A few months ago, the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story was given to Saga, Volume 1, the first trade paperback collection of the ongoing Saga comic book. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, with art by Fiona Staples (and lettering and design by the Fonografiks studio), the book deserved the win. It’s the first chapter in a promising story and manages to establish a simple and powerful basic situation for the main characters, while also creating a complex world, backstory, and array of subplots. If it sometimes seems overbroad, too accessible and glib, it also has a deep and original sense of history to its setting, and a design sense that makes that setting live.
It begins with a birth, a battle, and an attempt to escape war. In a galaxy (presumably) not our own, there is a planet named Landfall, where a species of winged humanoids have developed high technology; orbiting Landfall is the moon Wreath, where magic-using horned humanoids live. Moon and planet have always been at war, but have reached the point where they can’t battle directly in their home solar system without risking their own destruction. So the war’s fought on countless fronts throughout the galaxy, with alien species everywhere forced to choose sides. One front is the planet called Cleave, where the fighting’s especially vicious; there, a woman from Landfall, Alana, has fallen in love with Marko, a former warrior from Wreath. They’ve run away from the war and the book begins with the birth of their daughter — and their discovery by agents of both sides.
The story moves quickly. Factions enlist various agents to track down the young family. And these agents have stories of their own. The book cuts quickly between plot strands, narrated by the newborn daughter speaking from some unspecified point in the future. There are ghosts, robots, pleasure planets, bounty hunters, mass battles, and all the familiar genre furnishings. There are also less familiar things, born from the mash-up of genres. Forests of rocketships. An interspecies romance novel. And a grumpy-looking lynx who can detect lies. It’s an inventive, fast-moving story about parenthood and art that never overstrains its central metaphors.
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Mega Girl realizes that being a superhero isn’t the answer in the really excellent “Strong Female Protagonist.”
There’s a strange divide between superhero fiction and the rest of SFF. It may be because superheroes started out in comics. Almost all the tropes — the spandex, the tights, the rules of combat enforced by the Comics Code of the 1950s — come out of those comic book origins. As more and more superheroes hit the big screen, it hasn’t been surprising to see them in novels, some of them on the literary side of SFF (like Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, Carrie Vaughn’s “Golden Age” books), and many of them looking at how those tropes play out when you’re not in a visual medium.
So how do you classify superhero webcomics that play with the tropes in the way that those SFF novels have done? Are they fantasy or are they superhero comics, or are those lines really more fluid than the divisions warrant? Either way, three of my favorite webcomics are superhero comics and all of them look at the genre in a way that questions our assumptions about how superheroes work.
What happens when a superhero gets married to a nice, normal girl — and what kind of strengths does it require to be married to someone with a secret identity? What does it matter if you can kick butt and take names if you’re not contributing to solving the big world problems? What is it like to be an 8 year-old superhero? Keep reading and find out how three very different comics are looking at superheroes (and why you should be reading them).
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The first stop I made on my shopping expedition last Boxing Day was at my local neighbourhood comics store, which happens to be conveniently located two and a half blocks from my house. There, I found a deal in the back-issue bins: issues 1 to 4 of Stalker, a DC fantasy comic from the 70s. I’d vaguely heard of the title, but knew nothing about it. I thought I remembered hearing that it had good art, which I imagined perhaps meant work by somebody like Nestor Redondo or Ernie Chan. I was way off. In fact, the art was by the remarkable team of Steve Ditko and Wally Wood. As a result, it’s wonderful. And more than that: it’s truly weird fantasy art in every sense.
Ditko’s one of the most distinctive stylists in American comics. I’ve written before about his supreme accomplishment in fantasy, but Stalker’s an interesting work in its own right. Ditko creates a setting, a very specific world, and does it not by means of creating a consistent dress or coherent architectural style, but by imposing his own specific style and sense of geometric form upon the matter of the story. Wood, in turn, gives a sense of specificity and plausibility to the art, anchoring Ditko’s layouts with a sense of reality: trees, stone walls, suits of armour, all have enough subtle detail that you can feel their weight and mass. Yet at no point does he ever overwhelm Ditko’s pencils with his own style.
The writing, from a young Paul Levitz, is solid. The plot’s tight, fast-moving, and designed around good sword-and-sorcery set pieces. Still, I can’t help but see the book as primarily Ditko’s creation. He’s laid out the action with his usual flair for the expressionistic; he’s designed any number of strange variations on fantasy furnishings (castles, swords, temples, evil priests); and he’s also left certain things alone, drawing from a stock of archetypal medieval imagery so that you can’t help but focus on the weirdness of the main action. The result is not like any other fantasy art I’ve ever seen, but it feels perfectly right for the story.
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Loki and Odin from Scott Maynard’s Happletea
The majority of webcomics I read are ongoing stories, most with fantasy elements, that focus on character development and plot and world building. Happletea is the only gag strip in my feed, and while it doesn’t have those other elements, it brings both humor and insight in spades. Created by Scott Maynard, the strip has been going since 2008 with some regularity (though not consistent updates), and it is, according to Maynard, “the only comic that excoriates religion, pop culture, and politics while, at the same time, lauding the world of cryptozoology.” I use Maynard’s own description here because it’s not only accurate (I can’t think of another comparable comic, except very possibly Sinfest, which I read only on occasion), but because it captures Maynard’s sense of humor.
