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MIND MELD: Graphic Novels We’re Loving Right Now

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This week we asked our esteemed panel…

Q: What graphic novels are you currently loving?

Rhiannon Rasmussen
Rhiannon Rasmussen is an illustrator, prepress technician, print consultant and author living in Oregon.

First off, just so you know, I read a lot of comic books (sorry — graphic novels). A lot. I work in the industry, and part of my job is prepping comics to be sent to the printer, so I’m basically reading comics all day every day, and then I go home and read them for fun. So it’s a good thing the question wasn’t “what graphic novels are you currently reading,” because we’d be here all day.

The two series I just finished reading, that I adore, are both manga, and from the oft-ignored but wildly commercially successful subgenre of mecha — not Neon Genesis Evangelion, not Voltron, but the side that’s a closer cousin to space opera and hard science fiction. I visited Japan in 2004 or so and while there I picked up a volume of a reboot (or more accurately a complete reimagining by original character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko) of the first Gundam, called, appropriately, Gundam: The Origin. It’s a war drama, about the son of a weapons designer caught up in the battle between the Earth-based Federation and the aggressively nationalist space colonies that make up the Principality of Zeon.

YAS’s reimagining was mind-blowing to high school me; the lush colors and fervid linework of late-’70s illustration combined with a master draftsman’s hand and keen eye for pacing and visual tension. It captured the life of classic animation in comics in a way I hadn’t thought was possible.

“Damn, this is great,” I thought. “Too bad it’ll never come to the US.” Well, in 2013 Vertical proved me thankfully wrong and released 12 double-sized hardback volumes over the course of three years that collected the whole series, in English, with the color inserts. Is it pricey? … yes. Yes, it’s very pricey. Is it worth it? Triple yes.

The second series is Knights of Sidonia, which clocks in at a decent 15 volumes; it’s finished in Japan, but the last volume doesn’t hit the US for a couple more months. Knights of Sidonia starts out as a thrilling tale of humanity’s fight for survival, fleeing horrifying, monstrous abyssal aliens on overcrowded colony ships through the void of space, and then it becomes the world’s best harem anime. And then it swings right back into violence, body horror and military tactics. It’s by Tsutomu Nihei, who’s waist-deep in gritty run-down cyberpunk-world-animated-by-machines-long-past-the-demise-of-humanity-as-we-know-it aesthetic, and this is by far his most accessible and polished work. Also the machine designs are fantastic. Oh yeah, and there is an anime adaptation of it on Netflix, if comics aren’t your thing.

The third series I’ve been reading is neither manga nor mecha. It’s Harrow County, an ongoing YA-adjacent atmospheric back-country horror series by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, about a teenage girl who discovers that she is the unwitting heir to a strange witch killed and buried by her own creations. Cullen Bunn’s writing is good, but Tyler Crook’s lush watercolors bring the whole series to a damp, textured reality that breathes messy, gorgeous life into the setting and characters.

So, y’know, a little something for everyone.

Matthew Johnson
Matthew Johnson’s most recent book is a collection of his fantasy and SF short fiction, Irregular Verbs and Other Stories (CZP). He can be intermittently found pontificating on Twitter as @irregularverbal and on his blog, www.irregularverbs.ca.

Finder is fascinating, maddening, and utterly unforgettable. Now in its 20th year, the series started out in traditional single-issue form before transitioning to a webcomic and is currently being serialized in Dark Horse Presents. I would guess, though, that most people who read it do so in collected form, because a big part of how Finder works is through accretion. Like Anvard, the half-ruined half-futuristic domed city that serves as the setting for many of its stories, Finder has very few straight lines: even Jaeger, the ostensible protagonist — a nomad with a healing factor and a mysterious past for whom finding things is a vocation and occasionally a job, and who in lesser hands would be a sort of emo Wolverine — is often relegated to bit parts and sometimes left out of stories altogether. Instead each of the collections focuses on different people in and outside of Anvard, all connecting to give a bigger picture.

It’s tempting to describe the stories as pieces of a puzzle, but what McNeil’s creating is — intentionally — nowhere near as tidy as that. Finder‘s messiness is at once its strength and its greatest weakness. The level of invention is dizzying, with so many elements of setting and character appearing so quickly that the notes at the end of each book are the only way to keep track of them. The notes are also, fairly often, the only way to grasp some fairly important plot points, or to distinguish them from random asides, which can make reading Finder a somewhat infuriating experience. While you can chalk that up to a writer developing her craft in the early stories, though, as time has gone on that messiness has become one of the primary themes of the series. The dome around Anvard, which is poorly understood and maintained by the city’s inhabitants and doesn’t do a particularly good job of keeping anything in or out, stands in nicely for all of the borders and boundaries that are shown to be imaginary (though often enough no less important for it). So, too, the interconnections between the characters, whom we see in different roles and at different stages of their lives, and who often want nothing so much as to be able to step out of the web of relationships they’re in — Jaeger most of all.

