When Image Comics first debuted Pretty Deadly in 2014, the western- and horror-infused story from Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet) and Emma Ríos (Dr. Strange, Island) garnered instant critical acclaim. With colors by Jordie Bellaire and letters by Clayton Cowles, readers instantly took to the vibrant landscape and epic, dark storytelling, which told the tale of vengeful death-face Ginny through the eyes of Sissy and her guardian, Fox.
Issue #6, out Wednesday, marks both the series’ much anticipated return as well as the beginning of the second story arc, and takes the mythological western to a new era that promises to hold even more epic storytelling, as Sissy — now holding the mantle of Death — is tasked with gathering souls, along with her band of reapers. EW spoke to DeConnick and Rios about the pressure (and excitement) about coming back for round two, their creative collaboration, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first arc of Pretty Deadly was such a groundbreaking and different story. It really took the whole world by storm and created this beautiful, passionate fanbase. Do you feel a little bit of pressure coming back for the second round?
EMMA RÍOS: I’m really excited about it, but it’s not that I feel much pressure beyond deadlines and organization. Being the second arc, I can’t help being a bit less worried about the reactions because everybody that’s coming back knows what to expect, and I’m really happy with the work we all are doing.
KELLY SUE DECONNICK: Going into the second arc, I’m making a conscious effort to do something I say I never do, which is to change my style because of feedback. I’m trying to make Pretty Deadly more accessible by being more clear in the writing. When we started doing this book, there was a little bit of a tantrum reaction towards mainstream comics, where you’re expected to explain everything as you go. I remember having a fight about a caption box that I wanted to look like handwriting on paper, and the editor said, “No, we couldn’t understand that,” and I’m like, “Yeah, they won’t get it for four pages!” That’s the dance and I love my editors, don’t get me wrong. But coming into Pretty Deadly and being able to make all of those decisions ourselves, there was some part of Emma and I that were like, “F— it! We’re gonna do what we want! And you’re either with us or you’re not!” People thought I was being deliberately obtuse, but there’s a difference between feeling like I don’t need to explain and deliberately confusing you. And you know what? If the impression is that I’m deliberately confusing you, that is not what I am trying to do at all. So let me be a little more explicit in this. And that affected Bitch Planet very much. And going back into the second arc of Pretty Deadly, clarity is a thing that’s on my mind. And I’m scared of losing some of the magic of Pretty Deadly because I think part of when it works for the people that it works for is that it is disorienting. It’s this immersive thing. And so I worry about jeopardizing that in this effort to sort of not be deliberately obtuse. Luckily, Emma is far braver than I am, just as Val [De Landro] is. I tend to choose collaborators who are more courageous than I am. I think it’s good for me. And Emma if anything has gotten even crazier with her page designs, so maybe we’ll balance each other out.
I’m always interested in how the personal growth of creators affects their work when they come back to books after a long breaks. What was it like coming back to this story having had the first experience of Pretty Deadly and then marrying that experience with other personal and professional experiences over the past two or so years? Did you find that changed your style or work ethic at all?
RÍOS: This year was special to me in terms of adjusting to this new situation I am in, focused on creator owned alone. Even if I’ve been out of the shelves for a bit, I’ve been doing a lot of things: drawing the second arc without pressure, co-editing Island, having written and drawn I.D. myself, and now writing Mirror, which finally is starting as an ongoing in February. Having my brain doing all this different work is helping me a lot in terms of retro-feeding from the other experiences. It makes me feel inspired, looking forward to the projects and wanting to work harder. I’m really spoiled. I think I’m drawing better now, and that having less pressure I can try harder with the layouts and with making this a bit weirder.
