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The 2009 Eisner Nominees for Best Digital Comic

I’m back! Well, sorta. I’m still in vacation mode. Plus, the powercord on my 5-year old PowerBook has given up the ghost and transformed from life-giving supplier of electrons to major fire hazard. I am still awaiting my replacement, which should be arriving from Hong Kong in a while (provided that it wasn’t hijacked by pirates or nothin’).

Anyway, the one big piece of news regarding webcomics is that the nominees for the the Eisner Awards are out! Here they are, via ComixTalk:

Elle Dee at Storming the Tower is a little disappointed that the Eisner noms are a bit obscure. I admit that I haven’t read any of these myself, though I’ve heard good things about The Lady’s Murder and I am impressed by Shadowline’s catalogue. Personally, I think it’s a great sign of the Eisner’s growing awareness of webcomics as a medium. When you start nominating the obscure titles, then that mean’s you’re paying attention.

Plus, the lack of a blockbuster name (like last year’s Joss Whedon) to me at least signals that the award will probably go to a title that deserves it rather than giving a celebrity a consolation prize.

I plan on doing an overview of these titles at some point here on The Webcomic Overlook. Keep your eyes open!

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on April 10, 2009, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. How about you make that overview so that it includes these red flags:

    – the comic is hosted, not on a creator designed site
    – the URL is the creator’s name, not the comic’s
    – there are repeat names in the list (also-rans from last year)
    – the credentials of the judges (who you can identify with a bit of research) are highly removed from webcomics
    – past winners include people who have publicly described lobbying the key players
    – the judges don’t recuse themselves when they are connected to people they know
    – in recent years, the body has given the award to comics parked on the web, that are not webcomics in a real sense

    BTW, this stuff gives the lie to the pundits who run around proclaiming “A webcomic is a comic on the web.” Not so. Thor #324 scanned and parked on the web is not a webcomic, no matter what is written by know-it-alls in the wikis. Neither are some recent Eisner winners. (For the record, a webcomic combines the technologies of the internet to offer a comic in the medium so that it best presents and enhances the comic.)

    I’m free to say these things without that nagging sense of compromising my future because we continue to practice a no awards, no thanks policy that keeps us out of the shenanigans. It’s liberating, and I recommend it.

    I regret I don’t have time to pursue this story myself, and hope some of you others will run with it. I am curious to know exactly how fast Will Eisner is spinning in his grave.

    These things always go corrupt. The difference is that now it happens faster than ever. There is no active webcomic award which actually succeeds at doing what it pretends to do. It would be astonishing if there was.

    Someone, follow this one up. I’ve got stuff going back years, yours for the asking.

    • Hmmm… I’ll think about it. I was mainly going to review the comics mainly on the merits of their content. Perhaps I could do a post-analysis of the winners and the odds-on after the winner is announced. This year, it’s not so obvious as the last ones.

  2. I enjoyed Bodyworld

    • I’ve read Chapter 1 and so far I’m oddly drawn to it. The art style reminds me a lot of Dan Clowes. Surprising, since I not the sort of person who follows indie-looking comics.

  3. Gee, your comment surprises me, ES. What could be more indie than webcomics?

    Or is “indie” your term for the whole Fantagraphics/D&Q comic scene?

    I never know what to call it. Lynda Barry seems to like the term “art comics.” I’m not endorsing that, just mentioning it.

    • I think you nailed it on the Fantagraphics thing. It’s true: by definition, webcomics are indie comics. But, say you go up to your typical comic book fan and ask them what they think of indie comics. Usually, their mind comes to Fantagraphics or some of the Kitchen Sink stuff from the 70’s. They probably wouldn’t mention Penny Arcade.

      I liken it to saying “indie film.” Technically, Star Wars was an indie film (or at least Lucas would have you believe it in his documentaries), but that’s not the first thing to come to mind when you use the term. Most people would think of Pi, Little Miss Sunshine, or Juno. In this sense, “indie” encapsulates a style and attitude rather than a business model.

      Perhaps I should be using “Art Comics” just to dissipate the confusion, though. 🙂

  4. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t miss the term “webcomics.”

    You might find it interesting to scan Lynda Barry’s intro to the latest “Best American Comics” anthology, as well as the comments by the two people who actually selected the finalists. It can be hard not to like Lynda Barry, but she’s coming from a different direction than some of us have seen, and in some ways it’s a direction that’s all too familiar, involving the idea of a fringe scene where those who have become “famous” scratch each other’s backs. That’s not how good comics get made, and it’s probably why there are only a few decent comics in the anthology. Or else she has really bad taste.

