Jenn Manley Lee's beautifully rendered webcomic Dicebox follows two migratory workers hopping from colony to colony. Along the way, they encounter terrorist attacks, a spaceship crash, a healthy dose of intrigue, and the secrets of their own pasts.
Dicebox (occasionally NSFW) is an unusual sort of epic. Its stars aren't revolutionaries or space pirates or heroes caught up in the thrall of destiny. Instead, Lee focuses her camera tight on Griffen Medea Stoyka and Molly Robbins, two itinerant laborers who move from colonized world to colonized world looking to earn a little money and stay out of trouble.
The early chapters of Dicebox function largely as a character study of Griffen and Molly, two women who are very different – Griffen is an aristocratic and combative show-off, while Molly is hard-working and private, despite her many friends – but care deeply for one another. Against their conversations about where to go next, which jobs to work, and whom they're trying to avoid, Lee offers tantalizing clues about the world in which they live. The occasional cultural reference hints that Griffen and Molly live in our future, one where space travel between worlds is simple (if you have the cash), and humans have learned to terraform planets with varying degrees of success, but haven't created any AI to speak of. It's a bit like the Firefly universe with cyborg implants and more rumors of alien encounters.
One of the most immediate cultural differences between our time and Dicebox's is the relationship between sex and gender expectations. Early on, readers may not immediately recognize Griffen as female, but as the series progresses, it becomes clear that, in the future, folks don't expect other folks' gender expression to conform to their sex (although pronouns do, apparently, conform to sex rather than gender expression). Lee even provides her future with a third pronoun set – "peh" – to refer to characters whose sex is ambiguous.
Lee also paints an impressively lush picture of the migratory worker community, a loose family of kindred spirits who meet again and again at jobs and bars and hostels to fight, fuck, wax philosophical, or just lend each other a helping hand. These are the people at the center of Griffen and Molly's universe, but Lee makes it clear that they are not the center of the universe. These are people concerned with their families and immediate friends, where they're going to sleep and where their next paycheck is coming from, but there are glimpses of more. The future has its bourgeoisie, its political unrest, its bureaucrats, and these occasionally glance against Griffen and Molly's lives.
Lee describes Dicebox as "an eventful year in the lives of Griffen and Molly." At first, those eventful moments – the destruction of a monument and a spaceship crash – are secondary to the relationship between our protagonists. In fact, much of the action occurs off-panel. But as we get deeper into the comic, we get a bit of onscreen intrigue. Figures from Griffen's shadowy past begin inserting themselves in her present with Molly, and it becomes clear that the pair will have more to worry about in the coming year than factory automation and being blackballed from certain jobs. And Molly comes with her own set of mysteries: a missing ring finger and bizarre visions that may or may nor be prophetic.
Lee just wrapped up the first book of Dicebox, and if you haven't read it before, now is a good time to jump on. The comic is still short enough to cover in a few days, but long enough that we get a sense of the larger arc that's still in store.