Reading “No Normal (1 of 5)”

So after putting up a Twitter poll to try an experiment in internet democracy, I’ve settled on trying out looking in depth at the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel series.  This review series poses a few challenges that I’ve not had to deal with in the past.  Aside from my series on All-Star Superman, I’ve been drawn towards looking at books aimed at more mature readers; Ms. Marvel is squarely an all ages to teen book.  This doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of good material to parse in these pages; it’s one of my favorite series for good reason.  Still, I’m curious to see how the difference in target audience will affect how points of interest bubble up in the course of the narrative.  I’ve grappled with this a little bit in my previous posts looking at the macro features of each arc that I’ve read, so we’ll see how things work out when I’m going issue by issue.  Ms. Marvel is also the first Marvel series that I’ve tried to give the detailed treatment; my experience with Marvel books is that they’re highly entertaining, but they tend to feel kind of breezy in comparison to what I’ve read from DC; I’m sure there’s some skewing here since I’ve never been a big DC fan, and the series I do like that DC published tend to be those landmark titles that everyone in comics appreciates.  My hope is that with Ms. Marvel, which has been penned by G. Willow Wilson since its start (she’s notable for trying to work contemporary issues into her superhero stories) the breeziness won’t overshadow the substance.  Perhaps the biggest challenge I’m anxious about is one of baseline knowledge.  Wilson and the Ms. Marvel editor Sana Amanat do a lot to make the Muslim and Pakistani-American cultural elements accessible, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t go into this series with more than a little trepidation.  White people tend to be bad at cultural sensitivity, and that’s always going to be a fear of mine regardless of how much practice I put into it.

Cover of Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #1. (Image credit: Comic Vine. Artwork by Sarah Pichelli & Justin Ponsor)

Anyway.

Other basics for this series go like this: I’m only going as far as I have read myself, and I currently only have the first five volumes of the series (for anyone keeping count, that’s the four arcs of Kamala’s first volume before Marvel’s Secret Wars mandated relaunch and the first arc of the second volume; I tend to get new trades late in the summer around my birthday or around Christmastime, so maybe I’ll get volume 6 before I reach the end of my current collection).  Because this is a series that’s also currently ongoing, it’s entirely possible that I might reach a point where I just want to take a break and look at something different.  No promises and all that, y’know?  Beyond that, I’ll be following my usual titling convention for these posts of listing the issue’s title in the blog post title.  Because Marvel tends to group parts of longer arcs under a single title (and because they often remove credit and title boxes in trades), I’ll use the arc title and the part number indicated by the trade paperback volume to refer to each issue (for example, the first arc is titled “Meta Morphosis” in the floppies, but I’ll be labeling it “No Normal”).

Okay, now that I’ve covered all the stuff that may or may not have needed to be said, let’s get down to the comic itself.

Since it’s the first issue of a new series with a new character, Ms. Marvel #1 has a lot of set up to accomplish in its twenty pages (what’s the deal with newer comics being so much shorter, by the way?).  The superheroics are minimal and imagined here, as we have to do rapid fire introductions of Kamala and all of her supporting cast.  You have the high school friends, Bruno and Nakia; the mean girl and her jock boyfriend, Zoe and Josh; and Kamala’s family including her older brother Aamir and her parents.  Wilson establishes right away that Kamala is not nearly as streetwise as Bruno (who inexplicably is working before school at the Circle Q; how long is his shift?  Was he there all night and now he’s going to class?  Why is he not more tired?) or as wary of microaggressions as Nakia, who wears hijab and presumably is accustomed to getting flak for appearing culturally different.  We also see right away that Kamala is someone who isn’t quite comfortable with the tension between the worlds she inhabits; the very first scene opens with her salivating over a bacon sandwich while reminding herself of her religious dietary restrictions.  It’s a nice juxtaposition of Kamala’s sense of obligation to her family’s culture with her desire to fit in as a typical American teenager.  We’ll see this motif repeated regularly throughout the issue in various ways as the issue’s primary plot revolves around Kamala’s decision to go to a block party without her parents’ permission.

Our hero, everybody. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

In a nice twist on expectations, Bruno and Nakia provide counter intuitive perspectives on Kamala’s dilemma.  Nakia owns her religious convictions, but emphasizes to Kamala that she should only embrace her religious tradition if it’s what she really wants to do.  Bruno, who is white and an outsider to the Muslim culture that Kamala and Nakia share, tends to be the more conservative voice, encouraging Kamala to avoid getting in trouble and cautioning her to stay away from the party.  These character beats are nice because they flesh out Bruno as someone who doesn’t fully understand the culture of his friend, but who wants to be respectful, and they show that Nakia, who reads as particularly devout, isn’t also guilty of having fundamentalist tendencies.

