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Words and Pictures: The 2012 Hugo Nominations for Best Graphic Story

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 …


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.

8 Comments on Words and Pictures: The 2012 Hugo Nominations for Best Graphic Story

  1. rowanmdm // April 24, 2012 at 6:26 pm //

    I do read Fables still, though I don’t think vol. 15 is one of the better ones, but I ADORE Digger. I concede things take a little while to get going, but there are so many wonderful things Vernon does. Not only are the characters great (Shadowchild! Ed! Boneclaw Mother!) but the world-building is interesting (oracular slugs and the Veiled who serve all the gods) and there is amazing social commentary without being preachy. Vernon addresses spousal abuse (wife beating husband which is so rarely dealt with), the creation of a personal moral code and how much to impose that moral code on others, and the refusal to let a label determine who we are or what we can do. I strongly recommend reading further.

    As far as the Bone comparison, while I can see the similarities they aren’t significant the further Digger progresses. Of course I also read Digger before Bone, so that might be why I don’t see as many similarities aside from brilliant writing and engaging art style.

  2. Judging Digger by the beginning really doesn’t do it justice. Not that the beginning isn’t good, but up until Digger’s appearance in front of the statue of Ganesh it was really just an artistic experiment.

    It’s also unique in epic fantasy comics. It’s a comic with a strong female lead that isn’t all boobs and chainmail bikini. What, you couldn’t tell? Apparently that’s common when dealing with wombats.

  3. Well I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s convinced me to go give Digger a thorough read. As I said, I did think the beginning was interesting, so I’d have gone back to it at some point, but given the recommendations I’ll definitely do so and maybe report back in a future edition of this column.

    I did realise that the central character is female – but it would indeed be easy to read some distance without realising that, which maybe says something about the subconscious preconceptions a male reader approaches a comic (or any fiction) with. I wonder if, when the sex of a character is not obviously indicated by art, dialogue or context, male readers assume he/she is male, and female that he/she is female?

    Either way, I look forward to exploring the world of Digger a bit further …

  4. I’d recommend another try at Schlock Mercenary. Tayler has a sharp wit, makes good use of a lot of familiar SF tropes and continually improves in terms of both writing and drawing. He’s even inspired professionally published “fanfic”! A required daily read with me and I even had a conversation with him on this site a while back:

    He’s got my vote.

  5. I’d suggest a second look with Force Multiplication, which begins here:

    Recently he really got me with this one:

    • Yeah, I’ll certainly take another run at Schlock Mercenary – I can see the potential appeal, and that it’s well done, even if it hasn’t grabbed me quite yet.

      To be honest I wouldn’t be particularly surprised to see it win the Hugo this year, since it’s done well in the voting in past years. In fact, on the basis of nothing whatsoever but guesswork, my ‘official’ prediction for the category is: a close run thing between Schlock Mercenary and Fables to claim the rocket. Possibly too close to call!

      • Schlock Mercenary’s “problem” when it comes to new readers, like yourself, is its ‘long tail of canon’. By that I mean that you must read from the beginning (and wait for a good 6 months before he gets the feel of comic writing) before you understand everything that will come *after*.

        IMHO (and this is tough, coming from a Schlock fan) Howard Taylor’s best years were from 2000 to 2008. Read Book 2, The Teraport Wars, through Book 9, The Body Politic (ESPECIALLY Book 9, Royal Flush :p ) and you’ll get Mr. Taylori n all his brilliant whit, irony and slapstick.

        The stories afterwards?

        Well, I believe Mr. Taylor is writing good sci-fantasy pulp graphic comics, but not necessarily FUNNY pulp graphic comics. Mr. Taylor’s more recent works take a turn towards strong storytelling (fishing for a Hugo?) over comic or entertainment impact, which is quite an ironic statement there.

        • Yeah, it’s an issue with a lot of webcomics – even more so than in print comics, I think – that if you’re not in at the start it can be tough to get yourself onto the wavelength, particularly when there’s a seriously big ‘back catalog’ of stories, as there is with the long-running series like Schlock. With humor, the whole wavelength thing is hugely important, for sure.

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