Commentary: Reactions to the 2015 Eisner Award Nominations

EisnerNomineesLast month the Two Guys with PhDs recorded a special episode of The Comics Alternative, one devoted to the 2015 Eisner Award nominations. The Comics Reporter himself, Tom Spurgeon, joined the guys on that show, and the three of them 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. As they did last year, the Two Guys wanted to give others the opportunity to chime in on this year’s nominees. What follows is a series of comments from listeners of the podcast, fellow podcasters and bloggers, critics and scholars, comic shop employees, and just fans in general. They vary in terms of category, focus, and perspective, but together they provide a vivid critical snapshot of this year’s nominees. A hearty thank you to everyone who contributed!

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If I want to send kids running from the library at breakneck speed, all I have to do is hand them a book and tell them, “This is an award-winner.” When it comes to most works of fiction and non-fiction, kids just aren’t interested in award-winners or nominees. They tend to recognize that such books are chosen for them by adults who think “This will be good for you,” which often translates into “boring” and “This has nothing to do with my life or interests.”

Comics and graphic novel award-winners and nominees, however, are another story.

TrenchesLast year at the public library where I work, we set up an Eisner Award Nominees display featuring several books from every category we could fill. Since we don’t have a lot of adult graphic novel readers in our service area, those books didn’t move much, but the kids and teen books got snatched up in no time.

Now, most kids in our library probably don’t know the first thing about Will Eisner, his work, or his legacy, but there’s something about seeing a list of graphic novels written for them that gets them excited. Again, kids recognize that somewhere there’s a group of people who understand comics and have given them a list of books they might actually want to read. (Heck, even some parents get excited about this!) While this excitement over comics is a situation I love as a librarian, I want to see more: more nominees, more categories, more books.

I understand that the Eisners can’t recognize every quality book that comes out each year, but I find it odd that at least two of the categories that include publications for kids and teens downsized from six nominees in 2014 to five in 2015.

2014 was a great year for kids’ graphic novels and I wish the Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12) category could’ve been expanded to include at least one or two of these titles that were left off the current ballot:

Skyward – Jeremy Dale (Action Lab)

Comics Squad: Recess! – Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm, eds. (Random House)

Aw Yeah Comics! And… Action! – Art Baltazar & Franco (Dark Horse)

Juice Squeezers: The Great Bug Elevator – David Lapham, Lee Loughridge (Dark Horse)

Maddy Kettle: The Adventure of the Thimblewitch – Eric Orchard (Top Shelf)

The Return of Zita the Spacegirl – Ben Hatke (First Second)

Rust: Death of the Rocket Boy – Royden Lepp (Archaia)

The Best Reality-Based Work baffles me. In what other category do the Eisners mix adult-based books with kid-based books? Is it fair that El Deafo (Amulet/Abrams) and Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood (Abrams) should have to compete against Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury) or Hip Hop Family Tree, Volume 2 (Fantagraphics)? (And while we’re on the subject, why didn’t Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, like El Deafo, get nominated in the Best Publication for Kids category?) Why not create a Best Reality-Based Work for Kids and Teens? Here are just some of the books (along with El Deafo and NHHT) that could’ve been included in that category:

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust – Loïc Dauviller, Marc Lizano, Greg Salsedo (First Second)

HipHopTree2The Dumbest Idea Ever! – Jimmy Gownley (Graphix/Scholastic)

Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey – Nick Bertozzi (First Second)

Strange Fruit, Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History – Joel Christian Gill (Fulcrum)

I Remember Beirut – Zeinia Abirached (Graphic Universe)

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir – Liz Prince (Zest Books)

I understand the intent of the Eisner Awards is to recognize outstanding work in several different categories and that categories must have limits. And while it’s relatively easy for me to create a display that reads “Eisner Award Nominees and Other Great Books You’ll Love,” I want as many titles (and categories) chosen from the Eisner Awards committee as possible. I hope the Eisner committee will recognize the need to expanded lists and categories, especially in the kids’ and teen areas, in the coming years. The quality books are out there and so is the audience.

Andy Wolverton – Librarian, Severna Park Community Library, and cohost on The Comics Alternative

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Biggest winner?

