I realise that the big news about the 2012 Hugo nominations lies in another category entirely (congrats to the whole SF Signal crew of 2011!), but I thought I’d fire off a reaction to the announcement of the Best Graphic Story nominees.

Those nominees are:

  • Digger by Ursula Vernon (Sofawolf Press)
  • Fables Vol 15: Rose Red by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)
  • Locke & Key Vol 4: Keys to the Kingdom by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)
  • Schlock Mercenary: Force Multiplication by Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (The Tayler Corporation)
  • The Unwritten Vol 4: Leviathan by Mike Carey and Peter Gross (Vertigo)

The truth is, what I mostly want to do is talk about the one (yes, just one) of the nominees that I can actually say something substantial about, but we’ll get to that in due course.

The Best Graphic Story category in the Hugos has only been around since 2009, and all three of the awards to date have gone to Girl Genius, a webcomic . Its creators, as I understand it, think it’s time someone else had a turn and consequently withdrew their comic from the fray this year, for which I’m inclined to applaud them.

Without getting into the ins and outs of it all – as there are quite a few of them – it’s worth acknowledging that the future of the category is not entirely secure. It could be allowed to lapse after the 2012 rockets get handed out. There are an assortment of question marks over the viability and merits of retaining a ‘comics’ Hugo (the most commonly expressed one being there aren’t enough voters actually reading a lot of comics to make it terribly credible), but personally I’d give it a while longer to see how it develops, especially now that we’re going to get at least one new winner.

Anyway, let’s turn to the nominees. Most of which, as will rapidly become obvious, I’m in no position to say much about, other than that I have reason to believe they’re good comics.

Digger is a webcomic by Ursula Vernon, and I’ve just gone over there to read the first chapter (of twelve), to which my reaction is: it’s quite interesting. It’s about a wombat – Digger – on what evidently becomes an epic quest through a quite thoroughly imagined fantasy world. You can’t judge anything as substantial as this on its first 8%, so just two general observations: (1) the art’s got an intriguing look to it, combining cartoony with a wood-cut vibe, and (2) Digger so far reminds me a bit of Bone, which is both good and bad, because Bone is – from the tiny bit of it I’ve actually read – brilliant, and there’s not much that doesn’t get overshadowed when standing next to it.

Fables is a rare beast amongst print comics: a non-superhero title that’s built a sufficiently devoted audience to keep it going for years, and even sustain some spin-off series. I’ve only read the first collected volume (the one nominated is volume 15, which tells you how out of touch I am), so all I’ll say is this: it’s central premise is of the sort that makes me, as a writer, gnash my teeth in jealousy. Every character from folklore and fairy tale is real, and living in exile in the modern world. Genius. And if that sounds familiar, in light of at least two series currently running on US TV, I suspect it’s no coincidence. Fables did it first and, probably, best.

Schlock Mercenary, I’ve had a quick look at today, and it’s not for me. It’s obviously got motivated fans, since it’s been nominated every year since this award’s inception, so don’t let my failure to connect put you off. It’s a comic space opera (comic as in ha ha, not just as in words and pictures).

The Unwritten is something I’ve never read, but I suspect I’d like it if I did. It’s a contemporary fantasy about the nature of stories, and the characters therein, and I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about it. The writer, Mike Carey, knows what he’s doing – both in comics and prose – so I’d be surprised if it’s anything other than smart, well-crafted and entirely deserving of nomination.

Which brings me to …

LOCKE & KEY

written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, published by IDW

I was going to get around to talking about Locke & Key in these columns at some point anyway, but I guess I’m never going to have a better excuse to do so.

To cut to the chase: I think it’s a genuinely exceptional, ambitious and accomplished piece of graphic storytelling.

It’s superb not only in universal ways – great premise, great story, great characters – but in ways that are specific to the comics medium. It’s an example, rarer than you might imagine in a visual medium, of writer and artist working together at a very high level of craft, in near-perfect harmony, and in ways that complement and reinforce one another.

I’ve written at length about Locke & Key elsewhere, so I won’t repeat all that here. Follow that link if you want to witness the full extent of my infatuation, having read the following highly condensed version.

The Locke family is beset not only by grief at the violent loss of a father, but also by a deceptive and brutal magical enemy.  The objects that enemy seeks are keys, which have their own magical properties: one turns its user into a ghost, another opens heads (literally) to give access to memories and emotions, another gives the power of flight, another strength and so on.  The art is exquisite; thin, precise lines which deliver gorgeously detailed images.  The writing is focused and powerful, developing characters who are entirely – and often movingly – convincing, whatever their age or sex or race.

The 4th collected edition – Keys to the Kingdom – which is the one up for the Hugo is as packed full of potent character moments and new layers added to the already rich story as all the others have been, but it’s also more formally ambitious than its predecessors.  Hill and Rodriguez somehow – I don’t quite know how; possibly just by being very clever and very good at what they’re doing – manage to incorporate a sustained, spot-on homage to the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip almost seamlessly, even making it directly serve the main story.  (And there’s another homage bullseye later on, to one of the most famous X-Men comic covers ever).

They play risky games with the pacing of the story, suddenly breaking with the previously established rhythm to deliver in mere panels – sometimes just single panels – story developments and sub-plots that could have occupied entire volumes earlier in the series.  It’s clearly a considered choice, and it works brilliantly.  The reader is given enough, based on a single image or scene and a knowledge of what has gone before, to spin out his or her own story to fill in the spaces around what is actually present on the page.

Locke & Key is absolutely terrific.  As I haven’t read them, I can’t tell you whether I think it’s more or less deserving of a Hugo than any of the other nominees, but I can tell you that I would recommend it without hesitation or reservation to anyone who wants to see what seriously talented creators can do when let loose upon a medium that lets them spread their creative wings.

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