What else? Well, there’s the art, which is expressive, frequently lovely, and generally walks a confident line between illustration and cartooning. There’s McNeil’s love of experimentation, which leads by turns to stories about beauty pageants, sacred prostitutes, murdered children and the search for the One Great Book of your childhood. And there are horned corn-pirates, flightless bird college professors, and little dinosaurs running around everywhere. Seriously, get it.

Bogi Takács

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish author currently living in the US. Bogi writes, edits and reviews speculative fiction and poetry. You can find eir work in venues like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Glittership and more. You can also visit eir website or follow em on Twitter, where e posts story and poem recommendations on a regular basis.

I have two favorites among the comics I’m currently following; one of them is online and the other one is in print.

Nilah Magruder’s M.F.K. is just resuming after a hiatus, during which the author was working on a children’s picture book, How to Find a Fox, and during which I kept on obsessively checking the website for new pages.

M.F.K. is a strikingly drawn fantasy webcomic running since 2012 – but updating only once a week, so you can catch up relatively fast. It’s cheerful, but it also deals with some heavy themes. It has a take on magic I seldom see, examining how being able to use magic can absolutely be a privilege in fantasy settings, but that this can also vary from community to community. M.F.K. is  also a fast-paced adventure! The best of both worlds: this comic offers the fireball-slinging with wild abandon, but also provides a more subtle examination of power imbalance. M.F.K. is also matter-of-factly diverse and has a markedly non-Western-inspired setting.

The current run of Ms. Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by Adrian Alphona, is likewise a delight. Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American high school girl, becomes a shapeshifting superhero. Everything that’s usually relegated to montages (the Training Montage, the Schoolday Montage, the Family Montage) is fully examined here, with wonderful dialog and characterization, not to mention the richness of artistic detail. I also very much enjoy the plot elements focusing not only on her being a very strong character in her own right, but also on her being a newbie still learning the ropes. This is the best kind of coming-of-age story, where I feel like I’m growing alongside the protagonist. Everything about Ms. Marvel is so relatable, from the remarks about facon to the annoying fundamentalist sibling (it makes me wonder if I was the annoying fundamentalist sibling, at one point at least…).

Ms. Marvel takes the usual Marvel/DC superhero framing and runs very, very far with it. There are a few other Marvel titles I’m keeping an eye on that are promising in similar ways, but it is probably too early for me to form an opinion on them as they don’t have their first trade paperbacks out: the nerdy-perky Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, or the new run of the Ultimates (with my childhood favorite Monica Rambeau returning in a larger role) are good examples. And I’m very much looking forward to Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther, coming also from Marvel this year.

Lynette Mejía
Lynette Mejía writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror prose and poetry from the middle of a deep, dark forest in the wilds of southern Louisiana. Her work has been nominated for the Rhysling Award and the Million Writers Award. You can find her online at www.lynettemejia.com.

The New 52: Wonder Woman

There’s a lot to like about DC’s latest reboot of their best-loved female super hero. The series, begun by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang but currently helmed by David and Meredith Finch, veers away from previous runs by significantly altering Wonder Woman’s traditional origin story. Here, instead of being formed from clay, she is the offspring of a romantic tryst between her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and the Greek god Zeus. The change is significant because Hippolyta’s subsequent decision to hide her daughter from the jealous wrath of Zeus’s wife Hera informs a good deal of the rest of Azzarello and Chiang’s storyline, which culminates with Wonder Woman reigning as not only Queen of the Amazons and a member of the Justice League, but also as the new Greek god of War. It’s the difficulty in juggling the massive responsibilities of all three jobs that forms the core of the Finchs’ run so far.

I’m happy to see Wonder Woman’s story rebooted for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that her character has a long history of reflecting contemporary views of women, becoming, in the latter half of the 20th century, something of a feminist icon. Diana’s current difficulty in juggling her multiple, equally important roles mirrors many modern women’s struggles to balance what we actually want with the expectations of society. In my opinion, super hero narratives are at their most effective when they can make that kind of connection with an audience.

That being said, the new series isn’t without problems. For me, the two teams who’ve thus far worked on The New 52‘s Wonder Woman have had mixed success. Azzarello and Chiang gave her a mature, more serious-minded look (which I like), but her character tended sometimes to veer off into uncertainty and indecision, letting the other characters around her lead instead of the other way around. David and Meredith Finch’s Wonder Woman, on the other hand, seems far more determined and resolute, but her graphical depiction has, in my opinion, veered into the realm of the pouty-lipped, buxom sex kitten (which I don’t like). While I’m pleased with certain aspects of both teams’ approach, I think Wonder Woman has yet to reach her true, modern, kick-ass incarnation.

You know, one in which she gets to wear pants.

