27 July 2018

My 2018 Hugo Awards Ballot: Visual Categories

I recently finished going through all the materials for the 2018 Hugo Awards; here are the ballots I submitted to Worldcon 76 San Jose, with commentary, in the two Hugo categories for "Dramatic Presentations" and the "Best Graphic Story" category (i.e., comic books). I'll start with the story I ranked the lowest and move upwards. Links are to longer reviews when I have written such a thing, or where the story is freely and legally available on the Internet. (Note that if you're reading this before August 22, not all of those reviews will actually be live yet.)

Best Graphic Story

7. Monstress: The Blood, script by Marjorie M. Liu, art by Sana Takeda

There are definitely things to like and love about Monstress, but I find the mythological backstory largely impenetrable. Or maybe I just don't want to put the work into penetrating it, but that seems almost as damning. The book is utterly gorgeous though, and it's populated by amazing characters, fascinatingly dark concepts, and a deep sense of history and culture. I just wished I cared about the overarching story Liu and Takeda are telling more than I do; based on the first volume, Monstress could be amazing, but based on the second it isn't quite.

6. Bitch Planet: President Bitch, script by Kelly Sue DeConnick, art by Valentine De Landro with Taki Soma

Sometimes you can jump into the middle of an ongoing comic series; sometimes you're clearly not meant to. This was one of the latter times. President Bitch collects issues #6-10 of Bitch Planet, a series about a prison planet for women in a dystopian future where women can be jailed for "noncompliance" at the drop of a hat. The book makes no attempt to introduce characters and concepts for people who haven't read book one, and I found myself struggling to follow along, but enjoying it when I could figure it out. There's some sharp satire here, and Valentine De Landro (who I knew from a poor fill-in on Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane) is an excellent artist, with a good sense of page design. Ranking this versus Monstress was tough. Both seem like series that aren't quite delivering on their potential, but I gave Bitch Planet the benefit of the doubt since it's more likely the problem was mine in not reading the first volume.

5. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris

This is an excellent book, a really absorbing masterwork, so good it's hard to believe it's Emil Ferris's first graphic novel. Karen is a pre-teen girl growing up in 1960s Chicago, and as the title indicates, her favorite thing is monsters-- she's obsessed with schlocky horror comics and movies. At the same time she has to navigate being a pariah at her Catholic school, she also must survive racism, deal with her mother's cancer, and investigate the murder of her glamorous German neighbor. The book is amazingly drawn, all done in ballpoint pen on looseleaf; you're reading Karen's journal's account of the events of the story. There's a lot of collage/montage, with Ferris's artwork blending the realistic with the fantastic, and the use of color is astonishing at times. Who knew pen could be so beautiful? A prolonged series of flashbacks to the Holocaust are captivating. I have little idea where this honking enormous book is going (the second half is due this fall, I believe), but I really want to know. My main issue with it is that I'm 99% certain it's not actually science fiction or fantasy! All of the fantastic elements thus far are pretty clearly Karen's imagination. How much should that influence my rankings? But I definitely enjoyed it more than Monstress or Bitch Planet, and that's enough for me to give it the edge over them for now, despite its lack of clear sfnal content.

4. No Award

I really struggle with when to deploy "No Award"; however it seems pretty clear that a work that's not actually science fiction or fantasy shouldn't win a Hugo Award (at least not in this category). That said, I'd still rather My Favorite Thing Is Monsters win than Monstress or Bitch Planet, so that bumps them down below No Award as well, which feels a bit mean, but oh well.

