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Reading the Rockets – Best Graphic Story

I’m currently reading and ranking the Hugo Award nominees for 2015 and I’ve moved onto ranking Best Graphic Story in ascending order (worst to best).

I’m not a regular reader of graphic novels and it’s hard for me to review these titles on their own merits. I have the entire series of Transmetropolitan, Sandman, Sin City, Bone and Amulet. And I own Maus, Laika, Django Unchained and Persepolis – if that helps show what I’m judging against.

#6 Zombie Nation

Zombie NationZombie Nation wasn’t included in the story folder sent to voters, but – after a little Googling – I found the webcomic online. The nominated graphic story is called ‘Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate‘ and I couldn’t find that, but I did have a look at some of the cartoons.

I’m telling you this because I worry I missed something. Zombie Nation is supposed to be a “funny webcomic following zombie slackers during the zombie apocalypse”,  but it wasn’t funny and I didn’t see any slackers. I did see some cartoons of zombie celebrities with random captions.

Zombie Nation zoomed over my head. I couldn’t even see why someone else might like it. Add to that my dislike of all things zombie, and that makes it a solid ‘No Award’ candidate.

#5 Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick

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Sex Criminals has the best story premise ever.

Couple can stop time by having sex. Couple use this ability to rob banks.

Unfortunately, the delivery and plotting doesn’t match the premise. Or, in less technical language, I had no idea what was going on. Or where we were in time. Or whether we were robbing a bank now… or in the past…

Let me explain the plot. Or what I thought was the plot.

  • We have a couple having sex. Okay, that makes sense.
  • Then we go back in time to recount the heroine’s history of sexual experimentation and how she discovered she could stop time by masturbating. I have no idea why we needed this backstory.
  • Then, suddenly, we’re robbing a bank, and being pursued by three people in white. One of whom is a woman in a cutaway coat and black panties. Okay…
  • And then we’re following the hero as he recounts his entire life history of visiting sex shops and viewing porn on the internet. Again, why? Humans have sex. Snails have sex. This doesn’t need backstory.
  • And then we have a long bit where the heroine and hero talk to each other… about sex. There is some singing. They decide to rob a bank. Hurrah. Something happens.
  • Now we’re back to black pantie woman. Is she the sex police?  Is anything going to happen in Volume 1 of this graphic story? Apparently not. 
  • Sex cop pantie woman has children and a life where she is fully clothed. The hero and heroine talk about their sexual history again. I never knew sex could be so emotionally fraught and complicated until I read this graphic story. Obviously I’m doing it wrong.

Perhaps I wasn’t the target audience for this graphic story. I expected sex with bank robbery. I got a couple reminiscing about their sexual history and emotional problems. Mainly in flashback. Without much happening.

The story could have been more clearly structured, perhaps? Maybe focused more on a couple visiting a sex therapist? So you didn’t expect any bank robbery? Who knows…  Perhaps Sex Criminals was simply too ‘experimental’ for the likes of me.

#4 No Award – self-explanatory. Anything below this is the pits. Or Sex Criminals

#3 Ms Marvel Volume 1: No Normal

ms marvelMy favourite writer’s guide How NOT to Write a Novel has this to say about introducing your hero/heroine:

If the first thing a character does is poo in front of the reader, the reader will think of him as the Pooing Character forevermore.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Ms Marvel is languishing at #3. Ms Marvel is a politically-aware comic, which wants to represent modern Western urban society. Ms Marvel wants to ensure that all superheroes are not WASP men who look freshly sauntered off the set of Triumph of the Will

Directed by a woman, don't ya know? Which may help explain why Nazi propaganda is so homoerotic

Directed by an (assumed straight) woman, don’t ya know? Which may help explain why Nazi propaganda is so homoerotic

Ms Marvel there has… drum roll… the Muslim Character. Now Kamala is a cute sassy likable young heroine who is destined for great things, but – unfortunately – we don’t see that until halfway through Volume 1. We don’t get a character introduction at all, not a proper one. Because on pages 1-10, she doesn’t have a personality, flaws to overcome or a life goal. She is simply Muslim. Stereotypically, head-bangingly, crassly Muslim.

