This year the graphic story category returns to an sff focus after last year’s slate dominated by Avengers. Previewing the category, we have sequels to three comics I really liked (Bitch Planet, Monstress, and Saga), one sequel to a comic I thought was OK (Paper Girls), and two new entrants (including our only superhero entry written by an author whose previous Hugo nominee I rather liked).
NOTE – in reviews of sequels, there may be spoilers for previous volumes. Also shout out to Tor’s Hugo Award list, as it can be a pain putting together all the contributors to a graphic story. Speaking of which, as best I can tell, all the cover art for these volumes is by the regular artist on the series.
Black Bolt, Volume 1: Hard Time, written by Saladin Ahmed, illustrated by Christian Ward, lettered by Clayton Cowles
A powerful king must escape from the ultimate prison…
This is fairly well trod ground: powerful character is brought low, and on his quest to restore himself is forced to confront his failings. It’s not much of a spoiler to point out that the smartest thing Ahmed does is find Black Bolt’s voice, giving him a chance to introduce himself more fully then in previous outings. He also recognises the absurdity of the Inhumans and embraces it, leavening an otherwise heavy book with moments of levity. Unfortunately there is just not enough here to make it really stand out.
The art is similar, with the exception of an explosion at the end: functional for the story, but not standing out.
For prison escape or Black Bolt completionists.
Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro and Taki Soma, coloured by Kelly Fitzpatrick, lettered by Clayton Cowles
With their plan in disarray, the inhabitants of Bitch Planet are going to need some help to tear down their walls.
I hate it when a story has a flashback after a character death. It’s usually an attempt by the writer to retroactively add depth to the departed character and increase the tragedy of the event, or fill in missing plot details. The flashback here really got me however. While it does fill in some detail, it fleshes out the world by showing us both what resistance is in this world, and just how vulnerable woman are within it. More importantly it ends on a moment, that while not triumphant, is empowering, and it sets the stage for a heart breaking scene later in the book.
Beyond that Bitch Planet continues to fuse the sensibility of exploitation cinema with feminist anger in an extremely compelling package, and at no point does the story feel like it is spinning it’s wheels. The art really pushes the exploitation aesthetic, and the colours and drawings manage to draw a strong distinction between the grimy all too real prison, and the artificial 50’s future of the outside world. I’d also like to mention the interstitials – each volume ends with an advertisment or propoganda piece from the patriachy, and they are almost worth the price of admission on their own.
Read Bitch Planet Volume 1, and just keep reading.
Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood, written by Marjorie M. Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda
After escaping her own side, Maika returns to her childhood home to try to find out what she is.
I opened my review of the first volume of Monstress by praising the art, and if anything it has gotten better here. The level of detail in the characters is amazing, with the old gods in particular being horrible amalgams of eyes and limbs that seem as likely to drive the illustrator mad as the characters. Yet Takeda also manages to make everything feel extremely grounded, with a panel of fox people refugees triggering a genuinely visceral reaction that shocked me.
As for the story, if the first volume threw us in the deep end, this volume actually puts the story onto a more solid foundation and expands upon the already great world building. From our glimpses of her Mother, we begin to understand Maika, and from her dreams we gain the same insight into her passenger. At the same time, the story doesn’t skimp on action, providing us multiple set pieces and excuses for Takeda to show off her art in motion.
A glorious fantasy epic with exceptionally beautiful art.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters, written and illustrated by Emil Ferris
A young girl who doesn’t fit in in 60’s Chicago begins to investigate the death of her upstairs neighbor.
This is not illustrated as a traditional comic, rather the conceit is that we are reading the pages of our protagonists diary filled with sketches. The sketches run the gamut, including covers to horror magazines, flashbacks to before the war, and loving recreations of art pieces from Chicago museums. In addition, our protagonist sees herself as werewolf, and is endearingly illustrated as a young wolfgirl in 30’s detective garb.
My problems with My Favorite Thing is Monsters one of excess. The core premise, a young girl whose attraction for girls and love of horror make her feel isolated and alienated from the wider community, is solid, but then we throw in a mysterious death, a sick relative, gangsters, the transformative power of art, forbidden dungeons, two birthdays, and then an unrelated mysterious death. Not only does the quantity of ideas overwhelm the book, the level of emotion they are trying to evoke does as well: the middle of the book is dominated by a tour of child sex and snuff trafficking in the Weimar Repulic that inexorable leads to a concentration camp. To top it all off, the inciting event of the story is a death, causing Karen to literally imagine herself a detective, and yet we never get close to resolving it.
Unique art brought down by excess.
Paper Girls, Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher
The girls get dumped in the distant past with the trash of the future.
Volume 1 of Paper Girls was objectively a very good comic, but one that didn’t speak to me. Paper Girls Volume 2 crossed that threshold for me, pulling the focus down to just a couple of the characters, and doing an excellent riff on a character meeting themselves. Volume 3 splits the difference for me, it was still a comic I enjoyed, but it didn’t quite hit the highs of Volume 2.
Volume 3 does two very good things; it focuses almost entirely on KJ and gives her a character arc, and it closes the Hockey Stick loop from the previous volume, continuing Paper Girls category leading understanding of time travel. Unfortunately it lacks the extremely strong hook that Volume 2 had, instead replacing it with two good, but weaker stories about prehistoric humans in a technology dumping ground, and an early time traveler surprised to find she isn’t first.
Another great entry of 80’s girls unstuck in time.
Saga, Volume 7, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples
It’s volume 7 for goodness sake.
It feels redundant to throw more praise at Saga, so let me say that their are two moments in this book that should feel exploitative, but are so well executed they moved me instead.
Just read Saga from the beginning.
- Bitch Planet
- Paper Girls
- Black Bolt
- My Favorite Things is Monsters
Lets get this out of the way first, I love Bitch Planet, and if Volume 2 of Paper Girls had been nominated I would have found ranking the top of this list even harder. The problem is Saga is a beautiful fusion of Pop Art, Sci Fi, absurdist dark comedy and family drama: Monstress is a strong story married to jaw droppingly beautiful art. Last year it physically hurt me not to put Monstress at the top of my list, and this year I felt the same about Saga.