A couple of weeks ago, we recorded a special episode of The Comics Alternative, one devoted to the 2014 Eisner Award nominations. On that show, we discussed the various nominees, the composition of the various categories, the creators and titles that were conspicuously absent this year, the possible rationale of the judges’ choices, and the very challenge of populating a nominee list of this kind. Many of you contacted us about our show, telling us how much you enjoyed listening to it, and we appreciate your comments. In fact, one of the associate “Two Guys” of The Comics Alternative, Andy Wolverton, responded with a detailed analysis that sprang from our podcast discussion. So this gave us an idea: we would follow up that episode by getting feedback from others, including listeners of The Comics Alternative, fellow podcasters and bloggers, critics and scholars, comic shop employees, and just fans in general. We contacted a lot of people and invited them to send in a few thoughts, as little or as extensive as they would like, on this year’s Eisner Award nominations. What follows is the result of our inquiries, a series of observations from folks who kindly took the time to respond. A hearty thank you to everyone who did so!
Derek and Andy K. brought up several good points in their discussion of the 2014 Eisner Award nominations (Episode 79.1), but the one that caught my attention was the “Best Publication for Teens” category’s inclusion of March: Book One, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (Top Shelf). Placing March in the “Teen” category makes sense in some ways, but also presents several potential problems. First, does this mean the book should be only considered as a teen book? It would seem that is not the case, since the work is also nominated in the Best Reality-Based Work. March is an excellent book and deserves a wide readership among teens and adults. Had the book been included only in the teen category, I would’ve felt such an act too limiting, sending a message to adults that the book is not for them, which would be absolutely ridiculous. It’s difficult to change public opinion on what people should read and who should read which books, so I’m glad that March hasn’t been relegated only to the teen section.
On the other hand, just because you should read something doesn’t mean that you should be forced to do so. I almost always find that any book of historical and cultural significance landing on any teen reading list (particularly a school reading list) spells the kiss of death. As a public librarian, I see this problem all the time: a good book that addresses a cultural and/or historical event is placed on a reading list — probably chosen by a group of well-intentioned teachers — and kids never read it.
The Eisner nomination doesn’t necessarily mean that educators are going to immediately place March on their required reading lists. But a win would certainly increase those odds. Including books on school lists (especially those in which students have little to no input) often sends the “Here’s-something-you-should-read” message. Yes, they should, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to. Adults telling teens they should read a book because it’s historical and “Hey, it’s in the teen section!” usually drives them away. Including the book on a list is one thing, but requiring them to read it is something else. Do that enough, and you’ll be on a sure-fire path to get kids to hate reading. I’m firmly convinced that one reason kids beyond a certain age don’t read is because they no longer get to choose their reading material. (And don’t get me started on classics. That’s another discussion for another time.)
I’m not saying that March, Boxers and Saints and other historically-based books should not be on reading lists, but they should be among several choices that kids have in choosing their books. All of the books in the “Best Publication for Teens” category are in some way historical, with the exception of Battling Boy. I can tell you from a 15-year teaching career and from being around teens in my library, if you placed copies of all six nominated books on a table and asked them to choose one, most would pick up Battling Boy.
If I were a betting man, I’d bet that March is going to win the Eisner for “Best Publication for Teens.” (If it doesn’t, it would probably be a Lord of the Rings situation in which Peter Jackson was awarded the Oscar for the entire series only after the final installment was completed.) This is a strong category this year and March probably deserves to win. Yet I have found that kids normally read award winners only when forced to do so.
March’s inclusion on required lists, then, seems a foregone conclusion. So how do we get kids (and adults) to read books like March, books that we as adults think they should read?
I think one of the best first steps we can take as parents, teachers, and librarians is to recognize the legitimacy of comics and graphic novels. For most people visiting this website, that’s probably not a problem, but I often encounter parents, teachers, and yes, even librarians who do not recognize the enormous value of comics and graphic novels. That’s Step One.
Step Two is to make people aware that comics and graphic novels come in all types, just as novels, movies, music, and television shows do. Not all graphic novels are about superheroes. Many are historically based and provide easier access to some subjects than text-only works. To use an example from my own life, I never really comprehended the science behind the atom bomb until I read Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. Reading that book opened up many other aspects of World War II and beyond that had never occurred to me.
