Wednesday, 7 August 2019

BFA Shadow Juror: Comics and Graphic Novels

I've finished reading the items nominated for the British Fantasy Award 2019 for comics and graphic novels, and thought about how I would rate and rank them, if I were on the jury for this category.

The usual disclaimer: this is entirely unofficial and purely for fun. I have no involvement in the real awards this year, other than as a member of the society and thus a voter. I have no insight into what the current juries are saying, the criteria they will apply or the methods by which they will come to their decisions.

Also worth saying that if I were actually on the jury, I'd be talking to people who had also read the books and so I would go into more detail with regard to specific events, but here I want to avoid spoilers.

That said, here are my thoughts:

100 Demon Dialogues, by Lucy Bellwood. Enjoyable, for the ten minutes it takes to read it: rather than a comic or graphic novel, it's a book of single-panel cartoons, with no sequential storytelling, other than that each individual cartoon takes place on a different day. And it only barely counts as fantasy: it's an apparently autobiographical book where the demons are a metaphor for the author's more downbeat thoughts. There's nothing to suggest that they are actually real, that the protagonist is living in a fantastical world any different from ours. So although I thought it was good, perspicacious and wise, it's a bit surprising that it made the shortlist. Plus, it was first published in November 2017, according to its copyright page, so that makes it ineligible. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 0/10

The Prisoner, by Robert Malan, illustrations by John Cockshaw. A guard interrogates an odd prisoner over thirty thousand words of miserable prose. Art is used to illustrate a few of his dreams. It would be ludicrous to call this a comic or a graphic novel, and downright offensive to vote for it as the best one of the year. From the suggestions list, it looks as if the publisher (or a supporter) submitted this for both the novella category and the comics category at the same time. It didn't make the novella shortlist, and it definitely shouldn't have made this one. It's not a comic, it's not very fantastical (what few fantasy elements there are could be explained away by the influence of drugs), and it's not terribly good. My rating: two stars. To-win rating: 0/10

Widdershins, Vol. 7: Curtain Call, by Kate Ashwin. Seems to begin in the middle of a story, with a large cast of rather too similar-looking characters dashing about the town of Widdershins, trying to catch the deadly sins. Inoffensive and pleasant, but a bit out of its depth here. Quite odd to see a book on the shortlist which is only available to buy from the author's own website. Probably much more enjoyable for people who have read the previous six volumes. To a new reader it feels like a lot of running around, all busy work without a lot of depth. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 3/10

Saga, Vol. 9, by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan. About a family of people from both sides of an interplanetary war. It's usually hard to say much about this comic without giving away lots of spoilers for previous volumes, but in this one, basically, everyone waits for a news story to be published. I loved this comic when it began. Now it's not so much like it's gone off the boil, it's more like someone switched off the kettle. Art is still terrific, but I can only imagine that inertia is what's kept it on the shortlist for another year. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 4/10

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth, Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola and chums. After Hellboy got fed up of working with the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development, he went on his way alone while his former colleagues (Abe Sapien, Roger the homunculus, firestarter Liz Sherman and ectoplasmic spiritualist Johann Kraus) spun off into their own comic, which rather like Xena ended up being even more epic than the original. This book sees them dealing with the aftermath of the Plague of Frogs storyline, and a proliferation of new monsters. Guy Davis's artwork is especially great. As with Hellboy, there were several more volumes of this out last year, all of them eligible and equally good. My rating: five stars. To-win rating: 9/10

Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories, Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola and chums. The collected work of one of comics' greatest geniuses. I considered, for a very brief moment, whether to rate this lower because of its contents having been previously published in other books, but that seemed unfair when the British Fantasy Awards didn't have a comics award at all when most of these stories were first published, or even when they were first published in books. In any case, new collections of previously published material are eligible for this award, and at least some of the other nominated works in this category could have been nominated for previous publications too. So although it's an omnibus, it's not a second bite of the cherry. Artistically, creatively, this and B.P.R.D. tower over the other nominees. It'll be a surprise if I read anything better in any of the categories. What's more, there were I think five more omnibus volumes of Hellboy out in 2018, all of them fantastic, all of them better than the rest of this shortlist. My rating: five stars. To-win rating: 10/10

Will that book win the award? It'll be a massive shock if Mike Mignola doesn't win the award for one book or the other. My bet is on HellboySaga is the only other serious contender, but it would be a surprise to see something so far off its peak win against the definitive editions of two of the greatest fantasy comics of all time. And Mike Mignola is due a win in this category: his combination of fantasy, horror and science fiction is as BFS-orientated as it is possible to be! But surprises do happen. After all, two of these books were added as egregious omissions (unless there was a draw after the members voted and more than four books went through): fair enough if they were Hellboy or B.P.R.D., but a jury that picked any of the others as egregious omissions might well choose an unexpected winner.

Next: Not sure which will be the next shortlist I finish. I'm currently reading one of the collections and one of the horror novels, both good so far.

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