Hugo Review: Graphic Story Finalists

written by David Steffen

The final category I’m reviewing in the Hugo Award review series for this year, this is for the graphic story category.  I like graphic stories, but I tend to not do a very good job keeping up with them, so I use this category as a chance to get a sampling from some popular stories.

Also on the ballot in this category is Paper Girls Volume 1 by Image, which I simply didn’t find the time to read.

1. The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, written by Tom King, illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel)

The Vision is a synthezoid, a sort of android that is constructed of human flesh and human memories, created by Ultron but ultimately turning on his creator and eventually joining the Avengers team.  He has various powers, including the ability to control his own body density to either phase through objects or become a dense weapon, he also has a laser in his forehead, and the computing capacity of a machine.  Before the start of this comic, in a manner which is never really explained as far as I could tell in this comic, the Vision has died and resurrected, and in the aftermath of trying to work through his own death he has created several offshoots of himself to act as a wife, a son, and a daughter, and the four of them have moved into a house in the suburbs.  Vision is trying to understand what it is to be human by filling the role here, (while simultaneously acting as a member of the Avengers).

I loved this comic, had a lot of the sort of appeal that Spock or Data have in analyzing what makes humans human, but with an extra unpredictable element–Vision’s various selves are not always mentally stable, especially under the stress of trying to fit in to suburban life where they are obviously different.  This comic has a lot of interesting things to say about the human condition, while being both very dark at times and very funny, particularly when the Vision is mansplaining how to be human to Virginia who generally comes across as more human than he is.  I rarely keep up with ongoing comics, but I’d like to keep up with this one.

2. Ms. Marvel, Volume 5: Super Famous, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa (Marvel)

Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel is struggling to keep up with school, family, and being a member of the Avengers team all simultaneously.  She wants it all, and she’s sure she can manage it somehow.  She is experiencing a rough patch with her best friend and love interest Bruno, who has started dating someone else, and a new real estate developer is moving into Jersey City and is using the Ms. Marvel image without her permission to promote their company.

I still really love this Ms. Marvel comic.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously even while it has major stakes.  Lots of weird, fun action, often caused by her inventor friend Bruno who is often more clever than he knows what to do with.  Lots of fun, and it makes me want to catch up on the backlog of what I missed between Volume 1 and Volume 5.

3. Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel)

T’Challa is the king of Wakanda, a super-technologically advanced African nation.  T’Challa is the Black Panther, who dons a panther suit to protect his country.  But unrest is stirring in Wakanda, not everyone feels that T’Challa is doing the best for their people.

I don’t know if this new revamping of Black Panther is typical of the past iterations of the comic, but this felt more like a science fictional political drama rather than a fun actiony romp (not that there’s not action, but it’s more mixed than other comics).  So I had to adjust my expectations as I headed into this one, as well as getting familiar with characters I’d never read before.  Good story, solid political and personal stories in a time of rising civil war.

4. Saga, Volume 6, illustrated by Fiona Staples, written by Brian K. Vaughan, lettered by Fonografiks (Image)

Continuing the action space opera story of previous sagas:  before this story star-crossed wife and husband Alana and Marko on the run from those who want to kill them, have been separated from their daughter Hazel (if you read previous volumes she started out the series as a baby but she’s early school age now).  Her parents are criminals and Hazel manages to hide her tiny wings that mark her as an outcast, a half-breed that would be shunned by both sides of the war her parents originated from.  Alana and Marko must rescue Hazel.

I think I’ve missed about half of the volumes in the series so far, so that made it hard to keep track of who all the characters are and what their relationships are with each other.  I like the atypical story of parenting a small child in a space opera world, and if nothing else I enjoy the weird design of the creatures that are often mixtures of humanoid and not-humanoid.  Overall I’d say… it’s not the easiest series to skip half the volumes of.  Also, there are unexpected and rather random nudity (including full frontal), so just keep that in mind if you read them on your phone at lunch at work like I do.

5. Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)

The story takes place in a matriarchal continent torn by war between the arcanics (magical creatures that sometimes can pass for human but often have differences like extra limbs or tails or eyes), and the Cumea who butcher the arcanics to fuel their own powers.  Maika Halfwolf is a one-armed arcanic who passes for a human who is a mission of revenge, who has a power dwelling inside her that even she doesn’t understand.

There’s some heavy lifting here to get a grasp of the world, though there are occasional “tutorial” sections that give some more detailed background.  I liked the conflict between Maika and the power inside her that she struggles to control, but some of the broader political stuff I had trouble following at times.  Creepy and horrific imagery at times, and I think it will be a good story, though I seem to be a little slow on picking it up.






Hugo Graphic Story Review 2015

written by David Steffen

The Hugo Graphic Story category is the one that I look forward to the most, because I enjoy the medium, but I don’t really keep up with them on a regular basis, so the Hugo packet catches me up on some of the popular comics of the previous year.