The context of this scene has Kamala being clueless about Zoe’s microaggressions, but I swear her face here says to me, “You are so full of crap.” (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

For this first issue we have in place of a typical villain the characters of Zoe and Josh.  Zoe and Josh are typically WASPy white kids from Kamala’s school who come across not so much evil as incredibly insensitive.  Josh’s role is minor; he gives Kamala a spiked drink as a prank when she shows up at the party, and then gets drunk along with the other jocks.  Zoe’s part in the story is a little more complex.  In the first scene she makes a series of comments that Nakia and Bruno immediately recognize as not friendly (Zoe apparently has a reputation for being passive aggressively mean to other kids).  She’s your typical white person engaging in some low-level Islamophobia with comments about “honor killing” and insinuations that Nakia’s wearing hijab is something she’s being forced to do.  Later at the party, she drops the fake nice act fully and bashes Kamala’s culture to her face when she believes that Kamala’s appearance at the party indicates that Kamala is totally rejecting her family.

Speaking of Kamala’s family, the Khans are portrayed here as delightfully content.  Kamala’s mother and father are relatively conservative but in the way that parents who care about their children tend to be.  Kamala’s father chides her brother Aamir for using his devotion to Islam as an excuse to avoid getting a job (Aamir shoots back that at least he’s not doing anything usurious like working in a bank; it’s a wonderful exchange that underscores the family’s affection for one another despite their disagreements).  Kamala is the young, geeky child whose hobbies no one else in her family fully relates to, but they all take her quirks in stride.  Honestly, the Khans are one of the absolute best parts of Ms. Marvel, and that dynamic is present from the very beginning.

Other fun bits that pop up in this issue include the minor character of Chatty Bob, who only appears in one panel and doesn’t say much; Kamala’s stuffed, winged sloth that appears in her room and during her hallucination after being exposed to the Terrigen mist; and Kamala’s fascination with wedge heels (there’s a delightful panel where Kamala eyes a girl’s shoes from across the park at the party).  Much of this stuff is attributable to Adrian Alphona’s artwork, which does a lot of the heavy lifting on characterization.  He’s almost virtuosic in the way he packs panels full of little background details to tell you stuff about the characters and the world they inhabit.

Kamala experiences her first party. It is both amazing and disgusting. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

Alphona Background Coolness (ABCs)

  • Easy Greasy BLT
  • Hot Sammiches
  • Vusa & BlasterCard
  • “Cashiers are not interested in your stories”
  • Coco Bread
  • Kid pulling “Ooh La La” magazine off the newsrack
  • Badgerade
  • “You Read 4 Words You Buy!”
  • Coffee Son!
  • Smushees
  • Die Fire Die
  • Sizes: This That
  • Coffee Soda
  • Cold As Ice Drinks
  • Birdy Nom Noms
  • Asian River Water
  • Roundhouse Cola
  • Bruce Lee Wataaa
  • Dylan’s Hot Fiya
  • Orphan Farms O.J.
  • “Business Hours: All of Them”
  • Books an Ting, Ting an Books
  • Jersey Akhbar
  • GM’Os cereal
  • “Eat Now!  Radoslav’s Chicken Salan”
  • “Shock!  Cricket Doping Scandal”
  • Brand X Tea
  • “Tax on Color Orange Approved”
  • “Sportz Scandal”
  • “Cricket: Toads Lose Again! Team Blames Fans”
  • World’s Grooviest Dad
  • The overhead view of the party complete with dancing frog, guy on fire, person being chased by an axe murderer
  • “Give a Hoot!  Recycle!”
  • “Missing Child: 555-Blah”

“Now I Feel Weird and Awesome!”

Heart. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring)

I have to admit that when I ordered the fourth volume of Ms. Marvel I didn’t have super high expectations for the story.  This volume is titled Last Days, and it marks the end of the series leading up to the company wide event Secret Wars (don’t panic, the series continues after that).  All of Marvel’s major books had a “Last Days” storyline just before they were suspended for the event built around the 616 universe ending as a result of the “Incursion” where all the dimensions of the multiverse were colliding with one another.  Typically, any story that’s editorially mandated is going to carry with it some baggage that will weigh down the book’s ongoing narrative (especially considering that these stories were designed to be explicit endings to all of the ongoing series).  G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona manage to take that concept and turn it into something really endearing.