In Maynard’s strip, recurring characters include:
- Lil K, whose misadventures have included pre-looting for the Mayan apocalypse, starting a revolution in Latin America upon misunderstanding what New Year’s Resolutions were for, and coping with the chaos of New York
- Sasquatch, Lil K’s foster father, who packs wormy lunches and occasionally has bizarre fashion sense
- God, who takes the form of a cat living at Lil K’s house
- Allev, Lil K’s blond friend who is often the voice of reason against Lil K’s antics
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“Tympani” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from April 27 to July 9, 1955. The strip gets underway with Flash returning to Earth and taking Dale out to enjoy a symphony orchestra concert. Dale’s hair has reverted to its classic look, happily. The concert goes awry when the orchestra launches into a piece and the audience is deafened by the cacophonous sound.
Taking to the streets, they discover every car horn in the city is going off causing accidents and traffic jams. The situation spreads over the globe with factory whistles going off, sonar jamming, rockets misfiring, etc. Soon train accidents cripple the food industry and fuel truck accidents leave people without heat in winter. Dr. Zarkov is busy researching sound vibrations to try to get to the root of the problem that has threatened civilization.
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After about ten months of uninterrupted weekly posts, I’m taking a bit of a breather this week. Today, instead of new content, I’ll take inventory and look ahead to what I hope to deliver Black Gate readers in 2014. Perhaps I can couch it in a “New Year’s Resolutions” list — most of us allow for a bit of leeway on those overly optimistic proclamations, anyway…
1. Lose about twenty pounds, preferably at a blackjack table in Derbyshire.
2. Cut back on tobacco consumption, especially my wife’s.
3. Drink more alcohol. (It fell way off in 2013. Obviously I need to get to more conventions.)
And blah blah blah. Okay, let’s get to the stuff that someone else reading this might actually be curious about…
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Slammed art by Jason Wiser
There’s an odd intersection of SFF and professional wrestling fandoms. It surprised me when I first encountered it, but since then, I’ve become a devoted reader of Rival Angels, a woman’s pro wrestling comic by Alan Evans, and one of my favorite Choice of Games titles is Slammed by Paolo Chikiamco. Since neither is technically fantasy (although there’s definitely an element of the fantastic to pro wrestling), I’m stretching the inclusion criteria a bit for my spotlights by covering both of them together. If you’re not into the WWE, read on to see if you can be convinced that the best wrestlemania might not be on Pay Per View…
In Slammed, you play an up-and-coming professional wrestler, trying to make your name in the world and striving to compete for one of wrestling’s biggest titles. From the beginning, Chikiamco has the characters — and the PC — acknowledge that wrestling is scripted, and that a lot of the challenges revolve around how you choose to portray yourself to the fans. Are you going to be a face — a “kayfabe” — who’s a hero, or are you a trash-talking villain on stage (but a consummate professional in the locker room)? But while your career provides the context for the story, the real plot is about your relationship with a wrestler from your past — a college friend who once held you responsible for a tragedy that impacted her wrestling career. (Note: she was female in my game; she may be male in other playthroughs.) Now at the top of her game and a rising star in her own right, will she reach out to you as an ally? Or will you be enemies? And how much of the truth will you reveal to your fans?
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“The Trail of the Vulke” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from February 7 to April 26, 1955.
This is an interesting tale that sees Barry re-examining two of his favorite themes — myths and religious fanaticism.
The story kicks off with Flash driving up to Dale’s house for a dinner date and finding her home dark. Warily, he enters the house and Barry shows us menacing shadowy figures watching from the window in the front room.
It turns out to be a surprise birthday party for Flash thrown by Dale and the Space Kids. Improbably, they have arranged the rental of a rocketship from the Space Academy to allow Flash and the Space Kids to travel to Zoriana and pay a visit to Cyril and Mr. Pennington. Barry gets some mileage out of portraying Flash as henpecked and having to ask Dale permission to have an adventure. In no time at all, Flash and the boys are off to the stars and arrive on Zoriana in due course.
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There are two deck-building games out built around the major comic book franchises: DC and Marvel. I’ve had the chance to play them both, so want to share how they stand up against each other. For this comparison, I’m playing the core Marvel Legendary game (Amazon) and the upcoming stand-alone Heroes Unite (Amazon) expansion to the DC Comics deck-building game.
One of the first points of difference is the basic scenario being played out, which leads to slightly different thematic feels for each game. In both games, there are two basic actions in play: acquiring heroes and defeating villains. The games are very different in their approach to this, however, and each approach has different benefits and drawbacks.
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“At the Mountains of Madness” is one of my favorite Lovecraft tales. It was originally serialized in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories; I was first exposed to it through the brilliant audio adaption from Dark Adventure Radio Theatre, which I listened to during a snowy commute through lonely back highways in Illinois in the winter of 2010. Marvelous stuff.
So in November, I was very intrigued to read James Maliszewski’s review of a recent comic adaptation by I.N.J. Culbard. Here’s James:
In 124 pages, Culbard succeeds in re-telling one of Lovecraft’s best tales in a fashion that’s both engaging and true to its source. That’s harder than it sounds…
Culbard deftly pares the story down to its essentials, in terms of action, dialog, and exposition. The story thus moves along at a fairly brisk pace, something that cannot be said of the novella, love it though I do. Second, the artwork, which, to my mind, recalls Hergé’s Tintin series, contributes greatly to a sense of narrative motion, which is vitally important in an adaptation of a long and complex story like this one. Furthermore, the artwork suits the subject matter perfectly, recalling as it does (at least to me) stories of late 19th and early 20th century exploration in the still-dark corners of the globe… Even though I already knew the plot intimately, I found Culbard’s strong, clear, almost innocent, illustration style gave it new life, something I didn’t think possible.
Sold! I especially enjoyed James’s description of artwork that recalled “stories of late 19th and early 20th century exploration in the still-dark corners of the globe.” I asked for the Culbard’s graphic novel version for Christmas and my lovely bride was kind enough to deliver.
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