Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Graphic Novel Determination: Pretty Deadly Volumes I (2014) and II (2016)


So, this is a new thing that I'm doing here. Pretty Deadly is a graphic novel series, or a collection of comic books- whatever you feel like calling it. It is a single story over a period of time that was in comic book format at one time, but the way I read it was in the two collections that bound together comics 1-5 and 6-10 respectively. So, I'm considering it a graphic novel and reviewing it as such.

I guess this will be similar to my "Manga Judgment" series, but with "western" comics. I have a few of these graphic novels to explore, but this one will be the first I touch upon.

Pretty Deadly is by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, and it is apparently the third comic that they have collaborated on together. This is a good thing. They work well together matching the story and visuals to bring together a very elegant Neil Gaiman-esque story together. While I do have some complaints about certain story paths, the comics themselves are incredible to behold. I bought the first volume based off of a random recommendation of the story and art. And it took me a while to actually read it after I had bought it.

But when I did read it I was enthralled. When the second volume became available more recently, I bought it as soon as it was out. The series had drawn me in completely, and I was powerless to resist. The art and the characters remain the strong points of the comic, but the overarching ideas are quite something as well.

The basic premise is that Death (or some personification of Death) wants a little girl dead and gone for unknown reasons. The little girl's protector, an old man blinded by a terrible injury, tries to get her to realize her full potential. He does this while they are both being pursued by some pretty rough-and-tumble Wild West bounty hunter things sent by Death himself. And that's only the premise of the first few issues!

The comics themselves blend together The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, American Gods, and an artistic and surreal horror story about a child chosen for great and terrible things. I guess not everybody will find the first volume horrific. The pursuit has its moments of terror, but, for me, most of the real horror came from the second volume, which takes place during World War I and deals with some personification of War.

I'm not going to get into the story in a heavy way. I think the art and the writing speak better for themselves than I will. And spoiling the story seems like it would be in bad taste considering the fact that the comic is not extremely widely known. To put it mildly, it is very similar to American Gods, as I mentioned before, except make those gods more personifications of certain attributes associated with humanity, and you kind of have the basic premise. Now, set it in the old American West, and you essentially have it.

While I'm not going to go into the plot, I am going to go into some of my criticisms of the series as it stands after the first two volumes. I will state my recommendation for the series right now before I go into it though. The art and style, story and writing, and characters and dialogue are all good enough to try this one out if you want a new graphic novel to read. But, my recommendation comes with a single caveat: read the comic in a vacuum. Don't try to find more about the way it is classified, or what people try to describe it as. Those are my biggest annoyances about the comic, and they literally have nothing to do with what is in the comic proper. So, stop reading here if you've never read the comic and/or don't want more ranting than you should ever read. Because I have a lot to rant about, and almost none of it actually has to do with the comic as it is written.

Anyway: criticisms.

First is that the art and lack of dialogue or narration at times can make the story very hard to follow. It has a confusing and flowing nature to it that makes it sometimes very hard to figure out what is actually going on, especially in the second volume's fight scenes. I have to imagine this is what is meant to be conveyed, but I think it is a misstep. The story is already dealing with personifications as often as it deals with real people. Why be even more confusing to the readers when they're already having to focus on a lofty story? Why obscure details in the art?

It is a minor gripe for me at best, but some people will be really turned off by the focus of ART and STYLE over being able to tell what is going on in certain panels.

Secondly, the story of Volume I itself is a bit of a slow burn with good reason. It takes its time to build up its characters, plot, and setting. Everything flows very nicely over the course of the early parts of the comic. And then- and this is where my problem starts- the story climaxes suddenly and brutally, with very little lead-up, set-up, or difficulty for the main characters to overcome. They are thrown into the climactic battle with barely having a first battle to their names. The story effectively ends there in a way that takes one aback. It's not badly done, per se, but it is really quite jarring.

I guess my problem with all of that is that the pacing, which I feel is very consistent and slow (again, for good reason) over the first part of Volume I, races at a break-neck speed to finish the story off. The consistency of pace kind of goes out the window, and this is probably my biggest complaint about the first volume.

Pace is also my biggest complaint about Volume II, but my complaint is literally the exact opposite for the second volume. I feel that the climax is long, drawn out, and confusing, while the set-up is very fast and brutal with very little characterization of the characters that headline Volume II. It very much expects the background from Volume I to transition into Volume II, but it doesn't, in my opinion, and the pacing is a bit of a mess because of it.