3. Saga, Volume Seven, art by Fiona Staples, script by Brian K. Vaughan

Last year I read the first six volumes of Saga basically in one go, so it's a little weird to just read one volume by itself; I had to do a lot of mental re-orienting on its expansive cast of characters. Anyway, I don't think this is the best volume of Saga, but it's still good. (Volume six had more thematic depth, for example.) Sometimes I think Brian K. Vaughan is over-reliant on shock deaths to the extent that they cease to shock, but then at other times I am genuinely shocked, so there you go. It's good stuff with some nice twists outside of the deaths: surprising things are done to/by Marko, Alana, and Sir Robot here. I do wonder what kind of long-term plan there could possible be-- how can our heroes find peace if the galaxy cannot?-- but I'm here for the ride as long as it lasts. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters and this are probably about equally ranked, so I'm giving the edge to Saga since it's actually sf.

2. Paper Girls 3, script by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang

Last year, I resolved a mental tie between two Vaughan comics by going with the familiar and choosing Saga, but this year I'm going the other way around. Like I said above, volume seven wasn't the best volume of Saga (even though it was still good), but volume 3 very much is the best volume of Paper Girls, and that seems worth rewarding as the comic hits its stride.

1. Black Bolt: Hard Time, script by Saldin Ahmed, art by Christian Ward with Frazer Irving

I was dreading reading this, because Marvel's push of the Inhumans is the least interesting thing about Marvel by a long shot, and Black Bolt is the King of the Inhumans. But it turns out that if you take the King of the Inhumans and put him into space prison, allow him to speak, and team him up with the Absorbing Man, a hood from Brooklyn who used to fight Thor, he suddenly becomes enormously interesting! Well, interesting enough to hang an enjoyable story off, anyway. This is fun and well-done, a prison break narrative featuring superheroes and -villains; in addition to Blackagar Boltagon and Carl "Crusher" Creel the Absorbing Man, there's an old alien man (apparently a Hulk villain), a kid with many eyes, and a Skrull pirate who refuses to shapeshift because she likes herself the way she is. Christian Ward's art is sometimes a little difficult to follow, but usually incredible, handling conversation and surreal space torture with equal aplomb. The best issue is the one where Black Bolt and Creel are trapped in a room together as the air runs out, and Creel reveals that amidst his superpowers, he has an all-too-human tragic backstory-- but also hopes and dreams. Funny and touching. All this plus Lockjaw! My Favorite Things Is Monsters is probably actually the better comic, but this one is clearly sf, giving it the edge for me. Who knew I could be made to care about an Inhuman? I think this is one of those ongoings that gets cancelled after twelve issues, so one more collection will see the series off; I'll have to check it out from the library.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

7. Blade Runner 2049, screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, directed by Denis Villeneuve

I rewatched Blade Runner in the afternoon one day (on the big screen at the Tampa Theatre!) and then watched 2049 the same evening (at home). I'm not a Blade Runner fanboy, but 2049 doesn't really hold up by comparison. Some beautiful shots, but I was surprised that the sequel left LA... three different times! And the shots of LA itself felt too expansive compared to Ridley Scott's crowded original. The original is so urban and so confined. The actual plot of the film was too straightforward, too long, too societal, and too unambiguous. Deckard is a rapist stone-cold killer in the original who ends up being saved by the "villain" at the climax; there's little like that here. A sequel doesn't have to be like the original, of course, but it ought to be enough like it to justify making it a sequel to begin with, and based on my wife's reaction, I don't think you'd get much out of it on its own, either. Villeneuve did a way better job with Arrival last year.

6. No Award

It's just like, c'mon man, I'd be embarrassed if Blade Runner 2049 won. It's not a very good movie, and I'm surprised it's on the ballot. 

5. Wonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, directed by Patty Jenkins

I gave this one a miss in theatres after Man of Steel and the promotion for Batman v Superman convinced me that DC's attempt at a "cinematic universe" was not for me, but finally watched it once it was nominated for the Hugos. I found it a pretty typical 2010s superhero film, with the occasional flash of brilliance, such as Diana's charge across No Man's Land, or the gas attack on the Belgian village. On the other hand, I didn't find the "romance" particularly convincing, even by the standards of this genre. The action sometimes felt weightless, and having watched Superman: The Movie (1978) just a week prior, I found myself wishing modern blockbusters were less visually grim. Gal Gadot was excellent.

4. Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson

This is one of two films on this list I saw in theatres, before it became a Hugo finalist. I came out uncertain as to what I thought, and given I haven't rewatched it, that means I still don't know what I think. It seemed to me that The Last Jedi was trying to be three different movies that weren't integrated with one another in a coherent fashion, and often important things happened abruptly. I liked Rey's story, and what was done with Snoke and Kylo Ren, and there were some cool battles, but Finn's emotional throughline was poorly handled, I think. I don't know, rating this versus Wonder Woman is tough-- I feel like Wonder Woman is generic, whereas The Last Jedi tried to play with the genre but didn't have good enough handle on it to pull that off. So which is more worthy? I guess I'll give the edge to ambition.

3. Thor: Ragnarok, written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, directed by Taika Waititi

I have been a devoted fan of the Thor films since seeing the first one in theatres; I know it's popular to hate on Thor: The Dark World, but I dig it too-- surely its ending battle is the best one in any Marvel film, because it understands the silliness of it all. Well, I enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok as well, which has silliness in spades. It does kind of have that vibe of when a new writer takes over an ongoing comic series and suddenly everything from the previous run is disposed of without ceremony, and when it gets away with that, it works, but there are parts where it jars. (I didn't like seeing the Warriors Three go down like mooks, for example.) But I always enjoy Thor's love-hate relationship with Loki, which this handles well, and there's a lot of fun to be had, especially when Thor takes up with a band of ineffectual revolutionaries. Also it might be the only Marvel movie with a good score?

2. The Shape of Water, screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro

I'm really torn between this and Get Out; as things in award categories so often are, they're hard to compare-- a horror film with sf elements vs. a dark historical fantasy. One wants you to be afraid, the other wants you to feel something; one is very much naturalistic, one is lush and vivid and colorful. I ended up giving the edge to Get Out because sometimes Shape of Water was a bit too simplistic. Like, one guy is racist and homophobic in the space of fifteen seconds. He's bad. I get it. But on the whole, it's a great film, with excellent performances and some real beautiful imagery; del Toro really relishes the early 1960s setting. Ask me again after the deadline and I might be wishing I'd ranked this first.

1. Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele

Get Out pretty much consumed the humanities academic facebooksphere when it came out, but despite having some sense of what it was about, I was off base enough that the film was still quite enjoyable. A lot of people I've talked to have been surprised that it's a Hugo nominee, given that it's horror. But of course, texts can belong to many genres at once, and in the case of Get Out, the sf element is integral to the horror: I was really impressed with how once you realize what's going on, almost every oddity throughout the film, big and small, suddenly makes a great deal of sense. Also Jordan Peele understands that there's nothing so serious it won't be improved by jokes.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

6. The Good Place, Chapter 13: "Michael's Gambit," written and directed by Michael Schur

I can intuit that this episode is significant, possibly even mind-blowing, to the ongoing story of The Good Place if you've been watching it all along. However, I have not been, and so I was like, "Oh, interesting." Outside of that, I'm not sure this episode had a lot going for it, though; the idea that four friends in heaven have to decide which two of them have to go to hell ought to have been more funny or more dramatic. Or both.

5. Doctor Who 11x00: "Twice Upon a Time," written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay

I am, to be honest, somewhat baffled that the 2017 Christmas special was the only Doctor Who episode to make it onto the ballot this year; I can think of several episodes from series 10 that were better than this, including "Extremis" (which I myself nominated) and "The Pilot" and "Thin Ice" and "Oxygen" and the series finale. "Twice Upon a Time" is mildly diverting, but squanders a potentially interesting premise (a meeting between the first and twelfth Doctors as each is on the verge of regeneration). The final speech shows that not even Peter Capaldi and Rachel Talalay can save yet another long speech from the pen of Steven Moffat; I wish the regenerations could be less of spectacles than they have become.