I only read the stories that were included in the Hugo packet, so did not read Zombie Nation #2, which was not included.

msmarvel1.  Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt, (Marvel Comics)

Kamala Khan is a sixteen-year-old Pakistani-American Muslim living in Jersey City with her family, trying to figure out how she fits into the world, at least when she’s not reading comics or gaming.  She doesn’t feel that she fits in with her peers who she has trouble relating to, but she also doesn’t feel in place at the mosque and she doesn’t feel comfortable in some of her family’s strict traditions.  One night she sneaks out of the house to go to a friend’s party and begins to exhibit strange abilities after she passes through a strange fog.  That first night she takes on the appearance of Carol Danvers in her old Ms. Marvel costume (Carol Danvers is now Captain Marvel), and she saves someone’s life.  She experiments with her newfound abilities and finds that she can alter her body’s size and shape in a variety of ways.  Taking on the name Ms. Marvel, and with a new costume built from a burkina (a traditional swim garb her mother bought for her which she has been too embarrassed to use)  In this first volume, she tries to decide what to with her abilities as she hones her skills.

Kamala Khan is one of Marvel’s most memorable characters in their recent push to diversify the stars of their comic lines.  Most of the original lines were made in the 1960’s and mostly star white men as the stars, so it’s a refreshing change to see more women, more varied ethnic backgrounds, and (for me at least) particularly interesting is to see a character with not only a religion, but a non-Christian religion–even in fiction in general it’s too rare to find religion as an element which is neither preached nor villified.  To see religion (and, again, a non-Christian religion especially) as an element in a comic book in that fashion is wonderful.

But I don’t like it merely for its diversity.  I found Kamala to be a very interesting and compelling character.  She’s a gamer and a comic fan, just like me, and I had my share of social difficulties at that age.  In some ways her situation remains me a young Peter Parker–with the split between high school social things and the superheroing, the reason that I think Spider-Man proved as popular as he has.

There are lots of fun little in-jokes for long-time science fiction fans to reward careful reading and examination of background art, as well as just some other jokes such as the cereal brand “G-M-Oh’s!”

I highly recommend reading this, whether you’re a long-time comics fan or new to the medium.  This is a rare comic that has made me want to get my first comic book subscription.


sex-criminals-vol-01-releases2.  Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick, written by Matt Fraction, art by Chip Zdarsky (Image Comics)

Suzie is a librarian who discovered at a young age that she is different than other people in one important and secret way–whenever she experiences an orgasm, for a while afterward the world around her freezes and she is the only moving thing in this shimmering and immobile place she calls “the quiet”.  As an adult she finds another like her, a man name Jon, only realizing after they have sex and he is not frozen like the rest of the world.  This first volume covers both of their sexual histories, their meeting, their experimentation with the connection they’ve found over this strange shared ability, and their choice to rob a bank–the bank that is foreclosing on her library, the bank that he works for.

I enjoyed this quite a bit.  Because of the lewd subject material, it’s a hard book to make a blanket recommendation for.  It’s not a book that I’d bring up at a family reunion, for instance.   But I found the frank discussion of sex from both a woman and man’s point of view to be refreshing, including the discovery of sex when they were younger–a topic that is often near-taboo even though it’s a natural thing for children to discover masturbation long before they reach sexual maturity.  Some elements of it are pretty corny, but I thought they were corny in a good way–they hung a lantern on it and used it for laughs instead of trying to take everything too seriously.  I thought the volume was funny, refreshingly honest, and entertaining to read.  I found the choice to rob the bank a bit of stretch, but maybe not considering the powers that they have.  I’m curious to see where the series goes after this volume.

I really wish they’d chosen a different title, though.  I see what they were going for, since their bank-robbing relies on their sex-triggered ability, but usually “sex criminal” means a rapist or a child molester, not exactly what you’d consider the hero of a comic book.


rat-queens-vol-01-releases3.  Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery, written by Kurtis J. Weibe, art by Roc Upchurch (Image Comics)

The Rat Queens are a quartet of women adventurers hailing from the town of Palisade.  The group is made up of the elven mage Hannah, the dwarven warrior Violet (who has shaved her beard), atheist human cleric Dee, and the halfling thief Betty.  When they’re not out adventuring, they spend their time carousing, doing drugs (and candy in the case of Betty) and having large-scale destructive bar fights.  The town of Palisade has a bunch of mercenary/adventurer teams that are assigned tasks from time to time by the city government–after a particularly damaging barfight, the Rat Queens and other merc groups are all sent out on simultaneous missions but the missions turn unusually deadly–somebody has set ambushes to take out the mercs.

