Thursday 23 January 2020

Retro Hugos 1945: Best Graphic Stories

Over the past 75 years, few types of storytelling have evolved more than the graphic story. This is
Top picks for comic books
published in 1944:
1) Superman #30
2) Plastic Man #2
3) Donald Duck - Mad Chemist
4) The Spirit - Clara Defoe
(Image via
evident in form, style, marketing, writing, and content. The stories told in 1944 are much shorter than modern comics, often just eight to 15 pages per story, with multiple stories in an individual edition of a comic book. In addition, the pages are significantly denser, with more exposition packed into a given comic panel.

It’s difficult not to see these differences when revisiting contenders for the Best Graphic Story of 1944, which likely presents a barrier for many audiences. That said, it can also give us perspective into which artists and writers were pushing the medium forward at that time.

Having quit Disney animation the year before, a then little-known writer and artist Carl Barks had begun producing the first Donald Duck stories to be first-published in print (rather than originating as film). His dynamic layouts, deceptively simple figure work, and effective use of paneling in story pacing quickly made his work stand out. Contractually unable to sign his name to any comics he produced, for two decades Barks was known to the public simply as “the good duck artist” of Donald Duck.

Two of the classic stories of Barks’ 20-year-run on Donald Duck were published in late 1944, the
second of these “The Mad Chemist” is both the more memorable and the more science fictional. The plot sees Donald developing super-genius intellect, inventing a new chemical, and travelling to the moon. While the layouts are less dynamic than Barks’ experiments of just a year later, you can already see him chafing against the constraints of the medium. In 1999, The Comics Journal ranked Barks’ run on Donald Duck as seventh on their list of the 100 greatest comics of the 20th century, and it is difficult to argue with this assessment.

Another of the great comic creators of the era, Will Eisner, had his career interrupted by the Second World War. In his absence, publisher Quality Comics brought in Hugo-shortlisted author Manly Wade Wellman to script with Lou Fine doing pencils of their top-selling book The Spirit (which still bore Eisner’s name). The results are a mixed bag, though the July and September editions of the book contain stories worth noting. I’m likely to include “For the Love of Clara Defoe” on my ballot.

Carl Barks' classic Donald Duck comics
have been endlessly reprinted, and for
good reason!
(Image via
Fearing for the fate of their business in Eisner’s absence, Quality had also hired a young creator named Jack Cole, whose most famous creation Plastic Man was given his own comic book in 1943. Due to wartime paper shortages, only one edition of the Plastic Man solo book hit the shelves in 1944, but his adventures continued to appear in the anthology book Police Comics.

Cole’s effervescent visual imagination and dynamic pencil work redefines what was thought possible in a comic book. As puts it, “These stories helped invent the tools and style that would push comics forward throughout the 1950s, and are still a lot of fun today.”

There are so many great Plastic Man works to choose from that year and it’s hard to narrow it down to a single issue. Police Comics 31 offers us a great story about the wartime draft, in issue 34 Plastic Man is forced to take a nonviolent approach to in a metafictional narrative about appeasing his censors. In terms of narrative construction and art, these works hold up better today than almost anything else published that year. For my ballot, I’ll have the only issue of Plastic Man’s solo book that was published that year; “The Gay Nineties Nightmare” shows better use of colour, more dynamic layouts, and a willingness to work text into the frame that would inspire countless imitators over the decades.

Throughout the 1940s, the most popular comic book on the market remained Captain Marvel Adventures. The success of last year’s Shazam! movie, based on these comics, shows why this character has enduring appeal; the childlike glee of Otto Binder’s creations, the celebration of the families that we build for ourselves, and the empowerment of the underprivileged and strong themes that still resonate.

Despite being one of the best-loved Captain Marvel stories of the era, long-running serial “The
As an aside, if I had my druthers,
the 1945 story that introduced Black Adam
would have been granted a Retro Hugo,
but since the 1946 Retros were handed out
in 1996 prior to the creation of
the Best Graphic Story category,
that is not possible.
(Image via Comic Book Herald)
Monster Society Of Evil
,” which ran for two years in Captain Marvel Adventures, has significant flaws (including depictions of Japanese Americans and Africans). This makes it a difficult inclusion on a ballot, though it also pushed the genre forward, being one of the first examples of long-form storytelling in American comic books. Though it’s lesser-known, the short but delightful romp “Dr. Sivana’s Twin” from issue #59 is likely to be on my ballot.

