior height. This instantly conveys to the reader at this gut level that Alice is in a position of power here, that the other characters are out matched by her. It's subtle stuff, but really delivers a sense of unease to the readers.

Another little sequence that captures the attention to detail in Pretty Deadly is this one here. What I find impressive about it largely has to do with the order of events the reader experiences. We see Ginny holding her gun, read her dialogue, and look down the barrel of the gun, maybe notice Johnny Coyote lurking in the background (remember the Kingsnake?), and finally see a targeted Big Alice. In the next panel, which is for me the really special one, we see a finger cocking the hammer of the revolver, and then the sound of the action catching, and then we look down the now ready to fire barrel. Or, to put it another way, we experience the action, then the sound of the threat, and then the weight of it. A tail rattle thrumming behind a coiled snake. It's the perfect order to see the moment to maximize its emotional impact.

This little sequence also really captures the strength of the joint dialogue/acting that Team Deadly brings to the page. "Make your choice," Ginny says as she, in a perfectly composed panel, arms her weapon, illustrating the consequences of the wrong choice. "I never had a choice," Alice replies while, eyes tragically downcast yet calculating, in a blackened panel designed to draw focus to her face, as she leans in a way that will carry through to a flurry of motion on the next page. For all of the brutal action of Pretty Deadly, the way the creative team maximizes even the smallest moments in Pretty Deadly #5 make everything a discovery.

As much as I tried to just read this comic on a first pass and enjoy it before cracking it open for analysis, I still spent a LITERAL HOUR crawling through every moment, artistic flourish, and beat of dialogue in this comic.

The way Pretty Deadly portrays action is startling and interesting and another thing I absolutely love about the series. This brief fight between Deathface Ginny and Big Alice is a great example of Emma Rios' approach throughout Pretty Deadly. In tight, small panels, are these vicious little moments of action: the first trio a gorgeous study in hands and the second trio a gallery of carnage. In both cases the actions are disjointed, not leading logically from one to another suggesting they are only small portions of a larger narrative of violence. These tight boxes also, in their small size, feel rapid, and yet, given their weight as actual panels in a free composition, feel significant and heavy. They are this perfect blend of chaotic and fast and painful and when contrasted with the somewhat static, wide angle looks at the fighting figures, they give the fight this very see-saw, desperate feeling. Flurries of action against strained pauses. It's kind of perfect.

And there in the background is Johnny Coyote, watching two wild serpents fight, awfully close to that shotgun.

Remember the Kingsnake and the opening parable theme of the predator that waits for combatants to finish before ambushing? As the fight between Deathface Ginny and Big Alice grinds to an end with both women battered and Ginny all but defeated, a waiting Johnny Coyote pounces. It's a moment that feels very earned, the culmination of Johnny's subplot of cowardice when he finally stands up, although in a manner still shaded by his lack of courage. It's also a pretty fulfilling moment, instead of an act of deus ex machina, as Johnny's indecision is present throughout the battle and in that the theme of ambush was ingrained in the very beginning of the comic.

It's also a really nuanced choice from a story structure perspective. The ambush of Johnny Coyote on Alice seemingly closes the circle opened in the Parable of the Kingsnake. This makes this moment feel like the end of this portion of the story, which opens up the remainder of the comic thematically. As a reader it creates a sense of uncertainty, we no longer really know what to expect next. Closing this thematic circle is also pretty great in that it drives attention away from the themes of ambush and betrayal established at the beginning of the comic. The reader is no longer hyper vigilant for this theme so that any future ambushes are poised to be more surprising, but still feel thematically coherent and earned.

Seriously, this comic.

Yet another ongoing aspect of Pretty Deadly I find really fascinating is the almost-sexual imagery associated with Big Alice and violence. In Pretty Deadly #2, when Alice cuts Ginny's death face into her mug on the tip of Ginny's sword, the panel shots had a decidedly sexual overtone which, along with the self harm, made the entire sequence seem really transgressive and creepy. I think this sequence here has many of the same mechanics at play. Much like the sword tip, the gun barrel is a pretty phallic object and the way the barrel is gently grasped on the left and and elevated in the right is pretty sexual. Which makes this whole scene of Coyote dispatching Big Alice feel deeply transgressive instead of triumphant. This choice also, with its implied intimacy, hints at larger history between Alice and Johnny, that the two are familiar with one another or were maybe once lovers. It's great stuff.