This comic was inspired by D&D games, and it shows–there’s a lot of fun, a lot of humor.  An all female fighting cast is refreshing, and it’s good to see a variety of body types of both men and women characters.  The characters were interesting and I liked to see the mix of men and women characters who treated each other as equals without sex having to be an element between them (but of course sometimes it is).  I liked some of the humor, other of it was a miss–I guess I’m not much of a carouser myself so that angle didn’t really interest me as much as the comic seemed to be aiming for.  The fight scenes were pretty cool to a degree but they often dialed up the violence to the point that it got to be a bit much for me at times, it felt a little bit like a Tarantino film here and there.


Saga_vol3-14.  Saga Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics))

Volume three, as with the earlier volumes, mostly focuses on Alana and Marko, a husband and wife of warring extraterrestrial races, and their newborn daughter.  They are fugitives from both bounty hunters and from the Android known as Prince IV of the ruling android royalty.  In this volume Alana and Marko and their ragtag crew take refuge at the home of revolutionary novelist D. Oswald Heist.

I read Volume 1 in the Hugo packet a couple years ago.  Volume 2 wasn’t in last year’s Hugo packet and I didn’t seek it out, so I’m sure I’m missing some important background for this story.  I was a little lukewarm on the first volume, but this one I warmed up to a little bit more.  There’s certainly some real personal stories told here, with Alana and Marko trying to figure out practical things like caring for a baby and trying to find an income stream when they are traveling fugitives, as well as having some more action-packed elements when different hostile groups cross paths.  I liked the art design of most of the characters, incorporating people we would recognize as varying races, but giving them further inhuman embellishments like horns, wings, single cyclopean eyes, etc.  The androids I still found rather hard to take seriously with their cathode-ray-tube TV heads, a design which is already outdated in our present, let alone in any future.



Review: Hugo Graphic Story Nominees 2012

written by David Steffen

Since the vast majority of my fiction intake is through audio, while I’m driving or doing dishes or picking up sticks or what-have-you, I have made little effort to keep up with graphic stories, even though I am a fan of the medium . Other than some classic X-Men and Spider-Man comics anyway.

So, here’s my chance to read some of the most popular of the year. Some of these are part of series, in which case I can only judge them based on themselves, not on any knowledge of the rest of the series, so keep that in mind.


Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story

1. Locke & Key, Vol. 5: Clockworks, Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)
The main characters of this story live in the present, the children of the Locke family who live in a very strange home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. They have a strange family history dating back to 1775 (portrayed in the opening chapter of this issue) in which rebels hiding from British soldiers in the Revolutionary War come across a transdimensional door that opens into a world of demons. One look through the doorway, and they snare your mind and twist your intentions. When demons try to cross through they are reduced to hunks of “whispering iron”, a metal which is not obtained through any other way. To save the rebels, the young locksmith and heir of the Locke family forges some of the whispering iron into a lock to hold the transdimensional door shut. Over the years he forges other keys with the whispering iron, each with its own specific magical purpose, and these keys are passed down from generation to generation.

As you might expect, it’s a bit of a learning curve to pick up book 5 in a series of 6. The initial scenes of this one take place in 1775 before anything supernatural is known, but then suddenly in Chapter Two you’re thrown back into the present where there are a bunch of keys which are already taken for granted and used nonchalantly while I tried to figure out what the heck was happening. A couple of strange little nonhuman characters were especially confusing until the main characters see them and explain them in some brief dialog. Obviously this is no fault of the book itself, but at my own reading them out of order. I did eventually figure out everything I needed to understand, and by the climax of the story I understood the rules of the world well enough that I could understand the stakes.

This story was awesome. Very well inked, colored, very well written, scary as hell in parts, and funny in others. This story does a good job explaining who appears to be the main villain, a plotline which will presumably be solved in the next book. I now want to go find the previous four stories in the series, and then read the conclusion in book six.


2. Schlock Mercenary: Random Access Memorabilia Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (Hypernode Media)
The titular character Schlock is an amorphous alien blob who is a member of Tagon’s Toughs interstellar mercenary troop. They have hired on to run security for a colony of Gavs, a race of people who are all copies of the same person (presumably the reason for this was covered in a previous issue, I don’t really know). Things are quiet. Too quiet. Something is bound to go horribly wrong.

I found the main plot of this pretty entertaining, action packed and fun.

Unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned, that main plot didn’t actually get going in any interesting fashion until page 140 of 294 when things start really going wrong. From then on it was well-paced and interesting. The first 50 pages or so appeared to be slow-paced mop-up of the previous issue, which was hard to follow, all the more so because apparently the previous issue involved many of the main characters’ memories being wiped and rewritten, and now memory restoration is happening. A large portion of the story space was taken up with character development of characters I don’t know or care anything about.

