Wednesday 7 February 2018

Retro Hugo Best Graphic Story — 1943 (Part 2: Recommendations)

This is the second of a two-part discussion on the Best Graphic Story Retro Hugo for 1943 (which recognizes works first published in 1942). The first part can be found at this link.

It takes a lot of work for a comic book fan to stay up-to-date and to have
Nelvana is simply one of the best
comics of the era, while also being
ahead of its time in representing
a non-white, non-male hero.
(Image via
read a wide enough slate of publications to nominate knowledgably.

Most – and perhaps all – of the people who will be nominating and voting on the Retro Hugo awards weren’t reading comic books in 1942. It is therefore even more difficult for most readers to assess what works might deserve consideration for the award.

Prior to 2018, the only time there was a Retro Hugo for Best Graphic Story was in 2016, when the Retro Hugos for 1941 were awarded. That ceremony saw Batman #1 take the trophy ahead of Captain Marvel and The Spirt, both of which are superior comic books. Joe Simon’s superb first 12 issues of Blue Bolt didn’t even make the final ballot.

Batman as a character may have had more popular appeal in the long-term, but those early stories are not as dynamic or innovative as The Spirit. Batman may have some science fiction elements today, but in 1940 Blue Bolt told better science fiction stories. Batman may be more popular today, but in 1940 Captain Marvel was the leading comic book character.  

One of the all-time great Retro Hugo
snubs is the omission of Blue Bolt
from the ballot for the 1941 award.
(Image via
In our last post, this blog provided a broad overview of notable works from 1942, noting the merits of each without making specific recommendations. But there are three comics that in our minds stand as the exemplars of science fiction comics in 1942. It is not our intention to offer a ‘slate’ of works that should make the ballot, but rather to suggest a few works that Hugo voters should consider reading.

Captain Marvel's use of colour
is spectacular for the era.
The modernity of the storytelling
and innocence of the characters
is exceptionally charming.
(Image via
Canadian black-and-white classic Nelvana of the Northern Lights will be at the top of our ballots. This is a book that modern readers should take a look at not only for its sharp-edged illustrations and its inventive storytelling, but also because it offers readers both the first super-powered female character and the first Indigenous superhero.

Plastic Man by Jack Cole is one of the most inventive books of the era. Pulitzer-prize winner Art Spiegelman so admired this comic that he wrote a book titled “Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits.” In it he aptly describes the ‘manic spritz of images’ that leavened the pages of Plastic Man, and compares Cole’s work to such greats as Laurel and Hardy, Tex Avery and The Marx Brothers. This title will also appear on our ballots, and we encourage other Retro Hugo voters to consider it.

For those seeking conventional superheroics, in 1942 Captain Marvel was the cream of the crop. The wide-eyed optimism of the book has often been imitated, parodied, or deconstructed, but never equaled in their simple, honest joyful fun. Particularly worth noting is how this comic used colour more effectively than most other publications of the era.

There will always be a gap between the modern popular understanding of these works and the context in which they were published, and this will always be one of the inherent tensions of the Retro Hugo Awards. It is difficult for a modern audience to understand the world in which these comics were published, and it is hard to know where to start reading when considering works for the award. It is worth reading widely in advance of nomination — these three books are a good place to start.


  1. Replies
    1. Alex Raymond's art is excellent on Flash Gordon that year. But at least for me and the other book club members who read it, the story fell flat.

  2. The Spirit should be here. His origin is tinged with science-fictional elements, and the strip itself not infrequently veered into fantasy (he meets ghosts) and science fiction (Cicero Swink's sentient fiction-writing robot). Those are both from '42 or '43 (they're in the box of Spirit sections from then that Mom gave me). He also battled mad scientists with crazy inventions, met witches, and eventually went to the Moon, but those may have come later.

    Still, just for the origin story, I say he qualifies.

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  3. The Spirit is superb in general.

    But in 1942, Spirit creator Will Eisner was in the service, so the comic was largely done by his assistants. Most of the penciling on the May and June stories was done by Lou Fine and inks were by Fine and various assistants.

    Still some good stories in that year, but it's really not up to the standards of other years.