Saga — Best Graphic Story Hugo

Saga - cutting the umbilical cord

Saga has already won the Best Graphic Story Hugo once, in 2013, for the first volume of the series. I think the review I did of that first volume back then also goes for the third volume:

What makes Saga more than just a pretty sci-fi adventure is the simple fact that none of the main characters are true villains or heroes. Alana and Marko just want to live in peace with their daughter, to be left alone, while Prince Robot IV just want to get things over with so he can go home to his pregnant wife. Even the two freelancers are anything but Boba Fett like bounty hunters, with The Will frex having confliced feelings about his former partner, The Stalk.

Saga - The Will and the Stalk

But what really makes the series is the artwork; as said Staples is seriously good at facial expressions, slightly exaggerated at key moments, but also has a good eye for character design and layout in general. In general, like Prophet, this is a series that actually makes me enthusiastic about American comics again, something that shows there are still pleasant surprises to be had.

The only thing worth adding to this is that being the third volume, this is less of a complete story than the first, starting and ending in media res. I went back and forth on whether this or Ms. Marvel was the better comic, but though Saga is more properly science fiction, Ms. Marvel was done slightly better and perhaps the more important comic.

Ms. Marvel — Best Graphic Story Hugo

Ms. Marvel talks smack

I already looked at Ms Marvel back in February:

Put it all together and you have a comic that is a decent, well crafted superhero comic that puts its focus firmly on what Marvel has always done better than anybody else, showing their heroes’ complicated home lifes inbetween the battle royales. But the main significance of Ms. Marvel is who she is and that Marvel is comfortable publishing a Muslim written comic starring a Muslim superhero, that’s respectable about the culture Kamala Khan comes from and represents, but not afraid to show conflict either. It doesn’t devolve into cliches about oppression and Islam and all that while still showing a teenager chafing at the rules laid on her by authority figures — parents, teachers, religious leaders. It is essential Marvel teen hero stuff, reinvented for the 21st century.

If you don’t mind classifying a superhero comic as science fiction, this is the best of the lot, a 21st reinvention of Spider-Man and the Marvel teen hero. Remember, the original Marvel series from Fantastic Four #1 onwards were rooted in a spirit of rebellion, from the moment Reed set out to steal that moon rocket despite the authorities warning him about it. Then of course there was Spider-Man, hated and feared by the people he saves, branded an outlaw by The Daily Bugle and still doing what is right because “with great power comes great responsibility”. Marvel heroes have always had a bit of a tense relationship with official authorities, not entirely in opposition but not blindly trusting them either, not in that godawful libertarian sense that outsiders might want to spin it as, but with a healthy dose of skepticism and faith in their own judgment.

Ms Marvel used to deface Islamophobic bus ads in San Francisco

That sort of disappeared after 2000, in the Bush era, as Marvel allowed itself to be swept up in the War on Terror hysteria and a new generation of writers bought into that semi-fascist view of superheroes as enforcers of the status quo, unfettered by due process, culminating in the hideous Civil War crossover which saw Iron Man run his own Abu Ghraib style gulag in the Negative Zone and in which Captain America lost because he didn’t know about Myspace. Suddenly every superhero was now part of SHIELD or similar paramilitary organisations and it went against everything Marvel used to stand for.

Kamala Khan and family at dinner

Ms. Marvel is a refutation of all that idiocy, somebody whose background gives her good reasons to be skeptical of authority even before gaining superpowers, who chafes at the restrictions her parents and culture put upon her but who also is keenly aware that her family loves and cares for her. She’s a teenager growing up and testing her boundaries, but like Peter Parker before her, she has a good head on her shoulders and knows her right from wrong.

Now for the most part I don’t think superhero comics should be nominated for the Hugos, as I consider superheroes to be a separate genre from either fantasy or science fiction. But since it has been nominated, I’ll vote for it and put it first on my ballot, as of the four entries it’s the best and most important for its own story and for what this series says about Marvel in 2014/15. G. Willow Wilson is a great writer, a non-traditional writer for Marvel and Adrian Alphona is a brilliant artist for a series whose hero has mighty morphin powers.