The way they pull this off is that they take the end-of-the-world narrative that’s standard in pretty much all of the “Last Days” stories (at least, it is in the ones that I’ve read elsewhere), and they set that as a backdrop.  It’s established up front that Kamala isn’t going to be doing anything to directly help fight against the Incursion; she’s just going to be managing the chaos in Jersey City, and at the end the universe is going to disappear.  Game over, no more continues.  As readers who have meta-knowledge of the event that’s happening, we already know the ending, so the narrative tension of that question is immediately removed so that we can focus instead on watching Kamala cope with the news.  Over the course of this arc she transitions from assuming it’s a major threat that the Avengers will be able to handle to wondering if she can do anything to save the world to accepting the possibility that her time’s almost up and deciding how to spend her last few hours alive.  It’s not necessarily a unique story, but it’s a good direction to go with a young hero who’s still learning about how she’s supposed to do the hero thing.  Consequently, this story becomes about Kamala engaging in a kind of heroism that isn’t centered around punching things.  More importantly, which Kamala is our focus character, there’s so much going on here that’s more about her community coming together in the face of a crisis; it’s nice.

Part of what really makes this story shine for me is the way it highlights Kamala’s relationships with all the people around her.  We get to see developments between Kamala and all of her family (Aamir’s subplot might be my favorite; I love how he simply refuses to let anyone dictate what he should want for himself based on his identity as a young, devout, Muslim man), an exploration of the way Kamran’s kidnapping of Kamala is still messing with her head (it’s a great look at how trauma can impact a person without delving into the lurid aspects of severe traumas like violence or sexual assault), and the setting aside of differences among Kamala’s classmates during the crisis (Kamala’s reconciliation with Zoe in particular is pretty touching; Zoe was the first person Kamala rescued as Ms. Marvel, even though Zoe had bullied her just before the Terrigen mist gave her her powers, and even though Zoe doesn’t realize that, it’s nice here to see her recognizing how mean she’s been).  Even Bruno, whose unrequited love for Kamala has had the potential from the beginning to be a little icky, gets a nice resolution here where Kamala finally acknowledges that she does have feelings for him, but she can’t do romance right now because she’s so focused on learning how to be Ms. Marvel.  It’s a good resolution that sidesteps the cultural problem that Aamir points out in the previous arc, and doesn’t leave Kamala in an awkward position where she has to manage knowing her best friend is in love with her and she doesn’t feel the same about him.  This approach shows a lot of maturity and growth on Kamala’s part, especially as a follow up to the Kamran plot.

The one relationship that’s of particular note is the one that Kamala establishes with Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel.  This team up is one that’s been anticipated since the inception of Ms. Marvel.  Out of all the superheroes that Kamala fangirls over, Carol Danvers is her idol; she was the inspiration for Kamala to take up the Ms. Marvel name in the first place, so there’s a lot of expectation that comes with the two finally meeting.  If the team up with Wolverine back in Generation Why was nonstop adorable, then this one with Carol is nonstop feels.  Kamala gets affirmation from her personal hero that she’s doing well as Ms. Marvel, and she gets to learn with Carol’s guidance about the burden that having power places on you when it’s not enough to take care of everyone.  All this is even more poignant with the subtle implication that Kamala’s meeting the Carol from the universe that’s in process of colliding with 616.  It’s not hard to figure out when you know the context of the story, but little things like the pendant with the combined emblems of Captain and Ms. Marvel and the fact Carol’s uniform is all in dark grays and blacks (like she’s in mourning) go a long way towards suggesting what’s going on.  The Kamala in the other world was probably Carol’s partner or sidekick, and she must have died recently; the visit to our Kamala is this Carol trying to get closure.  That this is never explicitly stated (and Kamala never seems to figure it out) makes the whole thing more heart wrenching.  Carol’s primary appearance is in issue 17, and I think it’s hands down the most outstanding issue in a really superb arc.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a moment squeeing over Alphona’s art in this book.  He draws the best expressions on Kamala, and when you can tear yourself away from looking at how adorable she is, you can get lost looking at the background details that he nestles into every panel.  Kamala is very proud of her hometown, and with Alphona on the book Jersey City becomes especially weird and quirky.  You have a variety of strange locals like the little people who are always wearing hazmat suits, the bald hipster guy with shrapnel sticking out of his head, and the police who are busily dumping evidence (including a skull with a knife sticking out of it!) into the river.  Alphona’s art makes this book just as much as Wilson’s writing.