DECONNICK: If I could go back and change something about the first arc, it wouldn’t actually be clarity issues. It would be pacing. Because I think we wrapped up too quickly. I had such a slow and steady pace, and then we just ran out of pages in the end. I just planned poorly and instead of adding pages, which I should’ve done. I just said, “Well, we’re gonna wrap this up real fast!” But I don’t know if I’m better. A couple years down the line, I wish I could say confidently that pacing remains my weak point, if you could talk about your own stuff without sounding like you’re self-obsessed. But I think you kind of have to be. If you’re not interested in your work, you’re not doing it right. I think I’m very strong at dialogue, I think I’m very strong in characterization. I think sometimes I use dialogue and character work to cover weaknesses in my plotting. My husband [Matt Fraction] makes fun of me, because I know I can use strong prose to jazz-hand my way through plot that isn’t as interesting as I’d like it to be. At one point in Captain Marvel, I tended to rely on Carol’s internal monologue a lot, and I knew I could get away with that when I didn’t think my plot was that compelling. And I was like, “I’m going to stop doing an internal monologue.” And Matt was like, “Yeah, you should definitely stop doing that thing you’re good at that people really love!” But you don’t want to be a one-trick pony, you know? So, I guess I am conscious of my weaknesses, and I think pacing is probably my biggest. I don’t know if I think the clarity thing is actually a weakness. It was a stylistic choice.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Sondheim recently, and in his song and lyric-writing he talks a lot about the strength and beauty of “simple and clear, simple and clear.” And it’s no coincidence that Hemingway is my favorite prose writer, and that’s “simple and clear and simple and clear.” Sondheim talks about how, in a song, they’re only going to hear it once, and they’re looking at costume and motion on stage, and you have to be very careful because they can’t go back because time is an element. One of the things about comics is people can linger on images and words as long as they want. I love that about comics, and don’t want to deny that about comics, so there’s a part of me that’s still a little pissy about that. You can turn it over, you can try to come at it from all different angles. I’m more disturbed going back to early work and really liking it than I am going back to early works and seeing mistakes. There’s some bits of 30 Days of Night: Eben & Stella that I think, in learning the way comics work, I did some things you don’t really do in comics. And I’ve lost that [Laughs]. I went back and looked at it not too long ago and I was just using space like I had it. And there was a full page splash of the character just kind of laying out this monologue. That is not how I would teach someone to do that now, but looking back at it, I kind of love it. And I kind of love it preciously because you don’t do that. That’s why I really fell in love with [Brian Michael] Bendis’ dialogue practices early on when I was really starting to examine comics critically. Because he was dialoguing in a way you would dialogue for stage, not on the page. It was so fresh and exciting and I loved it so much.
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This is the long-awaited beginning of the second arc of this story … what can you share about your game plan for Pretty Deadly in terms of how the rest of the arcs map out?
RÍOS: We’ve been talking about the third arc and the fourth. And also about a short story we want to do in the middle, fairy-tale like in Middle Ages, where I’ll be doing watercolors. Kelly Sue proposed moving a bit forward in time, to the late Great War, and we both tried to focus on that and learning as much as possible about the 369th battalion and the war itself. Which I swear is quite a crazy investigation.
DECONNICK: We know there are four and a half arcs, we know where the scenes are of them, we know what each other them is considering, we know what the arc of the framing mythology is. But how we get from point alpha to omega? No idea. Matt always describes it like a road trip. I know I’m going to drive from Portland to New York, I’m not sure I’m going to go through Chicago. It’s kind of like that.
Since this arc moves ahead in time from the Old West to World War I, how did you approach that transition in terms of story and art? Were there any specific inspirations that you used?
RÍOS: Sissy is the new Death now, she is a child and very different from the former Death. That affects our characters psychologically and physically. Alice is rather out of control and she turned from being elegant to untidy. Foxy was luckier and looks rather fancy. Ginny is angry and I feel like she is my new old grumpy dude here… and so on. Our Old West scenes are connected to old Sarah and her people in this arc, which makes them rather kind in comparison with the French front. So while in the first arc everything felt violent there, this time is warmer.