Tanith Lee 19 September 1947 – 24 May 2015

Well, this is a bummer. Tanith Lee has passed away:

Lee was the author of over 90 books and 300 short stories, as well as four BBC Radio plays, and two highly-regarded episodes of the BBC’s SF series Blake’s 7 (Sand and Sarcophagus). She was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton in 2013 and the Horror Writers Lifetime Achievement Award this year, which joined her British Fantasy Award from 1980 for Death’s Master, and her World Fantasy Award for her short story “The Gorgon”.

Once upon a time Tanith Lee was an incredibly important author to me, back in my early teens. I’d been reading science fiction and fantasy for years at that point and was looking for something with more bite than the stuff I had been reading. That’s when I discovered Lee’s Flat Earth series of dark fantasy, which was literary and erotic in ways that were perfect for a young teenager like me. She has always had a queer subtext to her stories too, which again was great when learning to read more interesting, more complex, more challenging science fiction and fantasy. Michael Swanwick said it well:

There is more to these stories than the sexual impulse. But I mention its presence because its treatment is never titillating, smirking, or borderline pornographic, as is so much fiction that purports to be erotic. Rather, it is elegant, languorous, and feverish by turns, and always tinged with danger. Which is to say that it is remarkably like the writing itself.

For Locus she talked about her writing, back in 1998:

Writers tell stories better, because they’ve had more practice, but everyone has a book in them. Yes, that old cliché. If you gave the most interesting (to the person who’s living it) life to a great writer, they could turn it into something wonderful. But all lives are important, all people are important, because everyone is a book. Some people just have easier access to it. We need the expressive arts, the ancient scribes, the storytellers, the priests. And that’s where I put myself: as a storyteller. Not necessarily a high priestess, but certainly the storyteller. And I would love to be the storyteller of the tribe!

And for Nightmare Magazine about her writing process:

I write in a sort of (so occasional observers, mother and husband, tell me) trance. As the story comes, even if it ever sticks (this one certainly didn’t; most don’t luckily) I’m there more as transcriber than participant. Although sometimes I am the participant—male, female, old, young, nice or nasty—and then it’s like being an actor immersed in the role, and too, to some extent, I imagine, strangely protected. However, it’s only a reading through, post writing, that I think/say, “My God, how awful/wonderful/disgusting,” etc. Or merely, “Eeeek!”

Over the years and decades Lee has dropped out of sight for me, replaced by other, newer writers. In general, Lee’s career seems to have stalled in recent years:

Now though most of the so-called big publishers are unwilling even to look at a proposal. They aren’t interested in seeing anything from me, not even those houses I’ve worked with for many years. Where any slight interest in my turning in a book exists, I find I must work inside certain defined formulae. And to me that’s one of the arch inspiration-stranglers. I have at this time no new book, adult or Y.A, either out or due to come out, let alone any contract to produce a book for any of the main companies. And besides that only a couple of things are scheduled to appear from small, if reputable and elegant houses.

Which is sad, because Tanith Lee was and still is an important writer for the vision and style she brought to fantasy and science fiction, something not seen before her. I’m going to go back and reread the first novel in the Flat Earth series and see if it’s as good as I remember.

Preliminary thoughts — Best Graphic story Hugo

During the various discussions about the Puppies, the Hugo Awards and everything somebody, I think it was Erik Olson, made the excellent remark that new Hugo categories only make sense if there are enough good candidates each year for it. If there only one or two or even five different candidates in any given year, what’s the point? It occurred to me that the converse is also true: any given Hugo category only makes sense if the Hugo voters are knowledgeable enough to actually vote for more than just a handful of the usual subjects year after year. Otherwise it means you just have an even smaller than usual group of people nominating and most people either not voting, or only voting for names they recognise.

The Best Graphic Story category, which was first awarded in 2009, at first seemed to fail that second requirement. The first three awards were won by Girl Genius and you do wonder whether that was because people recognised Kaja & Phil Foglio from fandom, rather than for the comic itself. The Foglios themselves were gracious enough to withdraw after their third win and since then the category has improved a lot, having been won by three different comics since. I’m still a bit skeptical of how well it will work out in the long term, or whether it’ll become just another category most people won’t care about, like the best semi-prozine or best fan artist ones and just vote by rote, if at all.

