Graphic novels were a mixed bag this year. While my top pick got me all teary-eyed, and any of the top three books is a contender for the Hugo award, I feel that many better books, especially those dealing with harder science fiction were overlooked. Of the six books, only two can conceivably be considered science fiction; the rest is either space opera, fantasy or a straight-up superhero story. I’m none too fond of nominating volumes within ongoing series, but I have to admit that some of those were much better than standalone volumes this year. Here are my views on the nominated comic books, sorted from my favorite one.
On a Sunbeam (Tille Warden)
A crew of a spaceship welcomes their newest member. They are contractors who repair old and derelict buildings that float in space, and their ship looks like a giant fish. Mia, the new crew member, has a checkered past from high school, which left her with little choice of employment. The rest of the crew doesn’t have their past clean, either… Over the course of twenty chapters, we slowly learn about Mia’s past, especially her lost love. The crew decides to help her reunite with her love on a very dangerous planed called The Staircase.
This is a slow burner of a story, which I absolutely adored. From a science fiction perspective, it offers a weird, wondrous world. Flying fish and floating buildings are only part of the charm. More importantly, I got emotionally attached to the characters, and the ending left me fully satisfied. If there is one thing I wasn’t too happy about, it was the character names and their graphic portrayals, which got me constantly confused who was who in the story. A few times I had to backtrack to place an identity on a character again. Despite this, I’m very happy to have read this title. There may be more professional comic books in this year’s ballot, but this one struck me on a personal level, and will be getting my first vote.
Monstress (Majorie Liu)
The third volume of the Monstress Series sees Maika Halfwolf, the main protagonist, flee with her friends to Pontus, which offers safe haven to refugees from the war between Arcanics (mythical creatures and people with magic) and the Cumaea (those who consume the Arcanics’ magic and kill them in the process). There, Maika is tasked to restart an ancient technology that powers a shield that would protect Pontus from attacks. While this is taking place, two of the four pieces of the ancient shaman queen’s mask are combined, awakening the elder gods, and Maika’s task changes from protecting Pontus to stopping one of the gods before it crosses over into her world.
Each of the previous two volumes of Monstress won the Best Graphic Story Hugo Award, and with a good reason. The writing is solid, with plenty of threads that flow together and split again, the characters are believable and the worldbuilding is superb. The art is just as good, and it’s no wonder that the artist, Sana Takeda, won the Best Professional Artist award last year. This would be a worthy winner for the third year in a row, but it’s not my favorite. I miss any kind of emotional attachment to the story. It is one of the most epic stories I remember from comic books, and maybe because of that I feel compelled to view it from a distance. I am curious about the fate of the characters, but I don’t get personally involved with them. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but the book is competing with another one where I developed an attachment to the characters, and thus Mostress is at a disadvantage.
Paper Girls (Brian K. Vaughan)
This is an easy flowing, action-packed time travel science fiction, which to me evokes the feeling of Stranger Things, only it’s brighter and less depressing. The series is about four girls, who deliver morning papers in their 1980’s town, when they are caught in the middle of a crossfire between two warring time traveling factions. One faction, older folk who invented time travel, want to keep the past as it is, while their descendants, all kids or young adults from millennia down the timeline want to change key events to improve the lives of mankind. In this volume, the girls find themselves on the eve of the year 2000, as a huge battle with enormous bots rages all around them and only one of them, Tiffany, can see it. She eventually meets her older self and her husband and realizes that in the normal timeline she’s become a huge failure. As it is, however, the girls have barely enough time to avoid the two factions and their helper from 2000 to bother with their original timelines.
I find the concept of the two time traveling factions very intriguing. I can see the point to both arguments they present, and I think I understand why there is a generational gap between the two sides. I’m finding myself rooting for those who want to preserve the timeline as it is, but a younger me would probably side with their descendants. The writer does an excellent job not passing a judgment, and instead letting each reader decide for themselves. I also appreciate how easy this title is to read: no difficult moral conundrums, no monologuing, only straight action. The girls are basically just narrators, being swept by the war, not driving the plot forward. The art is simple and very effective: even at times of the greatest action it’s clear to see what’s going on, which is probably the only thing I could criticize about the art of another highly acclaimed series, Monstress. This is a solid comic book with a good premise, and I believe it deserves recognition.
