DOUG WRIGHT AWARD STRIPS, AND GRUMPINESS

So for the last week I’ve been the diarist at The Comics Journal. It’s something they started when Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler took over a few months ago, and I’ve really enjoyed the other cartoonists who have taken part. Not only in terms of the actual work, but as part of the larger “online magazine” whole, it’s nice to have that kind of content there to balance things a little bit.

I approached Dan before I went to this year’s TCAF, and suggested that a week of strips about the Doug Wright Awards, a Canadian comics award ceremony, would be interesting not only to do a week of strips about, but just as something that’s not all that covered in our world. He agreed, and now they’re all done, check them out for yourself, I dare you!

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5

I’d like to make a bit of a small tirade, if you’ll grant me the indulgence. I know that industry awards are possibly the most esoteric things in all of the world to discuss, and comics industry awards are probably 1% of that subset, maybe moreso. But I am a part of this industry, and it is an industry I enjoy being a part of, and one I’d like to see improve.

A tiny bit of background on the Doug Wright Awards: they’re for Canadian books/cartoonists, specifically for works published in English within a certain calendar year. There’s a nominating committee who nominates not only the works/creators to be considered each year, but also the jury who will make the final decision. There is no outside voting at all. There are four total prizes: Best Book, Best Emerging Talent, Pigskin Peters Award (for avant garde or experimental work), and an induction each year into the “Giants of the North,” essentially a hall of fame for Canadian cartoonists.

I’m a little nervous about getting too critical of “other” awards, especially in the process of being so blindingly adoring of the Wright Awards. On the other hand, part of me thinks I’m not being critical enough. Although maybe there’s a better place than this little diary comic for that.

Tom Spurgeon said yesterday, regarding this, “..why not have awards that honor things like best lettering? why is that view of comics not legitimate?” And he’s right. There’s a place for everything, for sure–and my thin arguments in the strips themselves are further robbed of nuance by the need to be brief in the cartoon form, lest my carpal tunnels surely explode. There’s room to celebrate everything; it just irks me on some–or all–levels that our American comic awards seem to have become so bloated and slightly foolish over the years. With an award for every conceivable category, precious little coverage for online comics–which are read by far more people than print comics–but a voting model that depends on votes cast online.

For instance, this year’s Eisners–the top of the comics food pyramid, in terms of awards and their importance within the industyr–were nominated by a small jury of 6 people, none of whom is a working artist, or even an active creator of comics. After the nominations were announced, voting was opened to anyone who has professional credits, which in today’s world is almost everyone, honestly. Especially since people who make webcomics are included. Dave Kellett was nominated, and has made his nominated work free to download on his site. Which is smart, don’t get me wrong. He also points out that the pool of eligible voters is pretty large, and likely includes a lot of his readers. You can’t argue with someone who wants something exercising his fair right to try and get that thing, operating within established rules. On the other hand, I think it diminishes an award, and the importance of that award within its culture, to have nominees shilling publicly for votes. Is that bad of me to think? But listen, it’s what I think! It takes something meant to be a meritorious award and makes it a political award.

No disrespect meant to Dave Kellett, who works hard and is doing what anyone who worked hard to create something of value and promote that value to the world would do–I sound all high and mighty, but I’m not 100% sure that I wouldn’t do something similar if nominated. I’d like to think I wouldn’t, but then again, having “Eisner Award Winning” in front of my name for the rest of my career wouldn’t be too shabby, right? It certainly would open some doors. But maybe that’s the problem–I think I’m not the only person who might shrug and say, “well there are some problems, but hey who’s going to argue with having an Eisner??”

Ditto times a million for the Harveys; you can tell each year which company’s editors got on the ball and stuffed the ballot boxes correctly. It’s hard to take an award seriously that is so easy to gimmick. And beyond that, it’s hard to take an award seriously–for me anyway–that is based pretty much entirely on the work-for-hire model of the DC/Marvel part of the industry, where the creative process is broken down to writer/penciller/inker/letterer/colorist/cover artist/editor, etc.

It’s not that amazing works can’t be done under this model–I think all my favorite comics were done this way–Batman Year One, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns…. And I work within that model–I hand letter Casanova, my checks say Marvel on them, et cetera. But I would suggest that subdividing all the various tasks within the art of comics storytelling, rather than enlarging those tasks’ importance, diminishes them, or at least diminishes the work they’re a part of. I made a joke within my strip about “does anyone care anymore who is ‘Best Letterer’?” There is so much technology around now, most–maybe 90%–of lettering being done in comics is by font anyway. I’m not trying to minimize the importance of lettering or say it could be done by monkeys or anything. But lettering and inking are just parts of “cartooning”. So is writing, so is coloring. You’re basically creating comics–the real stars should be the works themselves, the books, the online comics, the pamphlets, the newspapers.

I’m suggesting, I guess, that after a few top prizes, important prizes, each subsequent smaller prize diminishes the importance of the first few. Should letterers be praised for hard work or enlarging the discipline of their craft? Sure. Ditto for inkers, colorists, etc. But after Best Book, Best Cartoonist, maybe a couple others, it’s hard to see where subdividing helps anything anymore, except to create a Byzantine web of associations and categories, resulting in a ceremony that approaches 5 hours in length and is dreadfully, famously boring to everyone who attends.

I don’t think the Wright Awards are perfect, by a long shot. But I do think they’re very well-conceived. They’re simple and elegant and they convey a deep sense of importance, not only to the awards themselves, but in the awarding of them. It was something I really appreciated being a part of, even only as an observer, and something I think is really lacking in our current American awards.

I should say, in closing, that while my tone seems very contrarian, it’s only because I think these points are rarely articulated by people in comics, and I think there’s a lot of value in that articulation. Comics people all know each other, all work with the same editors, and are all faintly terrified of destroying future opportunities with this company or that company. I’m lucky to not have this worry, so I feel like I can comment honestly about it. No disrespect is meant to what I presume is the CRUSHINGLY hard work of organizing both the Eisner and Harvey Awards. I know Jackie Estrada, who has organized the Eisners since 1990 or so, works really hard to make them what they are. I don’t know who organizes the Harveys, but Marc Nathan is involved in some way, and he is similarly a great guy who takes what he does seriously. I just think that some changes would be very healthy for both entities, and would win back some of the lost prominence and respect to those awards, and by extension the legacies of their namesakes, Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman.

