Commentaries on the 2016 Eisner Award Nominations

EisnerNomineesFor the third year in a row, the Two Guys with PhDs featured a special Eisner Award Nominations episode of the Comics Alternative podcast. This time they were joined by eminent comics scholar, Eisner nomination committee member, and friend of the Comics Alternative, Prof. Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois, who provided fascinating insight into the nomination process. And on the week of San Diego Comic Con, for the third year, we at the Comics Alternative Blog present a series of insights and comments about the 2016 Eisner Awards nominees from a few comics scholars, critics, and members of our Comics Alternative community. Thank you to all who contributed!

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Each year I run my eyes over the list of Eisner nominees and am thrilled by the range of categories and the numerous opportunities they afford to recognize and honor comics and their creators. The Eisner Awards are a pretty wonderful interlude in any given year, because they allow us to pause, reflect, remember, and celebrate. My congratulations to all nominees. Every nomination in 2016 is well-deserved. I have no idea how voters are able to choose.

Still, I have a wish. One wish. I am a passionate person, or so they say. The passions of artists are both well-known and overblown by reputation, but they are real. Sometimes those passions spill over into our work. Sometimes, lots of times, comics get directly involved in the social world that forms their milieu. This happens when their creators are genuinely committed to a vision of something better. Sometimes artists satirize our vain, powerful, and venal leaders. Sometimes they expose evil within our communities, shining a powerful light and drowning it in shame. Sometimes artists simply tell the story, letting it speak for itself, tragic or inspiring as it may be. The history of socially, politically, and/or morally engaged comics spans centuries of protest art, and I wish the Eisner Awards would recognize this.

'Child Soldier' by Chikwanine, Humphreys, & Davila (Kids Can Press)

‘Child Soldier’ by Chikwanine, Humphreys, & Davila (Kids Can Press)

I suggest introducing an award for “Comic or Graphic Novel Most Likely to Change the World.” If that seems too blunt, then we could add a note of sophistication by naming the category “Best Engagé.” This award should be considered apart from “Best Reality-Based Comic,” since “reality-based” is not the same as “most likely to change the world.” In my dream category, we could recognize the moral and political passions of writers and artists who have an axe to grind, and the talent and skill to educate a reading public, focusing its indignation on righting the wrongs of this world.

Just eyeballing this year’s list, several candidates immediately jump out, including Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, March: Book Two, and Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor.

I’m sure you can think of a number of candidates as well. Why isn’t this category already represented in the Eisner Awards? When artists and writers can harmonize emotion and technical skill in the service of the greater good, then we have gold. Let’s honor it.

Beth Davies-Stofka, Ph.D. – Chair of Liberal Studies and College Prep at Colorado Community Colleges Online, and a founding member of the Comics Studies Society (http://www.comicssociety.org/) and Sacred and Sequential (http://sacredandsequential.org)

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On Best Artist nominee Joëlle Jones:

'Lady Killer' by Joelle Jones & Jamie S. Rich (Dark Horse)

‘Lady Killer’ by Joelle Jones & Jamie S. Rich (Dark Horse)

For those of us that weren’t around for the mid-20th century, Lady Killer is an evocative treat. With the fashionable midcentury domesticity of TV’s Mad Men and the gory grit one might find in the work of, let’s say the Grell/Giordano run of Green Arrow, Joëlle Jones draws a captivating juxtaposition of the housewife and the assassin; the pressure of life at home and the thrill of extra-familial adventures. This book is all about retroactive girl power. Let’s be honest, there were probably plenty of women of the 60s, like Jones’s hero Josie Schuller, slicing their way all the way to gender equality, but it is so rare we see them as anything more than a pretty dress and/or a conquest. Not in this book! Joëlle Jones draws Jackie O with a license to kill and boy is it fun. You go girl!