Mike Underwood

Mike has traveled the world, knows why Tybalt cancels out Capo Ferro, and rolls a mean d20. He is the author of several series: the comedic fantasy Ree Reyes series (starting with Geekomancy, Celebromancy, Attack the Geek, Hexomancy), fantasy superhero novel Shield and Crocus, and supernatural thriller The Younger Gods. His latest book is The Shootout Solution, episode one of the Genrenauts novella series. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike lives in Baltimore with his wife and their ever-growing library. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he plays video games, geeks out on TV, and makes pizzas from scratch. He is a co-host on the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show as well as Speculate! The Podcast for Readers, Writers, and Fans.

I read a lot of comics across a number of genres. But there are few series that get me as excited to read as Image Comics’ Lazarus, by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, and Santi Arcas, with others assisting on art and lettering.

Lazarus tells the story of a dystopian future where Earth is ruled by a handful of mega-rich families, each claiming a territory. All humans are divided up into Family (the Rich), Serfs (their servants), and Waste (everyone else). Family allegiance is the only way to rise in the world, and unsurprisingly, tensions remain high as the various families clash over technology, territory, and more.

Each family has a Lazarus, a super-soldier enhanced with genetic engineering, super-drugs, etc. Forever Carlyle is the Lazarus of her family, trained from childhood to be the perfect soldier, the tip of the spear for Caryle’s efforts to protect the family’s interests.

Very quickly, Forever starts to doubt the world and role she’s been placed into, highlighting the implications of the setting.

Even better, the series introduces non-Family characters to show different perspectives on the world and how it impacts people not born into privilege.

If you want some meaty dystopian SF with action, intrigue, and social commentary, do yourself a favor and check out Lazarus. There are four volumes available right now, from Image comics.

Stewart C Baker
Stewart C Baker is a librarian, haikuist, and author of speculative fiction. His stories have appeared most recently in Galaxy’s Edge, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and The Sockdolager, and are forthcoming in Writers of the Future volume 32, among other places. Although he cannot even draw a convincing stick figure, he is currently posting a 5-word story every Monday on his website, http://infomancy.net. Yes, really.

Stand Sitll Stay Silent CoverI don’t read a lot of graphic novels, but I do regularly consume webcomics, and a lot of those are amazing.  Here are a few of my favourites—ongoing and completed alike:

Stand Still, Stay Silent – This Nordic-flavoured post-apocalypse story follows an intrepid (and fairly clueless) team of explorers as they go out into The Silent World—the lands outside Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden where no human has set foot for the 90 years since a mysterious disease called Rash decimated populations worldwide. The artist and author, Minna Sundberg, brings the shadowy world of Rash-mutated trolls, Finnish magic, and guard-cats to life in a way that’s thoroughly riveting.  (Ongoing, updates Monday through Friday most weeks of the year.)

Project Skin Horse – What do you call an intelligent dog, an immobile robot supervillain from Victorian England, a cross-dressing psychologist, a helicopter with swear filters, and a sentient necrotic biomass?  Shadow government bureaucracy, that’s what. Welcome to the world of Project Skin Horse, a four-panel comic with gags a plenty that packs plenty of story as well. Shaenon K. Garrity and Jeffrey Channing Wells co-create this hilarious series. (Ongoing, updates Monday through Friday.  Several print collections available.)

Trial of the Sun – This full-page strip is an epic fantasy novel in graphic form. It follows Davrey Eliano, a transgender (in our world’s terms) pseudo-religious warrior, and his family and friends as they struggle to keep up with turbulent events in a world peopled by walking deities—and demons—and other fun things. Breathtaking world-building and a relatable cast of characters make Trial of the Sun a great read. (Ongoing, currently updates Wednesday and Friday.)

Mare Internum – A hard-SF comic detailing the discovery of (spoilers!) an internal sea on Mars.  Or…is something else going on? This recently started webcomic by Der-shing Helmer is not for the faint of heart, with mentions of suicide, pedophilia, and amorous knee-embedding fungal beings in the first 100 pages alone. It’s innovative and breath-taking, though, and has all the feels. Well worth reading. (Ongoing, currently updates twice a week.)

Spacetrawler – Another SF offering that’s party goofy space opera and part brutal coming-of-age story, Spacetrawler follows a rag-tag band of humans and aliens as they fight to free the Eebs—an alien race with a knack for making things—from a life of slavery. Creator Christopher Baldwin has a great knack for comedy that doesn’t sacrifice story. (Complete, and available in three print books as well as for free online.)

About James Aquilone (115 Articles)
<p>James Aquilone is an editor and writer, mostly of the speculative ilk, from Staten Island, New York. His fiction has appeared in Nature’s Futures, Galaxy’s Edge, Flash Fiction Online, and Weird Tales Magazine, among many other publications. His nonfiction has appeared in SF Signal, Den of Geek, Shock Totem, and Hellnotes. He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. Visit him at http://jamesaquilone.com</p>

1 Comment on MIND MELD: Graphic Novels We’re Loving Right Now

  1. So happy to see McNeil’s FINDER mentioned here! I got turned on to FINDER a few years ago, really enjoyed it. It’s so very different from everything else that’s out there.

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