On the other hand though, if there’s one thing the Hugos, as well as Worldcon needs if it wants to stay relevant, is to get in touch with wider fandom, to not just focus on the old traditional categories. And comics suit the Hugos well. There are plenty of science fiction comics published each year, even omitting superhero series and there does now seems to be a core of Worldcon fans invested in nominating and voting. Since there isn’t really a proper comics orientated sf award yet, haivng the Hugos take up the slack is an opportunity to make them relevant to a primary comics geek, as opposed to a written sf geek audience.

Now it may surprise you, but I’m a bit of a comics nerd myself, if not as fanatical as fifteen years ago, picking up most of my reading in trades. The Best Graphic Story category is eminently suitable for this sort of reading, as it also tends to focus on trades and collections rather than ongoing series. Of this year’s non-Puppy nominees I’d already read two and have now read the other two. As nominees these were all decent, if not exceptional choices, all series with some buzz behind them in comics fandom too, if fairly mainstream:

  • Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal G. Willow Wilson (writer), Adrian Alphona (artist), Jake Wyatt (artist)
  • Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery Kurtis J. Weibe (writer), Roc Upchurch (artist)
  • Saga, Volume Three Brian K. Vaughn (writer), Fiona Staples (artist)
  • Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick Matt Fraction (writer), Chip Zdarsky (artist)

Tomorrow I’ll look at the first of the nominees, Ms. Marvel.

Showcase Sunday: Hawkman (and Hawkgirl)

cover of Showcase Presents: Hawkman Volume One


Showcase Presents: Hawkman, Volume 1
Gardner Fox, Joe Kubert, Murphy Anderson and friends
Reprints The Brave and the Bold #34-36, #42-44, 51, The Atom #7, Mystery in Space #87-90, Hawkman #1-11
Get this for: Great Kubert art, followed by somewhat bland Murphy Anderson art

This was a lot harder to get through than the Atom or The Flash volumes, because unlike them, this is much more of a grab bag of Hawkman appearances. Whereas the previous two heroes had a relatively straightforward path towards their own title, Hawkman went from several appearances in The Brave and the Bold, DC’s other tryout book, to a guest appearance in The Atom, a backup spot in Mystery in Space, as well as a teamup story with Aquaman back in The Brave and the Bold again and then only got his own title. Through all this save his Aquaman teamup his adventures were guided by Gardner Fox, also the Atom’s writer of course. He is his usual dependable self, though some of the later stories are on the formulaic side.

The real problem is in the art, which starts off very strong in his Brave and the Bold appearances. Joe Kubert had handled the Golden Age Hawkman and his expressive, scratchy, Noel Sickles/Alex Toth influenced art style is perfectly suited to the new series. It grounds the series, more so than the slicker, more sci-fi inspired artwork of Gil Kane or Carmine Infantino would’ve done. But he only does the art in Hawkman’s first six appearances. Once Hawkman gets his first series in Mystery in Space the art is handled by Murphy Anderson, whose art is both sleeker and blander than Kubert’s. Especially his characters are much less interesting than Kubert’s, who could do a lot with a simple look or expression.

Joe Kubert draws the Hawks

The Golden Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl were reincarnations of an Egyptian prince and his lover and were solid second string heroes. They never had their own magazine, but had long runs in varius anthology series. As with other Silver Age heroes, Gardner Fox upgraded their origins to being alien police officers from the planet Thanagar, come to Earth to study our policing methods, choosing the USA’s Midway City to settle. I like the way in which they casually reveal themselves to the local police commissioner, who just as casually accepts their story and gets them cover identities working in Midway City’s museum, taking over from his brother who handily is going with retirement. Sometimes nepotism works. The museum also helps to inspire them to take up “the weapons of yesterday to fight the crimes of today”.

Hawkman and Hawkgirl: an equal team

Those first six appearances, which I’ve read before, are the best stories in the volume and what I like the best about them is how equal Hawkman and Hawkgirl are as a team. There’s some unconscious sexist nonsense in there of course, starting with Hawkgirl’s name, not to mention the romantic triangle subplot with her, Hawkman and Mavis Trent, but on the whole Fox allows Hawkgirl to do her part even if Hawkman always has to be slightly better. As with other SA DC heroes, they have to use their heads as much as their fists, figuring out the gimmick of each story’s villain.

