Thursday, July 21, 2011

Comics Round-Up: Hugo Nominated

I recently read three graphic novels primarily because they were nominated for the Hugo in the Best Graphic Story category -- and I had them available to read entirely because of those nominations, since I read them electronically from editions provided in the awesomely complete Hugo Packet -- and here's what I thought about them:

First: I've tried to read Girl Genius several times before, and never quite connected with it. This is incredibly frustrating, since I've been a Phil Foglio fan for decades now -- I've got the full run of xXxenophile, every bit of Buck Godot that ever appeared (and I keep wishing he'd do more), the collected What's New?, and even his great Angel and the Ape and Stanley and His Monster comics from DC -- but it's true. And jumping into volume ten, as I did with Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, didn't make the situation any better. (And I really don't want to blame Foglio's wife/collaborator, Kaja; it's probably just one of my blind spots.)

Girl Genius is fast-paced and packed full of characters, and smart creators know better than to slow down the action to re-introduce their characters all the time -- all admirable things, but taken together it means that this book is a whirlwind of people whom the new reader has no clue about, all running around, fighting and emoting at top volume, in pursuit of aims this reader is entirely confused about. It also often tries to be both serious and slapstick at the same time, which I didn't find worked terribly well.

In any case: in an alternate steampunk world with the usual vaguely 19th century feel, a young woman with the requisite Mysterious Heritage and Vast Latent Powers is wandering about, having adventures and trying to Learn More About Her Past. At this point, she's reached her ancestral home, trailed and/or accompanied by a vast array of villains, scoundrels, dashing adventurers, hangers-on, spies, henchmen, minions, ghosts, and other less definable entities. It does try to be both deeply silly and essentially serious at nearly every moment, which trick Fandom Assembled clearly believes to be more successful than I do.

Second: I've also read Unwritten -- a contemporary fantasy series written by Mike Carey with art by Peter Gross -- before, having read and reviewed the first collection, Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, last year. I didn't love it, but it had some strengths, so I was happy to jump into the second volume, Inside Man, for Hugo consideration.

Carey still hasn't quite articulated the essential premise of Unwritten yet, which is annoying in large part because it clearly is a premise: Carey must have pitched this series to DC, and he did so with, presumably, a paragraph of Neat Stuff that still, after a year of comics, isn't clear to the reader. It has something to do with fiction bleeding into reality, or perhaps that some people (like the Literals in Fables) can create worlds through fiction, but the peek-a-boo nature of the reveal is all-too-common in modern serialized comics, which always want to have one more shocking reveal up their sleeves for next month's solicitation, to keep the Wednesday Crowd coming back again and again.

But: Tommy Taylor is the namesake of the hero of a ridiculously popular -- and not at all reminiscent of Harry Potter, oh no -- series of fantasy novels by his father, and has been trying to live a normal life since his father's mysterious disappearance. But, of course, there is Something Special -- or perhaps just Something Not Right -- about him, and someday we'll actually learn that he's really fictional, or some variation on that. Right now, he's in a French prison, having been framed for a horrible mass murder by the Shadowy Forces That Don't Want Him To Learn of His True Power.

Unwritten is well-written and illustrated with verve, and, at some point, it will stop the tease and actually tell its audience what its story is. Until that point, it will continue to be somewhat annoying as well as being entertaining.

Third: I read a lot of webcomics, but I tend to gravitate more to gag-a-day strips than to long continuities -- with some exceptions -- and I haven't really gotten into the standard fannish genre favorites, like Gunnerkrigg Court or Schlock Mercenary. But I like to try new things, so I grabbed the just-nominated tenth collection of Schlock Mercenary, Massively Parallel, and dove into this incredibly long story. (Seriously: this took as long to read as all four of the other nominees in this category put together, if not longer; it's a dense, long, intricate story.) Schlock Mercenary was created and is still primarily by Howard Tayler, though he has some (unspecified) help from Travis Walton on this volume.

I don't know if it's Walton's influence, or if Schlock Mercenary was always that way, but this comic is a very close approximation in words-and-pictures form to a midlist Baen space opera novel, complete with tough-but-loveable mercenaries, a vaguely SFnal background that feels "hard SF" without ever actually having any science in it, a kind of we'd-be-rich-if-not-for-those-damn-bureaucrats libertarianism baked deeply into its bones, and damn-the-torpedoes plotting. There's a mercenary company in the kind of lazy pan-galactic medium future that you hardly see anymore in written SF, but they're fun, lovable mercenaries, the kind who presumably hardly ever take jobs to maintain order on company-run manufacturing planets or conquer small mineral-rich worlds in the name of their greedy neighbors. (And they're close buddies with the weakly godlike entities that rule the center of the galaxy, which is always handy.)

As the book begins, their ship breaks in half due to damages and stresses put on it in a previous story, and so they have to put into port to have it repaired. (No one is killed, of course, and hardly anyone is seriously inconvenienced.) Since relatable mercenary companies are always low on cash, they have to scrounge new jobs to pay for those repairs, and so they split the party into several groups to do several jobs. Tayler (and Walton?) structure the story so that each of those sub-stories is told separately, and an intrusive narrator continually gives us the ticking clock counting down to the moment when those weakly godlike entities will once again interfere in the lives of Tagon and his merry band of blaster-bearers, sending them into the final section of the story, in which all the groups meet up at the Gates of Doom to chuck a ring into a volcano (or something like that).

Tayler's art (once again, I'm assuming it's all his, and that Walton helped on the writing side) is serviceable but unspectacular, solid storytelling stuff with a slightly cartoony line but no real energy or verve. So the appeal of Schlock Mercenary rests on the story, and primarily on the characters. The title character -- a protoplasmic blog of something-or-other that looks like an ambulatory turd and has the most popular fictional mercenary character traits: supposedly ultra-violent and gonzo, but actually sweet, soft-hearted, and goofy -- is the best of this lot; the rest tend to have one trait which is endlessly reinforced. Again, it's professional and serviceable, and it probably all reads better daily in single-strip installments than it does all at once.

In sum: none of these three books particularly impressed me, though all are reasonably entertaining and all are clearly quite popular with specific subsets of SF fandom. Since I don't like them on a Hugo level, I clearly should have nominated different things myself -- and advocated for those books as well. (It's too late now, but I may still work up what I think should have been nominated.)


Dave Smith said...

I am wildly guessing but I think Walton may just ink Schlock. At least, I know that in Writing Excuses Taylor has said that he did everything until recently when he got someone to ink it.

Howard Tayler said...

Travis Walton is the colorist. The writing pencils, and inks are all me.

Thanks for the review!

Andrew Wheeler said...

Dave & Howard: Thanks for the correction!

Embarrassingly, I think I was confusing Travis Walton with the author Travis Taylor, and was too lazy to google. My apologies for the mix-up.

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