Category Archives: Comics

Blogging the Hugos: Rat Queens Vol. 1

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
Written by Kurtis J. Weibe, art by Roc Upchurch
Category: Best Graphic Story

rat_queens_1I had a smile on my face the whole time I was reading this book. It’s right in my sweet spot—an action-comedy in a D&D-style fantasy world. This kind of thing has been attempted many times, but almost never this well. I felt like this was something I’d been waiting for without realizing it.

The titular Rat Queens are an adventuring party—fighter, thief, cleric, and mage—who have mostly cleaned out the local area and now spend much of their time getting into tavern brawls with the other underemployed mercenaries. At the start of the book they get sent on a quest by the town authorities, mainly to keep them busy. Of course, the apparently simple job turns out to have complications that eventually result in a huge battle in the last chapter.

Like in a real D&D game, all this is a means to get the characters into situations where they can swing swords, throw spells, and make wisecracks, all of which are immensely entertaining. There’s a tremendous sense of fun in this book that really comes out in the action scenes. And not just the action scenes—there’s strong writing throughout the book, and deft characterization that differentiates the main foursome both from each other and from the usual fantasy stereotypes.

When it comes to my Hugo ranking, Rat Queens might suffer just because it doesn’t have the emotional heft of Saga or the metaphorical depth of Sex Criminals or Ms. Marvel. But this was one of the most purely enjoyable of the graphic novels, and one of the first ones I’ll be adding to my Comixology pull list.

Blogging the Hugos: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
Written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt
Category: Best Graphic Story

ms_marvel_1Back in my Guardians of the Galaxy review I mentioned my long-standing disinterest in superhero comics. This is the one superhero book on the Hugo ballot, but it overcomes my biases against it in a couple of ways. First, it’s an origin story, so I don’t have to deal with years of canon. (There have been previous Ms. Marvels but the title is passed on in this book.) Second, it stays small-scale and character driven, avoiding the excesses that most titles in the genre seem to fall prey to.

The one thing I knew about the book going in is that it’s the poster child for the new wave of diversity in comics: the heir to the Ms. Marvel name is a 16-year-old, Pakistani-American named Kamala Khan. What makes this feel like a fresh take on the genre, and not mere tokenism, is that Kamala’s background and religion are integral to her character and to her heroism. The scene in which she receives her new powers has the feeling of a divine vision, and her philosophy in making use of them is clearly informed both by Islam and by her own upbringing in an immigrant family.

The story also leverages the metaphor at the heart of similar stories like Spider-Man or Buffy, in which the heroic conflicts parallel the difficulties of the teenage experience. This is given added depth by Kamala’s outsider status; already trying to balance her traditional home life with the pressure to fit in with her peers in school, she now has to juggle the additional problem of hiding her superpowered nature from the world while still being able to do good.

There’s no big supervillain face-off in this book, although it sets the stage for one. The focus is more on Kamala starting to develop confidence and proficiency with her new powers. This is a good move—Kamala is an incredibly appealing character, and her efforts to navigate her increasingly complex situation are much more interesting than the fight scenes that do appear. The supporting characters could be a little more fleshed out, but in a long-running series they’ll have time for that in future issues.

I think this does suffer a little from the somewhat arbitrary nature of comics collections; it cuts off rather abruptly at the end of the volume, since the story is written for the monthly issues and not for the book. I haven’t read further, but it feels like a story arc meant for at least a full year of 12 issues, meaning we’re just getting the beginning. Most of the other entries in this category clearly are written with one eye toward the collected editions, so that they wrap up at least some aspect of the narrative.

That said, it did its job in making me interested in the further adventures of Ms. Marvel. This was a great read and a worthy addition to the other stellar Graphic Story titles on the ballot. Give me more comics like this, and I might become a fan of superheroes after all.

Blogging the Hugos: The Zombie Nation Book #2

The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate
Carter Reid
Category: Best Graphic Story

zombie_nationI’ve long believed that the low barriers to entry in the realm of webcomics amplify Sturgeon’s Law: everything is crap to about five nines of precision. Even the good ones tend to undergo the same decay that newspaper comics do, only with a shorter half-life, peaking within a few years of inception and then sliding into creative bankruptcy or collapsing under the weight of their own lore.

The Zombie Nation is not one of the good ones. It is astonishingly bad, achieving levels of awfulness thought to be theoretically impossible. One could almost believe that it was supposed to be a parody of a bad webcomic, except that parodies are funny, and this is deeply, painfully unfunny. The weak stabs at humor are equal parts sexist stereotypes and—my favorite—pop culture references. The characterization is limited to broad archetypes like The Wacky One, The Straight Man, The Crazy Ex-Wife. Word balloons are placed confusingly, and frequent typos and homophone errors in the text lend the whole thing a half-assed quality. At least the author can draw competently; it’s too bad he uses his skills in service of such disastrous failed comedy.

The central premise here is that three barely distinguishable bros have been turned into zombies, and now run around doing bro stuff but as zombies. Hilarity does not ensue. It’s not clear what the zombie conceit even adds, since the characters talk and act like normal people—the mindlessness that actually characterizes zombies across their other incarnations is just absent. There are occasional references to the tropes of zombie movies, but references by themselves do not constitute jokes.