    And the question: When was the last time you saw an indie print comic name comment on a webcomic blog or somehow join in? I follow Fanta and D&Q fairly closely (Fanta prints a lot of stuff I don’t like). But if I saw Charles Burns or Joe Matt leave a comment on a webcomic, I’d be astonished. My impression is many of us read them, but not many of them read even the best we have to offer.

    This brings us back to the Eisners which shows tantalizing hints of reading more broadly but no confirmation. It’s nice of them to tack a digital comic category onto the roster, but I think if there had to be an award, I’d rather see if come from a three hour conference call involving ten people who read 80 web titles or more each, and have been at it for years. The choices would often be arguably wrong, but it would self-correct over time and have a lot more credibility to me. Dismal, false choices would not happen. Just get people without any agenda except recognizing durable, memorable comics.

  5. Finder is fucking awesome and I’m very disappointed that it’s apparently some kind of super-obscure title that nobody has ever heard of. It’s a travesty! A travesty I say!

    It’s also kind of weird because now that I think about it, Douglas Wolk had a chapter about it in Reading Comics.

    I guess I come at it from the opposite angle, which is that you all should know what Finder is ’cause it’s really really really good, and if the Eisner awards can do that, then that’s good thing.

    I admit, I’m not exactly the king of knowing about comics either; there’s lots of great stuff I haven’t read or heard of. It’s just that it sort of irks me to hear people kind of dismiss a comic I know is excellent just because they’ve never heard of it.

  6. @Christopher

    Speaking only for myself: A comic hosted on a publisher’s site does not meet my notion of a webcomic, though it might serve well enough for this or that award circle.

    The reason is that webcomics are a combination of skills and are more demanding that most people realize. One must be artist, writer, colorist, letterer, promoter, optimizer, designer, programmer, editor, and so on. It’s hardly fair for a publisher to stick a comic on its website and relieve it of most of those duties, in hopes in will garner an award. When you have ten thousand webcomics but a few publisher sponsored titles with low readership online keep winning awards, the Eisners are saying they have ventured into a medium they don’t understand. In my mind, this voids whatever authority they claim.

    I don’t take awards on principle, by the way, Christopher, FYI. Not to be holier-than-anyone, but because they do more damage than good. I’d be thrilled to see other comic creators take a similar position, so they can also talk freely without feeling they can’t insult the award gods. How often people say to me, “Yeah, the Eisners are a joke,” but they don’t ever say it publicly. That’s the kind of damage I mean: besides the corporate winners and hacks who lobbied their fat asses off, people actually live in fear of an institution that offers nothing of substance, and become hypocrites.

  7. Well I certainly concur with what Bengo’s been saying. I mean, most awards in the arts a total crock to begin with, but comics awards seem to take it to a new level. I started reading that “Finder” comic, and it was pretty good, but then you find out the art is unfinished in the second half; like, it’s just sketches (unless it’s some sort of avant-garde postmodern statement that i’m not picking up on). Either its nomination is a wholehearted endorsement of not actually finishing your comic, or the awards are a halfhearted mess. Either way, they’re simply not to be taken seriously.

  8. First time I comment here, though I’ve been reading this blog for a few weeks (great reviews, by the way).

    I will start this off by saying that I had never heard much about the Eisner Awards before, and much less of the politics behind them, owing to the facts that (1) I’m not a comic artist; (2) I’m not American; and (3) my mother tongue is French, so as a kid I was reading the classic European comics like Tintin and Asterix, not staples of the US comic industry (except Disney stuff, most of it made in Italy anyway; and Garfield).

    The European comics with which I am familiar all seem to share one point: They are made, primarily, for entertainment. At their most profound they dealt in social satire, but they always kept an eye on storytelling. The premises might have been simple, but the plots were intricate. So the comic book is a respected and profitable industry, and it prides itself on universal appeal.

    Now we get to American comics. My traditional impression of an American comic has always been Garfield, because I used to read it in book form as a child. The simplicity of the premise, the starkness of its visual style and its emphasis on running gags appealed to me (until it really became repetitive). When I think of American comics, I think of the strips in the newspaper, some of which appear to come out of jars full of formaldehyde. In longer form, I think of offerings like Archie Comics: unpretentious, brain-dead, and crassly commercial in a retrograde sort of way.

    It would seem the Eisners won’t touch that stuff, even though what they reward is just as commercial as the rest, but in a far nerdier trend. Why is that? Is it because newspaper strips are awful (and for the most part, they are) and that Archie stuff is just dreck (it is)? Why then does the list of past Eisner winners include so much DC-Marvel franchise stuff, which is all but commercial when taken at face value? Is it a case of the industry looking after its own?

