The word “wild” is a common adjective for the American West. These four letters can conjure up images of a ruthless frontier and the amoral chaos that the Manifest Destiny left in its wake. “Wild” can also describe Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’ violent, poetic take on the period in their ongoing comic, Pretty Deadly, but for different reasons. At first, the narrative feels like an average western complete with a gunslinger looking for redemption in dusty towns filled with horses, whore houses and hotbed saloons. But Pretty Deadly also embraces the supernatural and mythical elements oft neglected in the genre.
Pretty Deadly’s first volume begins with a manhunt and sprawls into a fight against Death himself. Adorned in black garb and animal skulls, Death and his cadre of dangerous gunslingers chase a blind man and young girl through the desert wilderness. DeConnick (Captain Marvel, Ghost) and Rios (Captain Marvel, Strange) create a compelling cast of characters with Death’s daughter, Ginny, the dangerous Alice, and the talkative Sissy, as they each search for acceptance, revenge or destiny.
The first story arc accomplishes in five issues what many comics take several trades to achieve. DeConnick and Rios create a western that looks and feels familiar, and then distort it into something completely new, where the unexpected becomes commonplace. In this first of two Q&As, Paste chats with DeConnick on the creative process behind Pretty Deadly, including her thoughts on Sergio Leone, pinky violence and the ethical tightrope of appreciating exploitation cinema.
Paste: You’ve done tons of projects over the last few years in myriad genres, but Pretty Deadly is your first Western. Would you describe the comic as a western or more of a story set in the west?
DeConnick: We set out to do a western, so I guess I would (call it that). Neither Emma nor I ever felt like we were in the driver’s seat on this. So we set out to do a very Sergio Leone western, and after developing the story, it kept veering in other directions. There was a point at which we were like “well shit, let’s just let the monsters in and write a monster story.” Once we did that, it felt right. Not to sound pretentious and like a crazy person, but I do think there is a certain amount of this process that is intuitive. There’s definitely craft. You have to show up, you have to work, and you have to get it wrong first, but there are parts of it that you only know are wrong in your gut.
Paste: So was the first draft of Pretty Deadly sans supernatural?
DeConnick: Yes. Ginny was a sharpshooter in a wild west show, and Alice was the owner of the show. Sissy was developed in a way to get Ginny to talk because Ginny was such a quiet character. She doesn’t speak. I thought I would give her this very annoying, very chatty character who would share her tent and drive her crazy — someone she would show a disdain for, but you could tell that she likes. It was a very different story.
Paste: You’ve worked on mainstream properties like Marvel’s Osborn: Evil Incarcerated and Captain Marvel, and now a creator-owned Image project. Can you describe what goes into a DeConnick/Rios production?
DeConnick: I first pitched her to do a grifter story, and she was the one who said, “nah, how about a western?” For this to be a western was Emma’s call, but I’d loved westerns and had wanted to do a western a few years ago. I remember talking to Joey Cavalieri, an editor at DC, and I was talking to him about doing a western story, and he told me “you’ll never get someone to draw it because artists hate drawing horses.” So I don’t know if he was messing with me or if that’s genuinely true. Emma tilted her head like the RCA dog when I told her that, but I have heard from other artists that they hate drawing horses.
I think Emma and I have a familiarity after working together for a few years now. We have a shorthand. In our contract, I wanted it spelled out that she could sell original art — that it’s all hers. I thought I might do a script book at some point. Now, I don’t think I could do a script book on this book. First of all, there are email correspondences that would have to be added because there’s so much conversation that happens in email separate from the script pages. The script is all over the board. Sometimes I write in traditional full-script style, and sometimes I write it in what we call modified Marvel style where I’ll say, “I think this is two to three pages, and if you need three, take it and I’ll rob it from this scene later on. Here’s what happens and here’s the dialogue.” Traditional Marvel style wouldn’t have the dialogue, it would just be the plot, but Emma is adamant that she needs the dialogue in order to craft the spaces because her expressions are so dead-on. That’s how we work more often than not.
We know where we’re going. We have a plan for the issue. We have a plan for the series. We actually know how it’s going to end, though I’m not sure how we’re going to get there. In order to allow the art to affect the script, we work a scene at a time. It tends to happen that she gets it in batches of three to seven or eight pages, anywhere within there, and when the pencils come in, I have to get her the next scene before she’s done inking. I would like to pretend it was by design; it was the sort of the thing where I fell behind and I was giving her pages piecemeal, but it affected how we work because the pencils were affecting how I was scripting, and I kind of liked it. It’s such a collaborative book — it’s neither me nor Emma. It is a third channel. Neither one of us could have done this book alone, and neither one of us could have done this book with anyone else.
Paste: In what ways did Emma’s pencils affect your scripts?