What’s new in these stories is the larger soap opera/continuity element compared to the first volumes I read. There’s Mavis Trent as a repeated foil, but there are also more appearances from other DC heroes: the teamups with Aquaman and the Atom, the crossover with Adam Strange, who also provides the origin for one recurring Hawkman villain, in general a greater awareness that there’s a larger universe outside their own stories. It’s nowhere near the Marvel level of course, but it’s welcome.

Hawkman and Hawkgirl by Murphy Anderson

Less welcome is the change in artists. Murphy Anderson, though better known as an inker than a penciler, is certainly not a bad artist, is no match for Kubert. His figures are stiffer, his characters more bland, it’s closer to DC’s unofficial house style as seen in the Superman titles. It made the last half of the book much less interesting to read. I’m not sure why Kubert left the Hawks, but I wish he had stayed on.

Puppies wee on your shoulders and tell you it’s rain

This is rather rich coming from the man who wanted to destroy the Hugos:

It should go without saying, but apparently I need to plainly state the blatantly obvious, everyone should read the nominations and vote honestly.

First you shit the bed, then you scold everybody else for wanting to clean the sheets. That seems to be the Puppy talking point du jour. Case in point, this douche:

Voting “No Award” over a work that one thinks has been “nominated inappropriately” is really a vote against the process of nomination, and should take place in a different venue, at the WorldCon business meetings where the Hugo rules can be discussed for possible change.

No.

That’s not how it works. That’s reinventing Hugo history and rules to suit your own cheating. This is another tactic straight from the Republicans’ Culture Wars playbook, an attempt to bind your opponents actions with rules and expectations you yourself aren’t bound with and which in any case you’re making up yourself. This working the refs has had far more success than it should’ve in American politics largely because of the braindead political media swallowing it hook, line and sinker. Not so much in fandom though. Nobody with any familiarity of Worlcon fandom’s history and culture believes that it’s dishonest to vote No Award over any nomination that got there through blatant slate voting, or that fans have a duty to be “fair” to nominations which stole their place on the ballot. That didn’t work when the scientologists did it, nor will it fly when it’s a bunch of whiny crybabies running cover for a racist asshole wanting to promote his vanity press.

My gods it’s full of puppy poo!

This year, more then ever, the Hugo Voting Packet resembles the curate’s egg: parts of it are good, other parts not so much:

The packet contains the full text of three Hugo-nominated novels, The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, and The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, plus excerpts of Skin Game by Jim Butcher and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie.

That gets you two of last year’s best novels and nobody will force you to read the Kevin J. Anderson. Many of the other categories are of course soiled with Puppy droppings you don’t want even if free, but there are some gems among the dross. Especially so in the Best Graphic Story category, with no Puppy nominee included and complete PDFs of Sex Criminals Vol. 1, Saga Vol. 3, Ms Marvel Vol. 1 and Rat Queens Vol. 1.

Though the Hugo Voting Packet should be seen as a bonus, rather than an inalienable part of buying a supporting membership for Worldcon, for plenty of people this of course has been the main benefit of membership, after getting to vote for the Hugos and all that. For those people this year’s packet is far from a bargain, despite the presence of the books listed above. Another reason to smack down the Puppies..

Showcase Sunday: The Atom

cover of Showcase Presents: The Atom Volume One


Showcase Presents: The Atom, Volume 1
Gardner Fox, Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson and friends
Reprints Showcase #34-36, The Atom #1-17
Get this for: Gorgeous Gil Kane art and more inventive than usual Gardner Fox scripts

Though it isn’t quite true that the sixties renaissance at Marvel was due to the work of three men: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, it is more true than false, in contradiction to DC. There the whole Silver Age revolution took place while the company as a whole went on with business as usual. The Batman and Superman titles would largely stay out of it until the mid-sixties and there wasn’t an equivalent to that core of Lee, Kirby and Ditko driving everything. Therefore there was much less of a house style to DC’s superhero titles, as we can see if we compare Carmine Infantine’s work on The Flash with Gil Kane’s work here, on The Atom. Both in their own way are emblemic of DC’s Silver Age, but even when both are inked by Murphy Anderson, you couldn’t mistake the one for the other.