As the Washington Post’s Michael Cavna recently noted, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland is really the unexpected star of this year’s Eisner nominations. At least five nominees in different categories pay homage to McCay and his most memorable character. Not too shabby for a century’s old strip!

LittleNemoReturn1My hope is that via Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez’s  Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland (IDW) and the anthology Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, edited by Josh O’Neill, Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens (Locust Moon), a new generation of comics readers can experience the delights that heritage strips like Little Nemo in Slumberland hold. An Eisner win can make that more likely.

Disappointments?

I share your guest Tom Spurgeon’s disappointment that John Porcellino’s Hospital Suite (Drawn & Quarterly) failed to score a nomination. I’ve long been attracted to John’s spare storytelling style, both visually and textually. Hospital Suite showcases that style in telling a personal story that is a mix of brutal honesty, sweet amazement, and droll observation.

I’m also surprised not to see J.P. Ahonen recognized with a nomination for his glorious art in Sing No Evil (Abrams). The story was good, but Ahonen’s lines, layouts, and colors gave the pages a truly rhythmic vibrancy that’s rare outside the superhero realm. Like the music in the story, Ahonen’s art goes to 11.

Toughest category?

Best New Series. Lumberjanes (BOOM! Box) vs. Ms. Marvel (Marvel)? Sooooo tough! In recent years, the only series that I’ve been excited about reading in real time (i.e., not waiting until the trade paperbacks come out) are these two girl-powered titles, plus Hawkeye (Marvel) and Bitch Planet (Image). The other titles in this category are all good ones — The Fade Out (Image), for instance, is compelling noir — but this is really only a two-way competition. And no, I won’t divulge how I voted!

Carol L. TilleyProfessor, Comics Scholar, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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In the past, I have commented that the Eisner Awards seemed to go out of their way to recognize material that was more “off the beaten path.”  It would often seem that there was relative lack of nominees from major publishers and a disproportionate number of nominated works and creators from smaller publishers that I had never heard of (and I go out of my way to read the back half of the Previews catalog every month).  I haven’t done any kind of year-by-year statistical analysis of this phenomenon, maybe that’s something a comic scholar with a PhD might like to undertake, but it certainly seems like the “Premiere Publishers” from the front half of Diamond’s Previews catalog (Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, and Dark Horse) are doing much better in nominations lately.

This year, except for Bandette from Monkeybrain and Lumberjanes from BOOM! Studios, all the nominees for Single Issue, Continuing Series, Limited Series, and New Series are all from the major publishers.MsMarvel#1 I choose to look on the positive side of this and attribute it to a raising of the bar on quality from the major publishers. They put out a lot of material every month, and it’s not all the cream of the crop.  But there are many gems coming out from the major publishers.

Look at the nominees for Writer, Penciller/Inker, Painter/Multimedia Artist, and Cover Artist.  Except for two nominees, all have done work either exclusively or in part for the major publishers.  The publishers are stepping up their game on getting great creators to do some really great comics, and it is being recognized by the Eisner Awards nomination committee.  I see this a huge step forward in quality of comics. The people who decry mainstream comics are probably not looking hard enough for the gems that are hidden within the common rock that makes up (still) a large part of the published material from the “Big Two.”

Bob Bretall – Publisher/EiC ComicSpectrum.com

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Landis-JockLandis and Jock’s nomination in the Best Short Story category for “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” is the real standout for me, a striking piece which cuts to the heart of Superman’s perceived image crisis. The Joker — ever popular and cutting edge — functions as a stand-in of sorts for those who claim that Superman is irrelevant. The Joker argues that Superman’s “truth, justice and the American way” credo is too vague, but Superman turns the tables by making that ambiguity a strength when he threatens to kill the Clown Prince of Crime. Superman assures the clearly shocked Joker that he has no code against killing, he just generally avoids it. Landis’s Superman is not only confident enough to sell the readers on the point that he could kill, but also to laugh at one of the Joker’s one-liners. Thus we are left with a Superman who takes crime seriously, but is no less joyful for it.

David Walton – Writer, comics fan

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DarknessPressesI continue to be impressed by the widening scope of the Eisner Awards. Best Short Story, the first category that shows up online, has Rina Ayuyan and Emily Carroll, two women indie cartoonists whom haven’t hit the big time like a Kate Beaton or an Alison Bechdel and so aren’t just knee-jerk submissions. Peter Kuper, a long-time alternative cartoonist, is nominated for a book chapter biographical strip on Harvey Kurtzman, and then the category is completed by two DC superhero stories. That’s a pretty remarkable range.