Pace in stories, is incredibly important to me. And I kind definitely understand somebody being turned off of the comic because of it. That being stated, I think the story is told well enough to be able to overcome these flaws, but that doesn't mean I can't complain about them.

The rest of my complaints are not really about the comic itself, but rather about what I've heard about the comic. Some of the words that I've heard thrown around about Pretty Deadly don't seem to actually fit what I've read or seen within it. I don't know who said these things about the comic, if it were the publishers who were trying to fit it into a genre, the authors who were trying to sell the comic to a certain demographic, or people who were reading something in the comic that I just didn't. I have no idea. But in reading these descriptions of the comic, I expected some things that were simply never realized. This is both good and bad. It's good because I read a story that I simply was not expecting, and I liked it a great deal better than what I was expecting. It's bad because somebody is not explaining the comic correctly, and I can see that really hurting the audience.

So, the first thing that I've seen and heard about the comic is that it is very heavily feminist in nature. Now, a feminist comic is absolutely fine. I have no problem with that (case in point another comic I'll be reviewing later this month that is 100% a feminist comic). I simply do not see this comic as one that is "feminist" intrinsically. I guess the male-to-female character ratio is roughly equal, but is that all it takes to have the comic be feminist in nature? Because that's all there is from where I stand. Nothing else about the comic implies a heavy sway into feminism. While, yes, some of the main cast are definitely women in some way or another, some of the main cast are definitely male.

I have to assume the "feminist" nature of the comic has to do with the creators being feminists themselves. Or maybe that the comic is written and illustrated by women? I don't see either of those really being a reason as to why the comic is feminist in nature though. As read, if I had no foreknowledge of the creators (and I really don't beyond vague Wikipedia entries and my own personal knowledge that Kelly Sue DeConnick is also a creator of Bitch Planet, which I would consider feminist in nature) I would have never read it as a feminist comic. It would have simply been a comic with both men and women in it.

I know I'm getting into semantics here, and I tend to in these cases, but I don't understand how it can be classified in this way as it is presented. I think it is misrepresenting itself ultimately. And that actually does the story disservice. I went into the story expecting a feminist comic. I came out of it feeling baffled as to why it wasn't that at all. And maybe the vague equality in the comic is the point, but why call it feminist when it seems to have no hard line in the sand about the nature of itself in that regard? It's like saying a movie that has half of its cast female is feminist simply because of the tautology that half of its cast is female. That doesn't define that movie as feminist in nature. It defines it as having half of its cast as female.

Anyway, coming off the rant of the year there-

The next thing that I don't understand about this comic's classification is that I had thought that the genre of the comic was "superhero" in nature. That's what I had been told by a few different sources. And it is completely and utterly untrue. While the comic is difficult to classify in genre, "superhero" is probably the classification I would least like to give it. It has no superheroes in it. None.

I mean, I guess if you consider American Gods a superhero story, you could also call this one the same. But nobody that I know of has ever considered American Gods a superhero story, and for the same reason this comic is certainly not a superhero story (as it stands now). Maybe it being a superhero comic lets it sell more copies? I have no idea. My opinion is that calling itself simply a story of superheroes is lessening the impact of the story and characters upon the world. They are forces of nature, personifications of human nature- not Iron Man, not Captain America, and certainly not Batman. The story is much more nuanced than a superhero story, and anybody who thinks that it is that, is oversimplifying and dumbing down a very complex story.

Okay, last thought and then this long rant that is going on forever will be over. This one will have me talking about one of the characters in a slight way. Everywhere I see the main character of this series being Ginny, the daughter of Death and a mortal. While Ginny has a great character design, I could not consider her the main character of the story as it stands now.

The cast of the story is an ensemble one. While some characters are certainly more of a side variety, there are possibly five or six that could be considered main characters at any given time. And not a single one of them overtakes the story in a way that would make me consider them the lead over all of the others.

And yet all I ever see is that Ginny is the main character by a landslide. While she is important and pretty well-realized, other characters have a central role as well. Alice, Sissy, Fox, Johnny, Sarah, and even Death are all decent candidates for pieces of an ensemble cast that each have as much characterization and page time as Ginny does. And maybe it's because the creators have a special liking for Ginny, but it doesn't work well here. It's like saying there is a main character is The Lord of the Rings, which is much more an ensemble cast than it will ever be about a single character. This is no Harry Potter where we only ever see one character's perspective for the most part.

Anyway, thus ends my rant. The story is really good. The horror is well done. The characters are well realized. And the art is superb. If you go into reading the comic with literally never seeing anything about it online, you'll never get annoyed at how it classifies itself or how other people(?) classify it. So, I recommend that.

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