Like the Flash, the Atom got his tryout in Showcase, which by the time he got his spot, had perfected its formula: three sequential issues, followed by another three if needed, or in the case of the Atom, directly into his own magazine. As with The Flash, most issues of The Atom had two stories, with the second often dedicated to the Atom’s adventures in time thanks to professor Hyatt’s time pool, introduced in issue three, which also saw the debut of Chronos the Time Thief. Of course, like the Flash, the Atom was a reworking of an existing DC superhero, in this case just a bruiser whose small stature and his girlfriend mocking him for it set him on a path to fight crime — in the Golden Age this was actually one of the more complicated origins.

Gil Kane showing of his sense of kinestics

Sixties Atom was much more interesting of course, based in a science fictional origin. A piece of white dwarf star matter had fallen to earth near Ivy Town, where scientist Ray Palmer (named after Amazing Stories editor Raymond A. Palmer) found it and experimented with it. Palmer was attempting to find a reliable way to shrink down objects for reasons and thought the white dwarf fragment could help. In the end it turned out he could use it to shrink himself down with, but nothing was stable. So enter the Atom, the world’s tiniest crime fighter. Having not just the ability to shrink, but also to regulate his weight, moving from feather light to his “full 180 pounds weight” while six inch heigh, means the Atom can move about quickly while giving him a concentrated punch when needed. It also means Gil Kane gets to do a lot of great action scenes, utilising his skills to the fullest. His Atom is constantly in motion, hopping, punching, using the environment to reach his opponents and knock them out.

The Atom gets bonked on his head more than Hal Jordan

Talking about getting knocked out, that’s something the Atom himself does a lot too, almost as much as Hal Jordan is over in Green Lantern. Almost every story when the writer feels the need to drag a fight out or slightly complicate matters, something accidently falls on the Atom’s head, or some crook flails wildly and just manages to hit him, or something else happens that makes it all slightly less one sided. Though hilariously dumb when taken out of context, it does make sense in the sort of fights he gets into, with thugs flying everywhere and crashing into furniture as the Atom yanks their legs out from under them. Nevertheless it’s a miracle he never suffered a concussion; he should’ve been as punch drunk as an ex-NFL player by now. But it’s perhaps only when reading so many of these stories one after the other that formulas like this become noticable. These are after all still stories meant to be discarded, with little attention paid from issue to issue to continuity; it also must’ve helped that The Atom appeared bimonthly. You wonder if the original readers noticed these things or not…

As said, there’s little in the way of continuity in these stories, bar the occasionally reappearance of certain villains or crooks. Like Barry Allen in The Flash, Ray Palmer shows up complete with a girlfriend and like Linda West, she’s a professional woman, working as a criminal lawyer, not wanting to marry until she’s proven herself as a lawyer. A hint of feminism there? Of course, in the Comics Code world of Silver Age DC, she’s the sort of criminal lawyer who only defends the innocent, usually her friends, so you wonder how busy she is…. But it is interesting to see how many of DC’s early Silver Age heroes had working girlfriends: Flash, the Atom, Green Lantern and of course Hawkman and Hawkgirl. A far cry from the childish antics of the Lois Lane/Superman “relationship”.

Gardner Fox was of course a veteran comics and pulp writer already when he wrote The Atom and what I like about his scripts is that he often bases them on some piece of scientific or historical or even legal knowledge, which is then dutifully footnoted, only for it to get all crazy as only a silver Age DC comic can. All done seriously, but in one story based on how lactic acid builds up in muscles, you have the crook ironing the Atom to give him precognosis because apparantly that buildup gives off “ato-energy” which in turn caused precognosis!

To be honest, in the end you rarely read these comics for the story, but rather for the great Gil Kane art, which comes out very well in black and white indeed.

Supergirl



I sort of see why people were mocking this when it first came out a couple of days ago, what with looking more rom-comy than superheroy in places, but really this looks fun. A superhero who actually wants to be a superhero and has fun doing it? Not to mention that it looks like this is basically the same way Superman was introduced all the way back in the first Christopher Reeves movie, with the wanting to be normal, the clumsiness and awkwardness, even the picking out a costume scene.

A bit more soap opera in your superhero adventure isn’t a bad thing; that’s how Marvel got so big after all, it keeps your heroes grounded and it makes it more interesting than just an endless stream of hero vs villain fights.

the only things I could’ve done without were the awkward gay joke in the middle and the inevitable secret government service keeping taps of superheroes being hostile without reason, especially not when it’s yet another Gruff Black Military Guy.