Notes/first impressions: 3 Hugo-nominated graphic novels

Sex Criminals Volume One: One Weird Trick – Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Rat Queens Volume One: Sass and Sorcery – Kurtis I. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch
Saga Volume Three – Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

When I read Ms. Marvel vol.1, I thought that it was a bit flimsy for a graphic novel, especially what with it not being a complete story but more of an opening chapter. Having now read three other works that have been nominated for a Graphic Novel Hugo for 2015, I have to walk that back a little. These three other candidates all have the same problem, and it’s the very smoothness of G. Willow Wilson’s storytelling that makes it more readily apparent. In a direct comparison with Ms. Marvel these three suffer rather badly. Ms. Marvel tells its story in a very clear and straightforward way so that pre-teens and young teens who may not be the worlds biggest comics fans and who won’t have decades of media consumption under their belts will be able to read it easily. Sex Criminals, Rat Queens and Saga are all aimed at older, savvier audiences and try to do different things with how they tell their stories, but they don’t do their thing with as much flair and accomplishment as Ms. Marvel does its thing.

Sex Criminals for example, is aimed at adults. Its narrative is dense and multilayered, mixing present-moment, flashbacks and in-the-moment-asides throughout, as well as using colour and effects to indicate when time is stopped or when an aside visually interacts with the present moment. Sometimes it goes quite far in smooshing these approaches together, such as when a character tells a story of something that happened in her past, and interrupts her narration with a “zzzz” sound when the past version of the character in the narration falls asleep for a moment. Thing is, it doesn’t always work, and when it does, it ends up papering over some big continuity errors, not the least of which is about when the lead characters know what about their antagonists.The art is also not as lively as that of Ms. Marvel and there are quite a few questionable design and colouring decisions throughout, such as the use of dark(ish) colours and gradients in word balloons.
None of this stops the first volume of Sex Criminals from being a perfectly enjoyable, often witty and thoughtful comic to spend an hour or so with. The lead characters are relatable, flaws and all and there were several good laughs in it. I will check out the next volume some time.

Rat Queens has an ensemble cast, and features elves, witches, brawling and beer. One of its selling points according to the blurb is that it has female characters who are written (by Kurtis J. Wiebe, who is a dude) and drawn (by Roc Upchurch, who is a dude and holy shit it’s someone I’ve followed on DeviantArt for years, and holy shit he’s not drawing the comic anymore as of November 2014 because he was arrested for domestic violence that month. I’m out of touch) realistically, with proper characterization and different body types and all. Now that I’m actually typing that sentence, it feels like it’s 2004 all over again. This is supposed to be noteworthy? I don’t even think the artist does the range of body types all that convincingly, at least not between the four characters that make up the main cast. But I digress. Like Ms. Marvel, this uses lineair style of storytelling, but much more loosely, with harsher, faster transitions and bigger gaps between scenes and chapters. I found it hard to follow in places, though that may have had to do with me being tired at the time, and some of the transitions might have worked better in the monthly or bimonthly installments. There actually appear to be bits missing from the collection: I can’t for the life of me figure out what the phrase “what the assassin said” referred to. The assassin, in that one scene, said “Dicks” and then died. Could be bad script editing, could be a page that was accidentally left out of the book. Don’t know which option is worse.
I also found the art very uneven. Upchurch has won quite a bit of praise for the things he does well, such as fighting scenes and facial expressions. But in scenes where the backgrounds play a prominent part, his perspective is often off and the compositions can get a bit messy. His page layouts aren’t the most readable.
Finally, I found that the sass part of “Sass and sorcery” got on my nerves a bit, as American comic-book witticisms often do. I enjoyed Rat Queens despite its flaws, but those flaws did add up.

And that leaves us with Saga The nominated work here isn’t even a first part, but lands the reader in the middle of a story spanning multiple years and a vast fictional universe. This made it difficult for me to get into it at all, but what I could see in front of me honestly didn’t help. It’s competently done, I guess, and the characters look interesting, but the overall impression I got was that I was looking at a lesser-known Vertigo title. There seemed to be a large number of different things thrown in for no other reason than that they were cool. I might have got more into it if I’d started with volume I, but for the purpose of judging it for the Hugo, to say that is to make excuses for it.

Above, I’ve dwelled on the flaws of the comics discussed a lot, and I would like to mention that I really did enjoy two of them and found things to enjoy in the third. They have flaws but they’re not disastrous ones. As the incompleteness problem is apparently par for the course for this category, I’ve decided to ignore this and give all works the benefit of the doubt on that score as far as award-worthiness is concerned. I have decided to vote all four above No Award for the Hugos, in, as it happens, the exact same order as I read and discussed them. My preliminary vote for the category, then, is

1. Ms Marvel
2. Sex Criminals
3. Rat Queens
4. Saga
5. No Award.

There is one more nominee that, for reasons I’ve outlined before, I will skip for now. If I have time, I may check it out and if it rocks my world, it may end up on my ballot. If it turns out to be the only complete work on the ballot, the benefit of the doubt I’ve given these four works will not apply and they may all end up below No Award (in the same order), so there is ample scope for an upset.

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