48 thoughts on “DOUG WRIGHT AWARD STRIPS, AND GRUMPINESS

  1. Mike Dawson

    I don’t disagree with most of your points, but I always think it’s worth pointing out that Canada is a country with a much smaller population than ours, and presumably a much smaller comics industry.

    I had very similar reactions to you the one time I attended the Doug Wright Awards, in 2009. After overcoming the initial hurdle of being put-off by the concept of awards that don’t recognize Americans, I was won-over by the strange alien sense that comics could be something worth taking seriously and celebrating in Canada.

  2. Anise

    While it’s true that Canada had a smaller population, our comic industry, per capita, is much larger than the states. Overall profit, sales, etc, we don’t come close. In contrast, we have government support for comics, large festivals and some really great awards.

    I actually think our industry is healthier because we do set the bar a little higher, as we can, because we have a smaller industry. Just look at the very long list of amazing and relevant comic artists in Canada, both in print and on the web.

  3. Ben Towle

    As someone who’s groused about various American comics awards, I agree with many of your points here. Honestly, though, I think comics awards are the symptom, not the disease. Specifically: American comics awards will be more of a celebration of the important place the comics art form occupies in our culture once the comics art form starts to actually occupy an important place in our culture (or at least once it’s properly recognized as such).

    I think there’s a “grass is always greener component” here as well, though. To entirely remove a broad-based vote and consign things entirely to a small committee (as the Wright awards do) brings its own pitfalls. You yourself mention your unhappiness with the make-up of this year’s Eisner judges; imagine if that were the “end of the line” as far as awards selection went. Sure, a system that awards nominations to whomever is most effective at shilling their books via social media is a worthless system, but on the other end of things, I don’t think there’s any way you can have a comics INDUSTRY award and not have input from the industry as a whole.

    One interesting American comics award you didn’t mention is the Lynd Ward prize, which is an interesting case: a jury composed entirely of people from the awarding institution (Penn State) selects a single book each year. Bonus: there’s an actual cash prize.

  4. DHARBIN! Post author

    You’re absolutely right. I’m not entirely sure WHAT the best possible solution is, but I feel convinced that having any sort of online voting element just corrupts things too much, turns it from a qualitative award to a quantitative one.

    I think at some point you have to just give an award some faith–even in the past, when the Eisners have made what appear to me to be boneheaded nominations, that’s my subjective opinion. Of course I think that so-and-so is better than such-and-such, or that it’s a crime that blah-blah got left out. But that’s going to happen regardless, until such a time as The Dustin Harbin Awards become a reality. But it’s easier to say c’est la vie when choices are made outside of your own ideas, when you have a certain measure of faith in the body doing the choosing. For instance, the year you were on the Eisner committee, that meant the committee had at least one person who not only writes, draws, and occasionally self-publishes his own comics, but someone who’s taught comics at a college level, written extensively about comics, etc. I’m sure you and I differ widely in a calendar year as far as what’s “best” goes, but it would be hard to argue with someone of your background as a reasonable, even excellent, representative in a voting body.

    But this year’s Eisners, as I said, seem mostly made up of people who work for Comicon, or retailers, or publishers/editors–no artists, no educators, no one with a scholarly background in comics, etc. I could be wrong about that; but the bios published on the Eisners site didn’t seem to stress anything otherwise.

    To be clear: I in general think the nominating committee of the Eisners is a good idea–I’m a fan of juries, of educated representatives making decisions. I’m not the best-educated, I don’t read every comic, etc. I think maybe there could be some more rigor in the choosing of that jury–does Jackie does pick them all herself? I might change that, just to make it seem broader, have a certain set of hard rules. For instance, a retailer, a working cartoonist, a working editor, an educator, a librarian, maybe 2-3 others, people who publish online, people active in a certain subculture. Diversity, basically.

    But yeah–voting online is just a bad idea. I can’t see where you can do something like that in a workable way without diluting the quality of your results.

  5. DHARBIN! Post author

    Yeah, as Anise points out below–it is important to note that Canada is… hm, I don’t know if a smaller population has THAT much to do with it, but it is a different population. And one that supports the arts more, meaning there’s funding for comics companies, grants for artists, and likely some financial help for a body like the Wrights, which the Eisners and Harveys may lack, other than tax-exempt status or something like that.

    AND–I definitely think it’s important to note that while I hold the Wrights in pretty obviously high regards, it’s a small enough award, with few enough people involved in its organization and judging, that it could easily go south in terms of quality. I certainly don’t expect it to; Brad Mackay, the organizer, is a very motivated guy who takes his non-paying job very seriously, and Seth and Chester Brown are of course people who take themselves much more seriously than most.

    But in a small pool of influence like that, the continued quality depends on the energy and acumen of a very small group, which is hard to sustain as an entity like that grows. Look at the other volunteer-run entities in comics, like MoCCA and SPX. I’d say SPX is pretty well-run, considering no one’s getting a paycheck, but MoCCA seems like more of an afterthought, a pure fundraiser, than anything else. I’d say that’s partly because no one’s getting paid, so the quality of their work is directly related to their interest and personal identification with the final result. Part of the reason that TCAF and HeroesCon are well-run is that there are people whose livelihood depends on them being well-run.

  6. Ben Towle

    Considering my past involvement w/ the Eisners, I know surprisingly-little about how the jury is chosen. I *do* know that something along the lines of what you’ve outlined above (a retailer, a working cartoonist, a an educator, a librarian) is what they seem to shoot for, though. As is the case this year, they don’t always manage to hit all the bases I guess.

    I certainly think that the Eisner “model” is the most appealing to me in the sense that when it works you get both a jurried component and a industry-wide popular vote.

    I do sometimes wonder though, whether the art form as a whole would be served better if the “big” award just awarded a few–say half a dozen–awards each year that were just awards recognizing BOOKS themselves, whether single issues, series, or GNs. It seems like awards tied to individual’s roles within a particular production method (best inker, etc.) might be best served by an awards program that’s specific to the part of the industry that employs that production method.

