Books, Comics, Music Culture wars

Reading ‘Pretty’


“When I was dreaming of what the future of women in comics could be, I was dreaming of her. I just didn’t know it yet,”

-Gail Simone, comics writer and activist ( Women in Refrigerators Blog) on Kelly Sue DeConnick.

Pretty Deadly Volume I (Image Comics) makes one of its stronger statements right on the opening credits page. In a historically male-dominated medium, it is rare enough even today to have a woman writer; rarer still to see two women as lead creators, as with Pretty Deadly’s Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. Four of five who exercise creative input on this book (writer, artist, colorist, letterer, and editor) are female. I’ve written before about comics as a place where larger issues in the culture wars often get hashed out. Pretty Deadly would be significant even if it was a routine story set in a dusty genre. But it is far more than that.

I’ve described it as a “spaghetti western/ folktale/ pulp fiction bloodbath/ magic realist feminist revenge story”, but its roots in a movement toward creators’ rights in comics, and its embedded questions of what constitutes justice in a violent world place it squarely in a larger dialogue about nature, narrative and power.

I plucked Pretty from the rack because of its arresting colors and imagery, and because it had Jordie Bellaire’s name on the cover. A digression: those who may be considering dipping their toes into the burgeoning pop culture art form of comics, and who are confused by the hundreds of titles now being published (some, as ever, are pure dreck), would do well to do as I quickly learned to do: try anything with Bellaire’s name on it. She’s a colorist who has revived comic book art with her subtle yet expansive tones, comprising complex modernist secondaries with gothic, blood-drenched earth tones. These somehow never lose touch with the non-literal, transgressively lurid tones of comics’ limited, 4-color past. She’s not an owner of the projects she works on, but she’s become in demand among creators and publishers seeking to set their projects apart from the muddied primaries and pat mythos of the longstanding DC/Marvel house style, and apparently now has her pick of which stories to work on. Her taste and intuition rarely fail her, and her comics are always interesting.

Emma Rios’ art also caught my eye. Gestural and impressionistic, like alt-comics superstar Paul Pope’s, yet darkling and obsessively rendered, almost crepuscular at times. The dynamism of this Spanish artist’s pen work and page design brings an appealing, cinematic eye to a very complex tale.

The one member of this team I couldn’t know much about until I sat down and read her, is writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. There was quite a bit of buzz about her because of her re-working of Marvel’s then-typically sexualized Captain Marvel (a female character). DeConnick does not censor herself much, nor does she seek to censor others. In reference to Captain Marvel, she said: “I wasn’t like, writing feminist pamphlets, you know. I was writing stories about this lady who shoots beams out of her hands. But I had the gall to have inter-generational female friendships and a largely female cast and, you know, every once in a while, a joke. It ruffled feathers and I thought, Well, if that’s what we’re going to talk about, then let’s talk about it.”

DeConnick’s complex, non linear storytelling is a series of spaghetti western set-pieces; allusive, surreal and often frenetically violent, refracted through fable, manga-style fight scenes and featuring a crowd of startling female characters, from tattooed revengers to feathered creator/saints. My first reading left me confused but seduced.  The narrative is difficult to parse without close reading and reveals itself, even then, only fitfully, as in a fever dream. It begins as a story within a story in a small 19th Century southwestern town, told medicine show-style on an appropriated hanging platform by a pair of drifters, a young, strangely costumed girl, and a graying blind man, of a Beauty imprisoned in a stone tower by her jealous husband (the Mason). Despairing Beauty summons Death, who instead of granting her release, falls in love with her and fathers a child by her. This story itself is part of a fabulistic framing narrative related by a skeletal ghost Bunny to a Butterfly, both of whom are also alluded to in the main narrative.

This narrative disjunct is a distancing device which suffuses the whole book. It punctures the genre-based Sergio Leone spaghetti western ambience so artfully created by Rios and Bellaire and goes farther back to its stolen roots in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, or more pointedly, its obscure Hollywood homage/sexploitation remake, The Outrage (1964). It forces us to ask (on every level): who is telling the story? And while DeConnick does not immediately make her answer clear, it’s a question that haunts any post-Second Wave feminist enterprise like an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

This sort of layered writing opens itself to criticism, especially in comic-book land, long the home of tortured, loopy, plots and clumsy, expository dialog. Though DeConnick does not make it easy to tease out her meanings, she does provide plenty of food for thought. Pretty Deadly is a tale of paired opposites, many of them unusual by virtue of being wholly female. Binaries of character, allusion and metaphor create most of the intrigue, tension and drama in this taught, very fragmented narrative.  Here, Deathface Ginny- Pretty Deadly’s central anti hero, a violent, implacable revenger of troubled victims, is paired with Sissy, painter, poet, pruner of Death’s overgrown winter garden, in a sub-texting of Persephone’s journey to and from the underworld. DeConnick forthrightly addresses the themes implicit in her raging mythology: the human scourges of spiritual rape, sexualized repression and vengeance. Ginny rebels against her mother’s imprisonment by The Mason and (her father) Death, so she also vies with Big Alice, a warrior woman who is Death’s enforcer and is sent to bring her back to the underworld. They both hunt Sissy the bird-costumed medicine show beggar, for different reasons too complicated and spoiler-laden to go into here.