The other comic book-centric categories aren’t dominated by superheroes either, but they have a nice range of genres. I personally found Saga (Image) to be reminiscent of late 1950s DC Comics space opera, albeit with sex, but I think it’ll take the Best Continuing Series award.

I’m mostly enjoying…let us call them “all-ages” comics these days, and would pull for El Deafo by Cece Bell in the Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12) category and either The Shadow Hero, by Yang and Liew (First Second), or The Dumbest Idea Ever, by Gownley (Graphix/Scholastic), in Best Publication for Teens (ages 13-17), but I think Lumberjanes (BOOM! Box) will take it.

For the Best Humor category, everyone should vote for my close personal friend Richard Thompson’s The Complete Cul de Sac (Andrews McMeel). I don’t think I can be any more blatant than that.

I think the Tamaki cousins will take Best Graphic Album – New, but it’s worth noting that Feiffer and McGuire’s entries aren’t typical works from either of them.

The strength of the two Best Archival Project categories is just a pleasure to behold. Taschen’s Complete Little Nemo is a wonder, and a back-breaker, too. I’m still boggled by Fantagraphics doing Disney by reprinting Barks and Rosa, but both of those are favorites of mine.

The Best Writer/Artist nominations look strong. I’m a big Darwyn Cooke fan and would like to see him win Best Cover Artist. Similarly, Lovern Kindzierski should be strongly considered for The Graveyard Book (Harper) as he’s been doing masterful work for P. Craig Russell for years.

CBRLogoComic Book Resources, while a bit too influenced by the big companies, runs a lot of interviews that I think will be valuable to future historians of the comics. Have they won before? If not, I think they should get the nod.

I haven’t read nor even seen all of the Best Academic Works, but that’s a strong section this year, which is also a telling sign of the changes in comics. I don’t think you could go wrong with any of those.

I’m outraged, OUTRAGED, that The Art of Richard Thompson by David Apatoff, Nick Galifianakis, Chris Sparks, Bill Watterson, and yours truly (Andrews McMeel) wasn’t nominated. Buy it anyway. It’s worth it.

Mike Rhode – Besides being an editor of IJOCA,  he blogs at ComicsDC

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I’m quite pleased to see some nominees, confused at a few that are there, and wonder why some of my favorites did not make the cut. And, at least for me, there are plenty of titles (even authors and artists) that I don’t recognize. So many comics and graphic novels are being published MasterfulMarkseach week, it’s impossible to keep up with staying informed. It’s exciting that there’s so much comic love out there and a market for it. But yet, for us noobs — and I still consider myself a noob — it’s a bit intimidating. I still don’t feel like one of the cool (and knowledgeable) kids yet. But I recognize more on this year’s list than last, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet.

I’m excited to see the short story nominee “Corpse on the Imjin!” by Peter Kuper, in Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World (Simon & Schuster). That story, hands down, was my favorite vignette from book.

Truth be told, I don’t have anything to say about the single issues or continuing series, as I prefer my comics in a limited series format. I know that drastically limits what I read, but as I mentioned above, there is so much being published that it’s hard to keep up. Admittedly, I wonder how hardcore comic fans afford everything on their pull list.

As for the Early Readers, Kids, and Teens categories, I’m surprised that nothing by TOON Books or TOON Graphics made the list.

I’m sad that a few of my favorites from 2014 did not make it into the Best Graphic Album – New category: Safari Honeymoon, by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press); Celeste, by I.N.J Culbard (SelfMadeHero); and The Bad-ventures of Bobo Backslack, by Jon Chad (AdHouse). HereI’m also surprised that nothing in Nobrow Press’s 2014 catalog made it into this category, either.

However, in that same category I’m pleased to see The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins (Picador). This was Picador’s first graphic novel in ten years, so I truly hope the acclaim encourages that press to publish more. It also makes me wonder if any big publishing houses not necessarily known for comics and graphic novels will consider entering the field. It’s no surprise that Here by Richard McGuire (Pantheon) or The Motherless Oven (SelfMadeHero) made the nominee list.

