Sunday 20 January 2019

Retro Hugo – Best Graphic Story 1944

Last year, there were insufficient nominating ballots for the Retro Hugo – Best Graphic Story, which meant that no awards were presented. This is a shame, as there were certainly more than enough qualifying works published in 1942 that merited recognition.

In the hopes of preventing a repeat this year, we are urging you to seriously consider reading — and hopefully nominating — several first-rate graphic stories that were published in 1943.

Recommended reading:
  1. Nelvana of the Northern Lights and the Ice-Beam
  2. Plastic Man and The Game Of Death 
  3. Tintin and the Secret Of The Unicorn
  4. Wonder Woman #5 
Jack Cole’s work on Plastic Man (appearing both in Police Comics and his own comic for the first
It is impossible to overstate
Jack Cole's inventiveness.
(Image via Digital
Comic Book Museum)
time) holds up well and served as an inspiration for others. Even though there have been many comic book characters with the ability to stretch themselves, Cole embraced the artistic possibilities offered by this body shaping with a glee and creativity that has yet to be equalled.

This was a year in which Cole – possibly emboldened by getting his own dedicated Plastic Man title – started playing with text and composition in new ways. In the Game Of Death, a book dedicated to plastic adventures, Cole pushes his character’s form to new limits. His writing is also at its most quotable in this work: “If you should see a man standing on the street and reaching into the top window of a sky-scraper…that’s not astigmatism—it’s Plastic Man!…If you happen upon a gent all bent up like a pretzel…don’t dunk him…it’s Plastic Man! All this and bouncing too, you’ll see when the rubber man and his pal Woozy Winks gamble their lives in—The Game of Death.”

Plastic Man is far and away our top pick for recognition in the 1943 Retro Hugo for best Graphic Story.

Canadian black-and-white classic Nelvana of the Northern Lights continues be first-rate, despite the
Alex Raymond's final year on
Flash Gordon is one of his best.
(Image via
fact that the stories told that year were more standard superhero fare, rather than the more interesting Inuit-inspired tales of the preceding years. 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 comic book.

The issues published in 1943 find Nelvana assuming a secret identity as an agent of the Canadian Government so that she can fight Nazis. Although more predictable than the previous stories had been, the dynamic art and solid writing makes this series worthy of consideration on your Retro Hugo ballots.

Coming off the publication of the regrettable The Shooting Star, Herge bounced back in 1943 with the publication of The Secret Of The Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, two graphic novels that are often described as a high point of the series. Although there’s only marginal science fictional or fantastic elements (the submarines in particular), these works might be worthy of recognition.

Still written by the original creative team of William Marsden and Harry G. Peter, Wonder Woman continued to enjoy strong writing and interesting subversions of orthodoxy in 1943. The debut of Wonder Woman's arch-nemesis Doctor Psycho in Wonder Woman #5 is particularly notable as the psychic dwarf is a misogynist whose ambition is to force women out of participation in wartime employment.

Given the wartime employment of women in jobs traditionally held by men, Marston and Peter’s work captured some of the underlying tensions of this social change. This could be one of the reasons Dr. Psycho would prove to be a long-running adversary for Wonder Woman, representing toxic masculinity as a force in opposition to her feminine strength.

There are a couple of high profile contenders for recognition in the early years of comic book history
Doctor Psycho has decided
to boycott Gilette razors.
(Image via
that you might be surprised we haven’t mentioned yet.

With Wil Eisner in the army in 1943, The Spirit’s adventures were written and illustrated primarily by Lou Fine. These stories are unfortunately not up to the calibre that the series is known for.

And in our opinion, Captain Marvel – the most prominent superhero series of the era – had an off year. Not only was the writing less effervescent than it was in previous years, but after the appalling (but popular) “World’s Mightiest Mistake” story the previous year, the writers seemed to use the exceptionally reactionary sentiment of the age as a racism licence. Stories like “The Voodoo Show Boat,” feature broad and ugly characterizations of African Americans and other visible minorities. “The Battle At The China Wall” depicts Japanese civilians as literal monsters with pointed teeth.

Even when one accounts for American socio-political angst of 1943, with the US’s late and forced entry into the Second World War (Dec 1941) and resulting social upheaval, Captain Marvel Adventures stands out. In previous years – and in subsequent ones – these troubling elements were not as pervasive. The one highlight of the year was issue 28 of Captain Marvel Adventures, in which arch-enemy Doctor Sivana becomes governor of New York.

The Retro Hugo for Best Graphic Story is a category that has suffered neglect in past years due to the difficulty of obtaining relevant works. Thankfully, online archives such as the Digital Comic Book Museum, Comic Book Plus, and Open Culture have made many texts accessible to modern readers. It is our hope that this will lead to an informed and robust debate about these awards.

Wednesday 2 January 2019

Interstelar Pastoral

Chambers’ novels have great titles.
There is a poetry to phrases like
“A Closed And Common Orbit.”
The title Record Of A Spaceborn
is both an evocative and
elegant label for this work.
(Image via
There are few authors writing SFF today who reliably offer as many well-developed and interesting characters as Becky Chambers does.

After bursting onto the scene in 2014 with her self-published debut A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, the more focused 2017 follow-up A Closed And Common Orbit earned her a completely justifiable Hugo nod. It would not be surprising to see Record Of A Spaceborn Few receive another.

Chambers’ first two books were notable for likable, nuanced characters with the ability to provoke empathy. Her characters tend to face human-scale problems, and to have human-scale goals. In a genre that all too often loses a sense of proportion, Chambers’ work can be a breath of fresh air. 

With her latest novel, Record Of A Spaceborn Few, Chambers focuses even more closely on the quotidien, telling a series of interwoven stories about life aboard a series of spaceships that were built to house refugees from a dying Earth. 

While this “exodan fleet” had been referenced in her previous two novels, here it is more fully realized as a society and as a setting. In fact, it is so fully developed that it could be described as a main character within the story. 

The fleet is explored through several primary point-of-view characters, though it’s hard to think of any of them as ‘protagonists.’ Tessa the archivist who shows an alien visitor the ins and outs of the fleet. Sawyer the immigrant who’s trying to reconnect with his heritage and find his place. Kyp the teenager who wants to get away. 

Through slice-of-life vignettes, Chambers shows the reader how the culture of the fleet works. How food is provided. How they maintain their environment. How families are structured. How order is maintained. How people’s bodies are disposed of. 

This last provides one of the most beautiful and elegant sections of the book, as what could have been a distressing subject is shown to be part of the cycle of life aboard a closed-system space fleet that’s been adrift for centuries. 

Work, culture, social responsibility and community are the focal points of this story. What it means to grow up in this alternative society, how populations adapt to limited resources, and how we adapt to those outside our social bubble are all explored. 

This novel will not appeal to those who are seeking fast-paced action, for those looking for big super-science, or for those who seek a puzzle to be solved. One complaint that was leveled at the book was that ‘nothing happens,’ but one suspects that this may not be at odds with what Chambers was attempting to achieve. 

This book is an exploration of how people might live, and fits into a grand — but of late neglected — utopian tradition in social science fiction. 

There is intellectual grist, though little adrenaline in Record Of A Spaceborn Few … and that’s actually just fine.