REview: Dicebox by Jen Manley Lee
Dicebox isn't your older brother's science fiction comic. No muscular heroes toting huge laser cannons, piloting light-speed-capable spaceships, rescuing buxom and scantily clad females, thwarting evil empires, and, in general, saving the universe.
The science fiction of Jenn Manley Lee's Dicebox is more akin to the soft/feminist science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler. According to the author's notes, Dicebox is the story of an eventful year in the lives of two middle age women, itinerant workers who are traveling across the galaxy. With an internet full of science fiction webcomics inspired by anime or 1950s pulp, Dicebox promises an interesting change of pace.
Dicebox was reviewed by Comixpedia 18 months ago, back when Lee was just completing the second chapter. With mostly just introduction and bits of foreshadowing, the reviewer concluded that it was a beautifully illustrated story with enough potential to make it a worthwhile read. In the time since the review, Dicebox has moved to girlamatic.com, and more than doubled in length with extra chapters contributed by guest comickers. With 36 planned chapters, it's years from even being at the halfway point, but Lee has already moved the story beyond initial setup and it seems appropriate for an update review.
A true definition of feminist science fiction is probably beyond the scope of this review, but it's sufficient to observe that science fiction can allow the exploration of gender and gender roles by creating worlds where traditional conceptions and expectations don't apply.
In Dicebox, the most obvious example of this is Griffen. With her angular body and strong facial features, not to mention her abrasive personality, more than one reader â€“ myself included â€“ has mistaken her for a male. Lee is more than capable of drawing feminine females, and Griffen's looks aren't confusing to other characters. Rather, it's a quality of the Dicebox universe that Griffen neither conforms to the standard "tough chick" stereotype of Hollywood sci-fi or the "butch lesbian" of US culture.
The ambiguity of Griffen's gender provides an interesting riddle to readers who don't check Lee's F.A.Q., but also can distract from the story. Lee's characters Rande Yong and Grae also defy gender classification when they are introduced, but the confusion is cleared up when they become central to the plot, thus allowing the audience to focus on the story.
There's certainly a lot of story to Dicebox. Lee has a gift for writing unstilted dialogue that is also conveying information about the world, and Molly and Griffen's acquaintances. In addition to the tantalizing hints about Molly's weird visions, Griffen's questionable past, and the mystery of the Strangers, our heroines have to date been caught up in a terrorist attack and survived a crash landing on an uninhabited planet.
It's good that Lee keeps such interesting things happening, but frustrating that much of the action happens off screen. The details of how the ship crashed involve a gun and possibly illegal actions by other crew members, but we only get these details in conversations afterwards. Considering that both Griffen and Molly were involved, it seems odd to not show any of this.
Another example of missing panels is when Griffen needs to scale a cliff, a task she clearly doesn't want to do. There's the panel of a nervous Griffen before, and the panel after, with a panting-on-the-ground Griffen, but no Griffen clingling to the side of the cliff for dear life. Granted, it's a predictable sequence of events to show, but comics are a graphical medium. Unless there are specific reasons to do so, cutting out such scenes seems a disservice to the readers.
Lee's omissions aren't due to lack of artistic ability. Dicebox is a beautifully drawn comic with fantastical space stations and cities, and precisely detailed technology, such as the handheld screen units. Lee is very comfortable drawing the human figure and the comic is filled with interesting body positions and gestures, drawn from numerous camera angles.
Most impressive is Lee's eye for coloring and shading. Each particular scene has its own palette that greatly aids in giving locations a unique sense of place and reinforces the mood of the scene.
Overall, Dicebox is continuing to be an intelligent, thinking person's sort of science fiction story. It's progressing from the initial set of ideas to actual short stories about the main characters' lives, and there is a strong connection between the chapters. A bit more visual storytelling would improve the pacing of the story as well as giving more connection to the characters and their situations. When Dicebox includes these aspects, as it does for the terrorist attack plot, the comic begins to realize the full potential of a true, non-testosterone driven, science fiction webcomic.