As promised, the first instalment proper of my new column for the British Science Fiction Association's critical journal, Vector. Coverage of the world of SF literature can be a tad bloke heavy, and comics are no exception.
Time then to delve into the truly groundbreaking work from SF comic creators that just happen to be female: Starstruck, A Distant Soil, and Finder; and their modern successors Saga, Decrypting Rita, and Grindhouse.
Hit the jump for the full article!
It’s no secret that science fiction is sometimes thought of, occasionally referred to, and frequently dismissed, as a "male" genre: a gendered pigeonhole that is also said to house gaming, comics and anything even remotely non-mainstream.
While that is – of course – nonsense, with women both creating and consuming science fiction in all its various forms, it is true that in the world of comics, critics and historians have long been guilty of skipping over the names of female creators, even those that have made the biggest strides and innovations.
So it was with the early and mostly forgotten work of Fran Hopper and Lily Renée in Fiction House’s glorious Planet Comics in the 1940s, and so it is with three of the greatest works of science fiction within the sequential medium in the late 20th century. Thankfully the most contemporary works have escaped this curse, and three in particular stand alongside the previous greats. Consider this a highly recommended reading list!
Starstruck, a comic that beat Watchmen to the punch in using nonlinear storytelling, overlapping and adjunct stories, recurring symbolism, and incredible complexity. A Distant Soil, a space opera of epic proportions and Arthurian themes that is still ongoing today. Finder, an entirely self-published creation of "aboriginal science fiction" that has been collected by Dark Horse due to popular demand.
In late 1970s New York, Elaine Lee was busy creating a small but very important play. Collaborating with artist and costume designer Michael Wm Kaluta, she put together a sprawling epic encompassing a heavily female cast of terrific characters adventuring across the entire universe. With the play rights tied up in production, and the overall myth-building on a par with that of Dune, Kaluta suggested turning to the emerging world of mainstream independent comics.
Explaining the plot of Starstruck to the unconverted masses is a little like trying to explain The Invisibles or indeed any of Grant Morrison’s more symbolic and brain-melting books. Elaine Lee in fact predates some of Morrison’s signature moves, with a slow burning overall reveal of the greater mechanisms at play as one character orchestrates an entire web of interconnecting events and characters that seem to have no relation to one another when first introduced.
Set far in the future, with humanity in all corners of the universe, the stage is set with anarchic factions and revolutionary leaders. Galatia 9 and Brucilla the Muscle are perhaps our two main characters, a guerilla amazon and hothead pilot respectively. Erotic Ann, a pleasure droid that achieves awareness, and the Galactic Girl Guides are major fan favourites too.
The largely female cast set the book at odds with many other comics of the time (and indeed of today), while focusing not on good vs evil, but on the interactions of flawed and genuine characters trying to survive the manipulations of others. The incredibly twisted plot, with subtle symbolism and surreal imagery, includes references to retro science fiction and Art Nouveau.
The original volume, 73 pages long, covers three decades of stories across the universe, and the non-linear approach has seen critics today comparing it to later works such as Lost and Watchmen. Much of the praise given to the latter, its innovation of non-linear graphic storytelling, use of supplement texts for story expansion, overlapping dialogue, unreliable storytelling and so on, was in fact pioneered by the greatly overlooked Starstruck.
A comic truly ahead of its time. The entire saga was recently collected in deluxe editions, and after a successful Kickstarter, Lee and Kaluta will be returning to the Starstruck multiverse with a new 176 page graphic novel, Harry Palmer: Starstruck.
It was in the late ‘70s too that the first appearances of A Distant Soil arrived fresh from the mind of Colleen Doran in various fanzines. After a scuffle with her first publisher which saw Doran discard some 300 pages of published work, the artist started over and published the title herself until 1996 when she partnered with Image Comics.
Doran is well known by comic fans for her championing of creator rights and for her work at DC and Marvel, not least for her dreamy contributions to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But it is A Distant Soil that is truly her magnum opus, an entirely creator owned epic that is currently some 42 issues into its 50 issue goal – the ending will see the completion of a 1000 page single long-form narrative.
In the comics medium, A Distant Soil was something that really had not been seen before – a New Age take on science fiction with gorgeous costumes, young siblings with an unknown destiny, a blinding mix of magic with technology… fantasy and alien ships combine under Doran’s ethereal watch. The book was also one of the earliest science fiction comics in the US to be visibly inspired by manga.
But what really marks this book as something incredibly special is the sheer diversity on display. Not only are the alien races reflective of the various skin colours humans have, but even within one alien race characters have different skin colours – something surprisingly rare within sequential science fiction. The book also feature gay relationships without it being a big old deal.
A Distant Soil, if created new today, would have a rabid tumblr following and a stream of awards if not a young adult adaptation. Much of the forgetfulness around the book is, once more, due to Doran being a little ahead of her time. But it is also down to the printer destroying the original photographic negatives, leading to a huge restoration project after tracking down long sold off art, and generous help from other artists. A Distant Soil made a triumphant return to Image last year, along with newly restored collected editions.
