Read Along with Faye: Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

Read Along with Faye tackles the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

I labored over this review. It felt like nothing I could write would be able to do Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’s Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike justice. When we analyze text, we don’t just read the words on the page. We coax meanings from between the lines; we muse on the influences of a creator’s background and socio-historical context; we inevitably read texts in conversation with what came before. Comics add another layer. Not only must the reader understand and appreciate the interplay between art and words, there’s a reading style—proficiency level, so to speak—one needs to know how to read a comic, and it helps to know its position in the whole wide world of comics. In the case of Pretty Deadly, which is completely uninterested in holding the reader’s hand, I found myself pushed out of my comfort zone in a major way.

Pretty Deadly has influence from fairytales, myths, a western setting, and probably a million other things I’m not well-versed in. I have read Sandman, but not really Weird West (watching Firefly doesn’t count) so I’ve dabbled a baby bit in Death personified in comics. My reaction on those first few page turns were, “What is this?” and a little bit of “WTF?” It is kinetic, violent, and densely-packed with visual details. Words are sparse. If you don’t read a lot of comics—or even if you do—it can be demanding and intellectually challenging… but parsing out the text, bit by bit, was incredibly rich and worthwhile.

We begin with a bunny, who gets shot in the head by an unknown woman, and the butterfly who witnessed the kill, as framers of the narrative. It’s sometime in the 1890s in the American West (I think). We’re introduced to characters—an elderly blind man, Fox, and a young dark-skinned girl with differently colored eyes, Sissy—who are going from town to town telling the tale of Beauty and singing the Ballad of Deathface Ginny. Deathface Ginny, the daughter of Beauty and the personification of Death, is the reaper of vengeance, who can be called by victims of “men who have sinned.” (She has a lot of work to do!) Big Alice, a large, imposing woman in a black coat with silver hair, is sent by Death to bring Ginny back to the spiritual realm. And did I mention, Death isn’t a god, but a post—in the order of things, the mantle of Death gets passed on to the next gatherer of souls.

What follows is a very, very, convoluted tale in which Death falls in love and wants to prevent the next Death from coming to power, ending death (his and everyone else’s) for all time. And at the forefront are multiple, fascinating, complex female characters who look very different and get a lot of shit done—Sissy, Big Alice, Sarah, Ginny herself and even Beauty. There’s betrayal, stabbings and vengeance—but also sacrifice and redemption. It’s like the animated sequence from Kill Bill with a splash of Sandman, but its own thing.  And it’s paced incredibly unevenly, with unexplained occurrences aplenty and characters that don’t show up again. But somehow, the denouement pulled it all together in a spectacular manner that made flip to the front page again. Ultimately, it’s an origin story for Deathface Ginny, as well as for the new Death.

It would also be remiss not to mention Rios’s artwork again, which is stunning, fluid and frenetic all at once, colored by Jordie Bellaire in a mostly desert-colored palette with beiges and pinks. Though it made me work for it, Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike is incredible, myth-making, myth-breaking stuff. My brain broke, too, from everything to take in, but I had a fine time putting it back together on re-reads.

Faye Bi is a book-publishing professional based in New York City, and leads the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

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