Now we just keep waiting, speculating, and discussing until the winners are announced on July 10.

Beth C. – Blogger at I Sniff Books and contributor to The Comics Alternative blog

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saga18On Best Continuing Series: I wholeheartedly believe that Saga is one of the greatest artistic and narrative contributions of all times to the comic/graphic novel medium. Brian K. Vaughan has created, all at once, a story that is as simple as one family’s love and as grand as a universe in chaos. And Fiona, sweet sweet Fiona, your art is not just refreshing — it’s a revelation. This team accomplishes something that far too few comics do: they tell a story that has plenty of sex, murder, mystery, and intergalactic mayhem…but even more heart! Go Saga, for the win!

Nick Bridwell – Novelist, freelance writer

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When it comes to the Eisners, I usually skip ahead to the archival collections and academic books so that I can see if there was anything I missed in the past year. I will say that 2014 was a great year for early American comics scholars, especially with Taschen’s Complete Little Nemo (edited by Alexander Braun), Katherine Roeder’s Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay (University Press of Mississippi), and Thierry Smolderen’s Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay (University Press of Mississippi). All three of these books proved invaluable for my coursework, OriginOfComicsand I plan to reread Roeder’s book over the summer. I’m really glad to see Winsor McCay going through a resurgence in popularity, especially with IDW’s Return to Slumberland and Locust Moon’s Dream Another Dream. Now if only the Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend would come back into print. As for what I missed last year, I haven’t yet read Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books (University of California Press). But I’m a fan of Michael Barrier’s animation writings, so I hope to remedy that soon. I would also like to read What Fools These Mortals Be: The Story of Puck (IDW) since that’s also in my general area. I was a little surprised to see that Hilary Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists (University of Chicago Press) was absent, but maybe it’s because it came out earlier in 2014. Although I couldn’t speak to many of the mainstream comics since graduate school has forced me to manage my time, Ms. Marvel (Marvel) continues to be one of my favorite books. I even brought Kamala Khan into the classroom for my students to discuss visual arguments (in regards to the guerilla art campaign against the Islamophobic San Francisco bus ads). Overall, I’d say 2014 was a great year for comics fans. I don’t envy the judges. It would be hard for me to choose.

Kenneth Kimbrough – Studies comics at the University of Oklahoma, and contributor to The Comics Alternative blog

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It is great to see the Eisner nominations get such a positive buzz and continue to be the standard by which excellence in comics is judged. I was very pleased to see Ms. Marvel (Marvel) nominated for Best New Series. It is one which I feel brings to light many issues regarding tolerance and gender equality that have often been left out of traditional mainstream superhero titles. In my view, it’s an honest book that is a WideAwakegood for classroom use and as “gateway” to the world of superheroes beyond the “blockbuster” titles.  One my library colleagues already uses Ms. Marvel in her lecture on fandom and the role fan-fiction and fan-created works play in the world (since the character of Kamala Khan wrote Avengers fan-fiction before her transformation, and it shows that mainstream companies are at least somewhat aware of what is going on in fandom).  I was also delighted to see Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay, by Katherine Roeder (University Press of Mississippi) listed as one of the nominations for Best Scholarly/Academic Work as it was the top choice for a book award committee that I am on, The Peter C. Rollins Book Award Committee for best work in Film, Popular Culture, and Sequential Art.  All the nominations are excellent, of course, but the more said about McCay’s influence, the better.  The world of comics has come a long way both in and out of the academy, and it’s about time. The Eisner’s are just one way that shows how comic are truly an important part of our artistic culture and life.

Rob Weiner  – Popular Culture Librarian, Texas Tech University

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I think the most exciting thing on this year’s list of Eisner Award nominees is the Little Nemo collection from Taschen. This strip deserves the best treatment possible, and despite several valiant efforts in the past to get it just right, this one looks like the winner. Any cartoonist, animator, or fan of comics should pick this up (if they can pony up the cash — well worth it, just steep).

