The 2017 Hugo Awards: Best Graphic Story

During an interview at the most recent Marvel Retailer Summit, David Gabriel, Vice-President of Sales, blamed declining sales of Marvel’s titles on people who were “turning their nose up against” diversity in Marvel’s titles.  This inspired a storm of online articles by commentators disagreeing with Gabriel, most of whom cited instead Marvel’s glut of crossover and special events as cause for the slump, since these have hindered reader focus and interest.  Scant days later, Gabriel’s specious claim took a further hit when the nominees for the 2017 Hugo Awards were announced, and those receiving nods for Best Graphic Story shared one obvious trait: diversity. Commentators vindicated, and so much for Mr. Gabriel.

Granted, I have not been following the Hugo Awards for long, but this year I’m amazed by the wonderfully deep diversity not only in story content, but among writers and artists.  A friend once opined that the Hugos are “cape phobic,” that nominees usually stem from science-fiction, horror, or fantasy comics, and not so much from the superhero genre.  I can tell my friend that this isn’t the case in 2017. There’s nothing to see here but dynamic stories that display healthy, realistic diversity, and, yes, included are three superhero titles from Marvel, who should stop over-pimping Captain America’s sudden love for Hydra, and give attention instead to its better-written, award worthy magazines that explore the rich breadth of humanity.

So, let’s rank the nominees, Chuck . . . are you kidding me?  Differences in quality don’t register on any meaningful scale here.  Each is so fresh, so magnificently rendered, and so breathtakingly dead on with moral intent.  These heirs to Moore and Gaiman provide continuing evidence for comics as art.  I make my choices knowing that I’ll feel no disappointment on awards night, so consolation achieved, and on with my decisions.

Sixth Place

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Saga: Volume 6
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Illustrator: Fiona Staples
Letterer: Fonographiks
Publisher: Image Comics

 

I’m among the few fans happy that the narrative that began with Firefly ended with Serenity.  Of course Fox canceled Joss Whedon’s masterpiece far too soon, but Serenity addresses this admirably, capping off the epic just as Whedon intended.  I revisit the series and film regularly, and still I experience new sensations and discover new aspects, much like when I re-read Moby-Dick or any of Shakespeare’s plays.  As I write this paragraph, I can hear the voices shouting, “Apostasy!” but I own my feelings.  More would dilute the power of what we have.  Leave it be.

Years ago, Brian K. Vaughn admitted that he knew how Saga would end, “right down to the very last page.”  However, he clarified that this could take a very long time.  Not too long, I hope.  I highly regard Vaughn and Staple’s opus magnum, and I want to continue doing so.  This volume introduced a new story direction and the most awesome transgender character since Lord Fanny from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, but nonetheless energy has been lost. Neil Gaiman finished The Sandman on a high, so please, Mr. Vaughn, take his cue and guide Saga toward doing the same.  I promise I’ll re-read and re-read again the whole of it many times.

Fifth Place

PaperGirls_Vol01-1

Paper Girls: Volume 1
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Illustrator: Clifford Chiang
Colorist: Matthew Wilson
Letterer: Jared Fletcher
Publisher: Image Comics

Already Paper Girls has netted two Eisner Awards, one for Best New Series and the other for Best Penciller/Inker, and now this year Brian K. Vaughn has two Hugo nominations in the same category.  Here Vaughn joins with artist Clifford Chiang to tell about a group of newspaper delivery girls from a Cleveland suburb who on Halloween 1988 encounter an alien invasion.  We have delivery girls, not boys, pedaling their bikes up and down streets, tossing those papers with laser accuracy on to front porches.  Today, deliverers in pickup trucks or two-door coupes flip papers on to the edge of driveways, but only for the few who haven’t transitioned to Internet news, of course.

Paper Girls nostalgic effect immediately calls to mind Stranger Things and Ready Player One, but without the cavalcade of 1980s science-fiction references.  But now we have girls coming of age in a profession largely ascribed to boys, and ably facing challenges both extraterrestrial and mundanely suburban.  Vaughn shows that the concerns of boy-packs – the Goonies, the pals from Stand by Me, and even the Stranger Things gang – apply just as well to girls.  This is not Pretty Little Liars.  Thank Goddess.

