The Eisner Awards Shortlist Shows Off Comics’ Diversity

motherlessCall it the Happy Kittens: This year’s slate of Eisner Award nominees is diverse in terms of both creators and content, with a stories ranging from the pulpy to the cerebral and plenty of interesting characters. It’s strong evidence of the growth of comics and graphic novels over the past 20 years, as the medium moves beyond superheroes to embrace many different kinds of stories, and a broader audience has given rise to a diverse lineup of creators. Here’s a look at this year’s contenders in two major categories.

Best New Series
The year I was an Eisner judge, we didn’t have a “Best New Series” category because, honestly, there weren’t enough noteworthy titles to fill out a decent slate (unless you count a re-re-reboot of some ancient superhero title as “new”) How things have changed! This year’s picks include three original titles, one legacy superhero getting his first dedicated book, and another hero who truly has been reinvented. Though the award honors the series, all have been running long enough that they’re available in graphic novel format. The volumes linked below contain the first four or five issues of each run, so while they may not contain a complete story, they are all good reads.

The Fade Out, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
Brubaker’s Hollywood noir tale of murder in the blacklist era goes down as smooth as bourbon on the rocks. An alcoholic writer awakens from a binge next to a woman’s body; he lies about it and then finds himself helpless to do anything when he discovers someone else has falsified the crime scene. This is a good pick for Mad Men fans: lots of smoking, drinking, and cynicism. The characters aren’t very likeable, but some are less evil than others, and that’s what makes the story tick. Bonus points for a cameo appearance by Clark Gable. This volume is just the first act, not the complete story; if you want to know more, the fifth issue just came out.

Lumberjanes, by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, & Brooke A. Allen
Lumberjanes is the comic I wish I had when I was a girl, a fast-moving mashup of supernatural action and best-friends comedy set at a summer camp where the adults are as cool as the kids. Plus, monster hunting. There’s something charmingly old-fashioned about it, and its infectious humor and high-energy art make it a good fit for kids and adults alike.

Ms. Marvel, by G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona
It’s not unusual for more than one person to wear the costume of a given superhero, and in this series, 16-year-old Kamala Khan, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants living in Jersey City, inherits the cape and becomes the third Ms. Marvel. Kamala is a nerdy comics fan who writes fanfic, argues with her parents, and loves the smell of bacon (even though, as a practicing Muslim, she can’t eat it). Wilson and Alphona take the time to build up Kamala’s world—we meet her parents, friends, and less friendly classmates before she gets her shape-shifting power and goes through an awkward phase learning to control it. I’m particularly fond of the detailed gags Alphona sneaks into the art, a bonus layer of fun in an already very entertaining comic.

Rocket Raccoon, by Skottie Young
Rocket Raccoon has been around since 1976 and became a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy in 2008, but it was only last year that he finally got his solo title, probably because of that film you may have seen. He’s a wisecracking raccoon and expert marksman, and in this series, he is framed for murder and must track down the real killer with the help of talking tree Groot (“I AM GROOT!”). It’s a superhero story with a light touch, fast and funny and not too ponderous.

The Wicked + The Divine, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie
Gillen and McKelvie, who previously teamed up on Phonogram and The Young Avengers, have put together a sophisticated, candy-colored fable about gods who are reincarnated every 90 years—this time as pop stars whose concerts bring their fans to ecstasy. Their pantheon draws from many different traditions—Greek, Celtic, and Nordic, to name a few—and like those traditional gods, they have strong personalities and plenty of disagreements. Of course, you have to have a mortal in the mix for these stories work, and in this case it’s Laura, a 17-year-old fan who meets the gods backstage and gets in over her head when one of them is arrested. Gillen and McKelvie refer to the standard tropes of mythology mainly to subvert them, making this an interesting book with great twists.