Possibly my top pick for the Retro Best Graphic Story trophy is Superman #30, which introduces us to classic villain Mr. Mxyztplk. This is a memorable story about an extradimensional prankster who torments Superman, and would turn up numerous times over the decades (eventually killing Superman in Alan Moore’s 1986 two-part story “What Ever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow.”)

Mxyztplk’s (that’s not a spelling error, later writers changed the name to Mxyzptlk) reality-warping powers provide Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel with an opportunity to play with the medium. The story ends with a weird abruptness, and Joe Shuster’s art is a bit stiff compared with some of the other artists working in that era, but the playfulness of the story and joy of scenes where Mxyzptlk animates an ambulance make it a classic gem.

As a category in the Retro Hugos, Best Graphic Story presents larger barriers than many other categories. In part because of the evolution of the medium, and in part because so many of the classic stories have been reinterpreted so often that modern audiences might be far more familiar with wildly divergent versions of what was originally published. I would urge those nominating to at least take a look at the original stories before nominating and voting.

Monday 13 January 2020

Weimer is a fan writer for whom the word “fan” should be in all-caps

Paul Weimer is an incredibly prolific blogger and podcaster. What’s surprising is the consistently
Outside of fandom, Paul Weimer
is known for his photography.
(Image via Facebook) 
high calibre of his analysis and his positive approach to fan writing. And yet — to date — he has never been on the shortlist for a fan writing Hugo Award. We feel that it’s time to rectify this omission.

Weimer’s contributions are diverse, nuanced, and display an extraordinary depth of knowledge of the genre. Whether he’s discussing books by up-and-coming authors, reminding you of forgotten classics, or analyzing mainstream megahits, Weimer will always provide you with intellectual grist to chew on.

Because of his wide-ranging tastes (e.g., he seems to have blogged about every single subgenre of SFF in the past calendar year), and his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, Weimer is sometimes able to provide context and make connections that would elude many other reviewers.

Over the years, Weimer’s byline has appeared in a plethora of blogs and publications that are almost too numerous to list, but include SFSignal, B&N Blog,, Skiffy & Fanty, and SFF Audio. In fact, because he’s published so widely, it is hard to get a handle on just how much the Minnesota resident has written in any given year.

Some of our favourites in 2019 include his review of Rory Thorne Destroys The Multiverse, his analysis of Stealing Worlds, his “Six Books with Us” series at Nerds Of A Feather, his look back at the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1999, and his review of The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein. Whatever your taste, it is likely that he has written a blog post that will appeal to your interests — in 2019.

Although not strictly relevant to the award of fan writer, we would be remiss if we did not mention Weimer’s other longstanding contributions to SFF fandom. On top of his volunteerism at conventions, he is one of the administrators of the Down Under Fan Fund.

Weimer is a constant presence in the SFF Twitter community who uses his platform to promote marginalized voices, to advocate on behalf of new writers, and to add positively to the discussion. We’ve previously written about how important the fan writing category is in the Hugo Awards, and when we say that, we’re thinking of people like Paul Weimer.

Weimer is a fan writer for whom the word “fan” should be in all-caps.

Saturday 4 January 2020

The Movement of Goods In Science Fiction

Space-based science fiction places a lot of attention on the transportation of goods.
The interplanetary transport Pachyderm
from the movie Space Truckers is just
one of many, many examples of how
interstellar civilization is depicted as
being similar to our globalized economy.
(Image via

Whether it’s a Lissepian captain hauling self-sealing stem bolts from Deep Space 9 or the crew of Firefly delivering cattle to the colony of Jiangyin, we are often presented with depictions of how goods are moved from one location to another.

This focus is probably a reflection of the modern neoliberal consensus that globalized trade is a good and necessary thing, and is a trend in science fiction that is worth questioning.

The large-scale movement of goods only makes sense if there is a strong economic incentive; if it is cheaper to build something in one location rather than another, if the skills to build something are only available in one location, or if the resources are only available in one location. When you see the depiction of merchant space ships travelling on regular runs between two locations, it implies that there are entire planets where it is cheaper to build something, and markets looking to buy those things.

Is inter-jurisdictional trade really that scalable? Between real-world nations, whose populations are measured in millions, there might be a specialized need that cannot be filled by the manufacturing base of a smaller nation. But with planets that are often depicted as having populations that number in the billions, it’s hard to imagine a need so specialized that they don’t have the capacity for local manufacturing.

With the exception of newly established colonies, interplanetary trade often seems to happen without the existence of one of the required antecedent factors. If the writer’s intent is to mirror our globalized economy, either for worldbuilding or plot effect, it would be helpful to see the justifications mirrored as well.

