Hugo Awards: Best Graphic Story
Girl Genius, Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones, pub. May 2009, collects material first published February - November 2008.
Fables: War and Pieces, pub. November 2008, collects material first published April - September 2008.
Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic, pub. 2009, collects material first published 'beginning in 2007 and wrapping up on February 28th of 2008'.
Serenity: Better Days, pub. October 2008, collects material first published March - May 2008.
Y: The Last Man, Volume 10, Whys and Wherefores, pub. June 2008, collects material first published May 2007 - March 2008.
(via Anticipation announcement)
There's a new Hugo Award category on the block, for one time only (unless the vote to add it properly is re-ratified at this year's Worldcon). That of Best Graphic Story. You can see the nominees above.
Now, I was all set to write a sober and thoughtful post which considered each nominee on its merits before coming to some kind of conclusion on the category as a whole. Only, as I was doing my research, I found myself going in somewhat of a different direction.
To skip to my conclusion first: the Best Graphic Story category is a car-crash disaster and I won't be at all disappointed if the vote to have it added as a permanent category fails to be re-ratified.
This all centres around the issue of eligibility, and the total lack of sensible definition around it.
This is not entirely a new concern. When I first heard of the category, I expressed concern that it wasn't altogether clear what one was supposed to vote for; single issues or collected trade paperbacks? I was told the ballot itself said the following
Works published in 2008 for the first time anywhere or for the first time in English are eligible for the Hugo Awards being awarded in 2009.
I then concluded that this would result in a bias against collected trade paperbacks, with the wording "published for the first time in 2008" clearly favouring single issues.
As can be seen above, not one single issue made it to the list of nominees. Which surprised me, and caused me to do some digging (hence all the dates next to the titles). What I wanted to find out was whether all the trade paperbacks listed did indeed collect works that were published in 2008.
Of the six works on the ballot, three unambiguously pass this stricture. The Dresden Files, Fables and Serenity were all published in 2008 and collect issues that were all published in 2008. There is, then, no doubt that these works are eligible no matter which way you try and twist the interpretation.
Bizarrely, while Girl Genius would appear to be eligible, being a webcomic where the arc in question ran from February to November of 2008, the Anticipation website manages to confuse the issue by linking not to said webcomic itself, but the Amazon.com page of the collected edition - which isn't out until May 2009. This rather gives the unfortunate impression that the nominated work is then from 2009 and apparently not eligible.
Quite why they don't link to the webcomic instead I don't know, as that is what they've managed to do with Schlock Mercenary, where they link to the first page of The Body Politic as it appears on the website. They also link to a free PDF download of what can be considered an ARC copy of the book - like Girl Genius, the physical product isn't actually out yet. I regret to say, though, that Schlock Mercenary isn't quite off the hook.
The inarguable fact that Y: The Last Man, Volume 10: Whys and Wherefores, and Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic both contain material that was originally published in 2007; the former in the form of issues of the comic, specifically issues 55 through 58, and the latter in the form of pages published on the website.
Thus this is clearly not material that has been published for the first time in 2008. So why has it been deemed eligible to be nominated? It's easy to discount the idea that perhaps first publication in book form is being taken as the criteria, as Girl Genius hasn't been published in book form yet, and in any case there's no ambiguity in the wording of "Works published in 2008 for the first time anywhere". Again, then, we come back to the fact that for two of these nominations, we're looking at works that were published for the first time, anywhere, in 2007.
It was at around this point yesterday I started doing two things. I starting thinking out loud a bit too much. Then I emailed a few people, seeking clarification of the rules.
Clarification the came from Kevin Standlee, who quoted from the World Science Fiction Society Constitution, section 3.2.6.:
Works appearing in a series are eligible as individual works, but the series as a whole is not eligible. However, a work appearing in a number of parts shall be eligible for the year of the final part.
What this means is that Y: The Last Man, Whys and Wherefores, and Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic are considered eligible because, as Standlee puts it, "a serialized work appearing in multiple parts or issues is eligible for the year when the _last_ part is published [...] and the subsequent collection as a single bound volume is not relevant anyway." The latter part confirmed what I'd thought all along, and the former gave me much food for thought.
This rule, incidentally, as Standlee explains, "was originally written to deal with works such as novels being initially published in multiple parts over several issues of a magazine." He then further goes on to say "The same language, however, applies equally to other categories in which works can appear in serial form, such as graphic story or dramatic presentation."
Now, I've considered this interpretation. I've spent the better part of Sunday afternoon and evening and night giving it a lot of thought. The last thing I want to do is be accused of having a knee-jerk reaction. And the result of this consideration?
