Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Graphic Story

This week’s Hugo category is one where I usually struggle with some of the finalists because – just like in the Best Series category – it’s often volume 7 of a series that’s nominated. When I haven’t read all the previous ones, it’s hard to judge the current finalist.
It gets even more difficult when a series is nominated that I started and didn’t continue because I just didn’t like it that much. Do I push through the missing volumes to see if this one is really great? Do I at least pick up the next (for me) volume and give the series another chance? Do I not read it at all?

It’s a tough one but you’ll find out how I handled the situation below. Let’s just say my plan to read one instalment of each series didn’t exactly work out…

Other posts in my Reading the Hugos series:

The Finalists for Best Graphic Story

    • Nnedi Okorafor, Tana Ford & James Devlin – LaGuardia
    • Kieron Gillen & Stephanie Hans – Die Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker
    • Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang & Matt Wilson – Paper Girls
    • Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda – Monstress
    • Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie – The Wicked + The Divine
    • Wendy Xu & Suzanne Walker – Mooncakes

I love Nnedi Okorafor’s writing so it came as no surprise that her Graphic Novel LaGuardia turned out to be wonderful. While two of her novels didn’t work for me so well, I always appreciate the writing, the themes, and the diversity of her stories. Okorafor also has an amazing range – adult fantasy, YA, sci-fi novellas, short fiction, you name it.
This story deals with a future where aliens have landed on Earth and now live among us. In fact, if you want to know how that happened, check out her novel  Lagoon.
It’s very obvious that this can be read as a book about racism. Sure, we’re talking humans and aliens here, but the experiences are based on the same issues. “Random” searches at airport security, groups of people wanting aliens out of their neighborhoods for no discernible reason other than that they are “not like them”, you know the drill. We see this world through pregnant Future’s eyes who has smuggled a plant creature from Nigeria to the US.
Apart from the great story, I also really loved the artwork. It’s vibrant and beautiful, the characters are distinguishable and come to life on the page. I’m sure this will not appeal to everyone, especially the people who like their fiction message-free (as if that even existed!), but I absolutely loved it and will continue reading the series.

I thought that Die: Fantasy Heartbreaker was a strange title for a graphic novel but it all becomes clear in the first chapter and is actually the most fitting title I could have imagined. This is the story of a group of teenagers who play a D&D game their friend created. And then crazy Jumanji-type stuff happens… I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that they are sucked into the game and emerge, two years later, in the real world again, with plenty of scars, both physical and psychological. The bulk of this volume is about their adult selves dealing with what happened to them. And then they get sucked right back into that crazy world and have to finish the game they started so many years ago…
I found the pacing of the first chapter to be way too fast but it really only serves as an introduction. The main plot is much more evenly paced and offered a lot of fun elements. As we visit the imaginary worlds of someone who grew up in the real world, there are a myriad of references to fantasy worlds any SFF fan will recognize. A quasi Middle Earth, the Bronte’s Glass Town, a Gibson-esque Cyberpunk place, and so on. But I enjoy stories mostly for their characters and while the protagonists are interesting and diverse, I had a hard time really getting attached to any of them. But I believe, over time, they can each grow even more interesting. So while this wasn’t an instant hit for me the way Saga was, I will probably continue reading it to see where it goes.

I read the first Paper Girls volume just after it came out and while I liked it, I just wasn’t hooked enough to continue. But when I found out that this series is now finished, that gave me the motivation to pick up at least the second volume. And about five hours later, I had binged the entire series… That tells you already that I was quite entertained by the story of these four 12-year-old girls time traveling through decades, meeting their older/younger selves, or sometimes completely different versions of themselves, and finding out certain things about the future that they probably shouldn’t know. I had a lot of fun, I enjoyed the characters immensely, but when it comes to the story and the sci-fi aspects of it, there wasn’t really anything new here. I’ve also just watched the third season of Dark (start watching it right now if you haven’t!) so my expectations for time travel stories are somewhat higher than they used to be. This is a solid, fun series with great diverse characters that I will gladly recommend. But for the top of the ballot, I needed it to be just a bit more. Oh, and I adore the artwork! Must never forget to mention the artwork. 🙂

I had super high expectations for Mooncakes, not so much that the plot would blow me away, but I hoped it would be a cute, wholesome story about a young girl and a non-binary person falling in love while doing magic. And I kind of got that, but the execution didn’t work for me at all. Any action there was, was over within a few panels. Instead we get lots of time following conversations like “How are you?” “I’m better, thank you. Do you want to sit down?” [Person sits down, they procede to hug or hold hands or smile at each other]. That would have worked really well in a movie but a comic book needs to use what little space it has more wisely. That just wasn’t the case here and many pages felt entirely like filler, rather than pushing the story or characters along.
The plot was also super thin, and I was never remotely worried that something bad could happen to anyone because every threat is just magicked away so quickly, you barely have time to be afraid. I was hoping so much I would love this. I didn’t hate it. I just… nothinged it… which is probably the worst thing a book can do. Leave me completely cold. The artwork was also not up my alley, so this is sadly but clearly at the bottom of my ballot.