It almost feels like a Where’s Waldo picture, but with way weirder stuff happening. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring)

“Hey! Wait! Hipster Viking!”

There are two things of great import in Ms. Marvel trade volume 3.  The first is that Loki guest stars in an issue and gets called a hipster Viking, which is, objectively, the best thing.  The second is that this is the first time since I started reading Ms. Marvel that the guest star story feels like a bigger draw than Kamala’s solo adventures.

Don’t get me wrong; I still enjoyed the story in this volume immensely.  Stories that delve into the turmoil that teenagers feel over complicated relationships tend to hit me in the nostalgia feels because I was a mopey  teenager myself at one time (despite what my students say, I am thankfully not so old that I’ve forgotten what it’s like being that age).  Kamala has to navigate her first serious romance in this book (I don’t care if it’s a relationship that only lasts, like, three days; remember, we’re talking about teenagers), and in parallel with that story (which passes through some really interesting territory) we get to see her best buddy Bruno cope with the fact that he’s totally crushing on Kamala and there’s not any realistic way they could date that would be healthy.  This is all really engaging stuff.

All I’m saying is that it’s just not as awesome as Loki the hipster Viking.

Loki is a hipster Viking. Context is irrelevant. (Artwork by Elmo Bondoc, colors by Ian Herring)

Part of my preference for the Loki issue in this collection is probably very directly related to the difference in artists.  Issue #12, which features Loki, is illustrated by Elmo Bondoc, whose style features delightfully distinct faces that are at their best when they involve a character being smug about something.  The rest of the trade (excepting the bonus issue of SHIELD #2 in the back where Kamala guest stars) is illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa.  Miyazawa’s style is highly reminiscent of manga, which isn’t intrinsically bad, but has connotations of blandness for me (I went through a manga phase when I was a teenager, and honestly I don’t think I ever came across anything that stayed with me the way many Western comics have).  I want to reiterate that I’m not knocking Miyazawa’s style; his run here is really engaging with some good action sequences and fun character expressions, but in comparison with Bondoc’s single issue, I find that I prefer Bondoc’s art.

Setting aside the art (when it comes down to it, Ms. Marvel has had a phenomenal run of artists in the issues I’ve read, and comparisons never really come down to a matter of individual quality), I want to talk a little bit about the story arc in this volume.  I’ve read through the book twice, and my general impression is that this arc presented a few narrative challenges.  No Normal and Generation Why (the first and second trades, respectively) were arcs that could be seen as two halves to the larger origin story of Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel.  The first trade involved Kamala adopting her superhero identity, and the second was about her growing into that identity as an inhabitant of the larger Marvel universe; all of these personal developments had the luxury of being framed by a macro story about her ever escalating confrontations with her first supervillain, the Inventor.  No Normal ends with the Inventor still terrorizing Jersey City, which gives extra narrative momentum to Generation Why.  Because Crushed (the volume I’m discussing here) begins after the Inventor’s been apprehended, this arc has to start from a place with no narrative urgency.  Kamala’s established herself as a competent superhero, and we’re just awaiting the next major threat that inevitably comes along in superhero stories.

It’s probably the lack of momentum that left me feeling slightly less excited by this arc than the previous ones.  Fortunately, that feeling didn’t really last; where Crushed is lacking in the intrinsic excitement of a new superhero’s origin story, I’ve realized that its handling of topics related to group identity, young romance, and trauma in a way that’s accessible for young readers makes it a particularly good story.  The look at trauma in particular stands out to me, since Wilson manages to offer a pretty strong parallel to a rape story without actually delving into sexual assault, a subject that’s too heavy for an all-ages book.  Without giving away too much for anyone worried about spoilers, Kamala finds herself in a situation where she’s been taken prisoner by the arc’s new villain, and it’s pointed out that because of her own actions preceding her capture, no one will realistically think that she’s been victimized.  This thread doesn’t get fully resolved in Crushed (it ends before Kamala gets back to her regular life where we can see the potential fallout of what’s happened), but great care’s taken to explore how Kamala’s impacted by this spin on her situation.

