I’m the type of person who likes to analyze the things I love. One of those things is Pretty Deadly written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, drawn by Emma Rios, colored by Jordie Bellaire, and lettered by Clayton Cowles. It is probably one of my favorite comics ever (and I have the tattoo to prove it)! For a book that falls into the “Weird Western” category, at least for the first two volumes, there’s so much more than weirdness for weirdness’ sake. The animal symbolism alone could fill a series of articles. In fact, let’s do that! Let’s look at the symbolism of this “weird little book” and figure out how deep the well goes. Let’s deconstruct Pretty Deadly.
But first: a refresher. Pretty Deadly is a supernatural western that somewhat tells the story of Deathface Ginny, the Reaper of Vengeance. Volume one, The Shrike, certainly framed Ginny as a character of focus, but the true hero of the story was Sissy as she learns more and more about her destiny as the Ascendant of Death. Set against the backdrop of the American “Wild West”—roughly the late 1800s—Sissy is aided by a number of reapers, humans, and other supernatural forces to restore order to the Underworld. The second volume, The Bear, set during World War I, puts more focus on the Reapers, now working under Sissy as Death, as they rally to stop the Reaper of War from ravaging the trenches of France.
The two arcs certainly set an interesting tone. One might see it as a cynical outlook on humanity and human nature, but the creative team manages to strike the right balance between cynicism and hope. Additional themes of forgiveness and redemption alternate through the overarching story as DeConnick and company establish the position of Death and the Reapers within the natural order of life and death. One of the ways in which they tell that story, on a subconscious level, is through the animal motifs present in both books.
So, with that in mind: The Ascendant. The Keeper of the World Garden. Death Herself. These all indicate who Sissy became when she assumed the role she was always meant to. Prior to her ascendance, however, Sissy was a performer draped in a cloak made out of the head and feathers of a vulture.
Many of the animals featured or named in Pretty Deadly have some association with death (and Death). The vulture seems like the most obvious animal to feature since the very presence of the bird in television and movies–especially in Westerns–acts as a shorthand for the looming possibility of death. Considered part of the carrion family of birds, in the company of crows and ravens, vultures are actually far more opportunistic in their choice of food, so picking the meat off of animal carcasses isn’t so much a dietary imperative as it is an available option. When observed by humans, though, the vulture was seen to be eating the dead, but still producing living offspring, making it a prime familiar for the cycle of death and rebirth that is a recognizable motif all the way back to Ancient Egypt.
Featured prominently on the Eye of Ra as well as the iconography of Isis, vultures were revered as excellent mothers and became the personification of maternal instinct. They were considered the “Pharoah’s Pets,” since their predatory nature and penchant for eating what was available meant the streets were kept fairly clean. There was even a separate vulture goddess, Nekhbet, who had the head of a vulture. Her oldest shrine was considered the original necropolis, or “city of the dead,” and her priestesses, called muu (mothers), wore robes adorned with vulture feathers.
Within Pretty Deadly’s narrative, Sissy spends the majority of the first arc coming to terms with her destiny as the next in line to uphold the position of Death. With her child’s mind and understanding of the world, she can only see Death as something to be feared. By the end of her journey, she’s accepted her destiny with the additional knowledge of death as part of the natural order. Becoming Death doesn’t mean she’s a monster, it means that she is the caretaker of souls who have shuffled the mortal coil. In her maturity, she becomes mother to the souls of the dead, a caretaker for life who makes sure the great garden blooms and flourishes until it must end.
The Greeks and the Romans found great value in the vulture, though there are many cases in which it is confused with the eagle. Prometheus, as punishment for stealing fire for mankind, had his liver eaten by an eagle or a vulture every day, returning once the organ had regenerated. Vultures or eagles may have played a role in the augury contest of Romulus and Remus when they founded the city of Rome. It can be confirmed though that the vulture was seen as a favored bird of Ares/Mars, the god of war, since it always appeared on the battlefield once the fighting had ended to pick at the available bodies.
Perhaps one of the best known instances of the vulture as part of myth and legend is the harpy. Depictions of harpies are varied depending on which ancient scholar is being consulted. One thing they can agree on is harpies were birds, usually vultures, with the heads of women. Sometime they were part of the Greek system of justice in that they carried evildoers to the Furies for punishment. Other times they were beasts who took great delight in torturing their victims as they flew down to Tartarus. For all of the mothering instincts lauded by the Egyptians, the Greek and Roman scholars appeared to favor a monstrous take that still persists.
The climax of Sissy’s story in the first arc is her complete transformation into Death. It only takes a moment, but within the span of a few panels Sissy goes from a girl wearing a vulture cloak to a large vulture with the face of a girl. DeConnick may have been inspired by a particular image she found in her research, but it’s very clear that Sissy’s form as Death is a harpy. Sissy has not only reclaimed Death as a nurturing figure, she’s likewise returned the vulture to its place as a symbol of nature’s cycle. Life. Death. Rebirth.
In the wake of shows like American Gods—for which apparently Kelly Sue DeConnick did some research for Neil Gaiman when he was writing the book—there’s a relevant streak of cultural conception to be found in Pretty Deadly. We tend to accept what we’re given as a form of truth. Buzzards flying overhead as you’re wandering the desert? Skulls bleached by the sun surrounding you? Death must be right over the next sand dune. We accept it and perpetuate the idea. A little curiosity, however, opens up the broader scope of any person, place, thing, or concept. Just because we say, “It’s always been that way,” doesn’t mean it’s completely true. Hopefully, I’ve shown in this article the vulture’s position as a revered bird, as well as its association predominantly with women and motherhood, is a far cry from what they’ve been reduced to in Hollywood’s visual shorthand. The intention may not have been there from the beginning, but in it’s own way Pretty Deadly has provided another means of examining our modern myths and symbols.