Step Three is to find just one student who “gets it,” a student who understands that a graphic novel like March is not only history, it’s also a great story. If we as adults tell students how great a book is, most kids won’t care. But when one kid starts talking about that same book, then two kids, then three…. The reaction is very different.
Step Four is to allow students to discuss what they’ve read, what they liked and didn’t like. Do this not in front of the entire class, but in small groups where students can have the freedom to share their opinions without fear of being ridiculed by the whole room.
And while you’re building your list, don’t forget the books that were nominated and didn’t win. Or other worthy books that weren’t even nominated.
Categories and labels are inevitable, but they don’t have to become impenetrable borders. With a little effort, understanding and the building of relationships, we can get kids (and hey, maybe adults, too!) to read good works and actually enjoy them.
Andy Wolverton – Librarian, Severna Park Community Library, and associate with The Comics Alternative
Looking over the Eisner nominations every year is always an interesting experience. Often I can go through an entire section of the nominations realizing I haven’t read a single one of the entries. Sometimes that is because the category simply isn’t of interest to me. (Are two categories for best publications for kids really needed?) Sometimes I think it is a reflection of mistaken belief that popular and “good” (whatever that is) are somehow fundamentally different things. While popular certainly does not equate to “good,” the two also aren’t mutually exclusive, either. While many/most of the superhero comics being published today are not Eisner-worthy, titles like Astro City certainly are. No doubt the majority of the nominees are worth checking out, I just find it odd that of the 156 nominees — excluding the Best Comics Related Periodical/Journalism section which is a different sort of thing than all of the other categories, in my opinion — I am only really familiar with about 34 of them. Of those, there are a few that I personally don’t consider Eisner-worthy, but that is just my personal opinion. And, you know what? I might be wrong about that. As great as these nominees might be, far too many of them fall below the radar of the average comic book reader.
I go through Previews each and every month. I read a few dozen new comics a week. I review and discuss comics on my podcast every week. I crunch the direct market sales data every month and report on that. Yet the overwhelming majority of the Eisner nominees most years never hit my radar. If I’m not aware of most of the nominees, how can the average comic book fan be expected to know about them? And if these really are the best the industry has to offer, wouldn’t it be great if more people were aware of them?
The 2014 Eisner nominees are actually pretty pleasing. Sure, the finest currently-running comic (Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto) and the best, most consistent cover artist (Yuko Shimizu) got snubbed, as well as Tom Muller’s Noah and Zero design work, and the diverse and wonderful Baltic Comics Magazine, but other than those four omissions, the nominations are really great. It’s nice to see high-quality and non-mainstream work like East of West, The Hip-Hop Family Tree, Demeter, and March get recognized. I’m pleased that Paul Pope’s (my favorite living cartoonist) most recent outing Battling Boywas noticed, as well as the wonderful Adventures of a Japanese Businessman—which is a mind-blowing and widely impressive book, by Jose Domingo, who is just plain nice. And though I think Velvetdeserved a nomination, Lazarus and Sex Criminals compensate nicely. And The “Best Graphic Album – Reprint” category is straight aces, with Solo, Heck, and RASL all earning their spot and then some; Zainab Akhtar, too, more than earning her recognition with her Comics & Cola blog.
So yeah, I think there were a few snubs, but there always are (and Sunny is the only one I’ll ever do anything more than shrug about), but the Eisners have historically done a better job of not screwing the pooch than their film or television analogs (Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmy’s, et al.). And this year featured a level of racial and gender representation that actually isn’t horrible, with Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Zainab Akhtar, Fiona Staples, Jordie Bellaire, Faith Erin Hicks, and Carla Speed McNeil all holding it down. It’s also nice to see books like March, which is, in my opinion, both a good book and an important book, getting recognition. Sure, I won’t get to complain that Michael DeForge got robbed — like he did last year, but whatever — but at least the Eisner committee didn’t do too shabby a job.