  • Inclusion of the word ‘infidel’ (on page 1)  – CHECK
  • Inclusion of racial bullying against heroine by privileged white person – CHECK
  • Inclusion of not drinking alcohol and food restrictions – CHECK
  • Inclusion of excessively devout Muslim family member (#Snark Alert# – in a later volume he flees to Syria after blowing himself up in a shopping centre #End Snark#) – CHECK
  • Inclusion of excessively strict parents, especially anti-Western repressive father – CHECK
  • Explicit reference to hijab wearing – CHECK

Anything I’ve missed? Wearing a burka? Arranged marriages? Being kidnapped and taken to Pakistan to marry her cousin? I especially loved the ‘Shalwar Kameez A.K.A. Pakistani clothing’  footnote somewhere near the end of the story. Just to educate the (assumed) brain-dead reader from rural Alabama who wanders around New York thinking ‘brown people…. weird… must be from Venus’.

Note to cartoonists. Assume your character is a person. You know, a person, like you. With hopes and desires and passions, who is brave and vulnerable, wonderful and flawed. Write that person. THEN make your world as it is for us Londoners – you know, where everyone isn’t white, straight, a man or from Norfolk* *Norfolk A.K.A. county in the East of England, United Kingdom often the butt of  incest/inbreeding/parochialism jokes.

Apart from that, it’s a great comic. Well drawn, Kamala is sweet and funny. And her experiences are relatable to everyone who has ever been a teenager. I just wish that stuff happened on page 1-10 and her racial/cultural/religious heritage was drip fed as we went along. People aren’t simply a checklist of social justice categories, after all.

#2 Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery

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Rat Queens apparently improves dramatically after Volume 1, which is why I’ve ranked it #2 and not below Ms Marvel. 

It’s a feminist take on D&D featuring an adventuring party made up entirely of women. They drink, they brawl, they take drugs, they have sex, and some of them ‘ain’t no size 2’.  Now someone in town is trying to kill them and they have to find out who.

I was impressed by character development in Rat Queens. It’s not easy to create an ensemble cast who don’t merge into ‘leader plus friends’, especially in visual format and in a first volume. Here you can tell by page one, simply by their stance, that these are very different people. It’s not even clear as the story progresses who is the ‘leader’ (Hannah?) – they all get page time.

rat-queens-by-wiebe-upchurch-coming-in-septem-L-tcurEx

It’s a promising start to the series and, apparently, as Rat Queens progresses, it delves into each character’s backstory. Their problems, hidden secrets and conflicts. There was a clear plot (who is trying to kill us) from the get-go. And I was never confused about where I was, what was happening, or what was at stake.

On a less positive note, I found Rat Queens about as edgy as a tennis ball and I don’t think Volume 1 is the best showcase for the series. There was slightly too much ‘Women in fiction can drink too! And fight! And like sex! And have plump thighs! Woohoo, aren’t I subversive?’  Ok, ok, I get it. Have a gold star. Now let’s move on with the story.

#1 Saga Volume 3

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I was reading Saga before the Hugo nomination for Volume 3. I love this series and the strange future-fantasy world the author has created. Volume 3 isn’t the best volume, but it’s hard for me to judge as a standalone as I’ve read the others.

The series follows two former soldiers from long-warring alien races and their struggle to care for their daughter, Hazel, as they’re chased by the authorities. Hazel is born at the beginning of Volume 1 and narrates part of the story as an adult.

Saga has lost narrative momentum as the series has progressed, but I’ve found it remains imaginative and  entertaining. I don’t think there’s one baseline human here. In Volume 1 artist Fiona Staples even solved one of my longstanding character niggles – how do you dress a person with more than two legs? (Answer: a prom skirt)

There are flying tree spaceships. There are Egyptian lying cats. There are family feuds, blood feuds, assassins, deaths, births, love affairs, lots of running away. The standard palate of all-purpose human conflict that has driven good storytelling from time eternal. Big thumbs up from me.

One thought on “Reading the Rockets – Best Graphic Story”

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