Best Graphic Album—New
Unlike comics series, graphic novels are conceived as discrete works with a beginning and an end, usually in a single volume. This year’s picks are all over the map in terms of style, intent, and format, showing the diversity of this still-growing medium.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, by Stephen Collins
Like Snakes on a Plane, the title says it all in this book about a giant beard that ends up threatening the social order. It’s set on the tidy little island of Here, where life is calm and nobody has any facial hair—until one day a man named Dave unexpectedly sprouts a truly righteous beard. It’s huge, and tough, and it grows fast, to the point it threatens to engulf Dave, filling a room and shattering the windows of his house. In the grand tradition of ridiculous stories of uncontrolled growth, the beard gets bigger and bigger and the townspeople resort to desperate measures, including surrounding it with scaffolding so the local hairdressers can try to trim it back—but to no avail. Meanwhle, the other residents of Here are starting to get rough around the edges, and soon there is an island epidemic of untidiness. Collins has a lot of fun with the allegory, and his artwork has a beautiful simplicity that carries the story well.

Here, by Richard McGuire
McGuire’s story is set in a single corner of a single room, and yet it’s filled with drama. Instead of moving through space, he moves us through time, using panels superimposed over different areas, depicting the life of the room and its inhabitants at different times in its history. Each two-page spread includes several panels scattered across the page, all from different time periods; taken together they form patterns and, to some extent, a story. The key with a formal experiment like this is to bring in enough characters and narrative that it feels like a story, and McGuire does manages it, even as he departs quite a bit from the traditional form.

Kill My Mother, by Jules Feiffer
Feiffer is known for his gag cartoons, often broken into a series of smaller panels, but this is his first full-length graphic novel. It’s a speeding tale of murder and deception, set in the 1930s and 1940s and paying homage to the noir films of the era. The rather startling title comes from the lips of one Annie Hannigan, a rebellious teenager who loves dancing and bossing around her boyfriend almost as much as she hates her mother, Elsie. The widow of a police officer who was killed on the job, Elsie is working for a private investigator to make ends meet, and to try to find out who killed her husband. When a leggy blonde woman comes into the PI’s office to ask him to track down another woman, the game is on. The plot winds through decades and moves from New York, to Hollywood, to the South Pacific, rolling in new complications along the way. Feiffer’s storytelling skills are first rate, and the man really knows how to compose a page. One to enjoy both as a story and for the sheer craftsmanship on display.

The Motherless Oven, by Rob Davis
This is the strangest book of the bunch, which is saying a lot when you’re up against a comic about an evil beard. It’s set in a surrealistic world where the teenagers are real but their parents are mostly objects—strange objects, like Scarper Lee’s father, a big brass machine that he keeps chained down in the garage. Scarper is a teenager waiting to die—his deathday, like a sick birthday, is coming up, and he knows it. Since his parents are machines, he’s pretty much on his own, living a monotonous existence, until the spunky Vera Pike shows up to get the story moving. Like the best surrealism, this graphic novel feels like real life but keeps slipping over the edge—the characters at its center are solid, but they live in a world filled with odd, semi-sentient objects that look ordinary at first glance but, on closer inspection, turn out to have strange, disturbing qualities.

Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
What if life let you take a mulligan? That’s the premise of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds, the tale of a restaurateur who discovers a magic mushroom that lets her turn back time and try again. Katie is the owner of a successful restaurant, and is trying to open another one. She also misses her ex-boyfriend, Max, but is getting it on with one of her cooks. Her life is full of choices, and the mushrooms let her experience all of them—but each decision has consequences that reach far beyond the obvious. Like all magic, the mushroom has its limits, and O’Malley (the creator of Scott Pilgrim) does a masterful job unraveling Katie’s world unravel even as she keeps resetting it.

This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki
This one place in that slender moment between childhood and adolescence, when the comfort of the familiar rubs up against the pull of the new. Rose is vacationing on the lake with her parents, as she has done year after year, but the familiar routines are a bit off this time. There’s tension between her parents, and her friendship with Windy, another girl who vacations at the lake, is also strained. Rose is fascinated by the local teenagers, who have their own drama that she really doesn’t understand. The Tamakis’ first graphic novel, Skim, was well received by critics; with This One Summer, they have really hit their stride, with clear, expressive art, memorable characters, and a story that really resonates on an emotional level.

What books are you pulling for?

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