Death (the idea, not the character) is often paired with creative impulse, violence with redemption, and the way is fraught, DeConnick seems to say: self-inflicted wounds are another binary- in one chilling confrontation, Alice scarifies her face to match Ginny’s tattoos.

Pretty Deadly's mostly female creative team finds a stark beauty in violence and revenge. Copyright Milkfed Criminal Masterminds and Emma Rios.
Pretty Deadly’s mostly female creative team finds a stark beauty in violence and revenge. Copyright Milkfed Criminal Masterminds and Emma Rios.

Sissy has another mirror in Molly the crow, a companion of Eastwood-like drifter Johnny Coyote, who reveals to her-and us-her real role in the drama. Johnny and Ginny form another pair of opposites. DeConnick has been quoted about her desire to create a female version of The Man With No Name, Leone’s (in Fistful of Dollars) quintessential Clint Eastwood role. But in a book full of anti-heroes, DeConnick, an avowed feminist who regularly advises aspiring young female comics creators on how to navigate the embarrassingly male geek space of the comics industry ( “My advice? Be terrifying.”), does not demonize men. Johnny feels he must protect Sissy, and empower her with narrative truth, and he pays a price. Another of Sissy’s male protectors is Fox, also hunted for a dark secret that is revealed only after the book’s propulsive, biblical, lyrical cacophony of sex, betrayal, retribution, swordplay, fire and flood has been irrevocably loosed. Yeah, swordplay. This is a wild little book, people.

And what is DeConnick saying? Though her imagery is rich and alludes to archetypes both ancient and more recently minted, it’s hard to confidently say, really. For one thing, the creative team (including editor Sigrid Ellis and letterer David Cowles) are not done telling the story yet (more on that below). Clearly these women are just as capable of darkness, violence and ultimately, redemption, as the men. Nor is Pretty Deadly a ‘feminist pamphlet’. She lets all of her characters fight their own battles and their own demons, even when they themselves are, technically, demons.

After too long a wait, Pretty Deadly Volume II has begun, in comic book form. I missed the first installment, but snatched the last copy of the second. I won’t try to describe it on such incomplete reading, but it does not lack for ambition- it jumps one generation ahead in time, to WWI; and one genre to the political left, to war comics. It’s a genre that Kurtzman and Elder rescued from rote patriotic juvenilia in their 50’s EC Frontline Combat series. But it’s as male-oriented a genre as it gets, and once again, DeConnick and Rios do not fear to tread.

The conversation about this book can only continue to grow. It has not, to my knowledge, been addressed in the rapidly expanding field of academic comics criticism and close reading (please link in the comments section if you have knowledge that I don’t), but I would be surprised if the screenplay(s?) aren’t already being banged out. In fact, I’m betting the price of Pretty Deadly’s upcoming Volume II graphic novel/compilation ( $14.99, May 2016 ) that the preceding is also true of DeConnick’s other current project, Bitch Planet, a sci-fi women’s prison sexploitation-themed story. DeConnick has in fact signed a script development deal with Universal Television, along with husband Matt Fraction, also a comics writer (Sex Criminals).

If her seemingly endless capacity for invention, vivid characterization, and mythic staging can be channeled into a real, coherent fictional thesis on what women’s existential -and justifiable- rage might mean to them and society in light of their often redemptive (and also existential) creativity, then we will be talking about Pretty Deadly for years to come.

But already there’s a message in its author’s refusal to bow to convention of any sort. In reference to a question about those who seek to “rebrand” the word ‘feminist’, she says “I don’t flinch, when I say I’m a feminist.  You don’t get to define that for me”.



Books, Comics, Music

Tales of Futures Past

From February’s snow days to nights in March spent on the couch after working my temporary job, I’ve had a bit of reading time. As I’ve mentioned, I read a lot of different stuff, but lately, my obsession has been comics. Not only for escapist reasons. There is a lot that’s interesting about comics right now. I’m breaking my resolution to make shorter posts to catch up on what’s been on my stacks.