For all of the layout wizardry in Pretty Deadly, issue #5 manages to show another completely different mode of storytelling. Where the terrestrial world of the real is defined by wide, flowing vistas interspersed with tight, constrained boxes of motion, or sound, or action, the underworld of the dead has some of these amazing, unworldly pages where the established comic rules break down. This particular example is noteworthy for the sheer amount of narrative information encoded in the page. On the left side of the page the fable of the Shield Maid is told in a really nifty layout that emphasizes the duality of the Shield Maids, of day and night, of life and death. It's a rich, succinct story in of itself.

On the right side of the page the central narrative of the comic, of Ginny, Sissy and company going to confront Death, is told in a flowing column. Despite no clear panel breaks, this story is delivered in a clear manner that splits the story into four clear panel-zones. It's also a pretty smart storytelling choice because it turns this string of narrative into a vertical direction, such that the story seems to travel down and towards the reader, as if the characters are descending a stairway to hell. Pretty Deadly, for all of its magic, continues to display flourishes of innovation.

I feel like Pretty Deadly has a reputation for how daring and violent a comic it is... because it is. I know I'm guilty for selling the Holy Shit elements of this comic to anyone who will listen to me. What is maybe not being looked at as closely is just how great the character driven moments, the dialogue and acting, are throughout Pretty Deadly. This sequence here is so small, and simple: eight straight panels of Sissy's face and dialogue that provides a soliloquy into her emotional state and a pretty key decision. And look at the anguish, the calculation, the resignation, and the resolution on Sissy's face: this sequence captures an entire emotional arc. Emma Rios, for all her motion and dynamism as an artist, is also, in a way that is maybe missed in all of the thunder, a brilliant acting artist. 

Also, I love the foreshadowing in the bottom left panel here. 

(Hee. Gallows Humour.)

Speaking of Holy Shit moments, Pretty Deadly has some fucking swagger. "Which are you--Reaper, God, or Mortal?"....bursting free of a barn ablaze, guns flashing, 'I'm all three." Shiiiiiiiiit.

(By all means, go read Superman. He is probably going to save some people or something. I'll be right here reading Pretty Deadly.)

Okay. Seriously. *SPOILERS*

Remember the fable of the Kingsnake? The predator that waits to ambush two fearsome combatants after they exhaust themselves in combat? Sure, we saw Johnny Coyote strike like the Kingsnake to dispatch Big Alice but what if that was a red herring designed to throw us off the scent of the true Kingsnake?

Here we finally see the true, hidden Kingsnake, The Beauty, revenge herself upon Death and gain her long awaited freedom. This betrayal, this ambush, finally closes the circle set out in the opening parable. It's the completely surprising and satisfying culmination of Pretty Deadly #5 and the entire Pretty Deadly story. However good an ending I imagined for Pretty Deadly, this is one I hadn't anticipated, one that has more depth than I was prepared for.

This page is also brilliant comics. Broadly speaking the layout spreads to encompass both pages which gives the scene an extra sense of import and really drives the speed, and weight of the left to right thrust of the beauty's sword. This layout also breaks the page into three layers of narrative with sequences that tell the respective ends of Death, The Beauty, and Sissy's stories all in the same space. This is a really clever and efficient use of space. It's also a layout that lends itself to some really cool comparisons: the crumbling of the vanquished Death on the far left contrasts with the ascension of The Beauty in the middle tier, while the face of Death emerging from his skull mantle parallels beautifully the face of Sissy being engulfed by the skull of her new form. This perfectly encompasses the cycle, the shared nature of their transitions, between Sissy and Death. It's great.

Also, the symbol of the bird, a symbol of Sissy, standing over the rodent, a symbol of Death, impaled on a branch, a symbol of the flower of The Beauty, is some clever stuff too. Pretty Deadly has some pretty profound depth to it.

I don't like the idea of favourite comics. I feel like having one, best piece of media that you love above all others lacks nuance or the reality that you really don't have to choose. But, Pretty Deadly #5, and Pretty Deadly in general, is the kind of comic that's so good that I couldn't wait for its trade. If you are only going to try one new comic Pretty Deadly is absolutely the comic you should check out. The trade is out soon, and it's just about the complete package.


No comments:

Post a Comment