2017 Hugo Graphic Story Finalists
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This page covers four of the six titles nominated for the 2017 Hugo Award in the Best Graphic Story category, the winner of which will be announced on August 12. Each is the first volume in a new series, although two feature characters that have appeared in comics before. The other titles on the final ballot are later volumes in longer running series, and I have already written about them separately, covering their full run, not just the volume up for a vote this year. They are Ms. Marvel and Saga. I am presenting these four in the order I read them, not my preferential order of voting. Links to paperback editions are on the titles.
Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening
Written by Marjorie Liu, Art by Sana Takeda
If I was to judge solely on the artwork, Monstress would have gotten my number one vote for a Hugo. It is gorgeous, intricately detailed, both in the unique differences between characters as well as the lush backgrounds, and that's from the limited visual appeal of a PDF with an annoying digital watermark, courtesy of the Hugo committee. The story is good too, but it's hard to judge certain parts because of mere hints on character histories and motivations, not to be revealed until later issues. Set in the aftermath of a terrible war in an alternate world Asia, in what I took to be early 20th Century, humans prey upon the animal hybrid Arcanics. Most Arcanics have distinctive features, tails or wings, or other animal traits. Some, such as the main character Maika Halfwolf, can pass as human. Human society is matriarchal, governed by the Cumea, witch-nuns who power their magic by consuming Arcanics and/or draining their blood to concoct the elixir Lilium. The few males are in the background, palace guards, slaves, etc. At this point I don't understand the genesis of the war, the origin of the Arcanics, nor how society came to be structured the way it is. There seems to have been a mingling of species in the past, or at least a benevolent truce, but following the war the two cultures are separated by a wall.
Maika is a seventeen year old Arcanic orphaned by the war, on a quest to avenge her mother's murder, which I gather happened about five years previously, before the war. Maika is apparently possessed by a Monstra, a ghost of a dead god. Most humans don't believe in such, but some Cumea do, and think their powers can be extracted from the bodies of Arcanics. Maika has a portion of an old photograph showing her and her mother, along with a human woman, taken at an archeological site. If I read correctly, Maika's power comes from a portion of a mask her mother uncovered at the dig. After the war, Maika journeys to the Cumea stronghold of Zamora, purposely allowing herself to be captured. She seeks answers to her questions, and to find the other half of the mask. Those answers have yet to be fully revealed, but she does obtain the other portion of the mask, as well as the complete photograph, which shows another woman, maybe human, and another child, definitely an Arcanic. With both halves of the mask, Maika finds her powers increasing. She does not understand the possession, nor can she control it, but it seems to be triggered by imminent threat. She loses consciousness when under its spell, reviving in the aftermath to find she has dealt with the threat with devastating violence, which scares her and the few others in her entourage. Why they stay with her is puzzling, although I suppose they think to be without Maika's protection is the greater danger. The nature of the Monstra, its agenda in controlling Maika, is still unknown.
The major themes are the prejudice of racism and classism, and the dangers of colonialism. Feminism figures into it too, but there aren't any pat answers to anything. All the characters are flawed in some way, either from greed or desire for power, or blinded by hatred and vengeance, with some showing the weakness of trusting others too easily. Certain elements reminded me of Saga; there's a talking cat for instance, and one of Maika's companions is winged, another a cyclopean child. Those are just superficial though. Although there are similar scenes of violence, and frequent profanity, there's nothing sexual about the nudity, which is mainly seen in the degradation of slavery and torture. Monstress is also missing any element of humor, or at least any that I recall. It's a serious look at the devil inside, an exploration of conscience and will power to control it. Not recommended for younger readers; a library review I've seen says Grade 9 and up. If more of the background information had been revealed I might have put this at the top of my ballot, but as is it only made the #2 spot. Volume 2: The Blood will be released next week (July 11, 2017), and while I'm interested, I don't know when I might get to it.
The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than a Man
Written by Tom King, Art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta
The Vision has had at least three previous comic incarnations, beginning in 1940. The current iteration derives from the aftermath of his creation by Ultron in the 2015 film Avengers: Age of Ultron, and following the events in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. Those are the only experiences I have with the character. Vision wishes to be more human, so he returns to the lab where he was created, in order to build a family for himself. He now has a wife, Virginia, and two children, Viv and Vin. They move to the suburbs near Washington, DC. Their neighbors know of his association with the Avengers, although they are not as accepting of him as they would one of the other heroes. After all, he is an android. However normal they try to be, there are cultural barriers that keep them separate from their human neighbors, and in this aspect the story parallels the immigrant experience.