They are a major pop culture content generator, I’m sure you’ve noticed. New projects are introduced  monthly for TV and Hollywood. They are also one of the fastest (and rare) growing categories in bookstore sales. And libraries have been expanding their “Graphic Novel”sections daily, having adopted them in their mission to introduce younger and English Second Language patrons to reading.

And, as I’ve tried to point out, they tend to model, as pop culture often does, America’s attitudes toward cultural expression, in this case, that of a fairly marginalized segment. But creativity, when turned loose, can transform an industry, not to mention a nation. Comics have done both at different times during their long history.

There’s a great ferment in comics right now. It’s long overdue. The roots of it are in the changing economics of intellectual property and creators rights. I’ve mentioned before the history of comics’ beginnings in the immigrant-filled big city newspaper wars of the Gilded Age, to the post WWII censorship craze of the 50’s, made possible by an industry that treated its most talented creators like the low paid hacks who churned out most of its product. The creative anarchy of the underground comics was not so much a growth in comics’ creative vitality as a return to it.  This in turn led to the alternative/punk comics renaissance of the 80’s.

At the same time, collectors and lovers of the medium were transforming the comics market itself. Now came the direct market, or what we know as those often dingy and fan boy-infested, but also often magical, comics shops in cities and suburbs. The big companies, Marvel and DC, faced with declining sales from the juvenilia they peddled at newstands and drugstores, went along for the ride.

The market freedom led to new creators, such as Alan Moore, ( Watchmen) and new approaches to long-moribund characters, e.g. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. And the newly innovative characters and stories led to something completely unexpected: Hollywood interest. The implications of this were little understood when Tim Burton made his first Batman movie, but creativity goes hand in hand with creator freedom and intellectual property rights, and though the big companies, now owned by media conglomerates Warner Brothers (DC), and Disney (Marvel) fought hard to resist it, the old hackwork-for-hire system slowly crumbled. Older creators such as Jerry Siegel (Superman) and Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four, X-Men) won back some intellectual property rights in courts. Younger writers and artists learned to retain control of their inventions.

A major breakthrough came when several big name artists formed Image Comics in the 90’s. At first, Image simply presented the same adolescent power fantasies and sexualized genre cliches of the “Big 2”, only with more creator-friendly contracts. But slowly, this has led to more freedom for creators in both creator-owned, and traditional, licensed properties, and not coincidentally, a more imaginative use of the medium. The publishers, now in competition with the creators themselves to fill the movies’ and TV’s insatiable need for fantasy/action content, have granted more freedom, credit and royalties to the artists. Image Comics is now the leader in publishing diverse, well-written and often very edgy comics by some of the industry’s top creators. But others are are starting to encourage creators to experiment as well.

I’ll briefly review some of my favorite titles as examples of this burgeoning maturity in both mainstream and alternative comics. I’ve reviewed several very exciting Image projects here already (Pretty Deadly, Supreme), and mentioned the bleed-over effect they’ve had in the Big 2 ( Hawkeye, Wonder Woman). This is in addition to my long-time favorite auteurs, (Chris Ware, Los Bros. Hernandez, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki) who have cracked the now rapidly expanding bookstore market. I’m going to separate this post into two parts for length. First, the mainstream:

Saga, Image: I noticed this one immediately, with its bright but well-modulated colors and fresh gestural rendering, but a perpetually tight budget prevented me from picking it up. I guess I didn’t trust it as much as the dark goth western Pretty Deadly or the black comedy sexual paranoia of Sex Crimes. When the new Gonzales Branch opened across the lake from me, with its shiny and very well-stocked “Graphic Novel” section, I was able to scoop up all 3 then existing compilations, and I devoured them. I’m now slowly buying them up, laying them in for the time soon when I’ll want to re-read them and move on to the 4th, just released.

Saga is a tale of an endless interplanetary and interspecies war that has become an article of faith to its combatants, except for two of them, who run away and start a famiy. Whatever allegorical power this has, and it’s a lot- it’s not neccessary to parse it here, because the story is rich with the kind of quirky endearing detail that only well drawn characters can provide. Thus the fantasy of organic tree rocket ships is played off against the of horror being trapped inside one with one’s in-laws of another, sworn enemy species. And the real pathos- not to mention bathos- of having a teen babysitter who is a (half) ghost, because she has had her bottom half blown off by a landmine is magnified when she out-truths a magical “lying cat”.

Writer Brian K. Vaughan sticks close to his central theme: what makes a family is not genetics or beliefs, but love. And artist Fiona Staples continually teases out the simple truth about beauty and love: it exists hand in hand with the grotesque. Her babysitter, Izabel, hovers in pinkish ethereality, somehow projecting the earnest brattiness of a teen age girl, despite her entrails still hanging from her gamine, truncated torso. Vaughan’s characterization, with teen brat pronouncements spewing, until… truth comes; spot on.