  7. Dustin Harbin

    Agreed, more or less. I know they’re having this year’s Inkwell Awards at HeroesCon, focused on inkers. Although I just can’t imagine a way to make voting really work without some kind of souped up controls. Maybe I’m just a snob.

  8. DHARBIN! Post author

    I have–I submitted my own comics to the Eisner committee this year, and my work with Casanova was submitted as well. I also submitted a couple of years ago to the Isotope Award thing for minicomics, and I *feel* like I sent something for the Ignatz’s one time, but I can’t remember. Do you send stuff in for those?

  9. J Chris Campbell

    At the encouragement of a friend I sent WA666 in for some award. I can’t remember what it was. I also submitted ZZ1 to the Dave Sim’s Award thing and got a nomination! ZZ was also nominated for a humor award but I didn’t send it off.

    Shannon Smith clued me in that I’m an “Eisner Nominated Artist” because I’m in The Trickster Anthology. So if it wins I guess I’m an Eisner Winner, which seems like cheating. But I’ll take it. :)

    In general I don’t like award ceremonies of any kind. They bore me to tears and I feel like they are a waste of time. I like the idea of being recognized for your achievements. But creating an event for everyone to wait, as the winners are announced, seems like punishment to me. I say eliminate them and use what little money is saved to be used as prize money. I’d imagine most comic professionals would rather have 15 dollars than be paraded out and given a plaque.

    Heck, what if the same amount of man hours used to organize those events were used to get some donations or sponsorships for prizes. So they could give even more award money.

    I guess I’m just not the target market for award show ceremonies.

  10. DHARBIN! Post author

    I hear you. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some Macarthur Genius Grant -type thing for our industry? I suspect the actual ceremony itself isn’t that costly in terms of actual work; or at least not nearly as labor and time-intensive as administering the actual awards themselves. But yeah, I see your point. Although I like the idea of people gathering to make a fuss over the award winners, and not just those that are nominated, but people who are genuinely interested in the outcome. That was one of the things–if not THE thing–that most impressed me about the Wright Awards, is that they seemed to matter to the people in the room. I’m probably biased, in that I was sitting beside Anne Koyama, who had several books she’d published nominated. Plus several friends of my own nominated, including Aaron Costain for Best Emerging Talent. So to me it was easy to imagine “this matters.” If that weren’t the case I’d probably be less interested on a personal level, but I like to think I’d still find the proceedings interesting just as a fellow maker of comics.

  11. bradmackay

    Hey – i meant to chime in here earlier about a few things.

    First off, I should probably say for the record that the Wright Awards do not receive any public funds to operate. The various government granting institutions have a firm rule about not doling out dough to awards orgs. I’m happy to say we’re pretty well supported by the comics community up here, which means “in kind” contributions and the occasional art auction.

    As for the Eisners and other comics awards orgs, I kind of agree with Spurgeon when he says there’s room for awards that recognize certain aspects of the industry like lettering or inker or what have you. After all, the Oscars follow this model.

    But I also think that formatting an awards event in this way (i.e., lots of awards for many different facets of an industry) restricts its audience and purpose. (It also makes for a really long, boring ceremony – case in point, The Oscars!)

    The goal of the DWAs from day one was to celebrate Canadian comics and promote them to the culture at large. Which i think we’ve done a good job of. That’s harder to do if you’re handing out 100 awards for things like lettering (aspects of the comics industry that 99% of most readers never think about). That’s why you don’t see newspaper headlines trumpeting the winner of Best Sound Design the day after the Oscars are handed out.

    This isn’t to say that these jobs are insignificant, it’s just that they are a small part of a larger whole. And the larger whole (movie; book; CD) is what most people are interested in. Luckily, we have two comics awards organization here in Canada. The Shuster Awards, which were founded at the same time as the Wrights, hand out industry awards for things like best cover and best inker. So it all balances out.

    Anyways — we should all thank Dustin for his deep thoughts on this. Seriously, who else would have even considered poking this sleeping tiger?

  12. Kevin Boyd

    The Joe Shuster Awards – the only Canadian awards program that is open to works published in both of our native languages and that encompass all types of comics – started out as nomcom selected/public vote finalized but we decided in 2007 that the public vote system did not work (it was, as you say, a popularity contest) – and that a jury selection process was fairer to the nominees in that the jury members see all works and make an informed choice instead of a partisan one.

    Canadians work in all facets of the comics industry and they also deserve attention and to be honoured for their work, not just those that write and draw their own indie/artistic comics.

    When we put together the Joe Shuster Awards we felt that a “Best Book” type award would not work because there really is no real comics industry in Canada. That only a narrow margin of books published each year that are wholly Canadian (i.e. creators and publisher). No, the majority of Canadians work where they can be published, and a publisher bias would exclude the great majority of the Canadians working on comics.

    Instead we felt that having area-specific awards – that by focusing on the creators themselves – that it would help raise awareness of their work within the community and the marketplace. We are primarily print-based awards meant to encourage and support the industry’s publishers and retailers.

    We generally give out 10 awards per year plus Hall of Fame. That the creator is Canadian is the key factor for inclusion, and for the print based awards that the work they did was original and available to everyone to buy across the country.

    The quality of the work (hence “outstanding” not “best”) is what matters at the JSAs – we believe in an open playing field for creators in the category in which they are eligible:

    -Outstanding Cartoonist (Writer/Artist)
    -Outstanding Artist/Artist Team
    -Outstanding Writer
    -Outstanding Colourist
    -Outstanding Cover Artist
    -Outstanding Publisher
    -Outstanding Webcomics Creator/Creative Team
    -Outstanding Retailer
    -Self-Published Creator (includes a $500 bursary)
    -Comics for Kids – our only best book award, is for books by Canadian creators that are aimed at readers aged 14 and under — the nominees and eventual winner are selected by teachers.

    No letterers, no blogs, no reprints or repackaged editions, etc. FYI we didn’t start with a colourist award or cover artist award, we were petitioned by Canadian creators to create those categories.

    Our ceremonies have never gone over 2 hours in length in 7 years. I’ve never heard anyone say that our ceremony was ever boring. We run a tight ship, and we keep it fun and interesting.