This perceived pacing problem is no big surprise for a series that I started on issue # 13, and really it’s probably no flaw in the comic itself for someone who has followed the series. But since I am judging it by this issue alone, the pacing issues are a major flaw.


3. Saga, Volume One, Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples (Image)

Baby Hazel is born into a war-torn region of space where fights constantly rage between the planet Landfall and its moon Wreath. She is the child of a man and a woman who are fugitives from opposite sides of the conflict. Meanwhile, bounty hunters hired close in on them.

This story was okay. It seemed to depend primarily on empathizing with Marko and Alana, the fugitive parents, but they never felt like real people to me. Something about their dialogue just made them seem too artificial to care about. Hazel might be a person to empathize with, but in the story she’s only hours and days old, and so is largely unaware of her surroundings. And the story is narrated by her as a retrospective, so obviously she’s survived and done okay for herself. I didn’t really feel connected to other characters in the story either.

It didn’t help that there were some elements of the story that made if very hard to take seriously, such as the character named Prince Robot IV, who is a part of subset of the population that has CRT monitors for heads for no reason that I was able to discern.

The one thing that had me perked up and paying attention was the character The Stalk. She is badass and it would be fun to see a CG version of her.

That said, the drawings were of good quality, the plot was coherent, and I was interested in The Stalk character. But that’s not nearly enough to carry this story.



4. Grandville BÃ’ te Noire, Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse Comics; Jonathan Cape)
“Two hundred years ago Britain lost the Napoleonic War. As with the rest of Europe, it was invaded by France and the members of its royal family were guillotined. It had been part of the French Empire until 23 years ago, when it was begrudgingly given independence after a prolonged campaign of civil disobedience and anarchist bombings. Ten weeks ago, France experienced a revolution following the death of Emperor Napoleon XII and is now ruled by the Revolutionary Council.” This is the introduction to the story, giving you a good taste of its alt-history origins. So far so good, we know the branching point of history, and we have an idea where that’s taken us. The story follows Detective-inspective LeBrock of Scotland Yard and his Watson-esque sidekick Roderick as they investigate the murder of a prominent artist. And he’s just the badger for the job–oh, right, instead of people this world is populated by anthropomorphic animals.

LeBrock seems to be kind of a mix of a Sherlock Holmes kind of detective (complete with his Watson-esque Roderick, a mouse with an over-the-top dialect) and a James Bond kind of government agent. The alt-hist aspect of it is interesting, to see what kind of world the creator imagined from that branching point. Personally, though, I found the choice to mix anthroporphic animals with alt-hist to be distracting and detrimental to my immersion in the story. The two genres just clash with each other, and badly. Alt-hist is generally grounded in plausibility, finding a reasonable branching point and showing us how different things could be. But at no point is there any reason why the animals are there instead of humans. If we were literally replaced by a variety of animals, I can’t believe that human history wouldn’t be MUCH MORE different, certainly not with the same occupations, same cities, etc, that we have today. With the combination of the two I just found it hard to consider the story anything but a big absurd joke. It’s not that humans have just been swapped out for the sake of drawing differently shaped faces either–humans are present in this world as an oppressed minority that the other species call “doughfaces”, who are picketing for rights–this half-inclusion of them just makes things all the more confusing and annoying to me.

Also, I’ve never been a huge fan of mystery stories anyway, I just don’t get that wrapped up in trying to figure it out, and so with the combination of that and the constant distraction of the weird population, I just really didn’t get into this.

The art of this graphic story was well drawn, though I found some of the anthropomorphic animals to be pretty creepy, especially when they’re naked.


5. Saucer Country, Volume 1: Run, Paul Cornell, art by Ryan Kelly, Jimmy Broxton & Goran SudÃ… uka (Vertigo)

Presidential candidate Governor Arcadia Alvarado wakes up in her car with her ex-husband, having lost some time. Her recent memories are consistent with alien abduction cases. She must decide what to do in response to this, and how it affects her Presidential campaigning.

I don’t get what this story is supposed to be about. I mean, obviously, about alien abductions on the surface. Alvarado and her staff work toward finding the truth of her experience and the experiences of others, but by the end of the story you just end up with some random images for clues, a handful of competing and conflicting interpretations of what “alien abduction” actually means, and the last chapter is just a rambling treatise detailing one person’s opinion about alien abductions.

To me this reads like an essay written by a UFO enthusiast, shoehorned awkwardly into a story structure with illustrations. It’s not really a story. I guess if you want to hear a person’s opinions on UFO abductions you might enjoy it. But if you’re looking for a story, it’s a disappointment.

This is just volume 1 of the story, but I’d say that any volume of any story needs to have some story arc of its own that is satisfying in its own, just as any book in a series of books. This volume fails at that and I wouldn’t buy a second volume based on this.