Hugo reading 2018: Graphic Story nominations

Yep, skipping around all over the list here, but there is method in my madness!  I plan to get the Campbells, Short Stories, and Graphic Novels under my belt by Saturday, so that I can feel like I’ve made some progress, and the Graphic Novels really need to be read on my computer at home (I learned my lesson about that last year when I read them on my work computer, and holy full-frontal nudity, Batman, was that not work-safe!)

So. Let me start by saying that this is a section I am very much unqualified to judge because I don’t really read or like Graphic Novels.  Too often, I find it hard to tell the characters apart, and I find it very hard work to follow the story as a result.

Of course, this is isn’t helped by the fact that the Hugos give you one volume of a continuing story, and I don’t generally enjoy the story enough to want to go back and read the rest.

Anyway, first cab off the rank this year is Paper Girls, Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher (Image Comics).  Volume 1 was in the Hugo Reader pack last year, and I quite liked it, despite finding it hard to follow.  I like the 12-year-old protagonists, the 80s look, and the time travel plot, which was just beginning to be implied in the first volume and is clearly in full swing here.  There’s some nice dialogue (I’m especially amused by the conversation around one of the girls getting her period), and while there is a certain amount of violence, the worst of it is implied rather than shown.  I like it enough that I’d probably go back and read Volume 2, if someone put it in front of me, but I’m unlikely to do so if it involves any effort on my part.  I know this is damning with faint praise, but frankly, faint praise is all you’re likely to get from me in this section.  Given how I felt about last year’s entires, the odds are high that this will be in my top two.

Next up is Saga, Volume 7, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics). We had one from this series in the Hugos last year, too.  I don’t remember much about it.  But on page two it’s Holy Giant Penises, Batman, and I remember that this was the one I really could NOT read at work.  Pluses… well, when it’s not pictures of things I really was just fine not seeing, the artwork is rather nice – I like the use of colour a lot.  And I do love the sphinxy cat who can tell if you are lying.  Also, Meerkats in cute outfits!  I like that they can watch the robot man’s dreams on his computer screen face.

This one suffers a LOT from not being read in context, I think – there are so many threads to keep track off, and so many characters to try to tell apart.  But even aside from that, I’m pretty sure it’s not for me.  Too much violence, too much very sexualised nudity, and also, wow, did they kill off a lot of sympathetic characters in this story.  There’s also a miscarriage at the end of the story, so that’s fun.  If this is a typical example of the death rate, I’m surprised there are still so many characters left.  Seriously, that was a depressing read.

Last year’s shortlist included the first volume of Monstress. I remember finding the artwork beautiful and the plot horrific.  This year we have Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood, written by Marjorie M. Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image Comics), and the same applies.

Really, the artwork is gorgeous, but you are not going to get a proper review of this one from me, because the plot got straight onto the torturing of cats pretty early on, and then a cat looking sick and miserable, and I just couldn’t stop thinking of Mayhem and it was too much right now.  It wasn’t graphic, but I remember from last time that this author is capable of VERY graphic violence, and I just don’t trust her to make things even worse.

(Which feels a bit lazy and cowardly – and it’s true I’m happy to have an excuse not to read a comic with strong horror elements – but I have vivid memories of last year’s unofficial Hugo theme of Stories In Which People Do Horrible Things To Cats, and I’m just not willing to go there again.)

So, douze points for art, nul points for story.  Probably still goes higher than Saga, where I wasn’t that taken with the art and also didn’t like the story, but I don’t know.  If anyone has read this one and wants to provide a proper review in the comments, they can.  I may just give Andrew my vote on this whole category.

Next, I tried Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro and Taki Soma, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick, lettered by Clayton Cowles (Image Comics).  This starts with a content advisory that basically says “Hi!  This is a flashback and it is super rapey, Catherine, do you actually want to read this?”  So I went and complained to Andrew that I might not like Graphic Novels much, but these aren’t even stories I’d want to read in actual books, and he said, yes, well, Bitch Planet is kind of like A Handmaid’s Tale, only with more rape, so now I feel even more motivated to read it… Anyway, I then tried to hand over the entire graphic novel section of this project to Andrew, to which he responded by helpfully fast-forwarding through the flashback bit for me.

Which means I do have to at least try to read it, but I’m really not going into this with a strong sense of optimism…

Surprisingly, I quite liked this one.  It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could distinguish the characters fairly reliably; while there was plenty of violence, it was somehow less graphic and confronting than in Saga or Monstress; and I did enjoy the feminism (especially the little sections from horrifyingly misogynistic women’s magazines).  There were some strong emotional moments. I wasn’t sure what to make of the scene at the start of the second main story, when the security guard casually shoots and kills two children who are taking a shortcut through a shopping centre.  It was effective (and very reminiscent of what happened to poor Trayvon Martin), but it didn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the story.  The ‘virtual visit’ between father and daughter later in the story was also very effective emotional theatre.  And the authors seemed to be making some points about gender and TERFs, which seem like points worth making.

I didn’t quite follow the overall plot – hardly surprising coming in at Volume 2 – and the artwork did nothing for me at all, but overall, I think it’s coming in second, after Paper Girls.

I’ve read Saladin Ahmed’s first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, and quite liked it, but the Hugo Voter pack did not contain a copy of Black Bolt, Volume 1: Hard Timewritten by Saladin Ahmed, illustrated by Christian Ward, lettered by Clayton Cowles (Marvel), so in the normal course of things, I wouldn’t have read it.  But Andrew had a copy of it on his computer, and since I thought there was a slightly higher than normal chance that I’d like this one, I thought I’d better read it.

Which was a good decision, because it’s my favourite so far.

