You may well have heard by now about the controversy surrounding this year's Hugo Awards - arguably the most prestigious awards in science fiction - but here's the short version just in case. A group of largely conservative, right-wing fans and writers calling themselves the Sad Puppies have successfully campaigned to flood the ballot with works and authors approved by them, meaning that a huge number of this year's nominees have been chosen by a relatively small group of people, in apparent protest at the increasing diversity and inclusivity in the industry and in fandom.
But enough of my complaining: if you want more information on the Puppies and the Hugos, io9 have a good guide to the events here, and George R. R. Martin has provided an exhaustively detailed analysis on his blog. And now, in a frantic attempt to find something positive in this godawful mess, let's talk about the Graphic Story category, which has been relatively untouched by the Puppies and features a lot of genuinely great comics fully deserving of Hugos.
We shan't discuss Zombie Nation Book 2 because it's the Puppy nominee and no one except them has ever heard of it. The others, however, are all fantastic. Saga, Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is there, unsurprisingly given that the first volume won a Hugo and the second was nominated. We won't get into detail on this one either, because if you're reading this you already know that Saga is really, really good and there are approximately 176 billion other articles on the internet saying exactly that.
The other three nominees are Rat Queens, Sex Criminals and Ms. Marvel, and there's not a bad choice among them. Rat Queens and Ms. Marvel in particular are at the tip of the spear for the drive for greater diversity in comics, designed from the ground up to appeal to new, female readers (the single most valuable demographic these days), and prominently featuring characters of colour from different cultural backgrounds than the standard American white guys who tend to dominate comics, and media as a whole.
On top of being great comics, they've also been huge successes. Rat Queens has developed a massive fanbase who are very vocal on Tumblr and have organised their own burlesque shows; Sex Criminals was Time Magazine's comic of the year (and its first issue went through four printings); and Ms. Marvel has been a bestseller since its inception, with its first issue going to an insane seven printings. It's abundantly clear that the Puppies' opinions are very much the minority, and that there is a near-insatiable hunger in the wider market for fiction which branches out from what has generally been accepted as the norm.
Sex Criminals and Ms. Marvel present none of these difficulties, fortunately. The latter is a refreshingly light-hearted and genuinely funny superhero adventure in all the finest traditions of teenage heroes, but convincingly updated for the 21st Century. Science dweeb Peter Parker was the emblematic nerd of the '60s, but Kamala Khan, who writes Avengers/My Little Pony crossover fanfic and lusts after bacon despite being a Muslim, is a much more realistic teenager to contemporary readers. The fact that Ms. Marvel is an all-ages comic targeted at female readers is a genuinely wonderful thing, because the only other one that really springs to mind is Lumberjanes. We need more comics aimed at kids, we need more comics aimed at a female audience, and Ms. Marvel fills both roles beautifully.
If pressed, however, my vote would probably go to Sex Criminals. As the title implies, it's definitely not an all-ages comic and is only appropriate for "mature" readers, but it's also, in many ways, the exact opposite of what the title might initially make you think of. There's no shortage of dick jokes and scenes set in a cluttered sex shop, but it's actually sweet, funny and very touching (har har). There's surprisingly little nudity, and it's almost always tasteful when it does show up. When it's not tasteful, it's played for laughs.
It's the kind of comic which people label "mature" because of the sexual content, but in amongst all the dick jokes, it's in reality a very grown-up look at how modern relationships work and the problems every couple has to deal with, from learning what each other likes in the bedroom to learning how to cope with serious mental health issues. It's that rare comic that manages to be profane and profound, and it's one of the best books on the stands right now.
The good news in all of this, such as it is, is that the Sad Puppies are so sad because they know they've lost, and screwing up the Hugos won't change that. The success of Saga, Sex Criminals, Rat Queens and Ms. Marvel is the proof. The industry is finally waking up to the fact that a diverse range of product which appeals to lots of different demographics is a much more profitable business model. Diverse, inclusive fiction is here to stay because that's where the money is; Ms. Marvel in particular has been a huge sales success for Marvel, and their female-led comics generally are selling incredibly well.
It's heartbreaking that the Hugos have been abused in this way, but we can take some small comfort in the fact that the only way the Puppies can win is for the entertainment industry to collectively decide that it has exactly enough money and doesn't want any more. Somehow, that seems unlikely.