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I read Ms. Marvel Vol. 1, written by G. Willow Wilson, two years ago when it was nominated for a Hugo in the Best Graphic Story category. I enjoyed it, and read Vol. 2, and then sort of stopped.

The thing with Ms. Marvel and me is that I find the action parts of the stories kind of boring. What
I enjoy is the inbetween things, the glimpses of her homelife, the depiction of her internal struggles over heritage, culture and religion vs. living in a secular American city, over being a teenager with parents and an older brother and school to deal with vs. being a superhero and trying to fight evil. I enjoy watching her grow up - she is only 16 - and learn the lessons all people must learn, only writ large because her powers have made her larger than life in certain ways.

So I skimmed the comics, paying more attention to her relationships and internal growth than I do to the other stuff. And now it's time to catch up, because Vol. 5 has been nominated for a Hugo, which meant going back to read Vol. 3 and Vol. 4. In these volumes, the personal lessons have been integrated a bit more solidly into the plot, so I enjoyed reading these stories a bit more than the earlier ones.

In Vol. 3, Kamala meets Kamran, the son of old friends of her parents, and at first he seems perfect - they have so much in common, and he too turns out to be an Inhuman. The early warning signs are subtle, but then, abusers are often charming and hide their true natures well. By the time Kamala understands what he really is, he has used his powers to abduct her, imprison her, and try to force her to become a follower of an Inhuman called Lineage. He succeeds for a while in making Kamala feel guilty and at fault for what he's done to her, but when she realises just how much he is on the wrong side, she pulls herself together and kicks butt.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 4 is a bit of a change of pace, almost a sideline to something that is going on in the larger Marvel universe - the Incursion, we learn from Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, and the end of the world, and other huge stuff - but for Ms. Marvel, it's about smaller, more personal things. Meeting and briefly working with her hero Carol Danvers. Saving her brother Aamir from Kamran, who wants to turn him into an inhuman to reinstate himself in Lineage's good graces. Coming out to her mother as Ms. Marvel. Mending bridges with old friends, and classmates. And confronting the emotional bonds between her and Bruno. I enjoyed this the most of all the Ms. Marvel stories so far, precisely because it's about these things, and the superhero action arc is going on somewhere else, with other superheroes taking point.

And now I'm caught up with Ms. Marvel and ready to read Vol. 5 for the Hugos.

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Reading the Hugo-nominated graphic stories for the year reminded me that I had enjoyed several of those I'd read last year, and so I decided to check out Vol. 2 of Ms. Marvel to see if I was still as interested in the story and character as I had been last year.

The answer is yes and no. I'm still quite interested in the character of Kamala Khan and how she manages to combine being a superhero with being a teenaged Muslim schoolgirl still living at home. The parts of the comic devoted to dealing with that and with the life lessons she learns in being a superhero are still quite worth reading and in my opinion make up the best parts of the narrative. The actual comic book adventure criminal-fighting stuff is less interesting to me.

For now I suspect I'll skim the plot stuff and devote most of my attention to the character bits, and see where that gets me.

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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.

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