Thu
Jun 2 2011 6:43pm

Ruminations on the 2011 Hugo for Best Graphic Story

The nominees for this year’s Hugo for Best Graphic Story were announced recently, and the voter packet has also just come out—so it seems to be the right time to give some thought to each of the nominees and what they have to offer.

The five nominees are as follows: Fables: Witches, written by Bill Willingham, illustrated by Mark Buckingham (Vertigo); Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio, art by Phil Foglio, colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment); Grandville Mon Amour, by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse); Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, written and illustrated by Howard Tayler, colors by Howard Tayler and Travis Walton (Hypernode); and The Unwritten, Volume 2: Inside Man, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross (Vertigo)

Three out of the five nominees have already been discussed here on Tor.com (you can check out the discussions at the above links). What follows here are my thoughts on each nominee as follows, and how I voted—entirely personal and entirely subjective, in the way that any and all reviews have to be, when it comes down to it:

 

The Unwritten: Inside Man: It should come as no deep surprise that I think the far-and-above winner of this Hugo should be Mike Carey & Peter Gross’s The Unwritten: Inside Man—not just for its intense and gripping plot, but also for its play with speculative fiction on a metafictional level, its commentary on our desires as readers, our rights (or lack thereof) as readers, the power of stories and the potential reality behind them all. It’s a depthy, difficult, twisty comic with extremely polished, crisp writing. The quality of the craft alone is enough to get my vote; the sheer creative beauty of the world-building and the metafictional constructions win it two and three times over. As much as I enjoy some of the other nominees, if you were to ask me the best comic currently being published, this would be my answer—and not just for the Hugos. For this particular award, though, I can see no better fit. After all, it’s for “best graphic story,” and that moniker more than perfectly describes the work at hand in The Unwritten.

It also doesn’t hurt that this is only the second volume of the series, and it will be easy (for once) for a person who doesn’t generally read comics to pick it up and enjoy. Unlike the next nominee on my list....

 

Fables: Witches: The 14th volume of Fables is a return to form for the long-running series; as I’ve said in the reread post, it’s full of fell sorcery and politicking and high drama, with several discreet stories as well as a continuing narrative arc. The problem it will face with voters, inevitably, is that it’s the fourteenth volume of a long-running series—not easy to pick up without knowing the background of all the characters and the world. It’s my #2 spot vote. Despite the trouble a new reader would have catching up, I’m not a new reader to Fables, and this volume is a great addition to the series that deftly manages to balance comedy and horrific tragedy, the consequences of war, and the personal relationships that survive—some flourishing, others not—despite great travails.

It’s just a damn good story, often complex and emotional, and Witches is a great volume.

 

Grandville Mon Amour: A strange, steampunk-ish noir comic that delivers exactly what it advertises—high adventure, noir sentiment, mystery-solving and political thrills—Grandville Mon Amour was an absolute page-turner. It’s my #3 spot. There’s more going on than just the surface, though, since artistically speaking it owes a lot to French caricature art of the 19th century, and in fact the name “Grandville” was the pseudonym of an artist who drew anthropomorphized caricatures. Hence, the characters in Grandville being anthropomorphized, with the occasional human running around. The world-building, too, is ridiculously fun—the anarchist Brits and the French domination of the political world; the technology, the wars, all of that. There’s a lot of background woven into what at first glance seemed like a simple adventure tale.

It was a good comic, and certainly deserved its nomination this year, but it didn’t quite blow me away like the Carey or the Willingham.

 

Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse: The winner for the past two years has been Girl Genius—that’s not the reason it’s all the way on my #4 (though I am all for spreading the attention around instead of reading the same comics, year by year, and never branching out to see what new authors and stories are being told). In this case, I genuinely feel that the other three nominees I’ve placed above it told better, more intricate and more interesting stories this year. This volume was rip-roaring fun but ultimately somewhat shallow. Lovely, yes, but simply not the best or second-best this year. Fun isn’t going to cut it for the Hugo for Best Graphic Story; at least not for me. (This makes it sound like I’m not a fan, but I promise I am; I love what the Foglios have done with this comic, and the regularity of their posting deeply impresses me. But when it comes down to the line, it’s not in my top three for this particular award.)

 

Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel: I am clearly missing something with the Schlock Mercenary comics, because I question—much like I did last year—why this is on the ballot. It’s often funny, yes. It has a story to move the humor, yes. It is functionally well-written, yes. That’s all. There’s simply no comparison in quality between it and, say, The Unwritten, even leaving room for differing narrative preferences (SF versus speculative/meta-fiction). I suspect its earning a spot on the ballot for Best Graphic Story has more to do with the sheer popularity of the comic as a daily serial that makes people laugh—and if this were an award for Best Humor, I would put my vote for this comic above the others. (Well, probably not above Girl Genius, but the point stands.) But that is not this award. It is for story, for craft in the telling of stories, and I simply don’t see that in this volume, especially standing next to the other four nominees. I’m not saying it’s a bad comic; far from it, but out of the five nominees being discussed, it’s the one I don’t think fits the category. I just can’t in good conscience say I’m willing to vote for it for this award.

