Pretty Deadly is both a title and a description: a gorgeous, lethal book, uninterested in holding the reader’s hand. Returning to shelves this week after a hiatus that allowed writer Kelly Sue DeConnick to launch Bitch Planet with Valentine DeLandro, Pretty Deadly bolts forward in time to the trenches of World War I without sacrificing the samurai-western atmosphere of the first five issues.
DeConnick is no stranger to strong reactions. As she readily admits, readers tend to love or hate her work with little room between, and Pretty Deadly offers a challenge. It’s a layered, poetic work often more concerned with tone and feeling than with narrative simplicity. Spanish artist Emma Ríos fills the pages with ornate layouts and dense panels complemented by vibrant work from colorist Jordie Bellaire and swirls of text from letterer Clayton Cowles.
In advance of issue #6 released this week, in which near-silent protagonist Deathface Ginny rides across Europe in pursuit of a young soldier named Cyrus, Paste caught up with DeConnick to discuss her close collaboration with Ríos, the specific magic of the comic form and why she’s okay with not writing for everyone.
Paste: The second volume of Pretty Deadly leaps forward in time to the muddy, blood-filled trenches of World War I Europe, with Deathface Ginny dispatched to track down a young soldier named Cyrus at the behest of his dying grandmother. The first story arc put an ethereal fantasy spin on the Western genre—is your goal here to do the same for war stories?
Kelly Sue DeConnick: I got that same question from David Brothers at Image and it’s so smart, I sure wish I had thought of that. [Laughs] I suppose it is a war comic, but I still think of it as a western. I guess it’s not, I guess it is a war comic. I’m so used to thinking in terms of characters. I don’t really think of genre—genre sort of just happens. It feels like that sort of categorization is for someone else to do. There are certainly scenes that take place in the trenches, but it’s still an alternate mythology. It’s still a story of how larger forces affect human beings and trying to come to terms with that. The first arc was about trying to understand death. The second arc is about trying to understand war.
Ginny is still a cypher. She’s kind of like [Sergio Leone’s] The Man With No Name. She’s very hard to get to know. She doesn’t really talk, which is a problem writing her. [Laughs] It’s like, would you please just tell me something? But that’s what we wanted out of her, that was the whole point of her. We wanted to see what a lady Man With No Name was, and she is that. She’s a pain in the ass to write.
Paste: Speaking with Paste about volume one, you cited influential samurai and western films like Lady Snowblood in helping set the tone for your writing. What sort of research, historical or fictional, left an imprint on the second arc?
DeConnick: Emma has cited All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, La Grande Illusion, Joyeux Noël, the paintings of Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski, and Otto Dix. I did some reading about the 369th. They’re called the Harlem Rattlers or the Harlem Hellfighters, although apparently they called themselves the Rattlers. John Keegan’s The First World War. I listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History five-part podcast, “Blueprint for Armageddon”; it’s a five-part series and it’s really, really long, something like 12 hours.
We did all that research and obviously the visuals of the trenches make it into the book, the basic understanding of how they were laid out. But the number of deaths and just how overwhelmingly bleak the First World War was… I’m having trouble articulating it. Populations were thinned. It is so hard to wrap your brain around the number of casualties. It’s not comparable to anything we’ve experienced, thank god. Things like The White Feather Brigade, who were these women who went around pinning white feathers on young men who had not enlisted, marking them as cowards…
There’s nothing about it that wasn’t horrific. But the specifics don’t really make it onto the page, because it’s not a story about the larger forces of the war. It’s not a history. Even though the 369th certainly informed it, it’s not about any of the men of the 369th. It’s about this guy Cyrus who we created. So we did a lot of research to kind of get the feeling and understand the horror of that period, but it doesn’t directly make it to the page, with the exception of Emma’s eye for making sure the costumes are correct and the trenches are correct.
Pretty Deadly #6 Interior Art by Emma Rios & Jordie Bellaire
Paste: Is Cyrus a co-protagonist for this arc? Or is he more the target that Ginny is hunting throughout the story?