Overall, while I was initially not as taken with this collection of Ms. Marvel as the previous ones, time has helped me come to the conclusion that while it starts from a disadvantage compared to the previous trades, the meat of the story that’s contained here is a lot more satisfying on a thematic level.  It’s definitely worth a read, and not just because of the hipster Viking.

“Not Until I’ve Had My Post-Bad-Guy Gyro.”

It’s no secret that I think the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is an amazing character.  If I could afford to buy her book on a monthly basis, I’d absolutely do it, but there are all those other factors to take into consideration like groceries and rent and utilities bills, so I have to satisfy myself with buying the trade paperbacks on special occasions instead.

For my birthday this year, I decided to indulge myself and buy the second trade of what’s now Kamala’s first volume of Ms. Marvel (I really miss the days when Marvel didn’t reboot a series every couple years just to have a new #1 to put out on shelves keyed to major company events, but that’s not likely to change as long as it makes for good marketing, so whatever), which is entitled Generation Why.  It contains the second story arc featuring Kamala’s continued fight against the Inventor, a clone of Thomas Edison who got some cockatiel DNA mixed in by accident so that he has a bird’s head (comics!).  There are a bunch of guest appearances by other major Marvel characters (Wolverine shows up for two issues because it’s not a Marvel book until the Canucklehead features, and the Inhumans’ giant teleporting dog with a tuning fork on his head, Lockjaw, becomes Kamala’s sidekick/pet/guardian because Medusa decides that Kamala’s special), which are generally a lot of fun and don’t feel wedged in for the sake of cross promotion.

I love how Wolverine’s cutting his eyes at Kamala like he can’t believe he agreed to take a selfie. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

The broader arc is broken up into two smaller stories, with the first being the two-part adventure with Wolverine in the sewers below Jersey City.  Kamala finds herself in need of a mentor since she’s growing more committed to the superhero thing, and it’s tough being isolated from the larger community (particularly since she was already a superhero fangirl).  When she’s investigating a pothole that growls (does Jersey really have bottomless potholes?), Kamala finally meets the Inventor in a habitat that he’s constructed for cybernetically modified alligators.  By coincidence, Wolverine is also down in the sewers trying to track down a runaway mutant girl.  The two team up since the girl’s disappearance seems to be connected to the Inventor, and so Kamala has a grand time learning about the joys and difficulties of being a grown up superhero from one of her biggest idols.  Both of these issues are illustrated by Jacob Wyatt, and they provide some of the most charming moments in the book, as we get to see things like Kamala’s dismay at having to injure a full grown alligator and Wolverine’s embarrassment that he needs Kamala to carry him piggyback through the sewers because he’s too injured to swim.  The action scenes are a lot of fun and easy to follow thanks to Wyatt’s more minimalist style (of course, compared to the regular artist Adrian Alphona, who packs tons of details into every panel he draws, most people have a more minimalist style).

The second, longer mini-arc has Kamala finally learn the secret plan that the Inventor has been working on since he first came to her attention in issue three.  It has to do with using teenagers as human batteries in a scheme to create free energy for the world.  Thematically, there’s a lot of conversation here about the tension between older and younger generations, as the Inventor (who is literally a grumpy old bird man) persuades runaway teens that they’re only a further burden on the world and the best way for them to help out is to become part of the Inventor’s Grid (yes, this whole scheme has shades of The Matrix to it, and it’s equally as absurd here, but just go with it).  Kamala presents the runaway kids with an alternate vision where they have useful skills that they can cultivate to help deal with the world’s problems in the future.  The whole thing strongly echoes the persistent tension between Millennials and Baby Boomers that people have been discussing for a couple decades now, but with a much more optimistic tone that’s appropriate for a book targeted at YA readers.

This book’s only flaw is that the plot feels a little thin on the back end.  The last three issues included in this collection are one continuous action climax as Kamala confronts an ever escalating series of robots against the background of the Inventor’s various lairs with the rescued teens lending support.  I’m guessing that it’s largely just a symptom of action fatigue and decompression; the big fight feels like it could have been resolved over two issues instead, with more space for character moments, which is really where G. Willow Wilson shines as a writer.  Combined with Alphona’s extremely detailed art (which, paradoxically, often fails to give a sense of location during the final fight with the Inventor’s biggest megabot), the climax is a little wearying.

Nonetheless, I think this is a strong book, and I’m still totally on board with reading more of Kamala’s adventures in the future.

