A Comic Review by Annyston H. Pennington
If you done been wronged/ say her name, sing this song/ Ginny rides for you on the wind, my child/ Death rides on the wind…
With this incantation, those harmed by sinful men may call forth Deathface Ginny, the Reaper of Vengeance, to deliver bloody retribution in the highly anticipated new comic book title, Pretty Deadly vol. 1. A female-centric story of love, death, and revenge in the Wild West, Pretty Deadly is no exception to the slew of original and successful titles that have come from women in the comics industry who are aware of flaws in female representation in their field. Comics such as Pretty Deadly that pursue more accurate and thrilling portrayals of minorities—women in particular—inspire praise not only for artistic merit but also for the risks taken to flesh out unique characters.
As the brainchild of Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer for Captain Marvel, Avengers Assemble, and Dark Horse’s Ghost) and Emma Rios (whose work has appeared in Runaways, Amazing Spider-Man, and more) the compiled first five issues of Pretty Deadly is not a comic book by or for amateurs. DeConnick and Rios’s work embodies a whirlwind of artistic and literary techniques that is rarely seen in mainstream comics and serves to highlight the original and thought-provoking characters and the lives they lead.
The representation, and annihilation, of female tropes is a point of interest in the storytelling of Pretty Deadly. In literature, female archetypes can be narrowed down to a few main types with some variation within each: the Maiden, the Temptress, the Mother, and the Crone
As the comic industry has experienced a revival in the last decade or so, how these archetypes have translated to the graphic page has become a point of discussion and criticism; archetypes have become stereotypes, gross misrepresentations that narrow the actions, beliefs, and physical appearances of women characters. In retaliation to this norm, DeConnick and Rios offer characters that are wild and sympathetic, frightening and vulnerable, characters that represent the four age-old archetypes but with refreshing complexity.
The Maiden, as an archetype, is usually understood within the dichotomy of “virgin and whore,” a toxic binary with a focus on sexual extremes rather than acknowledging the nuances of female sexuality. The Maiden is seen as pure, youthful, and passive, often with religious implications added to the mix. The most apparent incarnations of the Maiden are young, innocent girls that take the back seat to knights in shining armor.
Another facet of the Maiden is “the Crusader.” The Crusader is a female character who exhibits the chastity of the Maiden but through disinterest in sexual involvement rather than retention of purity. These characters are driven, authoritative, powerful, and for the most part, disinterested in romance. This combination is not inherently bad, but if not handled properly may result in a flat character, just another object of male power fantasy. Pretty Deadly tackles this trope and arrives with a heroine both exciting and enigmatic: Deathface Ginny.
The daughter of the personification of Death and a human woman named Beauty, Deathface Ginny is a protagonist who walks the line between the spiritual and mortal worlds as the “Reaper of Vengeance.” The motif of the vengeful woman is nothing new to fiction (e.g., Madame Defarge of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, the Bride of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, etc.). These female characters are often outfitted in masculine qualities—physically strong, aggressive, stoic, and the like.
Deathface Ginny does fall into line with the traditional characteristics of a Crusader as she brandishes a sword and pistol, riding in on a horse to slay those to whom she has been called to vanquish. She also appears disinterested in sexual relationships, as her interactions with other characters are usually hostile if not only platonic. However, rather than sexualize Ginny’s fighting or fetishize her independence and ruthlessness, Pretty Deadly presents Ginny more like a villain than a hero: her appearance is haunting, her face made up like a skull, her attire is gender-neutral, white shirt and slacks, and she is never posed to draw attention to her physique.
In combination, these physical attributes lend to the spiritual nature of her character as one who crosses between life and death—with the added benefit of neutralizing the sexist implications of the Maiden trope. She is not good or pure as she slices through her enemies, and she is not a heroine in the tradition of Wonder Woman, valiant and selfless. With Ginny, DeConnick and Rios have given readers a hero with whom they can sympathize with even though Ginny never asks for sympathy. Deathface Ginny is not evil, but as Pretty Deadly vol. 1 unfolds, readers may find that, as far as a Maiden archetype goes, she’s not exactly a saint.
Antagonist to Deathface Ginny’s role as the Maiden/Crusader, is Big Alice, the Temptress. A tall woman dressed in black and sent by Death on a hunt for Ginny and others, Big Alice is introduced in the comic before Ginny makes an official appearance. Storming a saloon with an intimidating party, Big Alice’s debut image is one of her towering frame filling an entire half-page, her face obscured by a black, wide-brimmed hat. With her silver hair and pale eyes, Big Alice is a visual counterpart to Ginny’s dark features, and her characterization follows suit.
Like the Maiden, the Temptress archetype can also take two different forms: Temptress, the classic femme fatale, or the Monster. The Monster trope exhibits the lure of the Temptress but in a more lethal form. Think Medusa of Greek myth; female monsters of legend are either beautiful or once beautiful, draw men to their deaths, and retain some level of sympathy for their actions through backstory. However, the Monster will invariably be avoided or defeated by the hero of the tale. Having Monster archetypes as women in narratives lends an element of sexism to the villain/hero dynamic in that it demonizes female sexuality and physical attractiveness.
While I consider Big Alice to be the Monster of volume 1, she is another example of deviation from her suggested archetype. Big Alice is Ginny’s antagonist, but there is complexity in their relationship that suggests more than rivalry or a mission to kill. Since Death sends Alice after Ginny to bring his daughter home, Alice becomes a neutral character caught in a family feud of sorts. Though Big Alice is aggressive and doesn’t hesitate to shoot to kill, the progression of the story makes her appear more lost than evil. Her interactions with Ginny seem like she is angry with or envious of Death’s daughter; at one point during their fight, Alice uses the tip of Ginny’s sword to carve skull markings like Ginny’s into her own face. This interaction in the comic is one of the few moments where readers see Alice exposed without her massive black coat as she throws it off during the confrontation. Vulnerable, Alice seems to want Ginny’s appearance and everything that it stands for—power, independence, a father.
