Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Pretty Deadly #8. Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick (Bitch Planet, Captain Marvel) with art by Emma Ríos (Island, Mirror) and colorist Jordie Bellaire (Injection, Nowhere Men), this issue is a stunning display of the collaboration, ambition, and imagination that guides the series. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Haunting and ethereal, Emma Ríos’ cover for Pretty Deadly #8 is a striking representation of what readers will find inside this week’s issue, albeit one that underplays the amount of action in these pages. Instead, Ríos prioritizes atmosphere and setting, contrasting the barren field along the bottom of the image with the upside-down battleground depicted in the cloud above, a rocky territory populated by the bodies of dead soldiers and their steeds. Warm earth tones are at odds with the cool bluish gray of the battlefield, and the cover’s defining visual elements carry over to the interior contents, detailing the chaos and brutality of war with breathtaking imagery.
Pretty Deadly, one of the most fascinating comics published today, is a magical realist genre-bender that began as a Sergio Leone-style Western, but has transformed into a grisly World War I story with its second arc. Featuring Sissy, a young female personification of Death, as the central character in a cast composed of talking animal narrators; supernatural Reapers; and regular humans trying to survive in the midst of intense conflict, the series is an unconventional ensemble drama that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, with this current storyline exploring World War I with a heavy dose of mysticism in the mix. The majority of this week’s Pretty Deadly #8 is an extended battle sequence on French terrain, splitting focus between a fantastic Reaper fight and the more grounded experience of soldiers in the trenches, and the creative team does remarkable work distinguishing these story paths while finding visually compelling ways to bring them together.
The narrative of Pretty Deadly can be a bit hard to follow at times as writer Kelly Sue DeConnick weaves together various threads, and she doesn’t go out of her way to explain the more magical aspects of the story, which may be frustrating to some readers, but also lends the book a captivating air of mystery for those that don’t mind the ambiguity and abstraction. DeConnick’s personal essay in the back of this issue is a fitting tribute to the late David Bowie (although she insists she’s unqualified to write one), but it’s also an insightful look into her creative process on this title, specifically her reliance on intuition and “trusting the soup,” which basically means relinquishing some intellectual control and putting faith in the greater Source/Mystery/Quantum Soup to help guide the story.
This has resulted in a much looser writing style from DeConnick compared to her work on Bitch Planet and Captain Marvel, and emphasizing feeling over plot gives Pretty Deadly a poetic quality that fits the mystical concept and graceful artwork. DeConnick is exploring the malleable nature of storytelling in this series, and about halfway through this week’s battle, she incorporates the fable of “The Lucky Farmer” to alter the tone while reinforcing this issue’s theme that the concept of luck is an arbitrary construct created to help people cope with the true randomness of life. “You don’t earn good fortune before you get it, fool,” the Reaper Big Alice tells the soldier Cyrus. “You earn it after.” Luck isn’t an actual thing that influences events ahead of time, and the only way of determining good or bad luck is after good or bad events have already happened. The fable teaches this same message, and focusing on the unpredictability of the universe is DeConnick’s way of preparing the reader for the shocking moment at the end of the issue.
Pretty Deadly would make a very cool film or television series, but it’s impossible to translate the comics’ storytelling to the screen. The fluid, dreamy artwork by Emma Ríos and colorist Jordie Bellaire takes full advantage of the vast creative opportunities presented by the medium, and this issue features some of their best work yet. The opening pages set in World Garden ease the reader into the issue with lush natural imagery, simple layouts, and a harmonious palette of rich greens, but once the plot jumps to the battlefield, the compositions become more imaginative and dramatic and the color contrast goes way up.
The most immediate change is in the coloring, which welcomes a wave of red as Ginny, Big Alice, and Cyrus encounter the Reaper Of War, a spectral being who looks like a giant, mercurial mass of bleeding sinew, and who spreads his influence across the land via a red cloud that creates tension by bleeding into the noxious green clouds of mustard gas. This red and green contrast dominates a pair of two-page spreads that expand the scope of the action by opening up the layouts, the first showing Ríos’ skill for detailing multiple story beats in a free-flowing page design lacking traditional panels, the second showing her skill for using the full dimensions of the comic to create a single arresting image with incredible scale and depth.
There’s a beautiful musicality in the rhythm and volume of Ríos and Bellaire’s art, with this week’s issue opening quietly and slowly, then gradually accelerating and crescendoing to the explosive fortissimo of that two-page splash showing the Reaper Of War pushing his soldiers through the green fog. It’s a loud announcement that the battle is now in full force, giving the story a huge burst of momentum that is sustained for the entire issue. It’s a thrilling chapter, and it’s easy to miss some of the smaller details because the script and art flow so smoothly and rapidly, which may be why the creative team includes a process piece detailing the creative problem-solving required to make certain aspects of the story clear on the page. Like DeConnick’s essay, it’s another enlightening backmatter element, drawing attention to the tight collaboration that has helped make this title so memorable.
This issue features a lot of outstanding moments, but there’s one particular two-page spread that spotlights the impeccable craft of this creative team. Blending the “The Lucky Farmer” fable with the dangerous trek of two soldiers, Melvin and Theo, across the battlefield, the spread conveys a lot of information in a layout that adds conventional square panels on top of a more experimental page design. Those individual panels accentuate specific character reactions in the midst of the expansive composition, conveying the weariness, relief, and optimism of the men as they charge forward. There’s a strong contrast of warm and cool colors, but the dynamic between blue and orange isn’t as severe or otherworldly as the red and green contrast assigned to the Reapers’ thread, bringing a sense of realism that is appropriate for a spread featuring two characters without mystical ties.
Bellaire’s coloring genius can be seen in how she subtly changes her rendering style as the art shifts from the fable to the soldiers. For the fable, she applies colors with thin vertical streaks to create the illusion that these visuals are printed on film, a choice that fits especially well with the early 20th century time period. These vertical lines dissolve as the art moves out of the fable, like in the top left corner showing the silhouette of a horse running. Given the direction of the horse, it would make sense for the reader to scan the spread horizontally rather than vertically, but Ríos composition and Clayton Cowles’ lettering keep the eye moving where it needs to go.
The direction of the bullet that hits Theo’s leg pulls the eye away from the right side of the page, and the downward slope of Johnny Coyote’s silhouetted profile continues that downward path, as does the placement of Cowles’ captions and word balloons. Having the silhouetted profile of Molly Raven on the bottom of the right page also helps guide the reader. Because of how the fable bleeds into the warfare in the middle of the page, it’s possible to incorrectly read the page counterclockwise, but Molly’s silhouette, specifically, the shape of her hair, indicate that the bottom right is the end point of the spread, with the waves of her hair carrying the flow of the visual into the next page.
The layering of narratives in DeConnick’s script shapes Ríos’ composition, which in turn influences Bellaire’s coloring and Cowles’ lettering choices to create a cohesive, organic visual that maximizes the impact of the story. These moments of collaborative excellence are the primary reason to pick up Pretty Deadly, and each issue consistently surprises with the brilliant ways the creative team chooses to convey its ambitious story.