4. The Good Place, Chapter 19: "The Trolley Problem," written by Josh Siegel & Dylan Morgan, directed by Dean Holland

This episode was more comprehensible as a standalone story, but more importantly, it had better jokes than chapter 13 of The Good Place, mostly those revolving around the ways Ted Danson's character makes two others continuously reenact the famous philosophical quandary of the trolley problem in a real-seeming simulation, complete with fake people who have real feelings, in real time. On the other hand, there were a surprising number of comic bits that fell flat for me, given the talent involved (series co-creator Michael Schur is also the co-creator of Parks and Recreation, which you all know I have been enjoying watching). Anyway, this was okay, and so was "Twice Upon a Time," and I feel like my inclination to rank it fourth is more about sticking it to "Twice Upon a Time" than appreciating "The Trolley Problem" on its own merits.

3. "The Deep" by Clipping.

I don't listen to hip-hop, but between this song and last year's album Splendor & Misery, I appreciate the artistry of Clipping. when I hear it. This song is about an underwater race made up of the children of pregnant African women thrown off slave ships; in the near future, they discover the surface world when corporations come looking for oil. (The underwater civilization is apparently from the work of a 1990s electronica duo.) Only five minutes long, which makes it hard to rank high, but it packs a punch.

2. Black Mirror 4x01: "USS Callister," written by Charlie Brooker & William Bridges, directed by Toby Haynes

This is the second episode I've seen of Black Mirror, after last year's Hugo finalist "San Junipero." This wasn't as good as that, but I still really enjoyed it. It seems like it's going one way, but then there's a clever swerve about twenty minutes in, and it suddenly becomes a different story. It seems at first like it's going to critique Star Trek tropes, but it actually almost reaffirms them. Horrifying at times, good jokes at others, with some neat details and twists I didn't anticipate.

1. Star Trek: Discovery 1x07: "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad," written by Aron Eli Coleite & Jesse Alexander, directed by David M. Barrett

I actually nominated this, my favorite episode of Discovery's first season, and a poster child for what the series does at its best: rework the tropes of Star Trek for people who have seen them plenty, plus throw in some heartwarming emotional moments. (Read my review of the whole first season linked above if you want more details.) I couldn't decide if I liked this or "USS Callister" more, but it would be really nice for Star Trek to win a Hugo again, so I used that as my arbitrary tiebreaker; it last won in 1995 for the Next Generation finale "All Good Things..."

Overall Thoughts

Best Graphic Story continues to be a strong category; my placement of "No Award" is a bit misleading. Any of my top three I'd happily see win. I also understand why people like Monstress and Bitch Planet even if these particular volumes didn't do it for me, and it wouldn't bother me if they won either, despite where I ranked them! I suspect my ranking of Black Bolt first will be in a definite minority (I mean, I'm as surprised as anyone); my guess is either Saga or Monstress for the win.

I also found the long-form Dramatic Presentations better than last year's. Thankfully there's a lot less 1980s nostalgia this year. A whole two non-franchise films! Three legitimately strong films, and I know Last Jedi and Wonder Woman have their fans, too. Last year it was pretty obvious to me that Arrival would crush it, but this year things are less clear. A sizeable minority love Get Out, but I suspect it's not to everyone's taste; it definitely won't be The Last Jedi; Ragnarok is not particularly serious. That leaves Wonder Woman or Shape of Water, I suspect. (But who knows. Maybe with the way instant preference voting works, Ragnarok will be everyone's second choice and thus win it?)

Short form was kind of weird: the Discovery episode and "USS Callister" seem kind of obvious as finalists, but two episodes of a sitcom? A (admittedly good) hip-hop track? A mediocre Doctor Who episode? Given the wealth of quality science fiction and fantasy on tv today, these are really the best six? No The Expanse or Legion or The Handmaid's Tale? (I suspect the issue is that with serialized shows, there's no one episode that draws a lot of nominations.) This category will definitely be won by "USS Callister," but I couldn't even begin to guess how the ranking will break down after that.

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