I find myself split between two reactions. In the case of Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic, I find I can see how it applies there. If the arc, or (eventual) collected form is considered to be the work, then putting up a page of the work up a day (or whatever the posting frequency is) can be seen as putting up a part a day. I can see this interpretation because each page on its own is near meaningless, and it's only as a whole that they make sense and tell a story.
In the case of Y: The Last Man, I find I disagree strongly with this interpretation. It is clear to me that Y: The Last Man fits not the second part of section 3.2.6, but the first part - "Works appearing in a series are eligible as individual works, but the series as a whole is not eligible." The individual works in this case are the issues of the comic - each issue is a work in its own right. And if the series as a whole is not eligible, then it surely follows that arbitrary parts of the series as a whole - for that is, essentially, what trade paperbacks are - are also not eligible.
Or, to look at it another way, consider this. A series like Y: The Last Man can be see as a kind of pyramid.
At the top, you have Y: The Last Man as a whole. All 60 issues together tell the story of Yorick from beginning to end.
In the middle, you have the trade paperbacks. These are ten parts, or volumes, each of which tell part of the story.
And at the bottom are the 60 individual issues themselves, which again tell all parts of the story.
Now look at this pyramid with section 3.2.6 of the WSFS constitution in mind, and ask yourself how it applies here. Does the first part apply, or does the second?
The Hugo administrators make the case that the second part applies to the trade paperbacks. That each trade paperback is a work containing a number of parts. I disagree with this, as I've already said, but lets play along with that thinking for a second.
Why then, is it not the case that the trade paperbacks themselves are seen as being 'a number of parts' that 'a work' has appeared in - in this case, the work being Y: The Last Man. Thus you could say that Y: The Last Man, as a whole, is eligible for the award.
But then there's the other side of section 3.2.6 to counter this - a series as a whole is not eligible. So you have to go back down the pyramid. Why, then, stop at the middle? You've got the individual issues below that, are they not works? And if not, why not?
There is some irony here in that I appear to be trying to pick apart Y: The Last Man's eligibility, when my initial reaction on seeing the nominees was that it was the one I would've liked to win the category. Yet the rules, as stated, clearly do not provide a clear-cut case for its eligibility. As I have shown (I hope) above, there is far too much resting on interpretation of the rules.
The root problem can perhaps be summed up as such. With the Best Graphic Story category, the award administrators have attempted to make it as broad as possible by staying away from too rigidly defining it. The intent being, I'm sure, to avoid excluding works like webcomics which might find themselves cut out of the action. Yet this lack of definition only results in confusion, and a category where, theoretically you could have single issues of comics up against collected volumes of comics up against webcomics. Smooshing every kind of comic together like this is not helpful in the slightest.
Furthermore, the lack of definition results in far too much relying on the interpretation of the rules. This is not a situation where people can cast sufficiently informed ballots. Not only that, potentially bizarre combinations of ballots could be cast. Say, someone nominates a few issues of a comic, then a trade paperback collection of the comic (or two), and then the comic itself as a whole. In many cases, this may be the only way of finding out what's eligible and what isn't!
Certainly I'd be interested to see if single issues would be deemed eligible. If not, why not. If so, why are trade paperbacks deemed eligible too? To come back to a point I rather breezed past earlier, trade paperback collections are essentially arbitrary. While there are writers who carefully structure their works so that they work in defined six-issue arcs, there are just as many writers who don't. Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead is one long, continuous story. Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman is a twelve issue series arbitrarily divided into two volumes, as is Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier. How would the eligibility for all those be determined? Where does the part end and the work begin?
Then there's the fact that if the award is seen to be applied to the trade paperback which collects the eligible parts into a single work, what happens when there is a series which puts out said parts, but in the period between the end of the eligible year and the deadline for Hugo ballots doesn't announce the trade paperback? Are voters supposed to be clairvoyants, are they supposed to work out what the collected form might be so they can thus nominate it?
It's madness, is the best way I can put it. Despite the best of intentions, the category is completely unworkable in its current form. A rule that was created to apply to novels that have been serialised - simply cannot be applied in exactly the same way to comics. It just doesn't work like that. And if the category is to be re-ratified or have any future, a rule (or two) relating specifically to comics would have to be drawn up, to ensure that there is no confusion whatsoever in terms of what is eligible and what isn't.
For the record, my own preference would be to tighten the category up to Best Collected Graphic Story, thus making only trade paperbacks eligible, and take the first date of publication for the trade paperback as the eligible date. This would make it as easy as possible for people to nominate eligible works without having to do an undue amount of checking their dates first.
Anything would be better than what we've got this year.