Time was, there were loads of rootin', tootin' cowboy comics on spinner racks everywhere. But none of those books were narrated by a dead bunny. That's only the tiniest piece of the macabre brilliance inside the first issue of Pretty Deadly, an acid-trip twisted fairy tale western which comes out tomorrow.
Along with romance and war comics, the western genre practically disappeared once superheroes started to dominate the landscape. There's been a small but respectable resurgence of Old West-set series in recent years, with All-Star Western, East of West and a few others among them. Pretty Deadly isn't just the latest book in a trend, though. Inside its pages you get an offering that's equal part spaghetti western and Twilight Zone. Gritty, dust-choked drama and subdermal unease all in one.
The upcoming Image Comics title from writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Emma Rios happens in a haunted, operatic version of the Old West. The one-horse towns and flat dry plains in the books pages will look familiar but there's little bits of myth nibbling at the edges. Pretty Deadly stars the daughter of Death — a killer cowgirl named Ginny — as the main character whose name is whispered in fear by nearly everyone.
Readers only get the briefest of glimpses of Ginny in issue #1 but it's clear that the world she inhabits is one roiling with the worst behaviours of turn-of-20th-Century life. Born of captivity and exploitation, Ginny's aim is to free anyone suffering from those ills and deliver harsh justice on those who'd hold others down. Given how much blood and servitude there was back in the days of the cowpoke, she's going to be very busy.
DeConnick and Rios — with the sumptous colour work of Jordie Bellaire — have crafted a thing of true gothic beauty in Pretty Deadly, with language that captures the infectious poetry of the West and swirling, kinetic artwork that also manages to stop and frame perfect moments of catalyst, reaction and emotion. There's a great flow that pulls you right through the first issue, so much so that you'll go right back to the front cover and read it again when you're done. In the Q&A below, DeConnick and Rios talk about what went into one of the best comics debuts of the year.
Kotaku: The idea of an anthropomorphized form of Death interacting with humanity is something that's been around for a while. But having a character be Death's daughter is a different spin on the concept. How did you two wind up there as a starting point?
DeConnick: It wasn't the starting point, oddly enough. We arrived there via… circuitous means. When we first started talking about the book, Ginny was a sharp shooter in an Old West Show. As we started working on it, the book evolved. From our starting discussion in, I think, 2009, it's become a whole other thing entirely. And the transition has been beautifully organic. Or… beautifully, once I stopped fighting it.
Rios: I think neither of us wanted a regular western, even if at the beginning we were trying to fit accurately to the genre. When I mentioned to KS that I wanted to do a western, I sent her an article that was called Leone: The Surrealist Western. Leone was quite a geek of surreal painters, which certainly shows in his movies. What we really wanted was atmosphere and myth, just like him. So, among other things, Ginny being a daughter of Death got us just straight to the point.
Kotaku: What made you decide to make the book a Western?
DeConnick: Emma asked. I pitched her a 70s heist. She said how 'bout a Western. I had once been told that 'artists don't like to draw horses,' so I didn't think a Western was an option. From there a mutual fondness for both Leone and Japanese pinky violence films took over.
Rios: I always wanted to work in a Western environment. The atmosphere is thick and sublime, and I really thought that it was going to be the perfect tool for us, to bring this thing we do when working together, about intensity and violence. It fitted too well, I just had to ask.
Kotaku: Can you explain where the impulse to make it less tethered to reality came from?
DeConnick: No. I wish I could. I literally have no idea how we got here.
The first time I remember entertaining the idea that maybe it wasn't strict naturalism was when I was speaking to Brian Bendis' class. I told them I was considering this kind of framing device with a bunny skeleton talking to a butterfly. Brian said, "Oh you have to do that now!" and that was kind of that.
Rios: I think it came naturally thanks to the references we were sharing to get on the project at the beginning. Leone, for example, who is our main muse. Even if his stuff is not supernatural, the mood feels weird as hell. Empty squares, long shadows, dust, crazy camera angles and composition... Lady Snowblood or the Sasori movies, which has supernatural visuals and colours, among the rest of the craziness. Taiyô Matsumoto, a creator we both love, and whose linework breathes as if it were from out of this world. Also, Witches by Igarashi... Among the classics, the weird stuff was already there, stalking. It just had to happen.
Kotaku: Kelly Sue, it's been mentioned that the 'pinky violence' Japanese film genre was an influence. How do you bring that to bear in the book without the sleaze factor of some of those movies? What film would you recommend to people curious about these kinds of flicks?
DeConnick: I focus on the anger and the violence. Start with Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. Meiko Kaji is THE BEST.
Kotaku: Is this a book you can talk to your kids about, Kelly Sue?
DeConnick: My son, Henry, had a horrible dream the other night — he accidentally wounded a hummingbird by shooting it with a water gun. It fell and cracked its head open and the tried to "give him my breath" but he wasn't able to save the thing. He woke up absolutely inconsolable. A day or so later, he saw some Pretty Deadly pages on the table and he looked at the first two pages before I could stop him.
So, he had a lot of questions about the Ginny and the bunny. He wanted to know why Ginny shot the bunny, if she was hunting, or if she meant to hurt him. I explained that Ginny really just wanted to see what would happen and that she didn't mean to be cruel but that we hurt things as we move through the world and that sometimes we do harm without really thinking about the consequences of our actions. I also explained, though, that Ginny and the bunny were both in a magical place and that the bunny continued to exist as the Bones Bunny, and that Bones Bunny and Ginny are connected and Bones Bunny tells Ginny's story.
He brought up the hummingbird and suggested that maybe he and the hummingbird were connected in the dream world and that maybe the hummingbird would tell his story. We talked about how until the binder is broken, Ginny comes to visit children in their dreams. He was really taken with the idea. It was strangely lovely.
Too much violence for him to see the rest of the book, though.
Kotaku: Emma, given how different they are, how are you trying to differentiate the work you're doing on Pretty Deadly compared to the art on, say, Captain Marvel or Spider-Man?
Rios: I think each project always demands an atmosphere, and the narrative and visuals just adjust to it naturally.
As specific examples: when working in Captain Marvel or Spidey, as both characters are pretty attached to heights -one because of her love to flying and the other one because of the way he moves- that made me want to work more vertical, narratively speaking, and with drastic camera movements to be more expressive depicting action, because they are super heroes after all.
Pretty Deadly works in a different way, I need wide panels and crazy detail shots, to try to catch the western vibe. Try to guide the reader´s eye more slowly, show background things that aren't vital for the story but really matter for the mood. And, as most of the characters are pretty stoic, [it's trickier trying to] show their emotions and making them subtle but nuanced.
Kotaku: What are the hardest details to draw in this book so far? What's been the biggest joy?
Rios: Being accurate with the environment is the hardest part to me. Knowing how things work, how the guns are reloaded, what to choose for each character, what kind of ammunition they use, if they are single or double-action etc... I need to understand all that to draw it.
I'm having a blast in general, but my biggest joy so far was the sword fighting, I think. And the tools we are using for narrative, how are we handling the rhythm and the time, like with "the song of the blind" that works as a meta-comic by itself.