DeConnick: We treat Ginny like she’s the protagonist and we put her on the covers and everything, but she is like The Man With No Name. She has an arc in the first arc, but hers isn’t as easy to identify as that of Sissy, or the redemption arc of the Mason. You could make the argument that the most profound arc is that of Beauty, who is barely on the page. The whole thing begins when she is imprisoned and then she frees herself. So it’s hard to say.
This is super not The Hero’s Journey. The second arc is very much the story of how Cyrus can’t outrun his fate. It’s about Sissy as a child trying to understand and stop war. It’s about Alice and Jenny, who don’t much care for each other, trying to work together, and their more sophisticated understanding of the motives of man and how they can’t do what Sissy wants, but maybe there is something they can do?
We keep coming back to the idea of The Man With No Name. Ginny is not a traditional protagonist because she is more of a force of nature that everyone else has to contend with.
Paste: You told The Mary Sue last year that you feel like Pretty Deadly Vol. 1 reads better as a collected trade than it did in single issues, and that you wanted to change that with Vol. 2. Do you get the sense that you’re accomplishing that storytelling shift?
DeConnick: Oh god, I don’t know. That’s going to be for someone else to determine. I’ve tried to do that, and I’ve done something I swore I’d never do, which is that I have deliberately made changes to the way I tell the story in order to answer the critique that I’m deliberately obtuse. There are people who believe that, and I’m certainly not. I’m genuinely not trying to be deliberately obtuse, but I do know that Pretty Deadly was very much a reaction to Emma and me being told, while working on mainstream comics, how much we had to hold the reader’s hand, and that you couldn’t disorient the reader even for a couple of pages.
And I get it! They have a market to serve that has these specific expectations. They know what they’re doing and it’s well-traveled and proven. I had a fight about one caption box; I wanted this caption box to be on lined paper in a child’s handwriting, and the feedback was, “The reader’s not going to understand that.” Yeah, the reader’s not going to understand that until they get to the end of the book and they see the rest of the piece of the paper, and then they will totally understand it!
And that’s one of the beauties of comics: you are in control of the pace. You can flip back. You can pore over a comic. You can spend as much time as you want on a page, taking it in as you need to or want to. It’s not like a song. I’ve been thinking about [legendary composer and lyricist Stephen] Sondheim a lot. I’ve been listening to a lot of Sondheim and a lot of conversations he has about his craft. He says clarity is everything and I’ve been trying to be more clear, but at the same time, he talks about how, when a character walks on stage, the audience is taking in the costume and the experience of the set and the actor’s performance, and that line of sung dialogue goes by and they can’t listen to it again. They can’t rewind. Musical theater is a temporal experience. Comics aren’t. Comics are somewhere between that and poetry: you can sit there and look at it as long as you need to, and that’s one of the joys of it.
I know that there are people who don’t want to work to read a thing, and that is totally fine and I get that, and I’m not telling you that you are dumb or wrong. Taste is subjective and you are in it for something other than what I’m offering here, and maybe this isn’t the book for you. That is totally cool, but I think there is something wondrous and joyous about being able to really lose yourself in it and go back and take things in over and over again and see the connections you missed the first time.
Anyway, I’m trying to find the balance in it. I’m trying to answer the critique that says, “She’s deliberately obtuse!” but at the same time not lose this immersive, disorienting, lovely myth-space that we created in the first arc. But, certainly not while I’m still in it, can I determine whether or not that’s been successful. And I’m not certain that’s my job to ascertain anyway. That’s for the reader to decide.
Pretty Deadly #6 Interior Art by Emma Rios & Jordie Bellaire
Paste: You do have a reputation for cultivating very dedicated fans with books like Captain Marvel and Bitch Planet, but Pretty Deadly stands out among your work as a particularly challenging, layered story in both language and look. I’d even say that it demands more than one read to really sink in. What sort of feedback are you hearing directly from readers?
DeConnick: When I talk about this book, I say, “It rewards a reread.” [Laughs] I stop short of saying it requires a reread, but it might very well.