Help Me I Have Probably Done Hugo Nominations Wrong 2015

So, the big news for the day is that Hugo Award nominations closed early this morning, and for the first time, I was able to submit my own ballot.  The background goes like this: Rachael has had a very good year with her writing, and WorldCon, which is the annual convention where the Hugos take place every year, is happening in Spokane, Washington this year, and because we have several friends on the West Coast who are planning on attending, we thought we’d try to go and see them.  We bought our memberships late last year when they went on sale, and one of the benefits is being allowed to cast a nomination ballot for the Hugo Awards.

All of that is to say that being a first time nominator, I have probably done everything totally wrong (the most obvious thing being that I waited until the last minute to do some research on what was eligible and fill out my ballot so that this post is going up after the nomination window has closed), but I am okay with that.  In thinking over what I cared enough about to put on my ballot, I realized that much of what I’m nominating is stuff that I’ve written about in the last year.  So, even if I’ve done this all wrong and nothing I nominated actually gets on the final ballot, I figured it’s at least worth letting folks know this stuff is out there and I think it’s, objectively, the best things.  For 2014.

Best Short Story

  • “Makeisha in Time” by Rachael K. Jones – Yes, I’m more than a little biased because Rachael wrote this story, but that’s irrelevant here, because it’s a wonderful intersectional piece on historical erasure of women and people of color in the vein of Kameron Hurley’s essay “We Have Always Fought.”  I’ve read all of Rachael’s writing, and this is one of her best to come out in the last year.

Best Related Work

  • Tropes Vs. Women’s “Women As Background Decoration” by Anita Sarkeesian – I have been a fan of Sarkeesian’s work from the start of Tropes Vs. Women in Games, and this entry felt pretty groundbreaking to me, if for no other reason than the way it hammered home the very important point that depiction is not equivalent to critique.  The two part episode is also notable as the last major publication in Tropes Vs. Women in Games before the eruption of GamerGate.  That cesspool had been festering for a while, and its fallout has undoubtedly been a difficult experience for Sarkeesian, but I’m pleased that her work is getting more mainstream attention in light of that.
  • The Wolf Among Us by Telltale Games – I am a huge fan of Telltale Games’s style of choice-based narrative games, and of the two that launched last year, this one was probably my favorite.  The art style and noir tone are really groovy, and dilemmas that Bigby faces are some very interesting moral conundrums.  I also loved The Walking Dead Season 2, but that series delves so much more into purely awful choices over actual ethical questions that I prefer Wolf.
  • Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men by Rachel Edidin and Miles Stokes – I just got into this podcast a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been burning through episodes at a ridiculous rate.  It’s a wonderful casual introduction to the X-Men franchise, and Rachel and Miles’s enthusiasm for their subject really bleeds over where I always finish an episode wanting to re-read the material they’re discussing, whether it’s objectively good or just absurdly awesome.

Best Graphic Story

  • Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona – I have been in love with this series ever since I picked up my second edition #1 last May, and that love has only grown as I’ve read more and more of the series.  I love that this book features a Pakistani-American girl who’s trying to navigate her life in New Jersey, and I love that its creative team involves two Muslim women.  It does great things for diversity in comics, both for characters and creators, and it’s also just wonderful storytelling.
  • Rat Queens Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch – As a D&D nerd, I love this book for its hilariously skewed take on typical high fantasy tropes, and as a feminist I love the independent, unique main characters who are all so well written and drawn.  Even disregarding all that, I’d probably want to nominate this simply because Betty never stops making me laugh.
  • Saga Volume Three by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples – There’s probably so much more that I could say about this series than what I’ve already said, and maybe someday I will.  For now, it’s probably enough to say that the core theme of Saga really resonates for me, especially since I’m coming out of an evangelical background where ideas about sexuality and warfare are all kinds of messed up.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

  • Snowpiercer – It’s a Marxist/Gnostic allegory set on a bullet train that involves a scene where a bunch of guys gut a fish then have an axe fight.  This movie’s insane, and if you try to watch it on a literal level you’ll likely get really frustrated with the absurdity of the worldbuilding, but it’s a really wonderful ride if you take it for the metaphor that it is.  Of what I’ve seen this past year, I think this was probably the best science fiction movie to come out in 2014.
  • Big Hero 6 – I just saw this a couple weeks ago with my students, and I was thoroughly impressed with it.  It’s fun, funny, actiony, and heartwarming with a really well-realized world.  Perhaps I’m remembering it more fondly than it deserves, but I can’t knock a movie that has my entire class of cynical high schoolers (several of whom were loudly whining that they hate kid movies) watching and laughing in delight less than twenty minutes in.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

