First, here's another nominee for best professional artist, Donato Giancola:
The nominees for the new best graphic story category are interesting since they can be easily broken into three blocks of two books. We have two licensed comics based on already popular SF properties, two climaxes to long running Vertigo series, and two webcomics. I don't usually read licensed comics since they usually disappoint so those were the two I had not read before. The two webcomic nominees are one third of all the webcomics I follow and of the remaining webcomics there's only one that might even be considdered for the award. So I'm going to break it down by those blocks.
The Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle; written by Jim Butcher; art by Ardian Syaf - Though I'm aware of Butcher's novel series about a hard boiled wizard detective in modern Chicago I haven't read any of them. The books have been recommended to me a few times but I'm always hesitant to pick up any book that's described as part of a "series". After reading this comic series I think I will try one of the novels. This comic had the advantage of being written by Butcher and unlike some writers from other mediums Butcher used the comic format well; his dialog is tight and complements the images. In this story the wizard/detective is called in to consult on a murder at a zoo that is being blamed on a gorrilla. Naturally there's evil magic involved and the detective gets in over his head. I don't want to discount Syaf's contribution to this work; most memorably he drew the title character in an overshadowed hard-boiled rough style while his unwilling sidekick is much lighter. The whole thing made for a charming book that made me smile.
Serenity: Better Days; written by Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews; art by Will Conrad; color by Michelle Madsen; cover by Jo Chen - In contrast with the previous book this is exactly why I don't read licensed comic books. While all of the common beats from the Firefly television series are here this comic is like a faded photocopy. The scruffy rogue characters are there but they're a bit off. It's a plot that you might see in the show (the crew makes a large pile of money while they're being hunted by someone looking for veterans of the war) but it doesn't come across well. There are moments that are effective and they are fleeting. The main storyline is disjointed and jumps from big moment to big moment. Given how the dialog just falls flat I strongly suspect that Whedon's involvement with this comic was just to say "Hey, let's make a Firefly comic!" and putting his name on it to increase sales. Conrad's art isn't bad but is nowhere near smooth enough to make up for that story.
Y: The Last Man, Volume 10: Whys and Wherefores; written by Brian K. Vaughan; pencilled by Pia Guerra; inked by Jose Marzan, Jr. - I never thought I would enjoy a series about all the male mammels on earth dying except one man and his monkey. Instead of taking the obvious route Vaughan turned it into a journey into a post-apocalyptic world as the last man wandered the face of the earth looking for the girlfriend he was about to propose to over the phone when the deaths struck. In this last volume he finally catches up with her after years of wandering and has to decide what he really wants. Simultaniously his enemies are catching up with him for one last confrontation. That storyline is incredibly effective as Vaughn and Guerra capture the growth that all the characters have undergone. The final issue is a bit more controversial since it jumps forward several decades and is filled with a lot of clumsy dialog telling the readers what happened to everyone. On the other hand the conclusion of that final issue is absolutely perfect. Still this is a very good story that only suffers because the reader needs to have read the rest of the series to appreciate it.
Fables: War and Pieces; written by Bill Willingham; pencilled by Mark Buckingham; art by Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy; color by Lee Loughridge; letters by Todd Klein - I'm a bit confused on this nominee: there's a three issue storyline titled "War and Pieces" that's part of the Fables series and there's a six issue trade paperback War and Pieces. Given the context of the nominees I believe that they mean the trade paperback but I can't be certain. The series itself is about all stories being true (especially fairy tales) on other planes of existence. Before the series began one of the characters, known only as the Adversary now, has conquored all of the other worlds forcing the characters in those fairy tales to flee to the real world. In this volume those refugees take the lessons of the real world back to make war on the Adversary. So there is a spy story as one gathers vital information which is followed by the story of the very brief and very brutal war. This volume does have the advantage of standing well on its own though again as the climax of a seventy-five issue long storyline it's more effective if the reader doesn't start at the end. Willingham clearly planned out the war carefully which makes the plan something simple and direct that the reader can both understand and believe. Buckingham always does a great job and for the final issue in the storyline does everything in spectacular verticle layouts.
Girl Genius, Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones; written by Kaja and Phil Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright - The premise of this webcomic is a psuedo-Victorian world where some people possess the ability to create steampunk inventions that break the laws of physics. Agatha Heterodyne is the heir to the greatest family of mad scientists and has been in hiding her whole life from the forces that tore her family apart. In this section of the story she has returned to her ancestral home, an intelligent castle that has gone insane in her absense. People who want to seize that power for themselves or destroy it before it can be used have also arrived and Agatha must attempt to gain control over the castle before their plans can be activated. I've enjoyed the Foglio's work since I saw it in Dragon magazine and the webcomic is up to their standards. Unfortunately this particular storyline feels more like a bridge between larger events than a contained story of its own. We have a lot of characters moving to get into position to react but very little of them actually taking action.
Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic; by Howard Tayler - In contrast this storyline is almost completely self-contained. The mercenary crew that stars in this strip sold one of their enemies to some revolutionaries in a desperate situation as a "military aide". That enemy managed to win the revolution and install himself as king of the planet though his reign is measured in hours. Now the mercenaries find themselves in a classic dilema: they have two people who hire them to steal the body and the government of the planet hires them to guard the body. The dilema, of course, is how can they get paid three times for the same work. Tayler's art isn't up to the quality of the other nominees (he's grown from a doodler in his first few strips to a decent cartoonist over the ten years he's been working on the strip); still the actual story is among the best thanks to it's snappy pacing as a daily comic strip. Tayler keeps things moving from gag to gag and also recognizing that any given strip could be someone's first and that makes it very accessable.
My ballot for Best Graphic Story would be:
The Dresden Files
Y: The Last Man