Dicebox by Jenn Manley Lee
I found Dicebox by way of Christopher Baldwin's Bruno and had no idea what to expect. Created by Jenn Manley Lee, the webcomic is described only as a "story to be told in four books for a total of 36 chapters that plays out an eventful year in the lives of Griffen and Molly." The rest of Lee's note on the Dicebox "About" page is just as vague, yet intriguing, which will likely leave the reader pleasantly puzzled and curious to learn more.
The two main characters are both women, which is intriguing, and a study in contrasts, which proves captivating. Griffen Stoyka is tall and thin, pale and short-haired. Molly Robbins is shorter and curvier, black and possessed with enough hair to have it be pulled back into a ponytail. Their distinctive personalities set them apart in a similar fashion: Griffen is sharp, sarcastic, and often cranky while Molly is calmer, more open, and forgiving. As the strip progresses, however, it becomes apparent that their personalities have more depth, and their friendship is more complex, than initial appearances would lead the reader to believe.
Scene one opens with Griffen napping on a bus, being woken up to get off the bus only to find out that she is NOT at the terminal, as expected, but in the middle of a green field. Nothing about the bus, their clothing, or their respective demeanors prepares the reader for a science fiction comic. Well, the bus has a wheel well yet no wheels are visible. And the field appears to be full of poppies. Still. Then, Molly starts seeing things, and the scene closes with a small flying transport lifting off and passing them where they stand in the field, on a hill above the city.
Essentially, I had no idea what was going on and I was utterly hooked.
Lee came up with an elevator pitch (a one-line summary designed to pique the interest of the listener) back in August for explaining Dicebox: "It's about a couple of female itinerant factory workers in space." That's a great hook, but it doesn't begin to cover all the complexities Lee has created here.
In every scene, Lee introduces a new word or a concept, or mentions a new place. We are listening to two old friends talking, and the reader is left to catch up with them. Subsequent panels and scenes explain bits and pieces, or the story reveals information as it moves forward. After a while, the reader may notice things like female pronouns are "her" and "she" but all male pronouns have been replaced with "peh." Words like "registration" and "Janga," are tossed around and then revealed by continued conversation or context. For instance, scene one of chapter 2 is particularly dense with new data, yet the conversation is well-written, interesting, and easily followed. In scenes like this, the reader can see how Lee is gradually revealing the reality of the poor in this space-faring culture.
Lee is not making it easy – a map of planets and a short note about the industry on each which attracts the itinerant workers would make the reminiscences and plans of Griffen and Molly much simpler to follow – but she's definitely not underestimating the intelligence of her readers, either. The pieces are there for the reader to pick up and put together – and regular re-reading helps to refresh the memories of names, places, and initial comments.
For example, Malini Orono’s sculpture, which is called "Weather," is first mentioned near the beginning of scene one in chapter two, then again halfway through scene four as part of another mysterious concept known as "Stranger-touched." Reading the archives, this flows naturally. But reading just the periodic updates, the reader can lose track of such details. This is not a bad thing, per se, just something the reader should keep in mind. Re-reading the entire comic via the archive certainly allowed me to put together disparate pieces of the story much more easily.
The art is clean and realistic, the colors varied but not blinding. The slightly muted effect Lee uses in her palette works well – the use of shading, likewise.
The Spaceport, a beautiful building, and a view of a space station from the outside are three examples of the gorgeous and detailed architectural work that Lee renders with painstaking care. Every page with Griffen and Molly shows Lee's ability to capture facial expressions and body language – a particularly good example can be found here, in the third and fourth panels. The lettering is consistently readable, although the introduction of new Planet names, stores, bars, friends, and terms might sometimes have readers going backtracking a few scenes to make sure they recognize the context.
Lee splits the chapters into scenes and posts portions of scenes with some regularity on Wednesdays (although she recommends Thursday as "check the comic day" due to how late she sometimes posts). Chapter One – "Pre-ramble" is complete and available. Chapter Two, "Fair Weather," is in progress. Both load quickly and are easy to navigate.
I’m still not quite sure whether Dicebox is going to be about anything, per Lee’s comment that it covers an "eventful year." Lives don’t always have plots. But I am very much enjoying watching these characters move through their lives, revealing bits and pieces of the universe they inhabit, and can enthusiastically recommend Dicebox – particularly if you have the patience to allow a story to unfold on its own schedule. I am looking forward to following Dicebox to its conclusion.