DECONNICK: Something we were very concerned with was, we didn’t want to lose the sense of myth space. We didn’t want it to feel like, “and then Ginny walks into a Starbucks” when real events start coming in. We don’t want it to feel like a history. Historical fiction feels sometimes weird … I don’t want this to be historical fiction, I want weird! And the weird thing is, we always knew we could do that, but we’re not only doing that but we’re being rewarded for it. My creator owned books sell better than my mainstream books. And that makes no sense.
You’re both extremely close collaborators, and I remember reading at some point that you very much influenced each other creatively when working together. I assume that happened a lot during this creative process as well?
RÍOS: Our process is all back and forth. We work scene by scene — never with full scripts — so we can let the art and the sounds retro-feed each other. It’s really organic, and also challenging. And most of the story ends up built or modified in email exchanges. We know each other really well at this point, and each line I draw is because I’m working thinking of Kelly Sue. If I were working alone, or with another person, the result would feel really different. In a book like this one, fortunately, it’s rather difficult to separate the parts.
DECONNICK: When Emma and I work together, it’s a very weird process. At one point, I was like, “Emma can sell original art and I’m gonna stay out of that, and if I wanna do a script book, that’ll be mine!” And it’s hilarious because the script book for this book would be utterly and completely impossible. Because the script is like, script plus 13 emails, plus our Pinterest page plus discussions we have in chats. And we work this book scene by scene. We know what the thrust of the issue is, but it’ll be like, “This could be three to five pages.” And so she does that and turns the pencils into me, and I script the next scene while she’s inking the pencils, and I’m definitely very affected by her pencils. So for instance, in issue six, that tree with the beehive in it. In my script, it was like “there’s a beehive and the beehive is in, I don’t know, maybe a tree!” And so then Emma turned those pages in and that’s “maybe a tree.” And so then it became … we had the concept of the world garden already, and the gardener who tends the world garden, and it’s kind of like the place to hold the soul of the world. But the tree had never been an integral part of that space. But now the tree and the tree roots are incredibly important to how that space is constructed and how I think about it. So now those make their way into the script, and that’s purely the process of collaboration.
Kelly Sue, when you started writing Pretty Deadly, you mentioned you found Ginny a bit harder to write and also a bit of a mystery. Do you feel like you’ve figured her out now, or is her voice still a challenge?
DECONNICK: Ginny from Pretty Deadly and Cam from Bitch Planet — both of them are super protagonists, but they don’t talk. They’re so quiet. Since the way I get to know characters is through dialogue and interaction with other characters, they’re a huge pain in my ass to write because I have to get them to talk to me. Back in the original original of this, when Ginny was a sharpshooter in a wild west show, Sissy was created to be the Josey Wales dog that she spits on, just so I could get her to interact with someone in a way that I could learn about her a little bit more. And that hasn’t changed. I know her better than I did before, but it’s still hard to get her to talk. But now, because she doesn’t interact with Sissy, Alice is her foil. Alice is the one who gets under her skin and gets her to talk to me.
Obviously, both of you should be proud of your work on this book. What’s been the most significant moment for you in working on this series?
RÍOS: There have been a lot of incredible moments, because this book was totally life-changer to me. Maybe the most significant one was realizing that despite doing crazy things all around without any guide or control, in total freedom, people were accepting and supporting us to the core. In that moment I realized that maybe I was right, and that I had my dream come true. It is difficult to believe even now.
DECONNICK: Oh, gosh. There are always these goose bump moments we get on this book but we always use the phrase “Johnny Coyote says hello” when we’re working things out and realize two things connect. Like, Sissy has different color eyes. She has one blue eye and one brown eye. In the beginning, we didn’t know why we chose that. There wasn’t a particular reason for it. It just seemed like that was right for that character. And then when Sissy’s born out of the river of blood in the first arc, she’s an infant, so how are you going to know that’s Sissy? Oh, she has one brown eye and one blue eye. So it’s very clear. Johnny Coyote says hello.
Pretty Deadly #6 is in comic stores now.