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 the second of two Q&As, Paste exchanged a few emails with Rios to discuss her visual approach to the surreal imagery of Pretty Deadly and her new writing stint on the miniseries 8House: Mirror.
Paste: First thing’s first. With so much crazy stuff happening in Pretty Deadly, how fun was it to illustrate?
Emma Rios: It was crazy fun, of course. We wanted to create a world, a fairytale in the West, and some kind of made up folklore inherent to the book. So yeah, it’s the best.
Paste: Speaking with Kelly Sue, she mentioned that the western setting was all you. Why were you interested in that time period?
Rios: Because it’s quite a pure genre, and its rhythm and elements are aesthetically incredible to work with. I was already seduced by the setting and thought it could be the perfect environment for us to play with stuff we both love.
Paste: Kelly Sue also mentioned how your pencils affected her scripts. How did her words guide your artistic vision of Pretty Deadly?
Rios: It’s all about inspiration, motivation, refinement. Beyond the images suggested in the scripting, and the ideas we share, there is something more — the tone. The dialogue feels equally visceral and poetic, and I really needed to nail that, bring that atmosphere to the book the best I can. I’m not only drawing for me, or for the readers, but for Kel and whatever entity the book is. I’m always making jokes about this being our playground, and I think we write and draw love letters to each other, trying the best we can to overwhelm the stuff in our heads.
Paste: Your work is so expressive and sometimes surreal; it lends itself well to the fantasy reality in Pretty Deadly. What were some of your favorite characters or scenes to illustrate in this first volume?
Rios: Well, all of them are family at this point, and I love them all. If I have to choose, I’d probably go with Fox, the poignant blind samurai — such a dramatic character. It’s easy to reflect in bastards trying to redeem themselves, I guess. I particularly enjoyed his fight with Ginny in book four because of how nuanced it had to be.
On one hand, Ginny is young, agile, more powerful and not a regular human. She is also full of hate, which makes her uncontrolled. On the other, Fox is an old tough dude with experience, huge in comparison, but also slow and kind of sloppy. His only advantage is a crazy need to stay alive to protect Sissy. That scene tells us a lot about the characters, just through choreography and acting. We had to show how Fox is weaker, holding up just because of his will. For that, I made him sacrifice his body, letting him be cut and hit, and using dirty tricks to get a chance; the sheath, the water, the rocks on the floor. And also how Ginny changes her mind in the middle of the fight, by making her hold the knife and the sabre the opposite way, hitting instead of stabbing. While she could have killed him a thousand times, she just punishes him.
Paste: Although Pretty Deadly can be hard to shoehorn in a general genre, the safe bet would be to call it a fantasy western. Westerns in comics, of course, have a long tradition. Did you draw any inspiration from western comics or other media when putting the book together?
Rios: Yup, I watched and re-watched a western movie once per day for months. I also watched samurai films. My particular muses here were (Sergio) Leone and (Masaki) Kobayashi, because both of them work with very particular aesthetics and tempo, close to the oneiric. Also, books: classic European stuff like The Bouncer or Blueberry, recents like Gus & His Gang by Blain, or poetic manga like Matsumoto’s Takemitsu Zamurai or Igarashi’s Witches.
Paste: Not content with just being a gifted artist, you’re breaking into writing with the science-fiction miniseries 8House: Mirror. What can you say about that project, and who exactly is Emma Rios, the writer?
Rios: 8House is a shared universe we are creating among several awesome creators, like Brandon Graham, Hwei Lim, Marian Churchland, Xurxo Penalta and Sloane Leong. Each project will be independent but based on a few premises in common for starters, and it’s crazy fun. It was Brandon who came up with the idea first and invited me to collaborate. We are friends and talk quite often about comics and stuff. Our vision about the medium is pretty similar, and I love these crazy ideas he has, as well as old sci-fi and manga from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
So, when he mentioned 8House to me, we started brainstorming a bit and I immediately ask my friend Hwei if she would be interested in doing something together for this. She said yes. Hwei and I worked together in a workshop we were both invited to do in Japan in 2008 and became best friends. Hwei is based in Malaysia, and her stuff is truly inspiring to me. I really hope that our project together can spread a bit more of her magic to the world.
Our miniseries is called 8House: Mirror, and it happens in a terraformed satellite in an isolated colony grown around a landed lab-starship, just like old settlements used to grow surrounding the cathedrals in Europe in the Middle Ages. Magicians and scientists are developing experiments with local fauna there to obtain resources for an unfair cosmic war, and to improve their Magical House position politically, until a hybrid community starts to grow and pretends to live away from the human patronizing.
Before I started working in comics full-time in the American market, I used to write my own stories, and it’s something I really like to do. I think artists’ approach to writing stories is a bit different, though normally from a more visual point of view. Hope you enjoy it when it comes out.
Check out our interview with writer Kelly Sue DeConnick in Part 1.