    I wish it were that simple, but the problem, as with all such awards, is that artistic considerations get added on top. The release of the Watchmen film brought that back in the mainstream, but as amazing as it may sound, I had never heard of Watchmen until I heard of the film. Afterwards, I couldn’t spend a day without either seeing someone clutching a copy of the book or reading a review discussing it (the comic, not the film) online. All I hear about is how profound Watchmen is — which would make it one of those rare gems that are both profound and commercial — yet for all its popularity I don’t see it as anything other than niche. Not surprisingly, it won a few Eisners.

    It’s one thing to cater to one particular niche; it’s another to pretend to cater to it while pretending you’re casting a wider net. The Hugos and Nebulas, just to mention those, exist specifically because science fiction is seen as the poor cousin of literature, unlikely to be rewarded when competing against more literary forms of writing. Yet what do the Eisners claim to be? “The Oscars of comics”. Rather apropos if we consider that entire volumes have been written on Oscar biases and industry lobbying (ironically, when hearing the name Eisner, my mind turns not to Will, but to Michael, wrecker of Disney); it’s the same hypocrisy of pretending you’re rewarding the very best only to go for the same easy choices all the time, while being dominated by industry politics.

    As much as American manga (or manga from anywhere outside of Japan, really) might be a travesty, why is it conspicuously absent from Eisner winners? Why are there so few female Eisner winners, or women in its hall of fame? Why did Alan Moore (a Briton, if you wanted to nitpick) win almost half of the writing awards? Allow a guy to win your awards a few times, and you’re recognizing his talent; allow him to win too often, and that means the pool is too small, the judges too unimaginative, or what you really wanted was to have the guy win in the first place.

    Best way to do that is to frame the categories to make sure only a certain type of comic wins. Just look at the other categories: How many times do the words “story”, “series”, “anthology” and “album” appear? In virtually every category. How many times does the word “strip” appear? Nowhere, except for anthologies. Newspaper strips are not comics anymore? In how many categories could your average newspaper strip appear as a contender? In fact, the archival categories seem to exist only to make those guys not feel left out; the only way you could reward Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes amidst all the superhero-in-a-dystopia clones. Yet I suspect that your average newspaper comic strip, even though it might appear to be a time capsule from 1947, has a far wider range than any of DC and Marvel’s intellectual property outside their respective fandoms.

    That’s where the term “artistic” comes in. Newspaper comic strips aren’t art; they’re in there for a chuckle or two, but they are supposed to be mere properties, with sons of their deceased creators continuing to milk their forbear’s cash cow. How is Batman different from that, I don’t know. But Batman, if the Eisners are to be believed, should be regarded as art, which Dilbert shouldn’t (even though it speaks more volumes about today’s corporate mentality than DC ever would if it developed an Alfred-reads-Lenin spin-off). Yet the irony of the Eisners isn’t just that something should be artistic, but someone ought to be making money with it.

    In fact, they should just drop the word “comic”, with the one they really seem to favour, the “graphic novel”. It would already be more honest. And it could be even more honest about its pedigree by dispensing us with appointing figures like Tezuka or Hergé to its hall of fame. I’m all for rewarding obscure figures in the history of comics and give them the same prominence as luminaries like Winsor McKay, but some of the people in that hall of fame, while not being household names, never created anything of their own. Does redrawing classic DC characters count?

    So we get to “digital comics”. Only one I ever read in there is PvP, your average gaming comic just slightly more palatable than the 800-pound gorilla in the genre, Penny Arcade. Why didn’t PA win, then? Could it be because Image Comics picked PvP up, whereas Penny Arcade went on its own? As for the others, Sam & Max doesn’t count, it dating back to 1987 (reminds me of the time a translation of a 25-year-old book was being considered for a prestigious literary award), and Joss Whedon is a star with a Dark Horse-affiliated comic, neither of which should mean anything.

    This year’s contenders, I don’t know a single one of them, and based on other reactions, they would seem to be on the obscure side indeed. Now, I’m not expecting a popular comic to necessarily be good (see Ctrl+Alt+Del as an example of a popular bad one), but if we are to reward the best “digital comics”, they ought at least to ring a bell to regular webcomic readers (as I am). If they are worthy of recognition, add a new category for emerging webcomics. But these five choices don’t represent an appropriate cross-section of webcomics.