I don’t go looking for feedback so I only see what makes it to me, or what is pointed out to me, so from my perspective—and I don’t know if this is accurate or if it’s just that the stuff that makes it to me is from the people who feel the strongest—I’m generally only involved in books that people really love or really hate.
The negative reactions on Pretty Deadly were the folks who were like, “Are you calling me stupid!” and I’m like, Wow, no. Right now I’m just trying to get out of your way! [Laughs]
Someone wrote me basically wanting me to explain the plot, and I’m not going to do that. There are people who have explicated it online, and if you need that, you can Google it and find it. But I’m not going to answer your questions about what’s there, because you can find it on the page. I’ll talk about craft and I’ll talk about theme, but I’m not going to tell you the story. That seems like I’m doing it wrong. I was like, “Maybe this book isn’t for you,” and some readers responded, “Are you calling me dumb?” I had that reaction a couple times, not even on the first arc, but on the first issue for some reason.
There have been strong negative reactions to the book, but the art combination of Emma and Jordie [Bellaire] is just jaw-dropping. Clayton [Cowles] has had some real challenges to overcome with this book. He’s had to letter songs and ethereal beings, and the whole story is told from a dead bunny to a butterfly and they only speak in captions so he has to make it clear who is speaking when. This book fights back. This book is a challenge for everyone who works on it, and everyone has brought their A-game. I am so proud of it and of my team, my partners. The people who connect with it really connect with it, and that has been my experience on Bitch Planet, and that was my experience on Captain Marvel. I don’t make work that is for everyone, and that is okay. The people who do find something in it really seem to find something in it, and that gives me great joy.
Pretty Deadly is, hands down, one of the best looking books on stands.
DeConnick: No question.
Paste: You’ve worked with Emma Rios on a host of titles, and she recently started writing for the American market in connection with a few Brandon Graham projects at Image. How has your collaboration evolved since the initial brainstorming sessions for Pretty Deadly? What does she bring to the table beyond her visuals?
DeConnick: Emma has never needed a writer. She is the complete-package storyteller. There is something that happens in the collaborative space between the two of us, and I think it’s this way for every project. This is not a me-book, or an Emma-book, it is a me-and-Emma-book, and that is a DNA that is completely different. It’s like my children. I can point to things about my son that are like me and I can point to things about my daughter that are like me, and I can point to things about my son that are like my husband and I can point to things about my daughter that are like my husband. But the whole of them—they are not little clones of us. There are things that are their own. They surprise us and make us laugh, and they frustrate us! All of those wonderful things. The metaphor is a little heavy-handed, but I think it’s that way about these projects, too, that we make in partnerships. Pretty Deadly is part Emma and part me and part Johnny Coyote winking at us. The book surprises us both.
We have some simple rules: Emma has the last word on art; I have the last word on words. We develop things together. I bring plot, but it’s so affected by her work that sometimes the visuals make me then change the writing. We operate sort of on that E. L. Doctorow model: we know where we’re going but we don’t know how we’re going to get there. I know what the end of this arc is, I know what the end of the fourth arc is, but I don’t know all of the specifics of how we’re going to get there and neither does Emma. Part of that happens in the back-and-forth, and we work in a really nontraditional way. We work section by section, so that there is a real dialogue.
At some point, when we were hammering out our contracts, I carved out an exception so that she can make prints and sell original art and I don’t participate in any of that. And I was like, I’d like to do a script book! So if I do a script book, that’s mine, and I will pay Emma for illustrations to put in the script book. I thought that would be neat, but we were laughing about it, because it is utterly impossible. There are multiple versions of the script, and the script chart changes every time I turn in a new section. Then there are rewrites in the previous sections. Final dialogue changes once it’s lettered; I do two letter passes on this book, often rewriting substantially. A lot of the plotting takes place in email back and forth between she and I. I’ll say, “I have this, and I have this that I want to use, but I’m not sure where or why.”