Shea Hennum – Writer for This Is Infamous and The Comics Alternative
Scott Snyder’s nomination for “Best Writer” comes as no surprise, as he continues to bridge the gap between his creator-owned concepts and corporate characters by infusing Batman with the same horror sensibilities as American Vampire. The result is something almost as fresh as Alan Moore’s classic Superman tales, “What Do You Get for The Man Who Has Everything?” and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Snyder’s Batman stories aren’t titled as questions, but they certainly play out that way. Court of Owls forces Batman to question everything he believes about Gotham City, and Death of the Family prompts his allies to question everything they believe about him. Whether Snyder’s protagonists are facing vampires, a secret society, or a homicidal clown, the real horror always comes from within.
David Walton – Writer, comics fan
This year’s nominations show how strong comics publishing has become. I read a lot about comics, even as my reading of comics has fallen, and there’s still a few titles I haven’t heard of. There’s a hearteningly wide variety of publishers beyond the usual big two superhero publishers.
I didn’t find any breakout book, such as Fun Home was a few years back. To my mind, March: Book One, has the potential to be that type of book, but as was the case with Maus, its serialization means that its real impact will come when the story is done.
Reading through the list of nominees, I’ll just make a few notes in areas that occur to me.
In “Best Short Story,” I’m surprised to find a webcomic, The Oatmeal, even though I’d venture to guess that more people have read that story than all four of the other ones combined.
For “Best Continuing Series,” I’m absolutely and honestly shocked to find only one superhero title, Hawkeye, and to realize that a superhero comic with a male hero is a favorite of my 16-year old daughter. Image’s domination of this and the “Best New Series” category also has a bit of a frisson for those of us old enough to remember how Image was formed.
As I rapidly approach middle age, I find myself enjoying material aimed for younger readers more and more often. Matt Phelan’s Bluffton, in “Best Publications for Teens,” came out of left-field as childrens book authors reverse the traditional trend and enter comics. I’m glad to see it included, and it’s up against a bunch of fantastic books. I honestly think this is the category with the strongest books.
Anyone who doesn’t regularly follow Tom Gauld, nominated in “Best Humor Publication,” needs to start doing so immediately.
Who would ever have expected a longform treatment of Margaret Sanger’s battles for birth control? And that it would be done by Peter Bagge? “Best Reality-Based Work” has one title I haven’t even heard of, A Bag of Marbles, but is another strong section. I will go out on a limb, and predict that Ed Piskor’s breakthrough book, The Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 1 will take this prize, while serving as yet another example of the widening appeal of comics.
“Best Adaptation” includes Darwyn Cooke’s newest adaptation of a Richard Stark novel, which, like the originals, aren’t deep, but are good fun to read. I haven’t read any of the other nominees, which appears to be a failing on my part as they all sound interesting.
I’m glad I don’t have to vote in “Best Archival Project – Strips,” because for me it’s a tie between all the titles. I will note that it’s great to see Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby back in print after so many years. But then there’s Russ Manning’s lovely art on Tarzan, VIP‘s cartoons, the best editions of Prince Valiant we’ve seen yet… it’s an embarrassment of riches as they say, while being a drain on the wallet.
As is always the case with awards of this type, there’s a little bit of “sloppiness” in where a comic is placed. This year, I noticed it as British publishers Nobrow and SelfMadeHero pop up in a wide variety of categories beyond “International Materials.” Perhaps the “International” category is meant for comics in translation? In any event, I’d strongly recommend When David Lost His Voice, a book about cancer that can be favorably compared to Stitches and Our Cancer Year.
For all of the “Best Writer/Artist” etc. categories, I’m again surprised at how few superhero books there are, especially given that this occurs at the San Diego Comicon. I will note that I find it odd that Britt Wilson is the only professional letterer in that category while all the other nominees are cartoonists.
One couldn’t go wrong with any of the selections in “Best Comics-Related Book.” This is another category that is bankrupting me and filling my house with paper. The “Best Scholarly/Academic Work” is doing the same. I’m very pleased that John Lent’s International Journal of Comic Art is recognized, deservedly so (though I’m an editor of its reviews section).
Mike Rhode – Besides being an editor of IJOCA, he blogs at ComicsDC
A lot of people have compared the Eisner Awards to the Academy Awards, and that is a more apt comparison than they realize. Just like the Academy will often fail to recognize the summer blockbusters of action, sci-Fi, and fantasy for anything other than technical categories, so too the Eisners will often skip over the best selling superhero books from Marvel and DC. There are other comics awards out there that cover more popular comics, just like there are things like the MTV Movie Awards and People’s Choice Awards that are alternatives to the Academy Awards and tend to focus more on what is popular.