    If anything, they seem (can’t speak for “Finder”; won’t load) to have been chosen because they fit squarely within comic fanboy territory (science fiction, except for The Lady’s Murder), featuring the usual stark realist drawing style (except for Lady’s Murder, which seems to be a pastiche of Gorey, and Bodyworld, whose inspirations I’m not sure of). Yet these five obscure titles are supposed to be the five most worthy digital comics out there?

    Unfortunately, there’s all that “artsy” pretense surrounding all this which makes you wonder why PvP won the thing just three years ago. If any of this year’s nominees had been drawn in “xkcd” or OOTS-style stick figures, would they ever have been given the nod? I’m sure that there is room out there for artistic webcomics, but I’m getting the impression (this as someone who can’t draw and who tends to be attracted to the writing side of webcomics instead) that appearance trumps the writing according to the Eisners. I’m not sure Hergé was setting out to draw masterpieces worthy of the Louvre when he wrote his Tintin albums (even though he was a stickler for accuracy), and if he is still read today it’s because of his plots. Where do the Eisners stand on this?

    I’ll stop here, since I’ve probably taxed your patience long enough.

  9. Penny Arcade did win, as did PvP, further revealing the intellectual barrenness of the award. PA’s role as judges help explain how a mediocrity like Kurtz won.

    Choosing “Digital Comics” was an obvious sop to commercial interests.

    Newspaper comics here have been in decline for decades. Some of the bet comics ever produced were certain newspaper comics before, say, 1970. Vintage Peanuts, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers and Dick Tracy are a few examples.

    About commercial influence? This, from their web site:

    In addition to Comic-Con’s underwriting, this program could not have continued without the generosity of its sponsors over the years, especially longtime supporters Diamond Comic Distributors, Quebecor Printing, Joe Field’s Flying Colors, Joe Ferrara’s Atlantis Fantasyworld, Ralph Mathieu’s Alternate Reality, Rory Root’s Comic Relief, and Nancy McCann’s Comics Unlimited, and major sponsor mycomicshop.com.

    • Thanks for the comment, Vetty! Don’t worry about going too long… I think the comments on this site thus far that have the most value are the ones where the writer explains themselves.

      Your comment gives me a lot to think about, and I might have to follow up on that in post some day. However, on the subject of comic strips: it’s true that the Eisner doesn’t have a comic strip award (and it gave up on the Comic Strip Collection Award after 1993). Its Sister Award, the Harvey Awards, though, do have a category for Best Syndicated Strip or Panel. Here, you can see the perils of doing this sort of award: for six years it was all Calvin and Hobbes, and from 1998 afterwards it was dominated by Mutts (which, in my opinion, isn’t that great).

      Bengo, above, is right: in America, comic strips have been becoming irrelevant for a long time. You rarely see anything new and exciting happening in comic strips anymore. I’m wondering if Europe has embraced this medium while the US liet it fall by the wayside. In a way, webcomics have taken the mantle of short-form humor, but, as you observed, the Eisners are ill-equipped for that.

      Anyway, no Award is ever without controversy… and the more participants are in a certain medium, the higher the controversy. (Witness: the Grammys.) Even the Hugos are not safe: I remember a huge controversy erupting in 2001 when Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire won. And there’s always the ongoing debate of big media influence, whether or not a novel fits the definition of science fiction or fantasy, or whether these sorts of novels should be separated from the category of literature in the first place.

      However, it could be said that the true positive effect of these awards is to jumpstart these kinds of discussions in the first place. 🙂

  10. Either its nomination is a wholehearted endorsement of not actually finishing your comic, or the awards are a halfhearted mess. Either way, they’re simply not to be taken seriously.

    Another possibility is that it’s based partly on the 8 or so trade paperbacks that Carla Speed McNeil self-published.

    Finder, if I’m not mistaken, is only a webcomic because McNeil couldn’t find a publisher and self-publishing got too expensive for her.

    I said this back when Sam & Max got that Eisner webcomic award in spite of being really pretty mediocre. Steve Purcell’s print work is actually really excellent, and I can’t help wonder if it’s like that thing where they give an Oscar to a great director for one of his mediocre movies as an apology for passing up his really brilliant movies.

    You know, it may be surprising, but I do agree that it’s clear that the Eisner’s haven’t got a fucking clue about webcomics. But as much as people put on this boilerplate “Oh I’m not saying an unpopular comic can’t be good” there seems to be this attitude that if you haven’t heard of it then of course it must be obscure for a reason and obviously it can’t be better then the good stuff that lots of people have heard of.

