Rat King: It’s hard to describe a thing like Pretty Deadly. The book’s publisher, Image Comics, describes it as marrying the “magical realism of Sandman with the western brutality of Preacher.” Reviews for the previous two volumes, The Shrike and The Bear, often rely on words like “undefinable” and “phantasmagorical.” But at the end of the day, this horror/fantasy series is less concerned with genres and other tropes as it is a beguiling mediation on life and death, grief and pain, and our shared connections in the universe’s endless music. Which is why, three years after volume 2 ended, creators Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios return with volume three, The Rat.
New Glamour: While the following is so surface-level it’d barely register as a tickle, it’s essential to grasp basic elements of the first two volumes. The Shrike introduced us to Deathface Ginny, daughter of Death himself, as she served as the Reaper of Vengeance, doing battle with Big Alice, protecting the young Sissy, and generally countering the machinations of dear old dad. While everyone seemingly dies in issue #5, the action picks back up during WWII in The Bear, which basically involves Alice and Ginny battling the Reaper of War along the Western Front. In a press release, DeConnick says The Rat is a “story of art, addiction, and loss, against a backdrop of an emerging Hollywood.” And oh what a story it is thus far.
Loss Ad Infinitum: The first issue is always essential, but that seems doubly true of Pretty Deadly. It’s the 30-ish pages where not only the basic details are established – when, where, why etc. – but the storyline and emotional tone. If that seems obvious, it’s worth noting that Pretty Deadly gets moving very quickly, and perhaps that’s why so many people get lost in this rich, lush world. But thus far, The Rat seems to be straightforward: The Conjure-Man (not unlike the Mason Man of volume one, mayhaps?) summons Ginny to help solve — or likely revenge — the death of his niece, Clara. Easy enough of a narrative, and while it’s going to bolt in fantastical directions pronto, there’s a kind of neatness thus far to the scope, something more direct and visceral than previous volumes. No matter where this story goes, a more linear story and motivations for characters should go a long way for proper pacing and consistency.
A Refreshing Change: The upside of this entire series, and yet also a noticeable shortcoming, is that it changes with each new volume. Plenty of folks preferred the Wild West over Europe mid-WWII, but I’m personally excited for the promise of 1930s Hollywood. The narrative of H-wood as a hungry beast which consumes hopes and dreams is a trope by now, but the timing specifically opens up new possibilities not only for storytelling but of exploring emotional and moral ley lines. It’s a time and a place just beginning its mass consumption of humanity, where there’s still some level of decency and basic courtesy attached. To place these characters, namely Ginny, into such a unique space, especially in service of such a “mystery,” will only open up fresh paths of development while helping to frame the story in new and interesting ways. This is a “young” Hollywood, and such pain and suffering — and perhaps the corresponding vengeance — might strike all that more forcefully.
Why Art?: Rios’ art isn’t just important to setting the tone for Pretty Deadly, but it also drives home certain highlights and crystallizes key ideas/sentiments. In similar press material, Rios calls the book a “love letter dedicated to the fascinating work done by Lotte Reiniger, Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay. The book is steering me from raw violence to subtle horror, and I’m feeling it.” Though it’s still early, that important shift already radiates in much of the art in issue #1 (which is fitting given the primary narrative question is “Why art?”) Rios’ work in the series has always been extra stark, with lots of depth and detail that’s as beguiling as it is unsettling. But with The Rat, it’s as if she’s hit her stride, and her art finds a perfect setting in the glory-and-gore of the Hollywood locale. Perhaps because this setting has been overly fetishized in movies and TV, but Rios’ efforts perfectly blend the beauty and grace with something far more ugly and threatening. It’s as if her work is as much a narrator as any character, and what it’s telling us is to gaze intently and cower in fear, for this world will certainly eat us whole. Try not to feel too giddy about this prospect as outlined in several gorgeous panels.
Creature Comforts: The characters of Pretty Deadly are both essential and utterly unimportant. They reflect our basic experience: here for a moment, with all their passion and vigor, only to be snuffed out a second later. What remains, what lives between stories and timelines, is the raw emotion of it all, which is best represented by the main animal “narrators.” Both the butterfly and bone bunny return from previous volumes, here again to terrify, charm, inform, and bemuse. There’s little signs this time — the butterfly’s portrayals on page 4, for instance — that show subtle new sides to these Yoda-like creatures. There’s also the introduction of bluejays, who “cry for the living and the dead.” Even if these ideas don’t go much further, the basic device is important; they’ve always been a great way to frame the story and illuminate fresh angles. These animals aren’t just a gimmick but a way to weave in elements into a story that couldn’t exist otherwise, threads that bridge the gap between the natural and supernatural while complicating the story in the most enchanting ways possible.
A First Bite: The Rat has been described as a midway point in Pretty Deadly (volume 4 will detail Alice’s origins as a Viking, and volume 5 ends the series during the Great Depression). But that sense of a middle-ground feels appropriate; not only in terms of growing the story but in other regards. Like, understanding the balance of life and death, or truth versus illusion; a way to explore our own perceptions and the way they exist in the world. In that regards, The Rat could prove to be the nougat-like core of raw power in a truly spellbinding series.