I think of the mid-1990s as the period when comics began to grow up, moving past its adolescence of the 1980s (full of overly-adjectival anthropomorphics and Grim'n'Gritty) into real stories that stand the test of time. I suspect that most people think of that growing up as being epitomized by Sandman, and I can't disagree -- it's a brilliant series, and won wide-spread attention. But for those of us in the know -- the people haunting the comics shops and buying the black and white comics that the mainstream didn't pay attention to -- the first truly great graphic novel (originally told in 21 issues) was Teri Sue Wood's Wandering Star.
Let's get the disclaimer out of the way first: the author, the_resa, is an LJ pen-pal of mine. (Hi, Resa!) Indeed, one of the pieces of art in the back of the new edition is a retouched version of a piece she made for me about ten years ago. But I first got in touch with her *because* I was an enormous fan of this book.
Wandering Star, set in the late 22nd century, is the story of Casandra Andrews, daughter of the President of Earth, and starts as she is about to leave to attend the Alliance Academy, the first human to get to join; she isn't there long before war breaks out, and she finds herself in the middle of it.
Let's just say it: the premise *sounds* trite. The end results aren't.
Part of the genius of the story is that it is narrated, and continually intercut, by the framing sequence of a 50ish Casi giving an interview to her would-be biographer. This is the quiet account of a melancholy and slightly haunted famous woman, explaining quite frankly what really happened to her, with all the mythology stripped away, and wrestling with those memories. That framing sequence changes the story. The spine of the story isn't about whether Casi survives (she obviously does) or whether the invading Bono Kiri win (they obviously don't) -- it's about how the girl in the story becomes the woman telling it.
I was amused that Carla Speed McNeil, in the Afterword to the new edition, calls it a Space Opera -- which I completely agree with, but for totally different reasons than she gives. As I mentioned a short while ago, Person of Interest is very much science fiction, despite being set in mundane modern-day New York; Wandering Star is *not* science fiction by my lights, despite being all spaceships and aliens and things blowing up. Science fiction is fundamentally about exploring an *idea*; space opera is fundamentally about the *people*. Science fiction is generally about how *different* things could be; space opera is about how much the future could be *like* us. (In this respect, I often find much space opera more like fantasy than science fiction. Neither is more or less worthy; they're just different in focus.) Despite the aliens, this is very much a story about people.
More precisely, this is an exploration of emotion. That's a theme that comes up time and again: from Madison, the empath who can can both sense and influence the feelings of those around him; to the Tul'sar devices that enslave by eliminating emotion; to all of the main characters wrestling with almost unimaginable loss. Casi starts the story a bright-eyed young woman -- this is the tale of her growing up, all too quickly, in the midst of wartime chaos and tragedy, mostly trying not to die or be enslaved, and eventually making her mark.
The obvious comparison here is to The Hunger Games, but Casi is less of a superhero and a bit less broken (and better-rounded) than Katniss. This is the tale of folks doing what has to be done *not* because they are capital-H Heroes, but because *somebody* has to do it.
The art is superb -- an elegant pointillist style that isn't much like anybody else's. The only artist I can think of in the same general area is Matt Howarth, but where he evolved towards ever-angrier angles, Teri's style became delicate curves. It's a remarkably subtle and wide-ranging style, especially compared with the first draft (included in the back of the book), which was terribly *ordinary* in every respect compared to the final result. There are beautiful nuances everywhere, including a usage of shading as leitmotif that I don't think I've ever seen elsewhere. Teri is also notable as one of the only artists I know who truly mastered the use of *lettering* as a key element in the storytelling -- Dave Sim is the one other person I know to use it so effectively to convey the entire range of emotion and tone.
God bless Dover and their new graphic-novel imprint -- the new edition is luscious, a fine doorstop of a hardcover. Printed on higher-quality paper than existed for comics when Wandering Star was first published, it allows the detail of the artwork to shine.
Let's sum up: this one is going on The Shelf, the highest compliment I can pay to a graphic novel. In my estimation, it's one of the dozen finest ever, in the same company as V For Vendetta, Transmetropolitan and, yes, Sandman, and it's wonderful to see it back in print. Get it -- the Dover edition is reasonably-priced to begin with, and it's downright cheap (for a nearly 500-page graphic hardcover) at Amazon at the moment.