Some of the Hugo entries just aren’t to my taste, but I could see how others might enjoy them. The Zombie Nation is different: it’s hard to understand how anyone would think this is one of the best comics of last year. It’s especially damning that this was the only work the Puppies nominated for Best Graphic Story, a category otherwise brimming over with creative vitality. Nominating nothing would have just indicated disinterest; nominating this is a show of active contempt for the medium.

Blogging the Hugos: Saga Vol. 3

Saga Volume 3
Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples
Category: Best Graphic Story

Saga_vol3-1Out of everything I’ve reviewed so far, this is my favorite. I decided to start from volume one, and I’m glad I did—it was so good I wanted to go back in time and vote for it in the 2013 Hugos. I didn’t need to, because it won anyway. This feels like a once-in-a-decade graphic novel, like reading Watchmen or Sandman for the first time.

Sandman is actually a good point of comparison, because there’s something dreamlike about Saga‘s setting with its spider-women, androids with CRTs for heads, and gigantic infants hatching out of planetoids. While Sandman drew from a vast array of real myths, though, Saga seems to draw from deeper in humanity’s collective unconscious, arranging the feelings and images that formed those myths into new combinations. It simultaneously feels familiar and alien.

All this is rendered beautifully by Fiona Staples’ artwork. Even the gross parts (and there are more than a few gory scenes—this is not a comic book for kids) are spectacularly drawn. The art alone would be enough to merit an award, and it’s paired with razor-sharp writing: Saga delivered a laugh-out-loud moment at least once an issue, an emotional gut punch anytime I was least expecting it, and always kept me eager to turn the page and see what happened next.

At its most basic it’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story: the protagonists are lovers from opposite sides of an ongoing interstellar war, and are being pursued along with their newborn child by their respective governments. But Romeo and Juliet’s skillset of fatal miscommunication in iambic pentameter has been replaced by sorcery and general ass-kicking. The first three volumes are essentially an extended chase scene, with volume 3 covering the confrontation when the pursuit catches up to the main characters.

One of the great aspects of the writing is that all of the major characters are sympathetic to some degree, including the antagonists; everyone has understandable motivations and no one is a straight-up villain (although some come close). This really pays off in the third volume, where the conflicts come to a head: you want to be able to root for everyone, but they can’t all get what they want. The resulting conclusion to the story arc is exciting and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Of course, this just concludes one arc; the series is still ongoing. I’ve got a lot more Hugo nominees to read first, but as soon as I finish working my way through the list and submit my ballot, I’m going to go buy Saga volume 4. However, you, dear reader, don’t have to wait. Stop reading my review, get yourself to your local comic book store (or online retailer) and start reading Saga. You won’t regret it.

Blogging the Hugos: Sex Criminals Vol. 1

Sex Criminals, Volume 1: One Weird Trick
Written by Matt Fraction, art by Chip Zdarsky
Category: Best Graphic Story

sex_criminalsThe premise of Sex Criminals, as it’s usually stated on the back of the book and so forth, is this: the main character Suzie has the power to stop time when she has sex. She meets John and discovers he has the same power, so they team up to use their abilities to rob banks. This is indeed a great premise, although when you try to explain it to people they sometimes give you funny looks. However, it’s not really what the book is about.

This is telegraphed by the fact that, while it opens in medias res during a heist gone wrong, most of the book is occupied with how the two protagonists discovered their powers, how they found each other, and how they got to the point of robbing banks. (Suzie and John aren’t just doing it out of greed—it’s a Robin-Hood-esque scheme to fund the local library.) Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that the central premise is meant to operate as an extended metaphor for the emotional experience of sex, similar to how the supernatural elements of Buffy are meant to represent the teenage experience.

This being the first volume of a graphic novel, it’s an origin story, and this particular origin story naturally starts with puberty. Everyone’s experience is unique, but Suzie’s is especially unique, and particularly isolating—she’s literally alone in the timeless world she finds herself in (she calls it The Quiet), but she also has no one she can really talk about it to. She eventually works out the nature of her power on her own, but even as an adult it continues to be an isolating experience, emblematic of the lack of emotional connection with her sex partners.

But finally she meets John, who has the same power, and now she’s no longer alone in the Quiet. Now that she’s met someone that she has a real connection with, The Quiet isn’t an isolating force: it’s something that brings them together, their own private world. It’s wonderful and exhilarating, but it also leads to them convincing each other they should start robbing banks. And this gets them into a bit of trouble. (It turns out there are Sex Police in addition to Sex Criminals, although I’m not sure how that fits into the metaphor—maybe that’ll become more clear in volume two.)

Actually, I find that the premise works better as metaphor than it does as a plot device. When I think about the details I immediately run into a number of Fridge Logic questions (do John and Suzie always have simultaneous orgasms? How do the Sex Police get into The Quiet if time is stopped for them?) But as a literary device, it adds an extra poignancy to the flashback scenes that comprise most of the book, and makes them stronger material than the heist that serves as the frame story.