Fourth Place

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Ms. Marvel, Volume 5: Super Famous
Writer: G. Willow Wilson
Illustrator: Takeshi Miyazawa
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Ms. Marvel isn’t the first Muslim character from Marvel Comics.  Earlier Muslim characters include the three incarnations of the Arabian Knight and the mutant Dust, but these two-dimensional characters have nothing on Kamala Khan, the first Muslim character to receive her own title.  She possesses depth, facing not only challenges related to new powers (which calls to mind the early Spider-Man), but with being a Pakistani-American and a teenager to boot.  School, religious duties, and super-villains – oh, my!

Novelist G. Willow Wilson who had earned outstanding critical feedback for Alif the Unseen did so again with Ms. Marvel, the strongest debut Marvel enjoyed for quite some time.  In fairness, David Gabriel has nothing per se against Marvel’s line of diversity heroes.  Instead, he seems to think we do.  How soon he’s forgotten about how fans reacted, and continue to react, to Kamala Khan.

Third Place

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Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation under Our Feet
Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Illustrator: Brian Stelfreeze
Publisher: Marvel Comics

T’Challa, King of the Wakandas, first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (1966) when I was one-year old.  I grew up with the Black Panther, and I still follow him, because he’s grown up with me.  The first black superhero to appear in mainstream comics, the Black Panther moves into the current zeitgeist ably guided by writer and social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates.

How exciting that Marvel has started signing writers not originally from the comic-book world.  Novelists such as Harlan Ellison have penned stories here and there, but now G. Willow Wilson and Coates are bringing crisp new perspectives to the superhero genre.  Coates brings us to a Wakanda devastated after Civil War II and his sister’s death.  Dissidents challenge his right to rule, and T’Challa’s not too sure how he feels himself as ruler either.  Coates blends cultural depth and myth with political philosophy and narrative complexity — and then strong female figures who question patriarchy join in.  Marvel’s first black superhero now has a black writer who understands these subjects, much as Wilson understands hers.

Second Place

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The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than a Man
Writer: Tom King
Illustrator: Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Another Marvel mainstay receives a major face lift, this time by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta.  Since his first appearance in The Avengers #57 (1968), the Vision, like many artificial life forms, has provided a vehicle for exploring the meaning of humanity.  What is “soul?”  How are we alive?  What else counts other than passing the Turing Test?  King and Walta push these questions to extremes.

The Vision always has wanted to interact seamlessly with humanity, to assimilate.  Now to meet this goal, he creates a wife, a daughter, and a son using Ultron’s lab.  Ultron created him, and using Ultron’s methods the Vision crafts his family.  Then the entire bunch moves to a WASPish suburb.  Diversity and related issues around assimilation, sure, but add to this the uncanny valley and a touch of horror.  Many fans struggled with this series, I posit mostly due to King not presenting their Vision.  My advice: relax and let the themes do the talking.

My Winner

Monstress_Vol1-1

Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening
Writer: Marjorie Liu
Illustrator: Sana Takeda
Publisher: Image Comics

In a word, wow.  Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda present Maika Halfwolf, an Arcanic seeking revenge for her mother’s death.  Shape-shifters, Arcanics sometimes can pass has humans, but constantly brutalized by the Cumea, magic-users who feed on them to rebuild mystical energies.

That I can’t classify this comic only amplifies my affection for it.  Horror, fantasy, and an alternate-Asian setting symbolically overlay a polemic about racism and war.  Honestly, I didn’t fully understand Monstress at first but felt compelled to re-read it immediately.  Image Comics nurtures creators yearning to take comics to new places.  With Saga, Manhattan Projects, East of West, Lazarus, Velvet, and now Monstress, Image is staring down not only Marvel but DC as well.

Diversity is natural.  These nominees proffer a collective example for you, Mr. Gabriel and Marvel Comics, and for you too, DC.  Are you listening?  Go there always.

 

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