    We work on this all year round, it is an organizational headache – we have four juries who, as I write this, are in the midst of making their informed choices from this year’s nominees.

    But we do it because we are told that being nominated for and, in particular, winning a Joe Shuster Award matters to the people in the Canadian comics community. It’s one of the reasons why we are taking the ceremony on the road this year and presenting them in Calgary for the first time.

  13. DHARBIN! Post author

    Brad–noted about the lack of government financial aid in the Wrights. Also noted that All The World should be thanking me for my Selfless Bravery and Plucky Resolve in discussing this Trickiest Of Subjects.

    Kevin–that sounds like a lot of fun, and a fine award. I don’t mean to paint all “other” awards shows with a negative brush, or even to raise the Wrights as some sort of perfect ideal. But I do like the idea of a) juries in general, as informed representatives of the culture as a whole–especially if said jury is of a demographic diversity that mirrors that culture; and b) as few awards as possible, with the most importance placed on each.

    As you say, not every award needs to hew to every standard, and comics is increasingly large enough to support… well, however many different awards of different flavors as it will support. But I like the idea of the really potent ones to have a level of dignity that places them above ideas of marketing and into ideas of art and the appreciation and celebration of art.

  14. Kevin Boyd

    Me too Dustin, but awards also need to have criteria by which those creators become eligible for selection. In the case of comics and graphic novels, which are not only creative but also commercial medium, format and availability only define the pool… it is the art itself that fills the pool, and the celebration of that art that selects nominees and from those nominees a winner.

    Canadian awards add the element of nationalism and culture. Our feeling at the JSAs is that the Canadian creators absorb culture, distill it and reflect it back — adding back to our culture.

  15. Eric

    We had a brief conversation about this subject on Twitter earlier this year, and I don’t think, as usual with Twitter, that I successfully got any points across. So I thought I’d follow up here with some questions.

    Feel free to ignore them.

    - Your preference for fewer categories strikes me as — and I don’t think anyone in the comments has brought this up, but correct me if I’m wrong — the difference between looking at art (‘Best Book’ as a holistic celebration of a work of a literature) versus craft (‘Best Lettering’ being a celebration of a stage of production). Am I on a right track here? Would you ever advocate for a separation of awards along these lines, as the Oscars sort-of kind-of does with their Science & Tech. Awards?

    - Is part of the problem genre? I know that Asterios Polyp took home the top award at the Eisners last year, but the rest of the list is widely populated by superhero fiction. The Harveys were even more genre-heavy. Is this part of the disease that Ben talks about?

    - Is part of the problem fidelity to the notion of popular, versus worthy art? Again, Asterios Polyp won the Eisner, yes. But even that book is an easy sell to popular audiences — “From the artist of Batman: Year One.” The Eisners are held at the culmination of what has come to be known as a massive three-day celebration of popular culture, and a more literary awards ceremony wouldn’t seem to fit in with the atmosphere that CCI provides.

    - Is the ceremony an important aspect of the awards to you? Would the Doug Wrights have meant as much, had you not been there to see them in person? How do you value them, say, in relation to the American Library Association awards given to comics?

    - For what audience should such awards exist? The comics reading public? The publishing industry? The artists?

    - For me, one of the biggest differences in the two awards ceremonies is that the Wrights have as their goal the celebration of the Canadian comics industry as a whole, whereas I see the American awards being much more a celebration of specific books, artists, or aspects of the industry. The goal of the Wrights is awareness, whereas to me it seems the goal of the Eisners and the Harveys, is to have a little button that can go on the cover of books to make them more profitable in a second printing, or a trade paperback collection.

    In short, I see it as a question of celebrating art versus stimulating commerce. It’s no different than the Academy Awards, which are a clever manipulation, using pomp and celebrity, of the movie-going public to go see specific movies. Am I the only one who sees this delineation?

    - You prefer the Wrights, which seem to be a celebration of cartoonists before other cartoonists. You also seem to be an artist who considers other cartoonists a substantive portion of your audience, and takes the most delight from the positive attention provided by that specific community (this is just an observation, and I could be totally wrong). The broader voting system strikes me as going against your idea of a preferred audience.

  16. DHARBIN! Post author

    Kevin I don’t think I disagree with you on principle–but I do think that a certain broadness of category/format is a good thing for awards. For instance, think of how malleable the idea of format is today–comics appear in so many different forms, from serialized pamphlet to collected edition to fancy hardcover reprint, from web to print to mobile devices with their own format restrictions. The Shusters and Eisners and others also have a “Web Comic” category, which seems increasingly seems out of phase with the realities of comics today. Meaning, far far more people read comics online than in print, and far more creators who might come from print-oriented backgrounds are looking to the web as their entry point to careers in comics.

    I’d say the same for a lot of existing categories, where works can be nominated in any of a number of categories. I’m not sure that’s a problem per se, but the overlap can appear–at least to someone like me–as confusing.

    This is just aesthetic philosophy though–as someone who delights in organizing and categorizing things, my snootiness at many overlapping categories is mainly rooted in the idea that broader categories are usually truer. The simplest solution is usually the cleanest solution.

  17. DHARBIN! Post author

    To answer your last point first, Eric–you’re totally right that there’s a lot of snobbery intrinsic to my thinking on this. But removing the popular vote concept isn’t about creating a sterile political gene pool–it’s just that voting online is too easy to gimmick. And regardless of how often or how badly voting turns into creators mobilizing their fanbases to go vote for them, it’s the POSSIBILITY of the gimmick that I think damages the veracity of the award.

    It’s true that I probably consider people who make comics as being somewhat more educated on the different things that go into their making; but people who READ comics (which includes the comics-making subset) are the audience, they’re the ones who decide over and over again whether a comic “works” or not, etc.

    As a person who is fascinated by craft, and who has spent a fair amount of effort amassing some small skill with different kinds of comics-craft, I like the idea of publicly appreciating someone who is a great inker or who really is a primo penciller or whatever, but not over the work itself. Those things are important, but they’re just parts of a recipe–with very few exceptions, all the craft elements of a work of art are SURFACE elements. How well something is lettered is like 1% as important as the words and story actually being lettered. The strength or sophistication of someone’s drawing chops are worthless if the story is garbage, if it’s paced poorly, if the actual visual storytelling isn’t effective.