The dynamic between these two women itself is enough to set Pretty Deadly apart in its representation of female relationships, but in respect to understanding Alice’s trope, it humanizes the Monster in a way that Medusa and her kind are never afforded in their own stories. Readers are not bound to view Alice simply as a killer or a disruption to the peace, she is an equal to the other actors on the stage as the ambiguity of her motivations and interpersonal connections elevate her from just another pretty—and intimidating—face.
In Pretty Deadly, the character representing the archetypal Mother is easy to spot once Sarah, a single mother, is introduced. Sarah and her home in the desert serve as a safe haven for Sissy and Fox, central characters of volume 1, as they hide from Big Alice in issues #1 and #2. Readers are afforded a glimpse into Sarah’s past and her relationship to Fox later in the comic, but from her first introduction, I found Sarah’s part mother/part warrior presentation compelling and refreshing.
The Mother trope is often used as a plot device rather than an active character. Either killed off early in a story to initiate the development of the protagonist or appearing on the sidelines to offer advice or comfort, Mother characters are reduced to passivity and non-importance. While maternal traits should be celebrated in stories for the importance of nurturing and compassion in the lives of real people, mother figures are also women with other interests, desires, and flaws. Through Sarah, the Mother trope becomes well rounded as readers see her not only provide comfort and shelter but also kick ass, speak up, and act upon romantic love.
When Big Alice and her crew arrive at Sarah’s doorstep, they wreak havoc, burning Sarah’s house to the ground and terrorizing her children. Deathface Ginny arrives to take Big Alice on one-on-one, but Sarah prepares on the sidelines to deliver the final blow after getting her children to safety. This display of protective instinct and violent opposition demonstrate a woman’s capability to be both defender and fighter. Compared to the Ginny and Big Alice, Sarah is fully human and therefore weak; she is attached to others through love and therefore vulnerable. However, these seeming handicaps do not keep her from challenging any and all who threaten her family.
Even after the fight between Big Alice and Ginny ends, Sarah scorns Ginny’s vengeful mission, slipping into a monologue about how those like her (people of color) have for ages been mistreated and underestimated. Through her display of defiance and fortitude, readers understand that Sarah is not a woman to take kindly to either.
The fulfilling character of this final trope may be less obvious than the others, but she is central to the story arc of the first volume of Pretty Deadly. Sissy is the young companion of the old man Fox, both of whom are introduced in the first pages of the comic to tell the legend of Deathface Ginny; Sissy is the axle around which all the spokes of the narrative spin. A young girl with dark skin and heterochromia of the eyes, Sissy is visually striking but nothing like the expected decrepit image of a Crone type character.
In traditional tales, the Crone is depicted as an old, sometimes hideous woman who provides spiritual and tactical knowledge to the hero of the story. The Crone is neutral, neither good nor evil, and therefore suffers no consequences at the end of the story because the ending reflects the morality of the participants. Timeless and wise, the Crone watches from the sidelines as events unfold either against her warnings or aligned with her prophecies.
The most obvious way in which Sissy contradicts this trope is through her youth with which comes visual appeal and naïveté. While her decisions do affect her ending, Sissy is a Crone type character because her outcome is preordained and necessary to setting the world of Pretty Deadly back in balance. This position of spiritual importance is similar to the omniscience of the Crone. It is true, however, that Sissy’s story is more like the origin of a wise woman than the journey of a wise woman herself. Readers see Sissy when she is clever and devious, frightened and kept in the dark, but not until the end of vol. 1 does she fulfill her role as a timeless figure, taking over as Death incarnate after Ginny’s father.
The decision to make this young girl the focal point of the narrative and ultimately giving her a position of power that will likely influence events of later issues of Pretty Deadly, is intriguing on the part of the comic’s creators. This shows that they are unafraid of shining the spotlight on character tropes that would otherwise take the backseat to the flashy protagonist Ginny.
Sissy balances out the slew of adults and physically aggressive figures in the comic because she is young and incapable of matching their force. Still, she does not shy away from her destiny, demanding information from Fox and others who are savvier to the way of their world. From the first pages, Sissy relays to the audience before her and to the readers of the comic the story of Deathface Ginny, only to find herself a part of that story as well. She is both a purveyor and seeker of knowledge, a Crone character given new life through curiosity and moral equivocation. Sissy represents, in essence, the readers as they too journey through the world of Pretty Deadly in search of understanding.
Where Pretty Deadly shines is not only in the sweep of inked lines or the sharpness of dialogue, but in the fleshing out of characters that readers can connect to on an emotional and psychological level. Not often are women readers of comics presented with stories that resonate with them, with characters that reflect even in their most fantastic elements, an inner truth about womanhood. Emma Rios and Kelly Sue DeConnick have accomplished this much in vol. 1 of Pretty Deadly by taking classic archetypes and updating them, improving upon them, making these tropes less one dimensional and more in the shape of real women. Yes, readers are provided with all the fighting and banter and outrageous drama that comics should provide, but in Pretty Deadly, the women characters are where the story comes alive.
1| This article is the first article in an on-going series of articles by various writers of Feminine Inquiry which seeks to discuss female representation within the commonly male-dominated worlds of "Geek Culture." Continue to follow along with the series as it unfolds.
2| Header image by illustrator and artist, Cody Bubenik
3| In-text images and side images taken from "Pretty Deadly" by Kelly Su DeConnick and Emma Rios