I also binged the entire The Wicked + The Divine series in one day, even though I only meant to re-read the first volume and maybe try out the second. I remember not liking the first volume very much when I first read it years ago. This time around, I honestly don’t know what my problem was. Sure, it was only the beginning of a larger story but I found it quite intriguing. So I ended up spending a sunny afternoon with 12 reincarnated gods getting into all sorts of shenanigans, having relationship drama, and saving the world (of course). While I found the volumes varied a lot in quality, the overall story was really great! Paper Girls’ volumes were all steadily good, whereas The Wicked + The Divine had some fantastic and some less great volumes. I was also not a fan of the guest artists’ artwork because I loved the original art so, so much!
But for originality, characters, and overall plot, I think this kicks Paper Girls off my second spot. Plus, I keep thinking about this story more than a week after having finished it and I keep finding new details to appreciate.

The last series I read – another one where I’d read the first volume previously and never continued – was Monstress. I remember mostly enjoying  it, especially the gorgeous art. But the art was so intricate that it kept distracting me from following the actual story.
Even though I only had to read four volumes for this series, it took me the longest. The books are consistently good but never really grabbed me emotionally. It may be that the protagonist is not a particularly emotional person and even when she said emotional things, her expression didn’t let us see that. Whether that’s miscommunication between writer and artist or a conscious choice, I can’t say, but it always kept me at arm’s length from Maika and never let me properly care about her.
The world building is so complex that, unfortunately, pages of info-dumping are needed just to keep the audience somewhat up to date on what is going on, who is fighting whom, what factions exist in this world, etc. etc. While this was always accompanied by stunning art, it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lot of text that isn’t conveyed through story.
Lastly, the art is beautiful but it really didn’t work for me when it came to action scenes. Whenever there was fight, each panel was so damn busy, so filled with detail, that I couldn’t quite follow who was hitting whom, who was getting hurt, and so on.
Another problem I had with the series is that it’s missing focus. We keep visiting new places, introducing new characters, finding out a little bit about who Maika is and what’s going on this world, but as Maika’s such a distant character, I don’t even know what to hope for in this story. If the series is nominated again next year, I’ll read the next volume, but I won’t go out and buy it for myself. Except for Kippa and Zinn, I don’t much care for any of the characters.

My ballot (probably)

  1. LaGuardia
  2. The Wicked  + The Divine
  3. Paper Girls
  4. Die: Fantasy Heartbreaker
  5. Monstress
  6. Suzanne Walker – Mooncakes

It is really unfair to judge single volumes against entire finished series. Sure, officially it’s the latest volume of Paper Girls, Monstress, and The Wicked + the Divine that’s nominated, but those volumes build on the work that was done during the previous volumes. And comparing two finales and one middle volume with two first volumes just doesn’t feel right.
As always, I ranked the books by personal enjoyment but obviously the two first volumes had a much harder time than the long running series. Despite it being only the start of a (hopefully) longer series, I put LaGuardia first even though, as a whole The Wicked + the Divine was more fun to read, simply because there was so much more of it. If it wins, I’ll be super happy, but I also think a series that hasn’t had time to build a loyal fan base yet should get a chance, especially since I enjoyed it so very much and definitely want more of the same.

Mooncakes is clearly on the bottom of my list. I don’t want to be mean, I appreciated the thought behind that book, but the execution is several leagues beneath everything else that’s nominated. It’s important that this book and others like it exist but I honestly don’t see how it would be worthy of an award, especially compared to the other finalists.
Monstress is the one series that I think just isn’t for me. There are things I enjoy about it but the crucial missing element is my emotional envolvement. It’s just not there. If you push the next volume on me, I’ll read it, but I honestly wouldn’t mind never finding out how that story ends.

Up next week: Best Series

5 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Graphic Story

  1. Andreas says:

    With graphic novels, I have a problem with reviews: It is so heavily depending on my graphic taste that textual reviews just don’t help. Yes, the story might be crap – but if the art fits my taste, I‘ll still going to love it.

    Like

    • Dina says:

      You’re right. Art is super difficult to “review” because everyone likes something different.
      I’m more the type of graphic novel reader where if I like the story, I don’t mind if the art isn’t as great (for me). If I only like the art and the story doesn’t grip me, however, I’m not likely to continue reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. laurenjholmes says:

    I feel the same way about Monstress’s artwork. I love it, it’s beautiful, but it does distract from the story. I also found it hard to follow along with some action scenes.

    I was going to skip Wicked + Divine, since I wasn’t interested in starting another unfinished series. I began rethinking that after how much I liked Die, and reading this, even though I’m out of time for voting for the awards, I think I’ll try and pick it up at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dina says:

      Yay! Do give it a try. I was the same when I first read the first volume and I went into my second read super biased, expecting to hate it. And then the series just grew on me and turned into something really good. And it’s finished, so 9 volumes and you get the full story
      😊

      Like

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