Nick Bridwell – Novelist, freelance writer

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In a recent article Philip Nel points out that “picture books and comics are kin: adjacent branches of the same literary-artistic family tree, cousins with slightly different expectations of their readers.” This observation should come in handy for anyone encountering the five nominees in the Eisner category, “Best Publication for Early Readers.” Formal experimentation predominates, with only two of the texts, SheHeWe by Lee Nordling and Meritxell Bosch and Guojing’s The Only Child, consistently conforming to a traditional waffle panel pattern on most of their pages. If I had to classify the rest of the books, I would use “hybrid comic,” a term that I first heard back in 2008 in reference to Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), which won the Caldecott Medal for the best illustrated book for children, aged 0-14. Although the rules made it clear that Selznick’s 533-page, text-heavy book met the award’s criteria, based upon its illustrated sequences, many librarians and teachers pointed to the number of traditionally-structured picture books that had previously won the award, and cried “Foul!” A year earlier, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival also generated heated discussion, as the author termed his creation a picture book, but most scholars designated it as a hybrid comic or a graphic novel. Even though the line between picture book and comic has blurred significantly, there is undoubtedly an opportunity for scholars to identify patterns that continue to emerge out of the early reader category.

'The Only Child' by GuoJing (Schwartz & Wade)

‘The Only Child’ by GuoJing (Schwartz & Wade)

Nordling and Bosch’s SheHeWe, Hatke’s Little Robot, and Guojing’s The Only Child are wordless comics, while Liniers’ Written and Drawn by Henrietta and Roques and Dormal’s Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion present titular heroines who have very emphatic and intense verbal presences. Andy Wolverton and I selected Ben Hatke and Guojing’s comics for review on the Young Readers podcast, and each presents a very young, very determined girl who copes with loneliness and lack by forging a relationship with a magical creature. However, the fantastic appears in the other nominees via dreamscapes, imaginary worlds, and parallel points of view.

I’m sure that we all have books that we think should have been nominated, but I’m a bit surprised at the absence of Holmes and Yang’s Secret Coders, as well as Lendler and Giallongo’s The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Romeo and Juliet, from the Best Publication for Kids category. On the other hand, I’m really excited that Vaughan and Chiang’s Paper Girls is being recognized in the Best New Series category, and there are so many amazing books that feature young women, including the hilarious, over-the-top Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, by North and Henderson. I’ve got to start ordering my course texts for next year…and that process is, I assure you, my own mini-Eisner ceremony!

Gwen Tarbox – Associate Professor of English at Western Michigan University and Comics Alternative Young Readers Podcast Co-Host (w/ Andy Wolverton)

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Writing from a European perspective, I won’t try to engage in pinpointing important oversights or omissions in the Eisner award nominees: I am way too unfamiliar with the selection procedure and larger history of the awards to make any judgements on that level. Moreover, I’ve found it frustrating to keep pointing a wagging finger at one or the other omission, unless it is backed up with sound arguments of course. Not being a U.S.-based reader, I am unfamiliar with many of the titles selected and I could not pretend to give any insightful judgement on the whole selection. And so, apologies if that is going to be a frustrating comment with a limited view, but I’ve chosen to focus on a single selected work as a springboard to think more generally about the Eisner awards categorization. Of course, categories are always tricky, they have fuzzy borders and it is an easy thing to criticize.

While I think that the specific breakdown does globally work very well, accounting for many different facets, works and actors of the comics world, with a keen eye for both mainstream and alternative comics, I also do think that it falls short to take into account the fringes and that is has trouble coping with an increasingly diversified and transnational comics market. The Eisner Awards are explicitly U.S.-focused, yet they keep a clear openness to foreign comics: the basic criteria for eligibility is that a work needs to be distributed in the US. The website mentions that “these works are eligible in all of the regular categories as well as in the specific categories of Best U.S. Edition of International Material” – this shows a certain openness but also some ambiguity.

'Mowgli's Mirror' by Olivier Schrauwen (Big Planet/Retrofit)

‘Mowgli’s Mirror’ by Olivier Schrauwen (Big Planet/Retrofit)

That one example I want to take is Olivier Schrauwen’s Mowgli’s Mirror, published by Retrofit/Big Planet in 2015, which is the American edition of the 2014 book co-published by Mmmnnnrrrg in Portugal and Huuda Huuda in Finland. These issues, all in the same format, are themselves revised editions of a first artisanal version published in 2011 by Ouvroir Humoir as a nicely crafted book with double-folded pages. This publishing history begs to ask why Mowgli’s Mirror was included in the “Best Single Issue/One-Shot” category: it could have equally fit into the “Best U.S. Edition of International Material,” but the thing is that we are not dealing with a bound book, rather a stapled pamphlet (albeit a large one), while the “Best U.S. Edition of International Material” only includes books with a spine. The “Single Issue/One-Shot” category turns out be a melting pot of both mainstream, alternative and in-between works based on their material format. Taking into account the first version of Mowgli’s Mirror as an actual art book, one could wonder whether it does make sense to include it here. At the same time, it does fit nicely among stapled comics as Schrauwen is definitely attached to the small-press scene: by making of distribution its prime selection factor, however, the Eisner awards also seem to miss out on the larger and extremely dynamic scene of self-published zines and minicomics – from which stuff like Schrauwen’s work often emerge.

