This is a series of comics I did in 2011 for tcj.com, the Comics Journal’s online arm. I went to Canada for TCAF, attended the Wright Awards, and then made 15 little comics about it, which were originally published in groups of three every day for 5 days as part of TCJ’s “Cartoonist Diaries” series.

I’m posting them now because, well, I can. I never did in 2011 because there’s a certain amount of time you shouldn’t do that sort of thing when you do something on commission like that. But more importantly, I’m posting them now because last week the 2012 nominations for the Eisner Awards came out, and I have thoughts about them I’d like to share with you, Beleagured Bedouins Of The Information Superhighway/Desert.

I’ll skip any sort of editorializing on the quality of this year’s Eisner nominations, other than to say that 1) at first they seemed like the best in years, covering a wide swath of publishers and genres, with far less concentration of mainstream superhero comics than in the past; and 2) the fact that Jaime Hernandez didn’t get nominated for anything seems as egregious as ever, but much moreso in that his recent stories in Love and Rockets have garnered possibly the most critical acclaim of anything he’s ever done, which is saying something. But I haven’t even read them yet, so any opprobrium I tried to heap on the judges for that would be pretty hypocritical.

One thing I’m certain of is that, no matter their decisions, the slate of judges that did the nominations this year is better than normal, including an actual cartoonist (a surprising rarity), a prominent comics journalist (one of the better ones, too), and a prominent retailer.

I have a lot of problems with the Eisners, which are only slightly better than the Harveys, which are literally the worst. But I think I can whittle that list down to three items, for brevity’s sake:

1) THE BLOAT. The Eisners are the most prestigious, well-known, and coveted award in comics, but the ceremony itself is a famous giant bore that takes place as part of the yearly Comic-Con International in San Diego, a wildly expensive and difficult event to make it to, even if you’ve been nominated for an award. I feel like I hear more about how awful it is trying to luck into a hotel room than I do about the convention itself.

So, while I’ve never been to the actual Eisners ceremony, by all accounts it takes around 4-5 hours, and half the time whoever wins isn’t even there. People make speeches that other people can’t hear because nearby Peter David is cracking jokes or the Comics Alliance crew is making a little funny movie or whatever. Plus anyway, how good are those speeches, especially when they’re made by someone else, usually the recipient’s publisher, who’s at the con selling books and thus could afford to come?

But by THE BLOAT, I mean less the ceremony–although definitely the ceremony–and more the awards themselves. There are something like 27 different individual awards this year, which I hear is actually DOWN from last year! TWENTY-SEVEN!! This is seems like such an obvious case of overkill, but people just shrug and say “well the letterers will get mad if they don’t get an award”. Will they? Maybe. I’m a letterer, and I wouldn’t. Heck, I’m a good letterer, and I still think it’s a waste to have a “Best Letterer” category. But that’s another post right there, isn’t it?

I’ll get to what I think an appropriate number of awards is below, but for now, perhaps you can agree with me that 27 seems like quite a lot. The Eisners get compared to the Oscars a lot, but let’s face it: comparing one mediocre, bloated program with another isn’t much of an argument. “Other things aren’t that good, so why should I be?”

2) THE JUDGES. Or rather, “the judging.” Because it’s rude to pick on particular people for doing the best they can–I’m sure it’s pretty tough to read one billion comics for three days and come to some sort of consensus with 5 other people, half of whom are probably strangers. But the problem isn’t with the judges themselves, it’s the manner in which they’re chosen. The organizers seem to go out of their way to INSIST there’s a librarian in there every year, a retailer or two, and for sure a member of the Comic-Con staff. Then there’s someone who ran an organization once, someone who was an editor in the 90’s, and if there’s room they might find someone who actually makes comics. Am I alone in thinking this is completely backwards? The 2011 slate of judges was probably the worst I can remember, just a huge fart-noise of a list of people qualified to pick the very best in a year of comics.