    Maybe this is how I should have put it originally: the current state of comics awards perpetuate a cult-of-personality fan culture that celebrates flash over substance. It’s true that good comics are often made by many different people, but at some point glorifying the component pieces diminishes the value of the whole. Imagine awarding David Mazzucchelli “Best Penciller” for Asterios Polyp. Sometimes the category gets in the way.

  18. Kevin Boyd

    I think we’ve always been open to reviewing our position. When we started in 2004 things were definitely a lot different — print was the primary source for comics, and yes, I agree that digital formats have definitely changed the landscape so much so that we look archaic holding onto our support of print media for the core of our awards.

    I think the issue that we wrestle with is that we we are supportive of comics as a creative, yet commercial art form. Comics creators are still primarily deriving their income from print sales, and most publishers (like D+Q) are not rushing to embrace digital formats and are trying to sell books, and retailers still rely on print sales for their revenues. Until someone comes up with a clear and proper and universally supported system of digital distribution that will financially support the creators, stores and publishers we’re not yet willing to pull the plug on drawing the line at print awards. Part of the reason why awards are given out is so that people will go out and buy and read that book, and the increase in sales will hopefully get the publisher to invest in further work from the creator.

    The “Canada Reads” contest, for example, exists to raise awareness of Canadian authors and to sell books. I don’t see that as being a negative. It helps promote Canadian authors – and if you choose to buy and read that book on your ipad you are still investing in the creator in some way. And if it isn’t available for purchase that way (like Essex County is not), you go and get the print version.

    If print dies, then we become digital comics awards.

    As for current print formats, we always go with the format by which the work was originally presented to the public – be it a traditional comic, an album or graphic novel, or serialization in an anthology project.

  19. DHARBIN! Post author

    Well again–I don’t think I disagree with you, really at all. And different people have different needs–another person could make a perfectly sensible case for the diametric opposite of my entire idea of comics awards. But allow me to put this bee in your bonnet, for the next time you’re in a meeting talking about this sort of thing–

    WHAT IF you left publication format completely out of it? So–in the case of the Shusters–any work, regardless of print/web/mobile/minicomic/whatever, made by a Canadian was eligible for a small set of awards? You could even still subdivide based on the particular job a person was doing, but that way someone like Kate Beaton and Darwyn Cooke would be considered as equals in terms of eligibility.

    PLUS in terms of audience and the cultural exposure of your award, treating non-print and print comics as equal in terms of their implied value would be a very progressive step, one that I bet would garner a lot of positive attention from people who read and/or make webcomics. Although for sure you’d probably get some negative attention too. People in the print world are awfully nervous about the internet.

  20. Kevin Boyd

    Sure, definitely something to consider and I’m sure we’ll get back to the debate in July once we’ve finished handing out the awards.

    But the thing about eliminating delivery system as a consideration also takes away from another central issue that guides the foundation behind the awards — we are primarily awards that honour methods of longer-form sequential story-telling such as those done by the man for whom the awards are named after. Doug Wright was a strip and gag cartoonist such as what you might find in your newspaper or on a webcomic. Shuster told adventure narratives. While we may don’t think adventure is key, narrative is.

    For example, Outstanding Artist is for a person who illustrates/interprets visually someone else’s story idea or script. Outstanding Cartoonist is for a creator that writes and draws their own stories. A cartoonist can’t be nominated purely for their art, we believe there is something inherently different – it is our “Best Picture” Award. But all of our nominees are essentially for narrative comics, not strip or gag cartoons, EXCEPT webcomics.

    Right that single webcomics award with it’s own set of criteria that encompasses all types of comics published on the web, and I think it’s a great list and we specifically looked for people that were making effective use of the medium, not just putting their comics online for free.

    If we were to dissolve that barrier – the storytelling nature of our other awards would work as a negative criteria against people like Kate Beaton who tell the online equivalent of the print newspaper strip because we do not include or have any plans to include print newspaper strips at the Joe Shuster Awards.

    If we were to erase the print/digital barrier at the Joe Shuster Awards and eliminate the webcomics award as it stand to include those creators in the main categories – then those webcomics creators who produce gag/strip cartoons that are not part of a longer narrative don’t get recognized at all. So you would never see Kate Beaton competing directly with Darwyn Cooke unless Kate decided to tell a narrative longer than a couple of panels in length.

  21. Eric

    Just to clarify a few things — I’m just fine with snobbery being a major part of the awards process. Elitism, is, after all, ostensibly the point.

    You say, “The current state of comics awards perpetuate a cult-of-personality fan culture that celebrates flash over substance.” I’d argue that this is probably true of most industry awards — music, movies, literature, fashion, etc.

    But again, I don’t think this runs contrary to the real point of most industry awards, which is to sell things.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve never liked the concept of awards in general, or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Marshall McLuhan too much lately, but I think that before we get into the ins and outs of how specific awards are doled out, we should consider the basic concept of awards ceremonies and genuinely question why we need them.

    Do they accomplish anything beyond back-patting and sales? And if so, are back-patting and sales a good enough reason to have them? Do awards ceremonies exist because the arts are a career without the potential for promotion? Or because they’re given in mediums that foster celebrity? Or because we value the arts as occupying a different place in our culture than other careers (My dad worked in a plant that made pipe fittings for massive plumbing projects [space shuttles, NYC sewers, aircraft carriers]. Knowing my dad and his work ethic, I have no doubt that he was good at what he did. But he was never nominated for any awards within the pipe-fitting industry, because they didn’t have them).

    If awards are simply given on merit, on the basis of who produced the best art, then the jury system mostly works (if we gloss over the huge questions of jury selection, and subjective questions of artistic worth — I would like for the jury to write briefings supporting their decisions like Supreme Court justices).

    But industry awards like the Eisners, Harveys, Oscars, Grammys, etc., are primarily commercial. If you’ve produced the world’s greatest piece of art in mini-comic form, guess what? You’re not getting nominated. Because you don’t have a commercial product. The Oscars keep one slot open for an independent best picture, like Winter’s Bone this year, but by-and-large “Best Picture” means “Best Picture that Most Americans Were Exposed to Or Will Be Exposed to in Their Local Theatres.”