Planet-to-planet trade modelled after our globalized economy is a recurring theme in almost every fictional interplanetary community; the Democratic Organization Of Planets in Futurama, the Galactic Empire in Foundation, the Imperium of Dune, the Interstellar Alliance in Babylon 5, the Minmatar Republic in EVE … the list goes on. In science fiction with less advanced technology (no instantaneous transport, no universal replicators) rarity of resources such as dilithium or unobtanium sometimes serves as justification, but this doesn’t explain the overall “globalization” of the economies we see in SFF.

In short, even the flow of Spice can’t entirely explain a complex interstellar trading economy.
In Dune, the need for Spice still can't
explain why they have a trading economy.
 Bene Gesserit sisterhood may not be
exactly as depicted here.
(Image via
As an example, lets look at Star Trek and Deanna Troi’s home planet of Betazed. If Betazed needs self-sealing stem bolts, they could either have a local manufacturing operation, or they could have them shipped to the planet.

While Starfleet ships may travel at higher warp speeds, freight transports are rarely depicted as going faster than warp five. Depending on the Star Trek resource book you look at, this is approximately 200 times the speed of light, or a bit more than a week to travel each way between Earth and Alpha Centauri. The travel time for such a freighter to get from Earth to Vulcan would be more than a month. Even if Betazed is trading with their nearest star system, the cost of transport is going to be significant, to cover ship depreciation, crew salaries, fuel costs, etc. This would demand a high-profit, highly differentiated product — one that is never mentioned.

Conversely, local manufacturing should in fact be economically feasible. In 2372 (when the trading of self-sealing stem bolts is depicted in Deep Space 9), Betazed has a population of more than 5.6 billion people. Even if the self-sealing stem bolts can’t be made by the universal replicator, one would assume that the factory in which the bolts are made could be set up relatively inexpensively, since much of the facility could be replicated. This leaves labour costs as the remaining barrier to production.

We've never heard any Ferengi rules
that prohibit keeping indentured workers
in conditions of absolute destitution.
(Image via
Globalization works in our present-day economy because capitalism maintains pools of labour in destitute conditions, and is thus able to offer goods at cheaper rates to those in walled-off prosperity zones. By extension, the existence of large-scale systems of transportation for manufactured goods in a science fictional setting implies the existence of planets with populations that are mired in subsistence poverty or slavery.

This relationship between interstellar trade and slavery is occasionally made explicit, though the criticism of such systems is varied. Star Wars has included several depictions of slavery, and the close relationship between that slavery and interestellar trade. Notably, the recent movie Star Wars: Solo. But in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, slavery on Tatooine is depicted as something tolerable to the upper-class ‘good’ characters Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Cult classic SF TV series Firefly grapples with these issues more successfully in the episode Jaynestown, where we are introduced to disenfranchised indentured workers who mine resources on a slave planet. Likewise Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit includes a planet with a slave culture, though a direct link between interstellar trade and slavery is not made explicit. Other reputable characters avoid the planet and express distaste for the practice, but there must be a large enough market accepting or unaware of slavery for the planet to exist. One wonders how many of the goods on Port Coriol have been produced by slaves.

Despite the fact that these systems would be untenable without a large underclass, science fiction spends a lot of time in walled-off prosperity zones. Earth in the United Federation of Planets is a sparkling gem, where there is no want that cannot be satisfied. People might work but only insofar as they want to. Once labour goes from meaningful to menial, they can simply stop and experience no hardship. Compare this to Arvada III where Beverly Crusher developed a passion for medicine as a child when her grandmother was forced to use roots and herbs to treat a medical crisis. The trade that occurs between these planets seems to benefit Earth a great deal while leaving Arvada III wanting. And in such a power imbalance, it’s no wonder that Earth is able to secure advantageous terms of trade. The threat of withholding trade includes the implicit threat of destruction. But the unfairness of this trading relationship is never made explicit, or commented on.

The plethora of cargo transports seen in science fiction is driven in part by a narrative need; transportation by default means characters move around, and this allows readers to explore a broader fictional universe. If you need a young man to go from a desert planet to a lush green planet to meet with a princess, it’s convenient if there is a YT-1300 Corellian freighter on which to book a ride. Blue collar work that is fixed to a specific location — such as most manufacturing or resource extraction jobs — rarely meets the needs of science fiction storytelling.

But that being said, the predominant depiction of transportation as opposed to manufacturing within space opera has implications for the futures we collectively imagine. Because all forms of economic activity have impacts on society, the primacy of transportation within space opera needs to be examined and challenged.