Is this a flaw in the Eisner Awards? I don’t think so. They go out of their way to recognize excellence in comics that is often overlooked by comics fans who are locked into the best sellers from the major publishers. I’ve often seen fans discover books that are nominated for Eisner awards and love them. They would have never read these books had it not been for the Eisner nomination. I speak from personal experience. I’ve read a lot of the nominated items, but every year I discover something new based on the Eisner nominations. A great example this year is The Hip-Hop Family Tree: Vol 1, by Ed Piskor (Fantagraphics) nominated in the “Best Reality-Based Work” category. There is no way I’d have ever read this had it not been nominated, and I’d have lost out, as it’s an excellent book. The Eisner Awards have my gratitude for exposing me and many others to a lot of quality comics over the years!
Bob Bretall – Publisher of ComicSpectrum.com
I just listened to your show. On the “Best Scholarly” category, I think it’s generally a strong group and agree with Andy that the Superhero Reader is an excellent and useful book. I wrestled a bit with the categorization of things myself. Edited -vs- sole author doesn’t really bother me. The two present different challenges, but not so different that you can’t compare them. I was surprised at first to see the International Journal of Comic Art in this category, not that it’s not worthy but it’s hard to compare the IJoCA with a single book. I do understand the need to honor John Lent, and think he very much deserves a Hall of Fame award.
On other categories I don’t have much to add, except that I hope Denis Kitchen’s Al Capp biography will not be overlooked for “Best Comics-Related Book.” Capp was a rock star in his time, and he had a breathtaking fall from grace. Denis managed to tell a “warts and all” story without losing the cooperation of the family, who were not comfortable about reliving this whole thing. I think this book gives real insight into the larger picture of American pop culture at the time.
On awards and nominations: I worked for several years on the Grammy Awards, and I imagine there are some general similarities. Making sure that you have submitted your work in an appropriate category is one thing. Making yourself stand out somehow is another. There could be a champion on the committee or a campaign to make sure you are actually seen (heard, in this case). Anyway, good luck in the future, your commentary on The Comics Alternative is always interesting.
One last thought on scholarly solo author -vs- edited collections. Didn’t Charles Hatfield win previously for Hand of Fire? And he’s nominated this year as one of the editors of Superhero Reader. I think this is evidence that either is acceptable in the category.
In general, my reaction to the Eisner nominations this year is about the same as when the Oscars roll around: “Whoops! Looks like I missed a bunch of important work,” and “Why didn’t they nominate [fill in the blank]?” As for a round up of items I did read this year and am especially rooting for in the awards. One is Francesco Francovilla’s Black Beetle limited series. (This guy is the goods. I heard about him from a comics writer and have been following his website ever since. He’s always amazing, and his visual storytelling chops in this book are on full display). However, I have yet to read Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai’s 47 Ronin (also nominated for the “Best Limited Series” category) which I have a feeling I will love equally well when I read it (soon I hope). For teen”Teen” book I am going with Battling Boy. Picked this up thanks to the discussion about on The Comics Alternative podcast, and loved it. So unique and fresh, and perfect tone for young adult/teen reader (though I am not one and loved it as well). For best graphic album, I am rooting for The Creep. Jonathan Case is amazing, although Ben Katchor, of course, is also a great choice.
As for the misses…First up, “Best Writer” category: Why isn’t Jeff Parker on here? Like every year. Beats me. Wise up people! I would also have liked to see Shannon Wheeler — who just did a great interview on The Comics Alternative podcast! — on here for Astounding Villain House. I think he is one of the best cartoonists in the business — and he does his own coloring! C’mon! No one does that anymore (except for Francesco Francovilla…see above), and you will notice this gives his coloring a unique look. We don’t all have to hire Dave Stewart, people. (Even though he is good and my likely choice for that category).