I’m a terrible audience for graphic novels, as you are probably gathering.  Aside from the fact that the ones which get nominated tend to have a lot more violence and misery than I prefer in a book (and that I’m really good at having nightmares and don’t require handy visual references for that), I’m not a very visual person, and find that I have to work hard to follow the story.  I’m not great at remembering faces (and I often find characters in comics hard to tell apart in the first place), and so I have to concentrate a lot to work out who is doing what with whom.  And even then, I don’t succeed.

So one nice thing about this comic was that I could, with only a couple of exceptions, readily tell the characters apart.  I quite liked the art, too, particularly the use of colour (and I’ll be willing to bet that Andrew liked it even more than I did, since it had some mildly psychedelic moments and effects to it).  Also, it was nice to have a story which had a plot that I could follow, a clear (and quite happy) ending, and in which the violence was almost all superhero comic style violence rather than being realistic.  (Seriously, though, I could always use less violence in my comics…).  I liked the way the various characters had to team up and use their skills to beat the villain, and I liked the way Black Bolt made his decision about whether to rescue the prisoners or his wife.  I liked his realisation that while the prisoners were all legitimately criminals, nobody deserved this form of punishment.  (It made me wonder if Ahmed was riffing on the concept of Hell, actually, particularly since the jailor turns out to have started off as the first prisoner…)

Basically, it was a strong, self-contained, coherent story, told well, with nice art, and unless the final graphic novel is extraordinary (and it might be – once again I’ve saved the thing I think I’m most likely to enjoy for last) it’s going to the top of my ballot.

Which brings us to the final work in this category, My Favorite Thing is Monsters, written and illustrated by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics).

First up, I have to say I love the artwork – it’s in a pencil sketch style, and the narrator, Karen Anne (Kare for short) is a young girl (early high school, I think), so it looks like it’s written in her school notebooks, across her maths tests, and so forth, and there are layers to them – doodles off to the side or even inside the main drawings, faces superimposed on other faces if someone is listening to what the other person is saying, and so forth.  It’s very detailed and very appealing. The lettering is in the same pencil, in square letters, which makes it a bit hard to read, especially on my computer.

There’s a lot of classical art in there, too, and a bit of art theory, which delights me, because I completely fail to get most art and any information on this front is a good thing.  I love the relationship between Kare and the artwork she loves to look at.  There are also some lovely descriptions:

Like I said, basements usually smell like surrealism but kitchens and gardens almost always smell like Impressionism. Because our kitchen is part of a basement apartment, it smells like the early Impressionism of Vincent Van Gogh – all big strokes of umber and ochre – a peppery greasy I-love-you smell.

The story matches the artwork – stories layered on stories, complex and sad and gently humorous and a little confusing. The setting is 1968 in Chicago, and Kare’s family is part Mexican.  There is the Vietnam war in the background (and Kare’s older brother is of an age to be drafted).  Her father is not there, and there is a general feeling of good riddance about that, but this means that the household is placed somewhat precariously, socially and economically.

Kare is a social outcast at school, and visualises herself as part monster – she always has fangs in the pictures, and a sort of low-slung jaw. She seems pretty content with this idea of herself, however – in fact, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that she finds power in being a young monster rather than a young girl. She is fond of monsters and detectives, and when her odd neighbour, Anka, who loves plants, especially roses, and fears the Nazis, dies in mysterious circumstances, she resolves to find out what happened.  And… she mostly does.  Though honestly, at the end of the book, there is still a bunch of staff that seems only half-resolved, or ambiguously resolved, which was very frustrating.

There’s a lot to like here.  There is also an absolute abundance of triggers. Nothing is very graphic, but it’s all pretty detailed. I’m torn between spoilers and letting people know that really, this book does contain almost all the things that one might find unpleasant or psychologically triggering to read, so I’m going to put the next bit of this in yellow, so that you have to highlight it with your mouse in order to read it.

So, things in this comic that you might not want to read about:

  • child sexual abuse.  There is a character who is sold by her mother, and later sold again to a child brothel.  This section goes on for a fair while.  She eventually manages to get free but,
  • she’s Jewish and it’s Berlin in the 1930s.  So she gets shipped off to a Nazi death camp… and escapes by essentially setting up her own brothel.  
  • there is attempted sexual assault of another character
  • there is a character who spends much of the book dying of cancer
  • there is lots of casual racism and a bit of casual homophobia (Kare prefers girls).
  • there is bullying, murder, blackmail, and adultery
  • I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.  But if it’s unpleasant, it’s in here.

I mean, no wonder Kare prefers to be a monster.  Look what she is surrounded with. Also, I’m seriously beginning to wonder about the background level of rape in hugo-nominated graphic novels. It seems to be very pervasive… why are these the stories graphic novelists want to tell? And then, we get an ambiguous ending where we still don’t know if Kare’s brother will be shipped off to Vietnam, or alternatively to prison, leaving her with no family in a pretty wretched environment.  And we also get a ‘oh, by the way there is someone important called Victor but who knows who that is’ moment, which is probably sequel-bait but rather enraged me, because after putting me through that much grimness, I wanted a proper ending to the story, damn it!

Weirdly, despite all of this, the narration manages to be quirky and light enough that it isn’t an utter slog.  But it’s not exactly a fun read. And I think it probably deserves best Graphic Story.  It’s complex, beautifully drawn, and has a really unique narrative voice, and somehow it made me not hate it even though it did several things that usually annoy me beyond measure.  I just wish I hadn’t had to read it.

I think my voting order will be My Favourite Thing is Monsters, then Black Bolt, then Paper Girls, then Bitch Planet, then Monstress, then Saga.

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