Abbott (Saladin Ahmed)
This is essentially a Lovecraftian story about an unknown dark evil, haunting the 1970s Detroit, and the Chosen One, destined to fight the evil. The dark forces use magic, create monstrous hybrids and apparently are able to teleport through space. The force of good uses … a camera flash?
Unfortunately, that very much covers the good part of the book. The writing is sloppy. Instead of focusing on the story itself, it tries to hammer some unrelated moral lessons into the readers’ brains. Racism is bad. So is misogyny. And don’t get me started on the institutional evil represented by the cops. I strongly agree with the author on all three counts, but I feel that he is making his points in an insultingly blatant fashion, and at the expense of the story. The story itself offers no surprises, not even suspense. All presumed twists are telegraphed way ahead of time, and the lack of internal logic destroyed any immersion into the story I might have wanted. I was simply bored by this book.
Saga (Brian K. Vaughan)
Saga is sometimes likened to Star Wars, in the sense that it combines a fantasy story with a science fiction setting. A long-standing war has left planets decimated, but two people from the two opposing factions fell in love with each other and had a child. This is so scandalous to both warring factions that a price is set on the heads of the entire family, and third parties are trying to use them for their own goals. In this volume, the family, with a group of friends and the two journalists who want to publish their story, set down on a planet to work on the interviews. A few mercenaries find them, however, and a bloodbath ensues.
I may be in a minority in my indifference towards this series. It is one of the most awarded current comic book runs and has a chance to win again. Personally, I find most of the characters unlikable, the story and twists unlikely, and the shock value is wearing thin. There is plenty of foul language and sex in these books. I’m no prude, but I do like when these elements are set within the natural flow of the story. The golden standard in this regard is Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, which makes sex and swearing fit seamlessly into the world and the storytelling. Here, they seem out of place and added just to make the book feel edgy. I also have an issue with the casual killing of some of the characters. This is essentially a love story, portrayed in bright, happy art, and this kind of dismissive killing suits better the gritty atmosphere of works like Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire or Correia’s Saga of the Forgotten Warrior. I hope that this volume was nominated due to some kind of Hugo award inertia, and won’t win. There are other, far more deserving titles that have been nominated.
Black Panther: Long Live the King (Nnedi Okorafor)
One day an unexpected earthquake strikes Wakanda, possibly caused by a monster that the Black Panther had spotted just prior to the quake. Suddenly, vibranium stops working as well. It’s up to the Panther to investigate what happened and resolve the problem.
When I was younger, I’ve read lots of superhero comics. I had a long list of titles at my local comic book shop that I reserved and picked up every week. I kept reading them for continuity, but I understood that the vast majority of the issues were just fillers between major events (I ended up keeping maybe 5 pounds of superhero comic books and selling 140 lbs of those fillers). This three-issue run is one of such fillers. It is utterly unremarkable, and I am shocked it got nominated. What’s more, it breaks the Black Panther canon in two ways. First, the Panther of my youth was an autocrat who ruled over a xenophobic, classist society. He may have had higher ideals, but back in Wakanda he was the undisputed ruler who governed with an iron fist. Maybe he changed over time, but I still found it very jarring that he allowed his underlings to openly mock him. Second, the series introduces the concept of sentient vibranium, with the power to summon monsters, cause earthquakes and deactivate the properties of all other vibranium at a distance. This is a very dangerous concept, which, if not quickly forgotten by Marvel, has the potential to compromise all existing storylines that include this metal.
(Note: The Hugo packet specifies that only three of the six issues that were present in the packet were nominated. The other three are more action-oriented, but to get the right outcome they cheat: they contain several highly unlikely and poorly explained changes in allegiance of the supporting characters, on top of an already very generic story.)
Over the past few years, three series dominated the Hugos. Monstress won the last two awards, Saga won the award in 2013 and has been nominated almost every year since, and Paper Girls has been nominated every year since the series’ inception. For ongoing series, however, it’s difficult to judge their individual volumes. There is a reason why no book sequel ever won a Hugo award, unless all previous parts won the award: people simply don’t jump into the middle of a story and hope to understand what is going on. As a result, I only nominated standalone series. None of my nominations made it to the final ballot, but I was still happy to see half of the nominees to fall into this category. Much to my disappointment, though, two of the three books turned out to be bland, uninteresting. The third one, On A Sunbeam, surpassed my expectations, and I certainly hope its creators will take home the Hugo award.