    …Just as “Best Comic” at the Eisner’s means “Best Comic That You Could Find on the Shelf at Barnes & Noble,” and because of the commercial goal of the awards, it always will.

    You say: “Imagine awarding David Mazzucchelli “Best Penciller” for Asterios Polyp.”

    Better yet, imagine awarding him Best Letterer! Oh wait, you don’t have to: http://www.harveyawards.org/awards_current.html

  22. DHARBIN! Post author

    Hm, I think NOW I disagree with you (albeit politely–I really enjoy this kind of discussion of organizational semantics). Your implied definition of webcomics as being gag or “online newspaper strips” is I think pretty far from the mark. There are a lot of gag online comics or what amounts to a strip kind of vibe, but there are just as many high quality, nuanced, well-told stories–even ADVENTURES stories. Just off the top of my head comes Evan Dahm (Rice Boy, Order of Tales, http://www.rice-boy.com), Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie, http://www.octopuspie.com), and Aaron Diaz (Dresden Codak, http://www.dresdencodak.com). Literally the first three names which sprang unbidden to my typing fingers. All doing high-quality work that’s informed by the tradition and history of comics, and all expanding that tradition into new territory and… dare I say it? New “distribution formats.”

    I think in general the line between web and print is based around pixels more than any true division. To relegate comics published online to an entirely different category seems short-sighted at best, downright wrong at worst. That extends to other digital publishing formats–if Marvel did a mobile only comic this year, say a stand-alone Iron Man story released exclusively through its mobile app, and said story was created by Canadian creators, and the story was really great, would they be eligible for an Outstanding Artist/Artist Team Shuster, or would they have to settle for Outstanding Webcomics Team?

    I’d respectfully suggest that, going forward, this multiplicity of formats is only going to expand, further complicating a print/digital divide.

  23. Kevin Boyd

    As an aside, I want to thank you as I’m really enjoying this. My apologies for the occasional rushed response with awkward phrasing and the occasional extra or missing word.

    We’ve been thinking about restructing our webcomics award anyway after this year, and you’ve raised some great points.

  24. DHARBIN! Post author

    Yes! I’m enjoying this too–like I say I enjoy talk about categories, as an organizational freak. Functionally, I think categories are usually just a way to split groups apart, but philosophically I enjoy considering them.

  25. Kevin Boyd

    I never said that my definition of webcomics was that they were all gag/strip cartoons. I used your example of Kate, as she would be someone who would not benefit from such a merge. Others would definitely benefit, for example, Alex Fellow’s Spain and Morrocco IS a narrative webcomic. Salgood Sam’s Dream Life is a narrative webcomic. Emily Carroll’s His Face all Red (and her other comics) are mostly narrative webcomics. Although I will state that the majority of the webcomics we reviewed done by Canadians were of the strip/gag type and don’t include a narrative structure.

    In your example of a Marvel digital comic (not printed), right now it would only be considered in the webcomics category, not in the print categories.

  26. DHARBIN! Post author

    But when Kate’s book comes out this fall from Drawn & Quarterly, would it then be considered for “regular” awards, as opposed to the web-only awards? Same material, essentially. I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m just trying to point out how much crossover there is–and how much more there will be going forward–between what used to be very different worlds, but aren’t so different any longer.

  27. Kevin Boyd

    I do agree that comics are moving into new territory and it’s very exciting to see things changing. It goes back to economics defining our definitions (for now). But erasing the line means abandoning those still dependent on the print system like our retailers. I know some people are okay with that, but I’m hesitant to do so personally.

    Darwyn Cooke says he is planning on doing his next project exclusively online for the iPad, and I know others are considering similar moves. The cool thing about the digital platforms is that your are no longer bound by traditional effects and you can add special effects such as sound, music and limited animation.

  28. DHARBIN! Post author

    Well if you read those strips I did on the Wrights, I’d say that part of what I liked so much about them was that they were WAY more about the culture–specifically, in their case, Canadian comics culture–and the artform than in commerce. Although I DID buy two Pascal Girard books afterwards in the lobby, where the Beguiling’s Peter Birkemoe was cleverly perched. But I didn’t exactly have to wait in a long line of clamoring shoppers.

    Speaking as someone who sent his books in–heck, I OVERNIGHTED them because I was worried I’d miss the deadline–I definitely can say I, as a creator, can’t miss the positive boost getting an Eisner would be to my career/sales/visiblity/whatever. But I also think it’s the least interesting motivation. I’d benefit from getting an Eisner award, but I really WANT a Wright award.

  29. Kevin Boyd

    re: Kate’s book — yes if it’s new material and in narrative form. No if it is a collected edition of existing strips she published online. If it’s a new cover it could technically be considered for the Cover Artist award, and if she colours the strips that might be considered for colourist.

    A current example is the Immonens’ excellent Moving Pictures, which was nominated for the webcomics award in 2009, but was not considered new for the print awards for 2010 as it was already recognized as being published online first. Stuart did redraw and adjust it for print, but it was an online work now represented in a new format.

    A print example would be a French book translated into English. We consider the French book eligible, and the English one a reprint.

  30. Eric

    Exactly. There’s an incredible difference between, “Hey, an award, validation from my peers,” and “Hey, an award, I will make more money now.” But when we speak of the Eisners, we’re talking about industry awards, and I doubt they’ll give up the commercial aspect to pursue artistic integrity. They’ve found a compromise, and compromises are hard to break away from.

    I think you’d have better luck advocating for a new award, built from the foundation up to have artist/art-centric goals and infrastructure, than to call for changes to the Eisner or Harvey system.

    What are the Ignatz Awards like? I hardly ever read coverage of those.

  31. Patrick

    “But industry awards like the Eisners, Harveys, Oscars, Grammys, etc., are primarily commercial. If you’ve produced the world’s greatest piece of art in mini-comic form, guess what? You’re not getting nominated. Because you don’t have a commercial product. The Oscars keep one slot open for an independent best picture, like Winter’s Bone this year, but by-and-large “Best Picture” means “Best Picture that Most Americans Were Exposed to Or Will Be Exposed to in Their Local Theatres.” ”

    You’re not wrong, but I think you could say that the problems there are exacerbated with a comics award compared to something like the Oscars due to the fact that the comics marketplace is much narrower/aimed a very specific audience (one in which i’d argue quality means a HELL of a lot less in terms of exposure).

    I mean, looking at the 10 picks for the 2011 Best Picture Oscar, do I think they’re all worthy? Probably not, but I’d certainly say they’re much more deserving of that nod than the vast majority of things I’m seeing on that Eisner list.

  32. DHARBIN! Post author

    I’d like to steer clear of qualitative judgments on the works being considered if possible. I think it’s perfectly healthy to disagree with specific works that get nominated or awarded, that’s natural unless you have the most median tastes in all the world.

  33. Patrick

    Sure, I didn’t really want to get too specific, just think it’s an important thing to look at when you compare awards across these mediums.

  34. DHARBIN! Post author

    Kevin I’m surprised a little to see you stick so hard to the “narrative only” model of comics, insofar as what is eligible for your main suite of awards. I think that’s a litmus that is highly malleable, especially when you get into more avant garde work that might not always be particularly narrative. And a lot of comics, print or web, that seem essentially gag oriented have narrative elements, and vice versa. There’s so much interplay between those things, it… it just seems strange to cut them out because of “narrative.” Johnny Wander is a webcomic that has narrative elements. Ditto the Rice Boy and Octopus Pie from earlier. Of course, they’re not by Canadians, but they could be.

    I guess I just feel like you’re leaving an enormous swath of comics behind like that. Same for newspaper strips–I’ve always found that exclusion, by pretty much all the major awards, to be strangely limiting. A strip like Cul de Sac, one of the most lauded newspaper comics in years, by someone who is active in the “regular” comics industry, attends conventions, is adored by creators as a cartoonist’s cartoonist, is packed with narrative elements, is published regularly in book form by a major publisher, is sold in comics shops, etc etc. Why make distinctions, especially in a world as small as ours? Why shouldn’t newspaper comics and comic book comics and online comics and iPad comics and whatever else be included in an award that “honours and raises the awareness of Canadians that create, publish and sell comics, graphic novels and webcomics.”

    I guess I would lump all these in together as “comics” and would say with respect that I think Joe Shuster and Doug Wright are part of the same rich tradition of Canadian comics-making, and that their works, while different are all “comics.”

  35. Kevin Boyd

    There are very few non-narrative comic books and graphic novel comics published these days, and if a nominating committee came forward and felt that one should be in the top selections I would probably support it, but there is a reason why the Wrights have the Pigskin Peters award to honour comics that don’t quite fit that traditional narrative structure. I think it is an important distinction that drives the philosophy behind comic book/graphic novels. I guess by doing so we embrace that same limiting tradition that informs the other comics awards.

    But I’m not against the idea of doing a gag/strip cartooning award that includes newspaper and webcomics equally, but I just can’t see our group every agreeing that those strips should be lumped in the same judging categories as traditional graphic novels and comic books.

  36. DHARBIN! Post author

    Well, my point is more about your exclusion of webcomics. And by extension, newspaper comics, comics that aren’t part of a kind of 1998 idea of publishing, etc. Not so much whether or not webcomics and newspaper comics should be treated equally–just that all of these are comics and are part of the same industry, often done by the very same people. And, I think, should be considered together whenever possible. I think it makes for a richer, healthier community, rather than one segmented into its several withering little branches.

    I mean, I myself, when given the choice, generally prefer to read comics in print. But the reality is that more comics, and increasingly better and/or more popular comics, are being done digitally than in print, and the fact that our industry has been so slow to catch up to this reality makes me… worried, I guess? It seems obvious to me, not only as someone who makes comics and publishes them both in print and online, but as someone who ran a prominent shop for awhile and was one of the organizers of a big convention. It’s just an obvious trend to me.

  37. Kevin Boyd

    As you know, the general thinking of most folks in comics and graphic novels stopped around 1998… well, I’d say more like 2004… but that’s just splitting hairs, lol…

    For now, we’re segmented at the JSA’s, but it’s not like we are ignoring webcomics – we do have the webcomics award and a lot of attention has been paid to it each year and as I said before, I think this year’s nominee list stands as a testament to the great work that is out there being done by Canadians like Kate, Karl Kerschl, Emily Carroll, Simon Roy, Ed Brisson, Salgood Sam, Connor Willumsen, and Attila Adorjany.

    Way back I mentioned that we drew a line to support print publishing — which as a reader I also prefer. As a comics history guy I fear without proper archiving a lot of the great (and even not-so-great) webcomics that are out there will be lost as time goes by. They are a lot more transitory than one would like.

    There is also a bit of “wild, wild west” feel out there when it comes to webcomics because anyone and everyone can make them and there’s no central webcomics catalog (no Previews equivalent) that one can identify what is out there and who is doing what and where they are from (a big problem when one is doing a nationalistic award), and it is often a trick to decipher when the comics were first posted.

    I am also a con person. I’ve been organizing comic cons since 2003… and I do see that trend away from print towards webcomics in some quarters, but it’s not a progressive movement, it’s helter-skelter… mainly because webcomics are generally not financially viable unless you start merchandising or doing print compilations for people to buy.

    There’s also a raw, undefinable nature to the entire situation. With the rise of tablets it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that comics are ideally suited to take advantage of the format, but people are still trying to figure out what to do and how to do it, and even more importantly, how to make enough to keep on doing it. Which is why I (think I) mentioned the need for an “iTunes for comics” equivalent, a central hub for accessing what’s out there, where comics retailers can become a part of the process as well… selling site access cards, credits, merchandise, etc.

    And I think those reasons, among others, are stalling the embracing of the delivery system as a fully fledged medium of expression — we’re all still trying to figure it out, and until someone does, it’s actually easier for awards programs to stick to their traditional guns.

