When reading comics in the direct market it’s easy to become hung up on small things. You worry about not having read a series’ earlier issues, or failing to recall exactly what has come before, or even a lack of publication over several years. These are concerns for lesser stories, however. Picking up a new issue of Pretty Deadly, whether it’s your first or the only one left unread, is a reminder that truly great comics need no introduction. Pretty Deadly: The Rat #1 is one of the best comics reading experiences to emerge from 2019, delivering an issue that could be anyone’s first and a reminder of how comics can transcend purely narrative needs.
The third distinct story in the Pretty Deadly cycle moves into the golden age of Hollywood when Clara’s, a young woman and storyteller, body is discovered in the gulleys beneath the newly erected Hollywoodland sign. It falls to her uncle, Frank, a medium and minor fraud, to investigate what happened. There are shades of the same noir fare that fitted the second half of so many double-screeners from this day, but this is not a genre riff so much as a fairytale that pulls familiar notes from the era it inhabits. Frank is interested in her story, one that was never completed, a story that explains not just how she might have died but, more importantly, why she died.
Ríos delivers a holistic perspective in these pages, as well. Readers are invited to explore these sequences as complete statements before deconstructing their reading order. There is no rush to get to the next panel or speech bubble, as there is ample meaning beyond the next moment of plot delivery. The opening few pages are a framing device, the sort of thing that might be easily ignored in favor of a mystery in a lesser comic, yet here they deliver a thesis. Mourning bluejays flitting through autumnal air become a powerful element of imagery and the lyrical dialogue between Bunny and Butterfly offer riddles in poetry. The descriptor “novelistic” fails to capture the complexity of these moments because prose only powers a portion of the overall effect. Evening air, deep roots, and changing perspectives all encourage the reader to consider cycles of life and death, and how we engage with inevitable tragedies while still living. Bellaire’s colors evoke impermanence and provide a palette that allows one’s eyes to rest and one’s mind to ponder, never needing to rush forward to find out what is next.
This presentation is essential to a story that weaves itself through multiple layers. Not only is there the fairytale presentation of Bunny and Butterfly, there’s also an incomplete story composed by Clara that plays out within the more familiar mystery that Frank is unwinding. Each layer provides a distinct commentary on the themes of Pretty Deadly, Bunny’s is pure metaphor, Frank’s relies on a traditional narrative, and Clara’s blends the two. There is an embedded belief that no matter how we tell our stories, they share some essence that connects the fanciful and mundane into a single tapestry. Ríos and Bellaire’s pages simultaneously make each framing stand out, while reminding us that they all emerge from the same shared existence. The ugliness of a muddy crime scene and silhouetted shapes summoning spectres of corruption are drawn from the same cloth.
Pretty Deadly: The Rat #1 delivers one of the most immersive and stirring reading experiences of 2019. It is a celebration of the comics form, comfortably experimenting in presentation and style, telling multiple stories all at once. Ríos reminds readers that the most fanciful of myths and most vicious of crime tales can be brought together in comics, inviting light into darkness and darkness into light. The results inspire hope and dread to equal degrees, and sends the imagination soaring. It is a contemplation of death, yes, but also of life in all its complexity. Reading invites rereading, and The Rat is generous with ideas and style upon further review. It’s a comic as complex as the form it inhabits, and that is an awe-inspiring experience.
Published by Image Comics
On September 4, 2019
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Emma Ríos
Colors by Jordie Bellaire
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Cover by Emma Ríos