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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review: Pretty Deadly #3

Pretty Deadly #1 and #2 were both good.  The series' debut issue was confident, unpredictable, lyrical.  Its follow-up upped the ante on the sex and violence of the series considerably, and contained the book's first unabashed Western showdown.  I respected both issues immensely, and while neither gripped me quite the way I'd hoped they would, they were definitely good issues.

But the shelves are littered with 'good' books.  One of my favorite moments reading a serialized story is when it first jumps from 'good' to 'great'.  It's a transition that not many books make, but I think there's a strong argument that Pretty Deadly #3 makes that leap.  This is a series to watch out for.

There are times when the world of Pretty Deadly seems to be built more on free association than any sort of traditional logic, but that's where a lot of the book's charm comes from.  This is a fairytale, a 60s or 70s cosmic comic - the type where every detail is doused liberally with (often obvious) metaphor and every character is hiding an epic past - wearing the skin of a Western.  There are gunslingers and whores, frontier towns and a quest for vengeance - but that quest is being undertaken by Death's daughter, and on the way we pass by rivers of blood and meet characters like the serpentine Night Maid and Day Maid.  It's big, weird, creative storytelling... and it's a joy to read.

A lot of that joy comes through in the art.  For as violent a story as Pretty Deadly is, it's also a startlingly lovely one.  I've known that artist Emma Rios was going to be a superstar since Strange and Hexed, but I've never seen her work like this.  The characters are distinctive, physically expressive, and diverse in body type, giving Pretty Deadly a lived-in, realistic feeling that grounds its supernatural elements in earthy humanism.  As weird as the story can get, Rios never stops trying to bring these characters and their world to life.

Perhaps it is her collaboration with colorist Jordie Bellaire that's bringing out the best in her.  Some words you've probably seen used to describe Pretty Deadly are 'surreal', 'atmospheric', or 'moody', and Jordie Bellaire is responsible for maintaining the delicate balance of that tone. The slightly washed-out color palette grounds the series firmly in the realm of the Western, but the color choices and the way they're deployed are what gives the series a lot of its kick.  From the subtle ways she establishes color-meaning - pink lightning, pink gunshots... when you see the single character with pink lipstick, you know things are about to get violent - to this issue's stand-out sequence, which finds the Mason (from the first issue) meeting Death, varying shades of blue interrupted by a shock of yellow light from above and a vibrant, blood-red figure your eyes can't help but be drawn to in the middle of the page, Bellaire is doing fantastic work in this series.

Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick is, of course, no slouch herself.  While DeConnick has always had a talent for snappy dialogue, that's generally come through in Standard Issue Superhero Banter.  She does it well, but it's hard to stand out in so crowded a field.  But Pretty Deadly #3 is nothing but a series of conversations - Bunny and Butterfly, Johnny and Pride, Ginny and Sarah, Fox and Sissy - and it's absolutely engrossing.  It can be difficult to make what basically amounts to a series of two-person dialogue scenes interesting, but writers who can do it well are among the best, and DeConnick here shows that she can do it very well indeed.  Just as Rios and Bellaire give the characters distinctive physical personalities, DeConnick uses language and cadence to tell us more about these characters without necessarily having to tell us more.

While Pretty Deadly #3 is more straight-forward than the series' first two issues, it retains the lyrical, mythic edge it does better than any other book on the shelves right now. As elements that seemed disparate and slapdash in the debut issue snap cleanly into place in this one, a vision of the world and out heroes' places in it becomes clear.  That clarity should help settle readers DeConnick pitched into the deep end in the first issue.  Details may seem random, but that's just because we're coming into this story - the story of Death and the Mason, the story of their two daughters - at the very end.

Pretty Deadly was never going to be for everyone.  It's a grim, stylized fairy-tale Western - the audience even willing to give a book like this a shot is (unfortunately) limited.  But DeConnick, Rios, and Bellaire are turning in consistently excellent work on a deeply idiosyncratic story.  If the book speaks to you, it will speak powerfully.

Rating: A

Summary: Pretty Deadly #3 maintains the lyrical tone and bracingly violent atmosphere of the first two issues while clarifying both the plot and the stakes considerably.  Folks who are on the fence about the series after its first issue or two should be reassured by this one.
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