  38. Ian Boothby

    I’ve won an Eisner in the past and am up for a couple this year. My wife has won the Einser and the Harvey. Like most awards the winning really has very little impact on your career, the nominations on the other hand are a nice way to get people to check out your work. That’s pretty much it. I don’t think people ever really remember who won these things.
    The Shusters have a real sweetness to them to me. Maybe that’s because I was at the first one with the Shuster family who were genuinely touched by them. The Eisners feel like a genuine celebration of a wide range of comics, and in a con that seems to be pushing comics more and more to the sidelines it already feels refreshing (for the first two hours).
    Really enjoyed the comic strips!

  39. DHARBIN! Post author

    Hi Ian–thanks for the nice word on the strips! I agree with you, as far as “that’s pretty much it.” The Eisners are good at being “The Eisners”, being an award that covers all of comics and exposes your work to new readers, but I wish they were more! I’m sure there are exceptions, but most of the people I know who who attend the ceremony are either covering it, or work for a nominated publisher, or are nominated themselves. And all of them treat it like a grueling boot camp to endure in order to get to the end.

    It’s not that I think the Eisners are BAD, it’s that I wish they were GREAT.

  40. gorillamydreamz

    Love the discussion. And especially love how respectful has been even with differing views.

    I just had two thoughts to toss out Dustin.

    I think it’s incorrect to categorize Dave Kellet making his book available for free as merely an effort to use the the rules to pimp for an award. The dude was nominated and simply took steps to make the work as available to voters as he could. That is sound thinking and a far cry from someone actively pandering for an award (“active pandering” is my choice of words, not your own. I want to illustrate what I picture as actively seeking out the win – much like ads in Variety at Oscar time).

    I am talented artist but I also work in a business that is helped by people seeing my work. Anything that helps them see that work is a bonus. I can’t help but feel that some of your own bias leads you to view the free book offer as something a touch suspect, though you respect from a straight business stand-point.

    The other point that gave me pause was in one of your responses to Eric – You categorized online voting as “too easy a gimmick”. Again, I think that is revealing of your personal bias. Let’s face it, the simplest way to reach the maximum number of eligible voters is through the web. End of story. The fact that web creators are more adept at reaching a web-based fan base is intrinsic to the fact that they are already reaching that fan-base every day or week so extending that to voters is a smaller leap for them. It may create an advantage for them but any awards system is subject to potential abuse. One could argue the Wrights are decided by too small a group to have the scope needed to properly recognize and consider all the truly deserving artists out there.

    My own bias is reflected in these concerns. I prefer not to punish creators who are savvy about how they do business. A creator with business smarts is no less a creator for it.

  41. DHARBIN! Post author

    Well I agree and disagree–I definitely agree that Dave Kellett is doing nothing wrong by making the book available to everyone free, pointing out that many of his readers are probably eligible to vote and didn’t know it, etc.

    And I agree that online voting, or really pretty much ANYthing online is a much better way to reach the most possible people.

    BUT my points, both in terms of being able to increase your chances of winning an award by alerting your audience to their ability to affect the outcome, and in terms of online voting being essentially a de facto popularity contest, are about the importance and gravitas of an award like the Eisners. I think having an online voting component, and thus the real or perceived idea that the award is a popularity contest, damages the credibility of the awards.

    The free book thing is only diminishing in terms of it being a nod to online voting. I think it’s VERY savvy, and a move a lot of traditional print creators might never have thought of. My objection isn’t to that, as much as it being a symptom of online voting for what’s essentially the most important industry award in the American awards system.

    What is it you think my bias is, Gorillamydreamz? I have lots of biases, but I’m not sure which one you’re detecting here.

  42. Eric

    Here’s a point I wished to make earlier, which might correspond with, or might not, Dustin’s views on the subject:

    “I want to illustrate what I picture as actively seeking out the win – much like ads in Variety at Oscar time.”

    The problem with these ads, and Kellett’s free release of the book, isn’t that they’re really pandering, but they’re saying, “I’m taking this action to ask you to please consider me, because otherwise you probably won’t, and you’ll just pick whatever pretty face you’re familiar with instead,”

    I think this is what drove Melissa Leo’s campaign for Best Supporting Actress last year, for instance. And I think that Kellett, without releasing the book for free, and the resulting publicity, might not have the exposure needed to win. I doubt that every Academy member watches every movie before deciding their vote, I know that every Eisner voter didn’t read everything, and I suspect that somewhere around 99% of Americans are surprised by most names on the ballot whenever they do turn out to vote.

    In a popular vote where the most widely exposed candidates win, you essentially reify the commercially successful works (usually ones backed by larger companies with better marketing departments), the celebrity creators (who work for the larger companies), and the prevailing trends in comics (which have been guided by the industry).

    Without some sort of giveaway or gimmick, the self-published and small press don’t stand a chance.

  43. gorillamydreamz

    Thanks Eric. I don’t associate Kellet’s free release with an actor’s ad in variety. One is saying “Had a chance to look at this?” Another is saying for “God’s sake, vote for me!”

    But I agree with your comments about the industry in general. You’re right. No business, self-publishing, small press or otherwise, stands a chance with taking advantage of opportunities. Kellet simply took an opportunity to even the odds.

    I appreciate your comments on my points as well, Dustin. I guess I was seeing what you earlier mentiond – a leaning toward preferring the artistic end of comics. I can’t blame you when I have similar sentiments. The choice of words that prompted my comments seemed to dismiss the online voting and free PDF as, essentially, manipulation. I think my use of the term “bias” over-personalized my comments. For that I apologize.

    The truth is you’re right, awards themselves are problematic. To me, all awards are a popularity contest in one way or another.

    So I live with it from that perspective and, try to support any attempts to celebrate our industry and art form. I suspect the amount of gravitas and credibility associated with each award varies from person to person, depending on how those awards line up with their preferences and opinions.

    If one attempts to reach the widest voting audience, you can be accused of running a popularity contest. If one goes for a small, juried awards, you can get accused of being elitist and insular.

    I truly believe if you’re going to create an awards, the best you can do is try to create a format and selection process that embraces and affirms the aspects of the comics you wish to celebrate. Comics cover a wide range of creation. And if you want to open it up to a lot of people, you’re choices are pretty limited. It all pales before the internet.

    Thanks again for hosting such a great chat! :)

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