Finally, let me say the work I am most hoping wins it is Joe Sacco’s The Great War, (up for “Best Publication Design” by Chin Lee-Yai). I purchased this after seeing it in a bookstore and have it displayed at my office (marketing department for an outdoor company). Most of the time people make a point not to mess with stuff on your desk, but someone picks this up and peruses it at least once a week…people, I am guessing, who do not normally pick up comics. This book — at 24 feet long when unfolded! — is, in my opinion, a harbinger of things to come in the comics industry. I love that, except for the fact that it was drawn by Sacco, known as a comics artist, this book could have been marketed ten different ways, “comic,” to me, seeming the one of the least likely. Then again, when people point to the ancient cave walls and Trajan’s Column as the predecessors to comics, maybe this book is actually going back to the medium’s roots. Either way, I hope it’s a winner.
Aaron Alexander – Illustrator and creator of Acting Adult
You know, I stopped having to defend my professional interest in comics a while back, and so to see all these different titles and creators is nice. I’m not familiar with a lot of what I see in this year’s Eisner nominations, but that’s my fault. One wonders, however, if, given the sheer volume of work out there, whether the Eisners are becoming more akin to the Cannes Film Festival rather than the Oscars. With the latter, everyone who is a member of the Academy can vote, and it’s usually just the well-known works by big studios that get the attention. With the Eisners, the judges differ from year to year, so there’s no year-to-year predictability as to who or what will get nominated. Furthermore, there’s far less representation of the Big Two or Three, especially in terms of mainstream superhero type comics. I’m not saying this as an evaluation, but just an observation. Some of the categories seem to change from year to year as if they aren’t sure what to do or how to respond to trends. Indeed, should one respond to trends? I’d like to see a foreign category, and not just an American printing of foreign works. And perhaps a genre category as well. I’d even love to see a self-published category there are so many independent artists/writers out there who are putting out amazing stuff that deserves to be seen (I think of all my friends in Greece who do amazing comics all by themselves). I’m glad, however, that there hasn’t been any addition of “Best Adaptation of a Comic/GN by Other Media” (aka movie versions), since that would detract from what is and should be the sole focus: material (whether in paper or online) that blends word and image (Robert Harvey) and/or are sequential in nature (Scott McCloud).
Jeff McLaughlin – Associate Professor of philosophy, Thompson Rivers University
The nominees for 2014 Eisner Awards correlate very well with the sales on these books, as Sex Criminals and Saga are two of our top selling books, and we have a hard time keeping them on the shelves. I really do think this year will be a clean sweep for Matt Fraction, as he has two of the most popular books on the docket in Hawkeye and Sex Criminals, two books on opposite ends of the spectrum but with very relatable characters that are put in crazy situations. The biggest competition will probably be from Johnathon Hickman, as East of West has become a monster hit, and his work on Infinity being one of the most sought after crossovers in recent memory. The funny thing, in my opinion, is the two both have great works in both Image and Marvel. However, Fraction has more of a hit with Hawkeye being an ongoing. I think in the end, it’ll be between the two of them, but Fraction definitely has a lead.
Freddy Renolfo Ruiz – Assistant Manager, Collected Comics in Plano, TX
There seems to be a strand of artists not included in the various Eisner categories, especially those related to alternative publishers such as AdHouse, Koyama Press, and the like. I enjoy very much things that could be called “experimental” (like Aidan Koch or Lala Albert, for instances) and I do feel that there is an overall conservatism in not considering them (including in academic assessments), but again, I’m not sure about the process of choice for the Eisners.
I am also a little surprised that Brandon Graham’s Prophet series is not anywhere, but then again, I know the dangers of considering things from a fannish point of view.
Now, I am absolutely certain that these things were well-chosen, and of course you cannot have everything, but in the final balance, as with many other things, awards tend to confirm certain tendencies and “average” considerations of the medium and the industry. So it comes as no surprise that Jeet Heer’s book on Françoise Mouly is not included in the “Best Comics-Related Book” list. Perhaps it could be argued that it’s not really about comics, or that Mouly is not in the same level as Spiegelman, the Hernandez brothers, Rube Goldberg, etc. Fine. But it is also very telling that the “importance” is always focused on the artists themselves, and not in a more complicated perspective on the background that allows them to work, be published, and become known.