It’s not that I think the only people who can comment intelligently on what makes a good comic are people who make comics. But I think if I were looking for that kind of person, that’s where I would start. Feeling compelled to include librarians and retailers is great from a political angle I guess, but this isn’t 2001 anymore, and it’s no longer so incumbent upon us all to try to jam comics into libraries at every step. The “comics are viable art/literature” campaign seems to have worked, we can relax a little bit! I’m not saying don’t include librarians and retailers, but at the very least, include a couple of people who’re familiar firsthand with the actual technical work of making comics.

Here’s another way to put it: stocking your group of judges with people who are first and foremost in the business of selling, distributing, and promoting comics puts your priorities there, with comics as commodity over artform.

3) CALCIFICATION. The big big big problem with the Eisner Awards, probably bigger than any of the others I’ve listed here, is the Eisners have been around long enough to attain that quality of being too heavy to move anymore. Everyone complains about the Eisners, everyone disagrees with them, which is natural in any kind of qualitative, subjective award. But when you start talking about how to change them, the conversation inevitably turns to “well we all know that won’t happen” or “yeah but people will complain if there’s not an award for _____”. And that’s natural too probably. It’s the same with anything that tries to serve as large an audience as the Eisners do. Someone’s always going to be grumpy, me in this case.

But are those reasons not to change something? Shouldn’t the preeminent industry award carry some true cachet? Some thrill other than “now I can put “Eisner-winning” in front of my name and hopefully sell more books”? Shouldn’t an award push an artform forward, define the leading edge of that form, rather than stooping to gladhand each balkanized sector each year?

I would suggest that part of the problem here is that for years and years–certainly as long as I can remember–the organization of the Eisners has been controlled by Jackie Estrada. I haven’t met Jackie, nor do I have direct knowledge of what she goes through to run the nominations and voting and all that. I’m sure it’s a Herculean effort. But working hard for a so-so result doesn’t make you Hercules. I remember asking someone a few years ago how I could become an Eisner judge–my early ideas about changing them being oriented in that direction–and they informed me that the most sure way not to be chosen was to ask Jackie directly.

And I thought, “really?” And then I thought, “chosen?” It was the first time it occurred to me that the Eisner judges might just be sort of chosen willy-nilly, possibly by a single person. Which perhaps wouldn’t seem as weird if it were a person who I agreed with more often, sure, but even so.  EDIT: I removed some lines I had originally posted regarding Estrada’s support of some grody statements Frank Miller made in a famously stupid post; her political ideas (or mine) don’t have anything to do with what I’m talking about, beyond just “hmm that person isn’t like me, throw her out!” Tom Spurgeon pointed this out, and he is correct.

My point: if there’s ever going to be any meaningful change in how the Eisners are run, it will probably be easiest if Jackie Estrada steps down and lets a new face take over.

BUT what would a new Eisners look like? Well, honestly, that isn’t going to happen. That ship has sailed, I’m pretty sure. See how easy it is to throw up your hands and say “it’s never going to get better, why worry about it?” But perhaps if there were a nice new awards program out there–something without all that baggage, something that could amplify and promote the very best there is in comics?

So here, I will propose one! Why not? If you like it, feel free to copy it, just take it all, I think it makes sense.

1) MAKE IT MEANINGFUL. First and foremost, the award should be IMPORTANT. It should carry the weight and gravitas and splendor of being the ABSOLUTE BEST. An important award isn’t about the recipient, it’s about the award itself, it’s about the massive body of work which the award represents the tiny apogee of. It’s about all those who’ve won the award in the past–last of all it’s about who wins next. The award should be special, above the fray, at a remove from the muddy popularity contests we have every day. Every time I get an email exhorting me to vote for someone for something, part of me dies. In an important, vital creative medium, honoring our best should be at the VERY least, special.