CompleteLittleNemoGlad to see the re-boot version of Little Nemo, Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland (IDW), is getting recognized as well, though, I must say I lack interest in it for the very fact that it is not Winsor McCay. It seems a shame to say that with how well it was done, but I really tend to feel creations (mostly) die with their creators. It’s kind of the same with the BOOM! Peanuts. If someone tries to re-boot Krazy Kat, I think I’ll request that Ignatz hit me with the brick! Let’s stop trying to re-boot everything and do two things well: 1) keep excellent, archival quality reprints of the classics available, and 2) make new classics for our era. I don’t need to see that Joe Cartoonist can draw like so and so — it’s impressive, but I’d rather see that he draw like him or herself.

I must say it perturbs me that Jeff Parker is not on the list for Best Writer, but I am biased, as I was once an intern in his studio. I don’t think that makes me wrong, though. He’s one to keep watching year after year, and he deserves his due.

In general, I can’t argue the quality of books nominated this year, but it seems like a lot of already highly recognized works and creators, with lots of overlap between categories, and I can’t help but wonder if there are some serious contenders, perhaps less known, but more vitally fresh, that are missing from this list. It would be interesting to compare the material here with the Best American Comics series collection. I have feeling they will differ quite a bit.

Aaron Alexander – Illustrator, creator of Acting Adult, and contributor to The Comics Alternative blog

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The six 2015 Eisner nominees for Best Reality-Based Work, at first blush, divide themselves neatly into two categories, half of them personal memoir, and half historical.  Yet the diversity within the candidates in each category, including in the ways they are “reality-based,” suggests the dichotomy is not as clear as first appears, and it points to the great heterogeneity in how a comic can be based in reality.

MariNaomi’s self-revealing Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories (Uncivilized Books), Cece Bell’s charming El Deafo (Amulet/Abrams), and Roz Chast’s acerbic DragonsBreathCan’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury) exemplify the very different ways comics autobiographies can concoct literary truth from the raw material of personal experience.

Reality, it turns out, can consist of the lingering force of spare and potent memories, as MariNaomi’s vignettes in Dragon’s Breath display.  They are bound together by the reflective authorship of the memoirist, utilizing comics’ minimalism and multimodalism to exhale stories like entrancing puffs of smoke, stories whose substance comes not from the subject’s details, but the breath of the storyteller.

Roz Chast, in contrast, fusses over the artifacts and anecdotes of her dear subjects: her aging parents and the million dilemmas, trifles, and wonders of their latter days.  The reality on which her Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is based is one that calls her up at odd hours, keeps odds and ends in shoeboxes, and writes oddly beautiful poems to their daughter.  It’s a reality of parent-care rarely discussed in popular media, but that hits home to anyone near that phase of adulthood, despite our attempts to move to another neighborhood.

Yet comics reality need not be delivered sardonically, but as demonstrated by Cece Bell’s El Deafo, can contain a good measure of earnestness, fun, and fantasy.  Bell’s story of her childhood triumphs amidst awkward hearing aids and fragile friendships is a sweet rebellion against the notion that reality can only be swallowed as irony or tragedy.  Instead, young Cece’s imagination of herself as a superpowered, caped hero reminds readers young and old that reality is also the material through which we grow into resilience and maturity.

Meanwhile, World War I histories Nathan Hale’s Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood (Abrams) and To End All Wars: The Graphic Anthology of the First World War (Soaring Penguin), edited by Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark, stand in perfect contrast to one another as two very different takes on comics historiography about the same vast subject.  The latter, a British book, leverages the plurality of voices that an anthology introduces to complicate narrow and nationalistic narratives about the Great War.  ToEndNathan Hale, the name of both the book’s contemporary cartoonist/creator and the famous American Revolutionary resurrected as a narrator in this series, also tries to present the war’s complexity, but layering anthropomorphic animals and playful jocularity to make history palatable to its young audience.

At the same time, Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree Volume 2: 1981-1983 (Fantagraphics) has a markedly different subject, hip hop history.  Conveying a cultural phenomenon based in music through a thoroughly visual medium is a fascinating challenge, so Piskor corrals all the signifiers of personality cults, fashion and flash, industry legends and musical mythology, to evince the reality of a cultural fabric as veritable and vital history.

Paul Lai – Educator, doctoral candidate, and comics scholar at University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Education

(For more complete assessments of these titles, see Paul’s articles at Multiversity Comics.)

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Be sure to read some of the 2015 Eisner nominees mentioned by our contributors:

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The Comics Alternative is a podcast and blog focused on the world of alternative, independent, and primarily non-superhero comics.

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