Ya gotta hand it to Gamma Rae – she likes to dream big!
Superhero big, in fact, and she’s not going to let a pesky thing like a family stacked to the corrupt rafters with zombie-creating, thieving, murderous criminals out her off achieving her lofty goals.
But even the protagonist of the colourfully anarchic comic book series Pretty Violent, created and drawn by Derek Hunter with writing by Derek Hunter and Jason Young, and colours by Spencer Holt, would admit that the supernaturally strong young woman with the shock of bouffy fairy floss pink hair and attitude to burn has her work cut out for her.
Released between August 2019 and November 2020, the 11 issues in the series come with “lots of swears” (you have been warned; Pretty Violent is to comics what shows like Breaking Bad are to TV) , viscerally violent action sequences and as much as dysfunction, familially and friendship-wise as you can handle.
Set in Bay City, Pretty Violent concerns itself with the overly efforts of Gamma Rae, an earnest superhero wannabe who desperately wants to prove herself as the equal of the gilded superheroes who lived in the shining white surrounds of the hilariously and damn near perfectly named Savior Complex, to find her place in what Hunter calls a “world of super-powered do-gooders and shit-heads”.
No one in this world, not the superheroes, nor Gamma Rae’s eclectic family not the Unseen, disfigured people who live in the slums of what’s left of the city, are even remotely laudably good human beings and the much of the joy in Pretty Violent is watching the demonstrably imperfect Gamma Rae do her best to live up to the shining ideals in her heart and head while failing at almost every turn.
For all her heroic aspirations, her yearning to do good and save people and be loved and lauded for her efforts, Gamma Rae’s only real points of reference for how you should behave are what her siblings Merc, Necrosis (she of the zombie army) and Sludge have demonstrated to her growing up.
She doesn’t want a bar of their lifestyle, of course, which results in a schism that still manages to be supplanted by the ties of love that bind them all (all dysfunctionally expressed, naturally) but she’s not entirely sure what she should be doing instead, despite the best efforts of the head of the superheroes, Maximum Prophet (who may be all he’s cracked up to be either), and so she bumbles and destroys and kills more often she saves and uplifts.
She’s frustrated by this, of course, the only superhero with a list of deaths longer than most of the criminals she takes on, and she’s well aware that until she’s a cookie cutter perfect version superhero like her bestie Misty, that she’ll never be someone the public needs or worships.
And really, Gamma Rae wants to be loved as much as she wants to do good.
For a series resplendent in its giddily colourful description of blood, death and violence and which is soaked in every last bit of dysfunction available to humanity, Pretty Violent does a brilliant job of evoking some really affecting emotionality.
For all her swearing and anger and propensity to throw superhero parties with porn and prostitutes – not in the superhero PR manual by the way, something Maximum Prophet does his best to instil in her – Gamma Rae is really, truly deep down a sincere and earnestly caring person.
She wants to do the right thing, she wants to save people from lava-spewing villains and make Bay City a gloriously safe and peaceful place to live and she is eternally upset with herself and others, hence “all the swears” that she can’t quite manage to pull it off.
That’s not to say she doesn’t grow and develop over 11 issues because she most certainly does and in ways that will surprise you. (Not an easy thing to pull off in a series packed to the topmost of a pile of dismembered eyes with all kinds of unexpected twists and turns, all of them realised in cheekily violent technicolour artwork that seems to fly off the page towards you.)
But she never quite fits the mold, despite her most earnest endeavours, and much of the fun is watching her fail and fail again until she finally begins to figure out what’s what.
The thing is, of course, that nothing is as good, perfect or straightforward as she imagines.
Were it that was, but we live in a broken, fallen world, and those of us with a little more mileage, and a paucity of superhero strength are all too aware that there’s not a lot to be done about great swathes of it.
It’s something that Gamma Rae comes to appreciate in part but then she is someone who still believes she can fall in love the loutish mayor’s son (even when he ends up not quite the 13-year-old he once was) and wants to be a grade-A superhero and loves her criminal family even if she doesn’t want to be or act like them, and so for the lessons she learns, Gamma Rae still keeps trying to push that envelope to see where its ripped remnants will take her.
Recalling the manic, over-the-top sensibilities of Looney Tunes and the willingness to go there and go often shown by many of the classic Nickelodeon cartoons, Pretty Violent is full of brutishly-realised violence and the very worst of human dysfunction.
But, and this is important, it is also quote poignant and emotionally evocative much of the time, going deep diving into the most intimate and transparent of emotions in ways and at times that you simply don’t expect but are ridiculously pleased to see.
Hunter and his team have managed the seeming impossible – to conjure up an anarchically violent and sometimes nasty world that nevertheless is full of broken earnest people who want to do their best (even if it’s at being bad) but who never quite get there, Gamma Rae front and centre among them.
Pretty Violent is a gem – it is gorgeously, outrageously, blisteringly honestly drawn, all cartoonish vivacity and gleeful nastiness but it is also real and true about the human condition, subversive about superhero idealism and all too willing to call a spade a f**king spade if it means the truth outs, and just as importantly, we get to have a good and lasting laugh about it.