Benoît Crucifix – FRS-FNRS doctoral fellow at University of Liège/UCLouvain in Comics Studies – Working on Authors’s Histories of Comics

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As a literacy researcher and educator, I watch the Eisners every year interested in how the list of nominees and winners serves as a document of the state of the medium, one meaningful dipstick measure of how critical attention to comics looks in a certain time.

Much commentary surrounding 2016’s Eisner’s nominees has applauded the largest ever representation of women creators, an indication of the general diversifying of not only the Eisners, but comics at large. This is indeed worth celebrating, especially in the wake of Angouleme’s failure to recognize a single woman in their initial list of thirty Grand Prix nominees. (Even in apology, Angouleme continued to overlook comics’ diverse legacies, buttressed by illusions of historical objectivity against the “discrimination positive” that might compel a more inclusive list.)What speaks to me about this year’s list of Eisner nominees is that their acknowledgement of diversity is not only effortless, it’s transparent.  The Eisner nominees being more diverse is not just a rose-colored lens on the comics of today. Rather, it’s a patent fact that applies not only to nominated creators’ gender and ethnic, linguistic, and other identifies, but various affinities in artistic media and storytelling genre, distribution platforms, target audience and readership. Contrast the best artist nominees of 2006, just a decade ago, a list that includes John Cassaday, Gene Ha, J.G. Jones, Frank Quitely, and J.H. Williams III. A distinguished collection of artists to be sure, with distinguished artistry each distinctively distinguished. But nowhere near the variety of aesthetic sensibilities, robust representational range, and spectra of fanbases of this year’s artist nominees: the rakish weirdness of Mike Allred, the polished boldness of Cliff Chiang, the effervescent enthusiasm of Erica Henderson, the barbarian exquisiteness of Joëlle Jones, and the soulful languor of Nate Powell.

Or consider the Best Short Story, a useful category to sample the range of sources from which the Eisner committees draw selections. 2016 includes nominees from Vertigo Quarterly, theoatmeal.com, a 24-hour comics anthology from the Lakes International Comic Festival, a D+Q issue of Tomine’s Optic Nerve, and a First Second graphic novel, Fable Comics. In contrast, 2006’s Short Story nominees came from comics published by IDW, Image, Dark Horse, DC, and La Mano, still a diverse list of publishers, but an artifact of the sense a decade ago that the “significant” comics came from comic publishers and were sold in comic shops. Most aren’t so shortsighted to think that was the reality a decade ago, but my point is that the critical scrutiny encapsulated by the Eisners now takes this assumed heterogeneity for granted.

Of course, pointing out the growing diversity of comics has become as humdrum as arguing that comics aren’t just for kids anymore. But to return to the notion I started with, this year’s Eisners nominations serves as another data point in the long chronicle of how comics have become the creative hotbed of our contemporary cultural landscape. From the U.S.-centric vantage point of the Eisners 2016, comics is Giant Days (witty British university friends) and comics is The Arab of the Future (memoir of a growing up in Gaddafi-era Middle East); comics is Roses in December (daily strip inside the experience of Alzheimers) and comics is The Silver Surfer (Dr. Who-style cosmic herald… with companion!). Comics is Kate Beaton and Nanjing: The Burning City and Walt Kelly’s Fairy Tales.

Let’s raise a glass.

Paul Lai – Comics Alternative Blog Editor, Literacy Researcher at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education.

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Be sure to read some of the 2016 Eisner nominees mentioned by our contributors:
Posted in Awards, Benoît Crucifix, Beth Davies-Stofka, Blog, Comics News, Commentary, Eisner Awards, Gwen Tarbox, Nick Bridwell, Paul Lai, Scholarship Tagged with: , , ,