This was an enjoyable read—funny, affecting, and true-to-life despite the fantastic premise. It’s also not as pervy as it sounds, so quit looking at me like that. I’m curious to see where it goes in volume two.

An extra story in a rare comic book

Today I held in my hands a copy of the most valuable comic book issue in existence, Action Comics #1 (which contains the first appearance of Superman).
Well, actually I was holding an impermeable plastic capsule containing the book; naturally I couldn’t touch it directly or leaf through it. And it was far from mint condition, so this one was worth far less than some of the other remaining copies of this famous issue. But nevertheless it was exciting to see this piece of comics history, a time capsule from 1938.
It goes without saying that the better condition a comic book is in, the more valuable it is—at least on the collector’s market. And indeed this is true of most goods. But I felt like the experience of seeing this as a historical artifact was actually enhanced by the fact that it didn’t look like it had come right from the printing press. The left edge was cracked from frequent reading, there was a food stain on the cover, and the name “Junior” was written in pencil in the corner. Some kid loved this book. I can imagine him reading it at the dinner table. The book itself has its own story that a mint copy wouldn’t have.

Arcane Gazebo meets T-Rex (at MoCCA)

One of the great things about living in New York City is that I’ll frequently read on the internet about some event, and then realize, “Hey, I could go there!” For example, the MoCCA1 Art Festival this weekend. I’ve never been to a comics convention before, but with it being only a few subway stops away I didn’t really have a good reason not to go.
My primary goal was to acquire a signed copy of the Dinosaur Comics book, and I was not disappointed in the outcome:
ryan north sketch
I also got a copy of the new annotated Wondermark book, because it looked nice and also because Wondermark is fantastic. Randall Munroe (of xkcd) was doing free sketches, but I foolishly didn’t have anything for people to sketch on. He and David Malki ! (who does Wondermark) were next to each other, and each had a sign offering to punch the other for $1. (I even saw it happen while I was standing there.)
Outside of webcomics I knew almost none of the exhibitors (it was very much an independent, small press show), although there was obviously a lot of talent on display. I made sure to walk around and look at everything, but it’s hard to know just by looking at covers what’s good. I did see Bryan Lee O’Malley, the author of Scott Pilgrim which has recently become my new favorite print comic. (It’s kind of a hipster Ranma 1/2 with copious references to classic NES games. Anyone here who reads comics should absolutely check it out.)
Normally when I think of comics shows I think of something like the San Diego Comic Con2 with everyone in ridiculous costumes and big lines at the popular booths. This wasn’t at all like that: very low-key, no costumes and you never had to wait in line to talk to anybody (unless it was Randall Munroe, or Michel Gondry who turned up for a signing). Overall it was a fun outing and I need to keep an eye out for more stuff like this going on in the city.
Meanwhile, some of my coworkers are going to the actual Nerd Prom and I am tempted to join them… of course, I’ll need a costume.
1 Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art
2 A.k.a. “Nerd Prom”

Adventures in fume hoods

I’m still occupied with other activities (like unpacking boxes, and discovering just how many bugs I can inadvertently cram into 100 lines of perl), but in the absence of blogging I invite you to enjoy the latest PhD Comics strip on fume hoods.
This rings especially true since my lab in grad school needed a fume hood only occasionally, and therefore had only one which sat mostly neglected in the fabrication lab. This made it a fantastic storage closet for unknown chemicals until somebody actually needed to use it for science, at which point hazmat teams would need to be called. (Note to Berkeley EH&S: joking!)
In contrast, the most hazardous chemical at my new job is the curry from Teriyaki Boy, a.k.a. “The Yak”. (Angelenos: Picture the Japanese-food equivalent to Tommy’s chili.)

Comics and Career Fairs

Webcomics continue to be too accurate with the latest sequence at PhD Comics. Of course, Jorge Cham’s humor has always ranged from “funny because close to home” to “not funny because too close to home”. This year the strips in the latter category have been especially well-timed: the series linked above, for example, comes not just when I’m in the same situation, but the week of Cal’s major Career Fair. (Identifying other examples is left as an exercise for the reader.)
Anyway, the career fair starts tomorrow; the fraction of recruiters looking for physics PhDs is indeed pretty low (as would be expected for a general campus career fair) but nonzero. (There’s an event specifically targeted at masters and PhDs next month.) I’ll be attending with copies of my resume in hand, hoping to get someone’s attention or, failing that, pick up some good swag. Any advice for this sort of thing?

Not funny, Randall

Yeah, I’ve been there a few times. In the past my insomnia has usually been driven by anxiety, but my most recent bout (a couple months ago) seemed to be a shift in my circadian rhythm. I was able to resync my internal clock by strictly adhering to my target wake-up time no matter how little sleep I got, but only after several days of total exhaustion.
Since then I’ve found it easier to make adjustments to my sleeping patterns. I’ve had a few lazy weeks (ah, flexible academic work hours) but this week I’ve gone to a schedule where I actually get up strikingly early (by my standards) and (gasp!) eat breakfast, in order to have a substantial block of time in the morning reserved for writing my thesis. Those of you tracking the Project 365 photos will have noticed that this officially started on Wednesday, we’ll see how it goes…