With that in mind, I’d name my fictional award The JACK KIRBY AWARD For Excellence In Comics, shortened to “The Kirby.” There were Kirby Awards back in the day, but they went defunct. Who in comics is deserving of more recognition and veneration than Jack Kirby? I ask this as the new Avengers movie is about to open, featuring a bunch of characters Kirby created or co-created, and for which presumably his heirs will receive… nothing? Certainly not much. Jack Kirby stands as the best of the superhero genre of comics, not to mention being enormously influential and inspirational to a majority of “art” cartoonists as well. He’s a titan! Perfect for award-naming.

2) REMOVE VOTING. I’m sorry, but I think all this voting is for schmucks. You get nominated for something, presumably because you did a good job making it, crafting it, slaving away; but then it turns into, “who’s best at energizing their web audience”. Which is not a measure of quality, it’s a measure of popularity, of marketing, of skill at exerting force in the right places for maximum benefit. It’s not about art.

“But but but! If it’s not voted on, then it’s just an oligarchy deciding what’s best and that’s not FAIR!” Yes that’s true, you’re right. But what’s the opposite of “oligarchy”? Because that’s what’s happening now. Voting just leads to anomalous results–look at the Harveys! Ostensibly it’s voted on by “creators”, but in practice it’s practically anybody who’s ever done something besides merely read a comic. Did you post a comic one time on your Flickr? Then you probably count as having done a webcomic. Did you work part time at a comics shop or volunteer recently at a convention? Come on in!

Which isn’t bad per se, but the problem with limitations is that they’re useless if they don’t actually limit. You might as well just open it up to everyone and save yourself having to figure it out. Or just cut out the whole voting thing as a matter of course, and spend that mountain of time and energy you just saved carefully sculpting the process by which you select your judges, so that the pedigree of the award remains intact even when they occasionally choose things that a majority of people might disagree with. Heck, isn’t that what you WANT from an award? Don’t you WANT it to surprise you occasionally? Don’t you WANT it to reveal a secret genius out there somewhere that might not be a web-adroit self-promoter with a lot of moxie? That maybe is just making really, really good art?

Which brings me to:

3) TWO-TIERED JUDGING. Whatever the result of the judging is, you want it to be, if not uncontroversial, then at least above reproach. But you also want to select judges that will reflect the gravity and importance of the award, so you can’t just go out and willy-nilly pick some dummies to decide things. Any small group of people making any decision is going to be controversial to someone, so just don’t worry about it. Concentrate instead on due-diligence, choose your judges very carefully, then let them do whatever they want with a minimum of instruction.

First, select a group of trustees. Let’s say five, although it could be 7 or 9 or whatever. Odd numbers are better. These trustees will select the actual judges themselves, which provides a buffer between you and the eventual decision, which is good for trust. Make sure the trustees are serious people, talk to them about their ideas about things, and make sure they’ll take it seriously. Then contract them to serve for a period of 3 years, after which you’ll replace them with another serious, smart person. If someone decides to leave early, that’s fine–it behooves you to stagger those terms, both for continuity and so there’s not a sense of the group being a monolith.

If I were running things, I would make that group, the group of judge-namers, all comics critics or journalists. And I mean the good ones, not just somebody who writes reviews for Newsarama or something. You accomplish two things by limiting this group to critics: a) you’re dealing with people who are VERY dialed into what’s going on in comics, both on critical and popular levels. People who care about comics but don’t have a direct stake in things often; people who can intelligently choose judges that are representative of the best of comics.

Here’s who I would choose, if I were starting these awards tomorrow:

–Christopher Butcher, Festival Director of TCAF, blogger, retailer
–Deb Aoki, manga critic at About.com, cartoonist
–Brigid Alverson, journalist, Robot6 and others
–Tom Spurgeon, journalist, comicsreporter.com
–David Brothers, blogger, 4thletter.net, comicsalliance.com

Those are five people who between them know just about everything in comics. They’re all near the top of things in terms of respect and quality from their peers and the creative community, and have the kind of individual (and in this case, collective) cachet that I think their decisions on judges would command grudging respect from most people, even if they had strong disagreements.

