‘Dicebox’ Travels the Gender-Bending Galaxy with Two Mysterious Migrant Workers
I wish more people wrote science fiction like Carla Speed McNeil's Finder. I love spending time in McNeil's futuristic world, where brilliant ideas whizz by at lightning speed while the story stays clearly centered on the often mundane affairs of her characters. Jenn Manley Lee's webcomic Dicebox (occasionally NSFW), whose first volume Wander is now available in print, strikes a similar balance and adds some intriguing mysteries to the mix. Dicebox tracks Molly and Griffen, two migrant workers living in the distant future, as they hop from planet to planet looking for work.In a universe that features spaceships, software you can download into your brain, terraformed planets, medical bays that can rebuild your entire skeletal structure and unexpected gender constructs, the most interesting thing is these two women, their unlikely relationship, and the political secrets, psychic visions and missing fingers lurking in their pasts.
From the opening pages of Dicebox, Griffen and Molly are a study in contrasts. Griffen is tall, pale, aristocratic, masculine and always complaining. She has the air of someone who knows she's indestructible, and is always looking for a fight to prove it. Molly, on the other hand, is short, dark, voluptuous and feminine, a lifelong laborer who is emotionally guarded even among members of her own community. But they're both itinerant laborers, constantly on the move, constantly broke and constantly in search of their next gig -- something which Griffen's talent for making enemies makes challenging. Each is also the most important person in the other's life.
At first glance, Dicebox looks like so-called "mundane" science fiction. Griffen and Molly aren't revolutionaries or smugglers or starship captains or colonists exploring a new frontier. And there's so much about our heroines that is absolutely, deliberately mundane. Dicebox is a talkie book, full of reminiscences, gossip and complaints. And it's not that nothing exciting happens in the timeline of Dicebox: Wander. In fact, early in the story, Griffen and Molly have a dramatic confrontation on the bridge of a spaceship -- right before it crashes. But all that high drama happens off-panel, leaving the characters and their humble tongues to do the exposition.
Not everyone will appreciate that Lee consistently steers her camera away from the action, but it creates a striking intimacy between characters and reader. We're always seeing Molly, Griffen, and their various friends and enemies (and sometimes there's a fine line between the two) at their most usual, not when they're in the heat of the moment. Whenever I read Dicebox, I have the sense that I'm being drawn into Molly and Griffen's private world, witnessing moments so personal that it would be uncomfortable if they weren't fictional. I wouldn't trade any number of spaceship crashes for the way Griffen worries at Molly's bedside after Molly suffers an injury or the way Molly needles Griffen about the latter woman's occasional substance-induced memory loss.
It also ensures that big, visually showy moments don't overwhelm the emotional ones. Dicebox is very deliberately paced, and Lee very slowly pulls back the curtain on her protagonists and their secrets. Even revealing Griffen's sex right here feels like a bit of a spoiler, though it would be difficult to talk about her without employing Dicebox's own gender-neutral pronoun "peh." But there is far more to Griffen and Molly's past and present than their jobs and friendly bickering would suggest.
Yes, Molly and Griffen aren't so mundane after all. Molly is plagued by bizarre visions that may or may not be premonitory. Griffen divulges little about her past life, but we quickly get the sense that she was, once upon a time, a fairly important person in a social stratum far removed from her current blue collar family. And as more is revealed about them, more small mysteries appear. Why did Griffen abandon her old life? How did she and Molly meet? Why did Molly open up to Griffen of all people?
Griffen is one of the most intriguing characters I've run across in recent comics. She knows more than the average bear about what's going on the universe, and while she doesn't care to divulge that information, she's constantly smirking over her own secrets. She needs everyone to know just how clever she is, and it's that very exhibitionist streak that with likely prove her undoing. But despite her machismo, Griffen is emotionally vulnerable. She's utterly devoted to Molly and as capable of gratitude as attitude. When Griffen's messy past starts to catch up with her, she seems far more worried about her heart than her personal safety. But just as most of the migrant workers can barely stand Griffen without Molly, I suspect that I as a reader would hate Griffen without Molly's contentment and connection to their community to balance her out.
Griffen and Molly's relationship is the star of Dicebox, but Lee's worldbuilding plays a critical supporting role. The technological advances will be familiar to readers of hard science fiction, but Lee adds her own flair in the costuming and the culture of her future. So much has stayed the same; people are still worried about terrorism and whether their factories are going to go robotic. Several characters get their kicks watching a popular soap opera.
The most obvious difference, though, is in the rather flexible gender expressions. Even though I've read Dicebox online before, I still found myself flipping back through the pages asking myself, "Was that character female? Oh! Yep, there are her breasts." While people certainly still have their sexual preferences, gender differences are less pronounced. Readers may be confused about Griffen's sex for the first few dozen pages, but other characters instantly recognize her as female, and men and women equally occupy high-powered and low-powered positions.
Plus, if you can't assume someone's gender, there's that handy gender-neutral pronoun. Marriage still exists as well, in monogamous and polygamous forms, but it's not necessarily linked to whom you're sleeping with. And there is political unrest poking at the edges of the story, something I expect Lee will explore in future volumes.
If you've ever tried and failed to read Dicebox online, I'd highly recommend giving it a shot in print. It's much easier to keep track of all those small revelations -- including who's missing a finger and what's between everyone's legs -- when you're reading more than one page a week. But if you're not averse to reading it online, Lee has already waded into Book Two.