First, the confession. I'm not a huge fan of graphic novels. I read comics when I was a kid in the late 50s and early 60s, and since then, I've read and enjoyed a few graphic novels, from The Dark Knight and The Swamp Thing to Sandman and V for Vendetta to Persepolis and Fun Home. So I'm not what you might call a sophisticated reader of this kind of work.
But I know something about narrative, and something about art - and I know what I like. So here are my impressions of the five nominated works in the Best Graphic Story category.
Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
written by Kurtis J. Weibe, art by Roc Upchurch
Well, holy shit, this was a wild romp. A swordpunk D&D experience featuring four very weird and warped and wonderful women, doing what mercenary adventurers have been doing (at least in fantasy) for generations - getting drunk, stoned and laid, upsetting the mundanes, and being sent off on quests so everyone else can get some peace and quiet.
The characters are well-developed, the action is fast and furious, the artwork is well worth looking at closely, the dialogue is snappy and the plot has twists, turns, and lots of interesting sidestreets that one hopes will be explored in later volumes. I can see myself looking for those later volumes just to see more of these unlikely heroines.
Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal
written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt
I came to this a complete Captain Marvel/Ms. Marvel virgin. Oh, I read a lot of comics back in the day - that day, for me, being the late 50s and early 60s - but while I read many of the D.C. Universe hero comics, i'd really only gotten into a few of the Marvel Universe heroes, like Spiderman and Fantastic Four.
So I knew nothing about Ms. Marvel before reading this fortunately, that did not get in the way of my enjoyment. The writing is good. I laughed out loud before even getting off the first page. The main character, Kamala Khan, is a teenager dealing with classic teenager issues like finding out who you are and where you fit in - but a young Muslim woman being raised in a traditional Pakistani family, she's living in between two worlds, facing racism and stereotyping outside the Muslim community, and patriarchal attitudes within her community. This aspect was handled very well, as was the process of learning to be a superhero after suddenly being granted special powers. I rarely read superhero comics any more, so I have no idea if the complexity of character shown in this work is common these days, but it certainly made reading this a pleasure.
Saga, Volume 3
written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples
Saga seems, ultimately, to be the story of Hazel, the narrator - although in the volume she is a newborn and hence not yet a major character. Her parents, Marko and Alana, are fugitives, being pursued by a dazzling variety of entities, including a robot prince with a television for a head, a bounty hunter and his companions - a truth-detecting cat and a recently rescued six-year-old slave girl - a vengeful ex-girlfriend, and two sweet gay journalists.
The reason Marko and Alana (and Hazel, and Marko's mother Klara, and a rather grisly young ghost girl Izabel) are on the run is because their people - the inhabitants of Landfall and those of one of its moons, Weave - been at war for generations and leaders on both sides fear that news of love for each other might cause a loss of morale.
The narrative follows all the parties - both the fugitives and their pursuers - and the situations they encounter. If this volume is characteristic of the series, every significant character has a backstory, and a development arc, and none of them are exactly heroes or villains, just people trying to make the best of the hands they've been dealt.
I enjoyed this, but somehow it just didn't grab me in a way that made me want to see what had gone before, or what is still to come. Maybe if the story was centred on those sweet gay journalists....
Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick
written by Matt Fraction, art by Chip Zdarsky
While it's true that books and sex are two of my favourite things, the combination of the two in this graphic novel did not exactly send me soaring, if you know what I mean. It might have been the balance - way too much sex, not enough books - or it might have been the somewhat repetitive nature of the narrative.
The narrative begins with an adolescent girl named Suzie who discovers that when she has an orgasm, she is able to enter a jewel-toned euphoric state in which time is frozen, which she calls The Quiet. She ends up masturbating a lot, and when she gets older, having sex a lot. She becomes a librarian, but then her library is threatened when they don;t have enough money to pay the mortgage. At a fund-raising party, she meets a guy named Jon who can quote Lolita and brings him home - where she learns that he can enter the same state, only he calls it Cumworld. I prefer her name for it, maybe because I'm a woman.
Next we are treated to a great many pages in which Jon tells Suzie every detail of his sex life to date, interspersed with what seem to be flashforwards to the two of them stopping time and trying to rob a bank, but being foiled by another woman who can function in The Quiet. This is the overly repetitive part I was talking about.
Then, because they didn't see the flashforwards, they start planning to rob the bank Jon works at so the library will get the money needed to pay the mortgage - which is owed to the same bank. So it turns out that there's such a thing as the Sex Police who monitor the behaviour of people who can do what Suzie and Jon do, and this is how our protagonists become sex criminals. Interesting story, but it still needs more books.
The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate
written by Carter Reid
Carter Reid did not submit his nominated work to the Hugo Voters Packet, and I had zero interest in spending twenty dollars on it when I'm not a huge fan of graphic narratives to begin with, so I was not able to evaluate the exact work he was nominated for. I did, however, spend a few hours paging through the strips archived on his website (zombienation.com) and found myself rather underwhelmed, particularly when I compare this to the other nominated works.
When I do read graphic narratives, my preference is for those that are, if not necessarily funny, satirical or insightful, at least telling a good, interesting story. Unfortunately, Zombie Nation appeared to offer none of these things to any significant degree. Some of the one-off strips were mildly amusing, but the story arcs didn't grab me and the artwork was uninspiring.