What happens when SFF fans nominate comic books for an award? Usually I would say you get fewer superhero titles and more SFF, but this year fully half the titles contain avengers, though not the avengers you are thinking of. Also, I love comic books, but I have no knack for visual criticism, so I apologise in advance to both readers and artists if my art criticism boils down to “it looked pretty”.
Usual caveat of spoilers for bulk reviews.
Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet, writen by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze
Wakanda is beset by internal strife, and it’s king is overwhelmed.
How does a good king rule when they’ve failed their kingdom, and how do they fight a rebellion that philosophically might be right? Wakanda has been devastated by war, their elite warriors have become vigilantes and rebels, and a woman flames fear in the populous and drives them to rebellion using mystical powers. What is most interesting in this book is the sympathy that Coates shows those rising up, rather than assume that because Black Panther tries to be a good ruler he should rule, it looks at the consequences of his actions, and the role of kings. As a book, Black Panther lacks in neither action nor thought, but unfortunately, as merely the first volume in a longer arc never has a chance to answer the questions it poses. This is a series that demands further reading, but as a volume is all set up.
As art, the landscapes and cities are evocative, creating a technocratic eden in the jungle. In contrast the characters are highly stylised and angular, better in motion than standing still.
A good introduction to what promises to be a well thought out look at leadership and governance combined with superhero action.
Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda
A monster who looks like a woman is put up for auction, but she is even more than she seems.
The art in Monstress is gorgeous, from the high fantasy/gothic setting and the 20’s and 30’s inspired looks, to the vast menagerie of characters ranging from anime style angels and fairies to talking cats and the odd elder god. Even more impressive is how cohesive it feels, so that a woman with a 20’s bob can be waited on by a cherub in a Gothic cathedral, and it all feels entirely organic. To top it off, the art is incredibly detailed, and this detail carries from static vistas to fast action. Monstress is one of the most beautiful comics I’ve read in a while.
Montress is also a book with a surprising degree of substance. It starts with a statement of intent, with a girl missing half an arm being auctioned off as part of a slate of demi-humans, and at it’s core is a story about a monster trying to be better than then the people around her. From there it goes on a blood soaked adventure mixing the genres of high fantasy, revenge and mythos. It manages to navigate the shoals of these genres through careful world building, in particular undermining the cynicism and violence by tempering it with characters who are good or naive and are not treated as victims because of it. By the end of the volume, it has broadened it’s horizons significantly, and makes me extremely excited for the future.
A stunning graphic novel that mashes up high fantasy and mythos in an outstanding story of a monster trying to be good.
Ms. Marvel, Volume 5: Super Famous, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa
A teenage superhero tries to balance her family and school obligations with helping to save the world.
Part of growing up is learning to manage your responsibilities, and Mrs Marvel has a lot of responsibilities: member of the Avengers, sister, daughter, Muslim, student, and friend. This is a pretty cliche problem for a teenage superhero, but Kamilla Kahn is so instantly likeable that it’s hard not to just smile and go with it.
This volume breaks into two related stories; the first, about supervillian gentrifiers tries just a little too hard and is burdened by being a reintroduction to the character. 1 The second story however, about cloning gone wrong, exemplifies what is great about Mrs Marvel – teen super-heroics that take responsibilities seriously, but without forgetting to be fun.
On top of this, the art is everything I want in an all ages title: bright, colourful and a little larger than life. Given Mrs Marvel’s power is to continually change size and shape, Miyazawa does a great job of shifting between exagerated superhero action, and the more ‘serious’ scenes in her home life.
A great example of teenage super-heroics suitable for all ages.
Paper Girls, Volume 1, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher
Four 80’s papergirls try to survive in their town after everybody disappears and strange events start happening.
This initially looks like a period piece coming of age story for four young girls, and rapidly sidetracks into a gonzo rapture/time travel/sci-fi extravaganza. On the one hand, this makes this volume incredibly action packed, with barely a breather along the way, on the other, it means that the quartet of girls never really don’t get to expand out from or transcend their archetypes like new girl, tomboy etc. In fact, it feels a lot like an 80’s kids movie, but with slightly more graphic violence, just a little bit smarter plotting, and slightly less heart.
The best thing about this comic is the colouring. I generally don’t notice colouring, lumping it into the broad category of “art”, but here it really stands out. A lot of the book is set around dawn, and the pallet of colours used leans strongly towards purple/blue/pink, making everything muted but striking. This, combined with the very angular art makes Papers Girls stand out.
I feel it is necessary to give it a shout out for excellence in time travel plotting, with the book nailing an ordering problem that I had literally just watch get messed up in Dr Who’s “Under the Lake/Before the Flood”.
Coming of age/adventure/time travel mash up anchored in the 80’s that just didn’t speak to me.
Saga, Volume 6, illustrated by Fiona Staples, written by Brian K. Vaughan, lettered by Fonografiks
Hazel is growing up in an internment camp, her parents are trying to find her, and Prince Robot has gone bush with his son.
Go start Saga from volume 1. Saga is great, one of the best continuing comics around. It’s smart, interesting, and the art, a kind of dirty pop art, perfectly matches the material. My only comment about volume 6 is that while still great, I’m worrying that saga might be going the way of Y the last man, where it started to feel a little aimless. It’s not there yet, but I’m nervous.
Another great installment – read if you are up to date, or go back to volume 1 and catch up if you are new!
The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, written by Tom King, illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta
A synthetic man takes his synthetic family to live in the suburbs. IT. DOES. NOT. GO. WELL.
This is a subtle, creeping horror comic, set in the Marvel Universe and staring a family of purple synthetic people including and Avenger. It really should not work, and even if it works, it should not be this good given the genre of suburban family horror. The key I think, is the narration, a device overused and abused in comics. Here the narration is matter of fact, precise, and utterly terrifying.
Going into too much detail would undermine the story, but you can probably guess the ways a not quite human stay at home wife, and her not quite human high school children might get into trouble. Indeed, it is the sense of inevitability to everything that makes it incredibly compelling, and added to my investment in the story. On top of this, there is a vein of dry humor to everything, whether it is a dry observation on a floating vase, or a list of the time the Vision saved the world.
A story set in the suburbs and featuring not quite human protagonists needs to nail the art on both these things, and the Vision only hits the first of these marks. In particular, the design of the Vision’s family – reddish pink humans with unnatural lines and vacant white eyes – is a distillation of the comic: incredibly expressive and not quite right. The rest of the comic is fine, with the art having a sort of rough, almost unfinished quality, that just fades into the background next to the characters.
Suburban horror that varies between being darkly hillarious and utterly terrifying.
- The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man
- Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening
- Saga, Volume 6
- Ms. Marvel, Volume 5: Super Famous
- Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet
- Paper Girls, Volume 1
Saga is one of my favourite continuing comics and it ranks a distant 3rd in this category. I will almost certainly read more of Mrs Marvel and Black Panther. Heck, Paper Girls is a very good comic that just didn’t connect with me, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who put it as their number one. It is just that for me, The Vision and Monstress are so good that everything else suffers in comparison, and I feel that in another year without Vision on the ballot, Monstress would have been a clear favourite.