In the new arc, we’re doing our first double-page splash. We’ve done lots of double-page spreads, but never a double-page splash where it’s just one image across two pages, because we have too much story to use that real estate, but there’s an image that I think needs that. I made an incredible rookie mistake that I can’t believe I did, but I wrote it so the page doesn’t work: those two images would be back to back rather than in a spread. She caught it and now I have to figure out what to do with that because I don’t have pages to spare. She was like, “We could start this one on an even page,” and I was like, No we can’t! We have too much story to get into this issue. [Laughs]
A lot of working in comics reminds me of working in theater, and we talked about Sondheim earlier. This part of it reminds me of working in the costume shop and everybody working on this thing, cutting out pieces, and being like, “Oh shit, I cut out this piece on the back side and it should have been on the front side, and now we have run out of fabric and we have to figure out how to use this piece.”
Pretty Deadly #6 Interior Art by Emma Rios & Jordie Bellaire
Paste: Time for the first-ever middle-of-the-book Image ad.
DeConnick: Right! We were literally like, Can there be an extra one-page scene? No! [Laughs] It’s hilarious. As I am trying to get less weird, she is like, “No, no, more weird.” All of the World Garden stuff, she has just completely abandoned traditional paneling. And Emma adamantly, vehemently does not like the whole digital guided-reading thing. I think our editor at one point was like, “This is going to be tough for the—” and I was like, No, don’t say it, don’t say it! It is meant to be looked at on a page.
Emma is Spanish, but when I talk about her, I make her sound like a Russian opera diva. Most of our collaboration is over email. We’ve seen each other a few times over the years, but it’s mostly over email. In my head, she is like this opera diva. Any time I’m like, “Maybe we should play it safe…” she’s like, “No! This is our playground! We do what we want!” That is the heart of Emma.
She’s a swordfighter. Did you know that about her? She is an actual, honest-to-god swordfighter. She does historic sword fighting, where you’re not in weight classes, so tiny little Emma will fight big men with swords. It’s the best. I used to choreograph fights and I don’t do it anymore, because she would be like, “No-no-no…” with this palpable disappointment. So now it’s going to be, “They fight.” Here are the emotional moments I need, you figure out what happens.
Pretty Deadly #6 Interior Art by Emma Rios & Jordie Bellaire
Paste: With Pretty Deadly back on stands, how do you isolate the Kelly Sue needed to write Pretty Deadly from the Kelly Sue needed to write Bitch Planet? Has one or the other become more challenging for you over the last year?
DeConnick: It’s not terrifically hard. You just reread the last stuff you did to find the voice again. The biggest challenge with Pretty Deadly is maintaining that myth-space feel and still getting the actual plot across. The biggest challenge with Bitch Planet is venting our spleen and still having a sense of humor.
Bitch Planet can get really dark. I am not a nihilist. None of my books are like, “And then they all died.” [Laughs] The progress of Pretty Deadly is that we’re going to do four and a half arcs: the first arc is understanding death; the second arc is understanding war; the third arc, I keep making the joke, is understanding taxes, which is kind of accurate, and I can’t figure out where that’s a joke and where it’s real. Then there’s going to be a short arc between three and four which goes back in time to the medieval era and Emma will probably paint that one—that one is love; and then the last arc is hope.
Bitch Planet, we’re going to do somewhere between 30 and 50 issues, and most of those issues, I have no idea what they’re going to be about at this point, but I know where we’re going. I know what happens at the very end. And even though we may go through Hell and certainly bad things are going to happen to our girls between now and then, in the end, the good guys win. And that is not a spoiler. I think that is inherent in all of my work. It’s trying to figure out how and at what cost.
I’m never going to write torture porn. Even Parisian White, this book I’m developing with [Bill] Sienkiewicz, it’s dark and it’s tragic, but there’s something about the strength of the human spirit that still makes it through. I don’t know that it’s as hopeful as any of the rest of my stuff, but still, there, that rage comes for a purpose. If I wanted nihilism, I’d read the newspaper.