  • Dark Dungeons – Tabletop gaming and tongue-in-cheek criticism of fundamentalist Christianity.  What’s not to love?
  • PodCastle Episode 339 “Help Summon the Most Holy Folded One!” by Harry Connolly – I’m really sad that Dave Thompson and Anna Schwind are stepping down as editors at PodCastle at the end of this month, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that we’ll always have wonderful episodes like this one, which is a full cast reading of a short story framed as the Kickstarter page of a project meant to summon Tacthulhu.  It’s every bit as awesome and silly as you think.
  • PodCastle Episode 324 “Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy” by Saladin Ahmed – I was never an Edmund Spenser fan when I was in school, though I do recall taking a couple classes with some hardcore Spenserians.  After listening to this reading of Ahmed’s story, I doubt I could ever go back and really enjoy Spenser, because he does such a great job of critiquing Spenser’s dehumanization of Muslim soldiers as adversaries for his hero in Faerie Queene.  I rarely get really emotionally invested in short stories, but this reading honestly had me in tears by the time it ended.  I can’t recommend it enough.

And that’s about it.  I made some nominations in other categories, but they’re pretty minor in comparison to what I’ve covered here.  I don’t know if any of it will actually get nominated, but that’s probably beside the point here.  These things are great, and they’re worth checking out, Hugo Award or no.

“Embiggen!”

So, I’m sure y’all remember how I spent all that blog real estate last year worrying over the ethics of supporting a creative project that involves someone who makes really good art but has some serious personal problems.  If you don’t, I guess you can go catch up on that whole issue here.

Fortunately for everyone, though, there really are no issues like that in regards to the new Ms. Marvel ongoing series.  I have absolutely no reservations about endorsing this book.  It’s a great read, and it’s doing something really significant in the comics industry: it’s acting as an outlet for underrepresented creative voices.  While I really enjoy Rat Queens, and I think it’s doing some really great stuff in terms of how women are depicted in comics, it’s also written by a white guy (a pretty standup white guy, based on what I’ve read of Kurtis Wiebe) which means it’s not doing anything to broaden the spectrum of creator voices.  Ms. Marvel doesn’t have that issue.  You look at the creative team on this book, and you see represented two Muslim women (writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat, who was directly involved in Kamala Khan’s creation); Ms. Marvel isn’t just about a Muslim girl living in America, but is also voiced by people with that firsthand experience.

It’s basically the same cover as what was on issue #1, but it also has a snazzy quote about how important this comic is. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

I think this is kind of a big deal.

Anywho, you probably came by to get my impressions of the book, and not just a polemic about how important it is to support creative works that promote diverse voices.

I’ve probably read the first issue of Ms. Marvel about five times since I first bought it last May (as someone who typically treats comics as something that you engage on about the same level as a television show, paying close attention the first time, and then not really going back for a long time after, this is an exceptional amount of attention for me to spend on a single twenty-page issue of a comic), and I still think it’s incredibly charming.  First issues have a lot in common with pilot episodes of TV shows where there’s a lot of groundwork that has to be laid so the audience can understand the series’s concept, which often means that the actual plot has to be set aside while we deal with exposition.  That was probably my biggest frustration with just having the first issue for most of the year; it sets up tons of really interesting stuff, but then it just ends (comic book cliffhangers are, objectively, the cruelest kind of cliffhangers).  I wanted to read more about Kamala and her quirky superhero fascination (I don’t know why, but the depiction of superhero nerds in superhero comics is always just the slightest bit absurd; if you lived in a world where superheroes were a fact of life, don’t you think more people would be interested in them?) and her long-suffering family (Kamala’s parents strike me as eminently reasonable people who really do just want the best for their daughter; it’s kind of heartbreaking that she has to continue keeping secrets from them) and her stressful high school relationships (what high school relationships aren’t stressful?).  Since I couldn’t get more of the story, I settled for going back and perusing the panels for all the strange little details that Adrian Alphona tucked into every drawing (Alphona’s style, which has this surreal, smokey quality to it, has everything I want in superhero art; his people range from being cartoonishly stylized in wide shots to having a really grounded reality about them on close-up; no two characters ever appear to be different heads stuck on the exact same body); I’m still trying to figure out what the deal is with Kamala’s winged sloth plushy.