Also, in the academic list, although all of the books seem quite important and great achievements — especially IJoCA as a life-long project, of course — I really do think that the following recent books, for better or worse, will prove to be more definitive in the discussions of years to come, in a larger scale than a specific author, genre or time period: The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images, Neil Cohn (Bloomsbury); Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form, Hannah Miodrag (University Press of Mississippi); and Contemporary Comics Storytelling, Karin Kukonnen (University of Nebraska Press). When I say “for better or worse” it’s because even though we may not agree with some of the conclusions, or even methods, of some of these authors (especially in the cases of Cohn and Miodrag), they have created incredibly rich and interrogative books that deserve to be read carefully and engaged with passionately. They contribute to theory in a very direct way (it’s questionable if effectively, etc.). Kukkonen’s book is also very good, expanding in very pragmatic ways narratological approaches, and engages with comics series, which goes a little beyond the usual focus on self-standing graphic novels. Nothing wrong with these, of course, but more often than not there’s a sort of snobishness towards comics series that not only misses out on very interesting works (and sometimes of great sophistication), but it also loses an opportunity to check out the effectiveness of academic tools.
Other oversights include The Daniel Clowes Reader (edited by Ken Parille, Fantagraphics) which, in my view, is one of the most brilliant close-reading monographs I’ve ever read. And then there’s The From Hell Companion, which could be thought of as an important, interesting way of thinking/discussing comics. Both of them also contribute towards the notion of what a “critical edition” may look like in the realm of comics, a point I’ve both discussed in my blog and asked about on the comix-scholars listserv.
Pedro Moura – Comics scholar and blogger, Lerbd
I’m pleased to see some of my favorite series represented here, including Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch’s Rat Queens, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s razor-witted Sex Criminals, and Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’s Saga. I always cringe when people start trying to formulate a “cannon” of comics, but I’ll be gravely disappointed if Saga isn’t being taught in college classrooms across the nation within a decade.
I was a bit surprised to see that Matt Kindt didn’t get a mention for Mind MGMT, but his work has always been more Ignatz material, anyway. I’m disappointed but not surprised to see that Katie Cook wasn’t nominated for her brilliant work on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, one of a very few comics in print (along with Saga and Rat Queens) to consistenty pass the “Bechdel Test.”
I scratched my head at John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March being filed as “Young Adult” as well. This year, YA and “Reality-Based Work” feel like ghettos to me: the works in both categories are incredibly important and powerful, and yet the creators seem to have been slighted in terms of nominations for individual awards.
The humor section pleased me. Vader’s Little Princess is funnier and more pointed than Jeffery Brown’s previous Darth Vader and Son. Tom Gauld’s You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack comes from an alternative reality, a better world in which New Yorker cartoons are all deeply nerdy. Then there’s Faith Erin Hicks’s The Adventures of Superhero Girl, which I’m just getting into, but might be the most deserving of all.
The happiest surprise out of all of the Eisners was seeing Dax Tran-Caffee’s Failing Sky nominated for webcomics. It is the most purposefully beautiful comic I’ve read in years, possesses great variety and nuance in character, is set in a world nearly our own that really grabs my imagination, and includes a portrayal of a transgender character that feels honest to the concerns of real trans people without the overexplanation and hand-wringing that comes with attempts to “bring in” a cisgender audience.
On the other hand, Julie Maroh’s bande dessinée Blue is the Warmest Color deserved a nomination in the “non-manga” international category, and it is a great work, greater than the film adaptation of the same title (which dominated at Cannes but has been criticized by Maroh herself for the way the film’s director objectifies the lesbian couple in the story).
It would have been nice to see Fantagraphics ongoing Carl Barks library acknowledged among the comic books archival projects, but Philip Nel and Eric Reynolds’s work on Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby is really impressive, and Peter Maresca really outdid himself with Society is Nix (a collection that shows off the popular imagination and popular prejudice in the days of the early newspaper strips).
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just realized that I haven’t read Becky Cloonan’s Demeter, and I have to correct that error.