Also, may I point out how easy it was to build a list of 5 smart, capable, influential comics writers that diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, nationality, and sexuality? It happened practically by accident. I only bring it up because I PASSIONATELY believe diversity in this kind of thing is of paramount importance. When you talk about what the people are doing, make sure you look like the people. And not just the people you are, the people you want. If you want more women reading comics, hire more women to make comics, talk about comics, etc. It’s not brain surgery!

Okay, Second: now that you’ve picked your semi-permanent judge-picking body, have them pick judges. Don’t tell anyone at the time of course–you don’t want people canvassing your judges. But when they’re announced, along with the winners, it should be an honor to have been selected as a judge. It should be a coveted position–the past judges should value their status as much as past winners. That’s just what I think.

For my money, judges should come from a broad mix, but should focus first and foremost on people who make comics. You’ve included your people-who-talk-about-comics class at the top of your pyramid–but no one knows the technical ins and outs of cartooning like other cartoonists. This is just my personal preference though–there’s nothing to say that you can’t have a critic as a judge too. For instance I think critic Joe “Jog” McCullough would be a great judge. But what about someone like Jordan Crane? You see what I mean? I think we do ourselves a disservice when, like the Eisners, we pick judges from the fringes of the comics industry, rather than its center. “I am a person who works on the board for the big convention that hosts the Eisners, therefore I’m qualified to be one of 6 people deciding What’s Best In Comics Right Now.” It just doesn’t compute for me.

Here’s a sample slate of dream judges I might put together for my first year. Note that I’m going for the top. Of course, not everyone will have the time or interest, so you start early. Another reason to make it a big deal to be picked–you want the BEST.

1) Joe McCullough
2) Kelly Sue DeConnick
3) Gilbert Hernandez
4) Stan Sakai
5) Stuart Immonen

There you have a cross section of people who make or discuss comics. I might sub in a retailer in there somewhere, someone knowledgeable in that way about some of the ins and outs of comics that an actual cartoonist might not be aware of. But whatever–that list would obviously change every year. The important thing is to be somewhat representative; for instance, I don’t read superhero comics, so I had to go out of my way to pick people who I felt were knowledgeable about that sector of things, otherwise my own biases might cut out a massive swath of comics. And there are other sectors too that need representing; YA comics, webcomics, digital comics, whatever. So you have to make reasonable decisions that you think best serve your goals.

The important thing too is to get smart people who understand what they’re there for. Your sole instruction to them should be to consider the works and creators in terms of excellence, accomplishment, diversity, and overall importance. You’re not picking the most popular thing, you’re picking the best of an entire medium; which sometimes is pretty complex.

With your judges together–again, I think five’s a good number–they’ll need to judge something. People/publishers can submit works up to a specific cutoff date, 6 copies of each (1 for each judge and one for the award archives/backup) to be considered. Judges will have the ability to include nominees outside of this group at their discretion. For instance, if Chris Onstad doesn’t send in… his webcomic for consideration, but a judge thinks it qualifies as one of the best things of the year in one of the award categories, well then that judge can stick it in there.

After the submission deadline, each judge gets mailed a big old box with one of everything in it, and he/she has a certain time period to read everything, combine that reading with his/her own regular reading, and come up with 3 individual nominees in each category. This would happen individually, with collusion/communication between the judges being prohibited. The list of nominations would be, barring approval by the trustees for stuff like eligibility, etc., the full list of nominees. So as many as 15 nominees per category, but very likely fewer than that, especially if there were years with strong standout works–obviously if two judges picked the same work or creator, they would only be nominated once.