And then, gloriously, I got the first trade for Christmas, and the entire first arc is just as wondrous as that first issue (but also more satisfying, because you get to see so much more about Kamala’s life, and you actually get to resolve some stuff).  Kamala’s pretty much a total klutz with her new shape-shifting powers, and it’s incredible fun to watch her learn how her powers work (I hope Wilson never stops writing Kamala’s inner monologue of how she psychs herself up to activate her powers).  Alphona’s art does a fantastic job of depicting Kamala’s go-to tactic of just making her hand huge so she can bash or move things as the situation demands; it’s exactly the kind of haphazard problem solving I would expect a sixteen-year-old with apparently unlimited shape-shifting powers to engage in.

And that’s probably the most outstanding thing about this book that I’ve noticed.  For a superhero series, this first arc is exceptionally light on super-powered confrontations.  Kamala’s pretty much the only metahuman around in the first arc, and the majority of her superheroics revolves around her just trying to avoid being noticed by someone who knows her or saving someone from dangerous situations.  It’s really refreshing, as I’ve found that my brain just kind of shuts off when I’m reading other superhero comics and I get to the obligatory action sequence for each issue (either that, or I begin scanning the art for examples of women who can miraculously fight with broken spines and other deformities).

So, yeah.  Ms. Marvel‘s first trade is really good.  If you haven’t read it, and you have any interest in reading a superhero book that’s mostly not about superheroics, then you should pick it up.

Boxing Day

It’s the day after Christmas, and I’m preparing to enjoy the second week of my winter break, which is the best time of year aside from the summer break that’s four times as long.  In that time, I hope to do some revision on a short story I wrote during NaNoWriMo (it’s always nice to have goals that don’t involve just sitting on the couch, reading comics and playing video games) and catch up on some podcasts (I’m pretty much over the moon that I got a new MP3 player this year since my last one went kaput over two years ago).  Besides the ambitious goals, I also have all the typical vacation plans of just enjoying my Christmas gifts and then writing furiously about them, because stories are meant to be engaged, and one of my favorite parts of getting into anything new is the chance to think it over and share my thoughts on it.

Anywho, here’s a quick rundown of things that I’ll be mulling over in the near future, as a kind of road map to what I want to discuss in the coming weeks (I’m not going to say in the coming year, because I operate on the academic calendar, and as far as I’m concerned the year ends in May and starts in August).

I’ve picked up several volumes of some comic series that I’ve been excited about following, including the first story arc of the new Ms. Marvel ongoing (I picked the first issue up way back in May and was instantly taken with it), the first volume of Rat Queens (on the recommendation of a friend of Rachael’s, who I now fully trust has excellent taste in comics), and a couple volumes of Saga (I know I said I was going to write about that one at some point, but I never got around to it; maybe with three volumes of the series to read through, I’ll get back to it now).  I expect I’ll have read through all of them before the end of the weekend, so maybe I’ll have something on at least one of those series in the next week.

On the video game front, I’m still working my way through Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I expect I’ll be chipping at that for a while.  If I have any further thoughts beyond, “This game’s a lot of fun, and I really don’t like Vivienne,” then I’d love to share those.  For Alex, who specifically asked me if I’m going to do any writing on Chrono Cross, the sequel to Chrono Trigger, I’d really like to blog through a replay of that game.  It’s an odd one, and it does a lot to complicate Chrono Trigger‘s pretty streamlined narrative (as much as any time-travel story can have), but I remember the game being such a big deal in my mind when it came out simply because it was a sequel to that game that I’d love to revisit it and see how it holds up fifteen years later.

On the front of non-graphical fiction, I’m nearly finished reading the third book in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion saga, and I’d love to mull over that series in depth once I’ve finished with it.  Without getting into too much detail, it’s a series that’s kindled a slight interest in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and also reminds me so much of Mass Effect (which I strongly suspect was cribbing heavily from Simmons’s series).  Also, if I can keep my promise to myself about getting back into podcasts, I might try to write more regularly about stories that I listen to.  I already said it above, but it bears repeating: stories are meant to be engaged.

So that’s what I’m thinking about; we’ll see if I actually stick to any of these plans.  Nonetheless, I hope you all had a pleasant Christmas if you celebrate it, and happy holidays throughout the rest of the season.