Saga is a best- seller and one of the most challenged titles of 2014, the American Library Association informs us. So you may as well save yourself the annoyance of having someone spoil it for you at a party and read it now.

Unwritten, Vertigo: I read two volumes (about 12 chapters) of this then stopped. It’s intelligently enough written, with serviceable, though somewhat graceless, art. But its narrative of a son and namesake of a fantasy author’s Harry Potter-like character/franchise wanders into a brutal murder, a worldwide conspiracy, and then into Joseph Goebbels’ film room. It’s Alan Moore-style meta-narrative, but without the deeper, pointed questions Moore brought to comics: Who watches the Watchmen (Watchmen)? Who weaves the underlying fabric of our most timeless stories (Promethea)?

Vertigo has mostly been eclipsed by Image and others, partly because they offer more generous intellectual property contracts. Moore was pretty much the godfather of DC’s pioneering, creator-driven Vertigo imprint with his legendary 80‘s Swamp Thing run.  His occasional penchant for didactic rambling and over the top plot turns was redeemed by his elegant inquiry into the nature of heroes and storytelling. Not so with Unwritten.

Zero, Image: This is the rather hyper violent and and graphically innovative tale of an orphan who is trained ( brainwashed?) as a spy/lethal weapon and is now questioning his role in life. Like one of Tarantino’s better flicks, it is both appalling and compelling at the same time. I’ve read several chapters, and don’t know whether I will pursue it, but it certainly points out the diversity and potential in creator-driven comics. Writer Ales Kot and artist Michael Walsh also appear in Marvel’s pop-y superhero/spy pastiche Secret Avengers, which seemingly refuses to take itself seriously. This project, however, is dead serious.

Hawkeye, Marvel: I’ve now obtained and read most of all 5 volumes ( it’s been plagued with schedule delays and its final installment has not yet been released). If, like me, you long ago gave up on superhero genre as retrograde adolescent power fantasy from dark airless “universes” replete with strangely sexless uber-babes and monologizing empire builders, then welcome to Hawkguy’s world, where slacker superheroes battle big-city developers and drink too much beer while dealing with ex-es, euro-thugs, and the delightfully refreshing Pizza Dog. Funny and meaningful, sometimes thrilling, occasionally all three. Breathe in the air.

Supreme: Blue Rose, Image: The problem with leaving superhero genre comics behind in the 70’s, as I’ve mostly done, is that it’s hard to suddenly jump back in because of the volumous backstory, or what fan boys and those who market to fan boys refer to as the “Universe” of a given company or title. “Superman was rocketed from the dying planet Krypton as a boy… blah, blah”. Styles, editors, entire cultures change and before you know it, you’ve got a Super Dog, a Super Horse, and a few paunchy Super Cousins hanging out interminably in tacky spandex costumes in your green room. You’d like to invite in your arty friends, but your “family” keeps wolfing down the canapes. It’s a “Crisis”- of infinite backstory. You wage a “Secret War” to clean out the dead weight, but sometimes burden the character even more with retroactive plot fixes and ballooning exposition.

I picked this title up because of its stylish Tula Lotay artwork, not knowing it’s a hold over from the early days of Image. Creator Rob Liefeld, one of the breakaway stars who founded the company gave the character to multiple other writers and artists. It eventually wound up in the hands of the aforementioned Alan Moore, who turned it into a meta-fictional commentary on Superman. Complete with the Super Dog. This iteration of the title, written by another writer star, Warren Ellis, makes sly references to earlier metafictional meanderings of the story, all the while presenting a stylish narrative about time travel and alternate realities. Yes, it’s a metafiction about metafictions, folks. Is it any wonder most people treat comic stores as they would Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop?

But Ellis and Lotay make a nice offering of this material simply by- like Mrs Lovett- not making a big issue of where it comes from. It’s a wispy, dream-like story ( about the search for missing pieces of an “arch”- story arc? Get it?) done in wispily oneiric lines and colors, in which some of the characters always seem to know more than we do. Or not: one character says “I feel like a story that the Universe didn’t finish writing.” It only ran 7 issues, so less than $20, when the compilation comes out, for this melt-in-your mouth meta-metafictional candy floss. You decide.

Oh dear, I’ve burbled on. And I’ve still got more, about recent efforts by Indie creators Chris Ware and Richard McGuire, who’ve fired comics’ bookstore renaissance with form-busting projects. I’ll save that for another post, and I’ve already started notes on a future post about women in comics, both on- and off the page.