DeConnick: Her character’s act. I have emotional reactions to scenes on the page sometimes. She’s really, really, really good with acting. When she and I were working Captain Marvel, I’d never written a page for Emma where she did not add panels, which is the opposite of every other artist you work with. They want fewer panels, but she always wants more.
We were doing a scene where there was a woman in a hospital. She’s very ill, and she’s very scared, and she doesn’t want to let on that she’s scared. So she’s barking orders and being annoying. What I told Emma in the script is “sometimes when you’re an actor, you don’t play crying, you play trying not to cry. What she is doing here is trying not to be afraid.” So Emma adds a panel where you can see her hands and how tightly she’s clenching the sheets. It tells you everything you possibly need to know about that scene. I could have just taken the dialogue out. That is working with Emma Rios. I write a lot of dialogue, and then I take a lot out because she puts so much in the art. You just don’t need it.
Paste: From the very beginning, what were some things you wanted to accomplish with Pretty Deadly?
DeConnick: We talked about Sergio Leone a lot and we talked about Japanese pinky violence. We knew we wanted it to be bloody and we wanted it to be a revenge thing. We had this idea where we wanted to do a straight up spaghetti western, which isn’t what we ended up doing, but that said, I love the book and I’m so proud of the book. It’s such a weird little book, and I know that it’s not for everyone, and I’m completely not offended by that. I’m really pleased that we made this thing that was unlike anything else that I knew of, and it felt so uniquely ours. But there was a part of me that was a little sad that it wasn’t the thing that we set out to do. But Charlie Huston (Moon Knight, Sleepless) dug out this Sergio Leone quote for me. I don’t have it memorized, but he basically says the only thing that matters is the myth. The myth is everything. [“The important thing is to make a different world, to make a world that is not now. A real world, a genuine world, but one that allows myth to live. The myth is everything.”] Mythic is something we used to describe Pretty Deadly for a while. I don’t know. I feel like maybe we ended up doing Leone after all. We just didn’t know we were doing it.
Paste: The comic’s setting is very striking. But like other characters you’ve written in your career, the characters are incredibly vivid and memorable. When you were scripting Pretty Deadly, how did you go about fleshing those characters out?
DeConnick: Part of a writer’s job is just spacing out, looking into the air and imagining things. Emma had this image of a woman sewing up her own side. That was sort of how I started imagining Ginny. Then I found that she was a very quiet person, and I couldn’t get her to talk. So I made Sissy to get her to talk to me, and Sissy is very chatty. I always ask artists what they want to draw, and Emma said that she wanted to draw an old man, so that’s how Fox came about.
It feels like puzzle solving. It feels like solving a mystery as you write it out. I’ve read it described as you’re not making a sculpture, you’re removing the parts that aren’t the sculpture. I’m not so much making the story as I’m trying out different things until the story shows itself, which again, sounds super pretentious.
Paste: You’ve also edited tons of Manga over the years. Would you say any influences from Japanese comics have made their way into your writing, whether on Pretty Deadly or another title?
DeConnick: With Pretty Deadly, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a three-act structure in it. I don’t know — someone probably can. This does not have that structure. It has three narrative levels. I’ve read someone describe it as a comic where you get the answers before you get the questions, which I really like.
One of the things I enjoyed when working in manga was when I couldn’t tell where anything was going because there weren’t narrative tropes and structures I was used to. After doing it for seven years, I got to the point where I did see structures. I did start to learn, but at first I didn’t know where it was going. It was very exciting for me. I think that has a little influence.
Other than that, I would say we were consciously influenced by Japanese pinky violence, which is more cinema than manga, but most of our favorite cinema comes from manga. Female Convict 701: Scorpion is based on a manga as is Lady Snowblood. I saw Lady Snowblood in the theater between writing issue three and issue four of the first arc of Pretty Deadly, and I was really surprised how much I was influenced by it.
Paste: You’re also working on another upcoming book at Image called Bitch Planet, which tackles the women-in-prison exploitation genre.
DeConnick: It’s still in development, and I’m working with an artist named Valentine De Landro. It’s a mean satire. It’s me trying to deal with the love/hate relationship I have with exploitation cinema. I’m a proud and unapologetic feminist, but there’s so much baggage that comes with that and people always put words in your mouth. Feminism is about fairness, and it seems to me — particularly in this industry — if you are someone who is drawn to superheroes, who are characters about fairness and who are the best of us, sometimes the blowback doesn’t make sense. I think there’s a part of me that’s full of piss and vinegar. It’s like “Oh, you want to see angry feminist? Oh, I will show you angry feminist.”
So there’s a little bit of that, and a little bit of wanting to explore why I like these things. Is there any way to embrace the things I like and get rid of the things that I don’t? I’m just playing with it and asking what appeals to me. I think Val is doing some of the same things with the imagery.
Check out our interview with artist Emma Rios in Part 2.