Tof Eklund – Comics scholar and Course Director at Full Sail University
Avoiding the easy route of trashing all awards and rankings, and accepting that the Eisners (among other prizes) do have some social or cultural significance (if not unassailable aesthetic legitimacy), what might this year’s nominations indicate, beyond their vague indication of a group’s current favorites and even perhaps as a list of the past year’s genuinely deserving works? Perhaps the most glaring thing about the 2014 nominees is the relative absence of Marvel and DC (except via Vertigo) titles and, among the more mainstream categories, the strong showing of Image and Dark Horse (with Fantagraphics typically prominent in the less mainstream categories). I like a lot of the more mainstream stuff here such as Sex Criminals, Saga, and Trillium (the latter two part of a real boom in strong science fiction comics), and would myself just save everyone time and give the Hernandez brothers an award every year: at this point they are in “lifetime achievement” territory even though both are going strong. There’s a lot here — such as the stuff for kids, the webcomics — I don’t know, and other nominations I can’t object to but that I could easily swap for other worthy titles. I will say I’m pleased to see Tardi and Verney’s Goddam This War! on the list, in part as a tribute to Kim Thompson’s efforts to get such important material translated. I’m also pleased to see Tezuka’s The Mysterious Underground Men here, even if it reminds us that PictureBox has ceased publishing new material. But there’s nothing nominated that outrages me or strikes me as remarkably unexpected or undeserving of recognition, for better or worse.
Lacking strong opinions, then, and acting as a comics scholar, I’ll just take the scholarly route, especially since perhaps only scholars really care about the “Best Scholarly/Academic Work” category, which I think contains some fine, worthy nominations. But what does it mean that only one of these is a single-author monograph, amidst three edited volumes published last year and an long-running edited journal, International Journal of Comic Art, which would seem to deserve its own special award? (Last year all the nominees were books by single authors.) As most academics know, only the single-author work, not the edited volume, earns promotion and a (usually pathetic) raise, so it’s a bit odd that some of these scholars can now claim “Eisner-nominated” or even “Eisner-winning” books for edited and/or collaborative work their institutions may in fact devalue. There’s perhaps a loose analogy to be made between the often awkward evaluation of industrially-made comics, which challenge easy attributions of authorship, and the lower status of collaborative work in academia, at least in the humanities. (I’d advocate for yet another category, distinguishing single-author from edited works, recognizing that editing is in fact hard work, but also that crafting a well-edited collection is different labor from writing a book in your own voice.)
I’ll admit the makeup of the two “Archival Collection/Project (Strips and Comic Books)” categories, which, unlike the “Scholarly/Academic” category, broadly resembles last year’s nominations, baffles me a bit. Is volume 1 of Barnaby, volume 2 of Skippy, volume 6 or 7 (nominated together) of Prince Valiant, or volume 1 of Russ Manning’s Tarzan likely to be more deserving than the other previous or future volumes in those matched-style series? I don’t think their nomination this year seeks to indicate that these particular volumes represent any of these strips at their creative high points, so this isolation of parts of larger wholes seems somewhat arbitrary. (Since I’m adding categories, how about one for a full reprint series, awarded when it has been completed?) That said, I hope Peter Maresca’s astonishing Society is Nix is the shoe-in for the award: it’s the past year’s crucial volume of comics archeology. Similarly, how are the three identically designed IDW Artist’s Editions (of EC and MAD artists, and of Eisner’s The Spirit) to be distinguished as archival collections, except by the original material (all canonical) they contain? Is the vote (at this late date?) on whether Eisner’s work is greater than that of the EC and/or MAD artists, or is the vote focused on the editing and design of the three recent — but, again, identical — volumes themselves? (The edition of Matt Baker’s Canteen Kate would seem to have slipped in only due to the material it reprints, since the volume itself was obviously thrown together, as a typo-filled introduction announces. Curiously, another publisher reprinted the same material last year, but that volume escaped a nomination. It would be kind of fun to see dueling editions of the same reprinted material voted upon.)
I’ll affirm like many others that we now live in a golden age of reprints, but it does seem that we are still learning how to properly categorize and acclaim that outpouring of material. This is also perhaps the first age of serious, sustained comics criticism and research, and I suppose no one should complain that the Eisners don’t seem to have room to fit all of the great work being produced in that arena. But if anyone’s listening, I would still argue for splitting the work of writers and editors into two equally worthy categories.
Corey K. Creekmur – Associate Professor, University of Iowa, and General Editor of the Comics Culture series for Rutgers University Press
Be sure to read some of the 2014 Eisner nominees mentioned by our contributors: