Posted on December 2, 2015 at 6:00 am
Years ago, I stumbled into a public library looking for some sort of literary palette cleanser, some light reading to break up the monotony of the weightier academic work I had to trudge through as a graduate student. I hadn’t read comics in some years, but I decided to check out the graphic novel section and I was reminded again why libraries are so dangerous—it’s the rare sort of place you can enter on nothing more than an idle whim, but leave with a brand new obsession.
I knew only a few pages into the first volume of the cyberpunk series Transmetropolitan, with its biting social satire and irrepressible gonzo journalist protagonist, that I was going to be spending a great deal more time in the graphic novel section. I now read a range of graphic novel genres, from memoirs and nonfiction to fantasy and superhero comics, but sci-fi graphic novels still hold a special place for me. This year, in particular, has had quite a few excellent contributions to the genre. Here are a few of my picks for best sci-fi graphic novels of 2015:
In the near-future world of Warren Ellis’ Trees, it’s been 10 years since extraterrestrials landed across the planet, giant alien pillars that planted themselves on the surface of the earth just like trees. They have stood there ever since, utterly silent, and gradually, life in the shadow of the giant alien structures has largely returned to a sort of new normal.
Yet the trees seem nonetheless to be exerting a subtle pressure on global events. In China, a young artist arrives in the “special cultural zone” that has blossomed beneath one of the alien trees, only to find love unexpectedly. In Italy, a young woman struggles to extricate herself from a group of violent fascists and finds help in the guise of a mysterious older professor. In Somalia, a head of state involved in a territorial dispute seeks to weaponize the local tree against their neighbor. And in arctic Svalbard, a team of researchers begin to discover that the trees might not be so innocuous after all.
Apart from his graphic novels, Ellis has also attracted something of a cult following for his insightful sociocultural commentary. This philosophical bent shines through powerfully in Trees, an alien invasion story that is ultimately about humans themselves navigating a future of uncertainty and doubt. The first volume in an ongoing series, In Shadow leaves a lot of mysteries unresolved, but makes for a great start to a promising new title.
An unabashedly feminist satire of the women-in-prison exploitation films of the 60s and 70s, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s newest graphic novel describes a dystopian future in which women deemed “non-compliant” by male authorities are shipped off-world to the eponymous penal planet for incarceration and re-education.
The reasons for the characters’ internment range from traditional crimes like murder or assault, to more creative charges like “wanton obesity,” “emotional manipulation,” or “criminal literacy.” One inmate is interned for being a “bad mother,” another simply for being the inconvenient ex of a powerful man who wanted her to disappear.
Again, this is the first volume in an ongoing series, so it feels a bit more like prelude than a complete story, but the series itself is already shaping up to be one of the most talked-about comics in recent history, with comparisons having been made to The Handmaid’s Tale and Orange is the New Black.
This is definitely not a kid’s book: mature themes and nudity—of all body types—abound. But Bitch Planet also includes a brief discussion guide reflecting on the graphic novel in the context of intersectional feminism, which could make it an interesting selection for book groups or college classrooms interested in exploring related themes, even for those with readers who aren’t typically graphic novel fans.
Matt Fraction, author of the Hugo- and Eisner-nominated comic Sex Criminals, has teamed up with artist Christian Ward to produce a gender-flipped, space-opera version of Homer’s classic epic, The Odyssey.
Odyssia and her all-female crew, having just sacked the siege world Troiia after a century of war, prepare the ship for its long voyage back to their homeworld of Ithicaa. The end of the war, however, means the gods have lost a valuable source of entertainment, and the Olympians proceed to make the voyage home for Odyssia very difficult indeed, as the crew encounters a pleasure planet of lotophages, a colossal alien cyclops, and the strange Aeolus who offers them a perverse bargain in exchange for a shortcut home.
It does help to have at least a passing familiarity with Homer’s original, but Fraction also brings a lot of smart twists to his source material, mashing up far-future technology with elements of Greek myth in strikingly original ways. And Christian Ward’s art is just a trip, falling somewhere in the hallucinatory terrain between Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune adaptation, a prog-rock album cover, and your uncle’s airbrushed 70s panel van.
I don’t read a lot of kid’s graphic novels, but I made an exception when I discovered that Craig Thompson, author of the critically acclaimed graphic autobiography Blankets, had written a sci-fi graphic novel for kids. I figured I’d give it a chance, and I’m glad I did. In a similar vein as the popular Adventure Time franchise, Thompson layers juvenile humor with references and subtexts that only adults would be likely to get, creating a story entertaining enough for any age.
Gar and Cera and their daughter, Violet, are a hardscrabble working-class family, and their life only gets harder when a confluence of bad luck threatens to tear them apart. Violet’s school gets eaten by a rogue space whale, Cera’s promotion from textile worker to fashion designer’s assistant doesn’t quite work out, and Gar’s departure for a special assignment takes him far from his family.
Then, it all goes from bad to worse as a space-whale diarrhea disaster displaces millions of asteroid dwellers. It falls to Violet and her two friends—bookish sentient chicken Elliot and loud-mouthed alien Zacchaeus—to save Violet’s dad and reunite the family.
As you can likely tell, it’s full of scatalogical humor, dumb jokes, and goofy action, but I loved it. I believe it’s Thompson’s first full-color graphic novel, and the result is gorgeous. It might be a little lowbrow for more serious graphic novel readers, but if you can enjoy Adventure Time or Powerpuff Girls unironically, then you’ll likely want to check it out.