*

So, there’s that. Disagree rampantly amongst yourselves and with me; argue what you think should be #1 and why—that’s what the comment box is for, yes? Have at it.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

10 comments
Jonas
1. jonasc
Hmm, high praise for The Unwritten. I'll definately have to check it out.

I found that this year I really didn't buy very many comics. Ever since moving to a small town with no comic book store my impulse purchases have gone way down, which is too bad.

On the 3 listed that I have read, I agree with your positioning - Fables 14 was great, Girl Genius is a fantastic read and entertaining as hell, and Schlock is a guilty pleasure which I'm always surprised to see on Hugo ballots.

I think I admire Howard Tayler's work ethic on Schlock more than I enjoy the story. In reading it daily, the storylines always seem way too drawn out and paced around the Sunday strips. Reading a big chunk all at once it might be a little less obvious, but it does annoy me. That said, the comic isn't bad by a long stretch and has stayed on my list of "daily webcomic reads" when I dropped 90% of the rest of the list...
Brit Mandelo
2. BritMandelo
@jonasc

Yes, that's sort of how I feel about it--it's not a bad comic! It's just not at the same level as the rest.
Stephen Aryan
3. StephenAryan
Out of those 5 my clear winner would be Grandville, as much as I enjoy The Unwritten. I would also question why some of the others are on the list and why so many great comics were not nominated at all. I know of several people who tried this year to raise the profile of the Hugos and the Graphic Novel category, so that we would get comics that were more representative of the variety of material being produced, but sadly it doesn't seem to have worked.
Brit Mandelo
4. BritMandelo
@stephenAryan

I think it worked a little bit--for example, Grandville and The Unwritten actually made it on the ballot! (Those were some we pushed here at Tor.com in our Graphic Novel Roundup for 2010.)

You're right, I would have liked to have seen more variety, but I can take it in steps, and work harder next year to raise visibility. *g*
cjhuitt
5. cjhuitt
I just finished re/reading the entrants yesterday, and I have a few random thoughts.

My first thought relates to the fact I'm not generally a graphic story reader, which means I don't know the backstory for a number of the comics. From that perspective, Grandville and Schlock Mercenary were the two that introduced a conflict, saw it through, and resolved it all in one work. Fables did somewhat as well, with the Bufkin storyline, but the rest of the story really seemed to me like the middle of a soap opera - I didn't know who the people were, or why I should care. The Unwritten was at least close enough to the beginning that I could pick it up without much trouble. Girl Genious, on the other hand, started with Agnes in trouble, resolved that somewhat in the middle of the work, and ended with them still in trouble. Enjoyable, but barely any story at all.

Visually (since this is, after all, graphic) Schlock Mercenary falls behind the group. On the other hand, it had a story. This leaves me with a dilemma on how to rank it. (It was also the longest of the bunch by my non-scientific measurement, but that doesn't matter as much.) The others all had relative strengths for the artwork, and I find myself unable to decide which of them I like the best.

Combining my thoughts between story and artwork, that leaves on clear winner to my mind: Grandville will likely get my vote.
Cathy Mullican
6. nolly
The Unwritten is one of the best things I have ever read, in any medium. I haven't checked out all of the others yet -- specifically, I am totally unfamiliar with Grandville -- but I expect my ranking will look much like yours, in the end.

The other GNs I nominated were the eligible volumes of Sweet Tooth and the collected Daytripper.
Francesco Paonessa
7. ErrantKnave
I have a soft spot for Fables, so I'm prepared to be impressed by something that can top it. Girl Genius is fun, and I'm likewise impressed by the Foglios, but I wouldn't put it above the others.
cjhuitt
8. The Ninja
It is clear that Hugo readers are not avid comic book readers. There is little overlap of the Hugo nominees and any of the comics-related best-of lists and awards. The Hugo voters are going for fanish titles such as Girl Genius and Schlock Mercenary, along with obscure titles by fan-favorite writers such as Paul Cornell and Joss Whedon (in previous years), and ignoring outstanding mainstream titles such as The Walking Dead, Locke & Key, Chew, 20th Century Boys, Return of the Dapper Men, and Irredeemable, to name a few. I would say that the comics world is producing more top-notch work than any other category, yet the Hugo voters are starting a trend of nominating the same, often tired, works every year. Yes, Y: The Last Man, Fables, and The Unwritten were nominated, but there's so much more good stuff not being recognized.
Sol Foster
9. colomon
Huh. Unwritten is the only monthly title I'm currently reading, and I do think it's a lot of fun. But the above praise seems kind of excessive to me. I guess I'd say IMO it's more entertaining and clever than brilliant.

Mind you, I haven't read any of the other Hugo nominees, so I cannot compare them. (I did read Girl Genius, but the slowness drove me nuts, so I'm giving it a few years before I sit down and read everything at once.)
cjhuitt
10. Reverend Gary (Rev G)
I obviously don't understand this category at all. "Best Graphic Story." I can agree with someone else's comments that Girl Genius is too slow or Schlock Mercenary's daily pacing is slow, but that's judging the daily comic at the website, not the completed graphic story.

To me, Schlock wins, hands down.

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