It starts out in a manner that made me think it would be more like a situation comedy, a fish out of water story, a weird family surrounded by quirky neighbors. It is that, but so much more. Due to their notoriety, the family is subject to inquisitive people scrutinizing their every move, and the kids are either harassed by school bullies or befriended by those star-struck by celebrities. Being one of the Avengers, Vision also has enemies, and with just one encounter the story turns dark quickly, more of a psychological thriller. I'm not going to say any more about the plot. It does what the best science fiction has always done, holds up a mirror for us to examine what it means to be human. All the while Vision and his family are asking themselves, "What is normal? Can we be normal? Can we fit in?" In several ways the answers are a definite yes, since they exhibit the most normal actions and reactions to given stimuli, mainly self awareness and self preservation. They also learn how to lie. What could be more human that that?
This edition collects the first six issues of the story. Volume 2: Little Better Than a Beast was released in December of last year, which has issues 7-12. Apparently that is all for this particular story arc by Tom King, but more than likely Vision will reappear in other Marvel titles in the future. As with Monstress, I would like to continue with this story but I don't know when that might happen. I have tons of books to read already, and my budget for more is non-existent at this time.
Paper Girls, Volume 1
Written by Brian K. Vaughan, Art by Cliff Chiang
Vaughan is on the Hugo ballot twice this year, for this title as well as Saga. The latter is definitely better, but there's a lot to recommend about this one too. If you liked Netflix's "Stranger Things," or any of the '80s movies and TV that inspired it, you should like Paper Girls. The story begins in the early morning hours of November 1, 1988. Four 12-year-old girls meet along their paper routes in the fictional Cleveland suburb of Stony Stream, only to discover weird happenings in their neighborhoods. At first, they assume people are still celebrating Halloween, but they can't ignore the signs for long. Danger is about, threatening their safety, and the safety of their families and town. The hardest part will be getting the police and others to take them seriously. Being just the first volume (five issues) of an ongoing story, it only introduces certain things, it doesn't resolve any, and ends on a huge cliffhanger. The possibilities are an invasion from space, maybe from an alternate dimension, or quite possibly from a future time (or maybe all three?).
This won two Eisner awards last year, Best Artist and Best New Series, and since those are presented at the annual San Diego Comic Con, it means only the first volume was considered. Volume 2 (issues 6-10) came out last December, and Volume 3 will be released next month (August 2, 2017). While it would be interesting to see where the plot goes in the later issues, this is further down my list of things to anticipate for the future. I think Monstress is a better new series, and it's art is also superior. Anything can happen with the Hugos of course, but this was at the bottom of my ballot. Not bad, just not special enough, with too many better ones competing.
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book One
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Art by Brian Stelfreeze
I had heard of Coates before, but had not read anything by him, except maybe a magazine article online. The character of Black Panther was the best part of Captain America: Civil War, and even though I've grown tired of superhero films of late, the new BP movie due out next February is highly anticipated. I felt the same about this comic, even bought it for Kindle when it was on sale, although for some reason I didn't get around to reading it until it was time for Hugo consideration. I liked it, but not as much as I had hoped. The artwork is terrific, with the exception that several characters were hard to distinguish from each other from scene to scene, and again, this being just the first volume of an ongoing story, it's hard to judge the plot. As with so many other comic characters, my knowledge of them is limited, usually to just their film appearances. Black Panther was first introduced in Marvel Comics in July, 1966, preceding the political organization of the Black Panther Party by a few months. His real name is T'Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which derives its wealth and success from the mining of the almost indestructable metal vibranium. Captain America's shield was constructed of it, and Black Panther's costume consists of a special weave of vibranium and other elements. I do believe this story is set some time after Civil War, but also contains elements from previous comic stories, and I don't know how much it might influence the movie. As far as I've been able to determine, this series has concluded with the third volume, a total of twelve issues. Not sure if I can get to those before the movie, but I would like to, but I'm sure I'll at least re-read the first volume. Maybe I'll appreciate it more the second time. For others who are interested, here are the links for Book Two and Three.
In summation, here is how I voted for this year's Best Graphic Story:
1. Ms. Marvel
3. The Vision
5. Black Panther
6. Paper Girls
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