Jumping forward in time from the punk origins of the late '70s and early '80s, another very different kind of sequential sci-fi was born – Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder, an almost perplexing mix of the straightforward and the indescribable. The storytelling is nominally linear, yet the main character barely appears in many of the volumes. The world-building is immense, yet most of the details have to be pieced together from background information.
Finder is set in the far future, built on the ruins of our own with much of the existing technology mysterious to this new society. Genetic purity is the be all and end all, with strict self-policing. Those who fail the grade live outside the domes that the full citizens inhabit. Jaeger, a half-breed, is a "Finder". The Grosvenor family live in the domed city-state of Anvard, and all their children are daughters… even the boys.
Moving from character to character is a risk few comic series are willing to take, yet the fandom around Finder is intense to say the least. After self-publishing the first 37 issues, McNeil made the then radical decision to start publishing the single issues online before printing the collected editions. With this change came new readers, new sales, and an eventual deal with Dark Horse.
With various comparisons to Cerebus in terms of the sheer scale of storytelling (if not in approach to feminism!), the series is one that seems rarely reviewed. Yet those who have read it will always recommend it passionately, and it’s easy to see why. Finder grips you and never lets you go, remaining still near indescribable to those who haven’t yet made the leap.
McNeil’s art is cartoonish, with increasing sophistication in each of the 10 volumes so far available – the tenth in fact published later this year [column published mid-2014].
Lee, Doran, and McNeil are – of course – not the only women writing and creating sequential science fiction. But each of their key creations were simultaneously ground-breaking and still making great strides forward in 2014, with little to none artistic or creative degradation. A rare feat in this nostalgia prone medium.
It is perhaps fitting then that three women are behind the more recent creations that are similarly pushing the form further into the unknown.
Saga, the critically acclaimed space opera from Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples is quite possibly the most celebrated comic being released today, with Staples receiving an unprecedented nine awards for her work on the book in 2013 alone. The epic series stars a husband and wife from either side of a long war between alien races, and their newborn daughter who is the narrator of their struggle.
Influenced by Star Wars and Flash Gordon amongst others, it is Staples artwork that really gripped a whole new audience by the throat, with critics and non-comic readers alike drawn to her brilliant characters and visual storytelling. Saga is the new comic to convert anyone to loving the medium, with a wide cast of characters with immense appeal.
While Saga has swept aside the mainstream competition, the indie world has been entranced by Decrypting Rita, a highly experimental looking webcomic by Margaret Trauth/Egypt Urnash. The general plot centres on a female robot who is dragged outside of reality by her ex-boyfriend, meaning that she has to pull her self back together across four parallel worlds before a hive mind can take over the entire planet. So far, so sci-fi.
But Rita is also a former dancer mourning her best friend… and she is an acrobatic cyborg engaged in espionage. Parallel realities bleed together and are sometimes told simultaneously on the same page. How? The webcomic is formatted entirely in a side-scrolling landscape, an infinitely wide page. Pages as a concept cease to exist when everything blends together in one long scroll, and even panels start to lose their significance.
This is partly incredibly experimental but also a rallying call for the potential of all comics. The reader is in control of advancing time and space, as they are in all comics – a superpower that many take for granted.
Combine this with the vector art, gorgeous hyper-colour schemes, clever lettering, and innovative visual storytelling and the reader is left with something entirely and genuinely new.
And finally, there is Dark Horse’s newest cult darling – Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight, from the critically acclaimed writer of science fiction thriller Smoke/Ashes, Alex de Campi. To be clear, this series is not all science fiction, instead being made up of (thus far) four two-part story arcs, of which two are firmly in the land of sci-fi.
Grindhouse is a celebration of midnight exploitation cinema, the delicious and ridiculous B-movie masterpieces that belong to a sadly long-gone age. The series features the gore-tastic Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll, a classic rape-revenge horror with Bride of Blood, the maniacal and sexploitation laden Prison Ship Antares, and the sex and violence filled Bee Vixens from Mars.
The latter two of course are the focus here as de Campi revels in the sexed up sleazeball trope of lusty alien women landed on Earth to tempt the menfolk, with the added twist that they are in fact here to lay their eggs inside the poor horny human men. There are boobs and asses a plenty but men may want to cross their legs for one particular reveal…
Meanwhile aboard a prison ship full of the most depraved female convicts in the galaxy, we get the expected shower scenes and torture porn before it all turns a little bit wrong.
De Campi’s love of the grindhouse genre is all too clear but the way in which she spins things away from the classic male gaze that dominated the cinema form and focuses things firmly for the female gaze instead is utterly genius. There is no taking away the sexy, instead a joyful appreciation of the female form from a woman’s point of view (gay or straight), and while the storytelling often begins to suggest things will go as expected for the men, tropes are flipped upside down in a way that actually makes more sense.
If science fiction was ever a male genre, and comics ever a male medium, de Campi is the saboteur extraordinaire. Like Decrypting Rita and Saga, and like Finder, A Distant Soil, and Starstruck, Grindhouse is carving its own path and its own direction for others to follow.
Next time in Sequentials... a tour of some wonderful hidden webcomics in the overlooked digital forests.