This list would be publicized, with accolades heaped on the nominees or whatever. Then between that time and the actual ceremony, the judges would meet in person and pick the winners by consensus. Say three days in a hotel meeting room, basically making their cases, discussing, coming to hard decisions, etc. It would be hard, I’m guessing, but maybe it should be. Provoking a deeper look at what makes these works successful or not, the landscape into which they were delivered, and their effect on an audience would be valuable in deciding what was “the best” in a subjective medium. I’m guessing though–in comics we only have voting generally, so all we know lately is “what does the Internet like best”?

4) AS FEW AWARDS AS POSSIBLE. The more you subdivide, the less value each will have. Let’s get out of the habit of trying to cover every base, appease every hurt feeling, etc. You pick the fewest possible representative prizes, which grants each an individual importance that enlarges all of them, and your award in general, and by extension the recipients, audience, all of it. You make things IMPORTANT! Here’s what I would do:

–Best Continuing Series (applies to periodicals, webcomics, digital, whatever)
–Best Short Work (applies to single print issues, short webcomics, minicomics, etc.)
–Best New Work (applies to new graphic novels, series, etc., digital or print)
–Best Archival Project (any reprint)
–Best Writer
–Best Artist
–Best Cartoonist (for work created by a single person)
–Talent Deserving Wider Recognition

That’s just 8. It’s not a bad list, although it’s not perfect yet. I can’t figure out what I’d change, but I’m trying hard to straddle the line between print and digital, because I think that line is only going to become more meaningless, and artistic awards should address the state of the art, if not a hair beyond it, rather than waiting 10 years to catch up. Let’s face it guys: MOST PEOPLE WHO READ COMICS READ THEM ONLINE. In terms of numbers, leaving those people out is super dumb. The muddiest of my categories is “Best New Work” which originally I had as “Best Collected Edition”, then “Best Book”, then whatever. Like, if From Hell came out next year, what would that go under? A serialized book that reads best collected into a single edition? There’s always going to be problems, but this is just a suggested list.

Note what’s NOT on this list: pencilling, inking, colorists, letterers, journalism, genre-based, nationality-based, all that. All these, I think, are an enormous waste of time. Coloring and lettering are technical, just like inking–they’re subdisciplines. Bryan Lee O’Malley lettered Scott Pilgrim himself, should he be nominated as Best Letterer for that? Most people letter their own stuff–it’s only really in superhero and “mainstream” publishing that you have somebody else lettering, and rarely if ever is that an artistic decision. Like, I would hire John Workman to letter something, because he’s the best possible letterer. But it’s a technical element–it’s not the main thing, and it’s something that falls under “art.” Ditto inking, ditto coloring, all that. People use all these disciplines as part of making comics, and often one person uses them all. If someone is an amazingly amazing colorist or letterer or inker–say, a James Jean or John Workman or Bryan Lee O’Malley, let them be nominated under Best Artist. Are they not artists too?

Also what’s not on this list is all the dumb “Best Domestic Reprint of Foreign Whatever”. Let’s say our award is for the immediate comics industry, which is essentially the United States and Canada–then ANYthing published within that industry should be on a level playing field, not relegated to increasingly weirder subfiefdoms based on where they were originally published, or whether or not they’re webcomics versus print, etc. These barriers are meaningless and limiting, especially in an industry with an increasing presence on mobile devices–the future is not book-oriented, I’m here to tell you!

Here’s the thing: if you’re particularly interested in the greatest inkers, there’s an award for that. A prestigious awards program doesn’t have to address every single thing possible, and shouldn’t. There should definitely be an award for the best critical writing in comics–a critical class is necessary for an artform to grow. But it doesn’t have to be in this group of awards. Let someone else do that one! Let someone else decide what the best YA-specific book was this year, or the best splash page, or the best crossover event, or all that. They’ll do it better by focusing on that one thing–you just focus on The Best Of The Best.

The goal of an award should be to enlarge, promote, and venerate the artform, not appease it. It should be out in front, just ahead of the curve, instead of stooping to reassure a grumpy audience over and over again. Aim for the culture you want, not the one you’re stuck with!