    I just started reading American Splendor after recently seeing the movie, and Harvey Pekar is a really excellent writer. But if not for a chance meeting with R. Crumb, he might never have started writing and nobody would ever know how good he is. There have to be lots of geniuses out there that never even make it as big as Pekar has.

    All you need to start a webcomic is some art supplies and a way to put the results online. The costs are rock bottom and there are a shitload of webcomics out there to see. I’d say the odds that some undiscovered genius is operating out in the boonies somewhere is actually very, very high.

    This sort of dismissive “Oh, I’ve never heard of them. There must be a reason for that” attitude REALLY bugs me.

    Vetty: The long short of it is that Americans just don’t read comics. That one fact really is the explanation behind everything you’re saying.

    Superheroes dominate comics, pretty much because of that whole “comics code” thing we had. More then that, at some point the people making superhero comics decided that they didn’t want to cater to children anymore. I don’t know why, but when I was a little kid in the early 90s, superhero comics were completely incomprehensible, full of twisted continuity and big crossovers to be continued in books that weren’t sold at the local grocery store (I got my comics when I went shopping with my mother).

    I’m still quite bitter about this.

    In any case, what ended up happening was that you really had no access to comics unless you went to a comics store.

    So, aside from Archie, there really AREN’T any broadly appealing comics known to the American public at large. So comics culture is the property of this weird little insular group that formed mostly from those of us too immature to give up on silly looking guys in tights after we got out of middle school, and the Eisners really reflect that.

  11. I don’t want to hog space, but…

    -trade paperbacks amount to nothing for a digital award, don’t you agree?
    – Americans do read comics, from Canada to Argentina and every American country in between, though some not so much. So do Europeans. Asians call their comics manga and seem happy. *More* Americans would read comics if there were more good comics. Our standards are way too low.
    – Yes, people stampede toward what’s popular, what’s discussed around the water cooler. This is an audience but it’s a quantitative audience of low quality compared to a qualitative audience, which is of higher average quality and just as sufficient, event when smaller. I don’t want the teeming masses to get interested in my comic. It’s not written for them. Then can go read PvP.

  12. Regarding the entire “I haven’t heard of that webcomic, therefore…” situation: While there is undoubtedly a genius out there who has yet to be discovered, the problem in the case of the Internet always one of assessing legitimacy.

    Just consider how easy it is to get a webcomic on the web these days. You don’t even have to pay for hosting it anymore; you can just dump the pages on Comic Genesis or Drunk Duck and as far as accessibility is concerned, you’re on pretty much an equal footing with Penny Arcade or Perry Bible Fellowship. You might get three or three thousand page hits a month, nobody would see a difference.

    But the thing is, do you imagine the Eisner judges going through Drunk Duck for those hidden gems (if any)? No. Yet they come up with five strips which (based on web rankings mentioned at Storming the Tower) are obscure among the webcomic reading public. This isn’t a judgement on their quality, just a question on how they were chosen. Circulation, if anything, does not seem to have been a criteria in this discussion. I’m tempted to go with Bengo’s initial mention of red flags surrounding hosted comics and URL’s with the creator’s name.

    As for the Comics Code, didn’t Hollywood have something like that, much sooner in fact? Still, you have many classic films from the time of the Hays Code. Censorship is censorship, but at the same time, you read what the Comics Code wanted to legislate against, and it’s still part of that same crime/fantasy/horror/science fiction tradition. They just cleaned up the major genres; it didn’t make an Iznogoud appear overnight.

    And that’s why I can’t reconcile that with what is being done in Europe (I’m Canadian, but it’s all widely available here), which is far less lurid without any of that Archie wholesomeness. With America’s interest in Westerns, why are some of the finest Western comics European (Lucky Luke, Blueberry)? Sure, you have fine Western novelists and splendid Western films (with maybe only Spaghetti Westerns to rival with them). But American Western comics? The stuff which comes to mind is the Lone Ranger, which just follows the “superhero with spurs” format. And despite the European fascination for it, it’s your history.

    I remember reading on another site (maybe it’s linked from here; not sure where I saw it) something to the effect that American comics could be described thus: Characters that existed purely as plot devices, and plots that only existed to justify action scenes. This would explain why the American comic always appears to me as utterly humourless (outside of Archie (!) and newspaper comic strips, which as a few of you said don’t count anymore), and its average reader as an ultra-serious nerd immortalized by the comic book guy on The Simpsons.

    By the way, I found out that a week or so before the Eisner nominations were announced, Canada’s “Joe Shuster Awards” (an equivalent, I’m guessing) announced its nominees:

    http://joeshusterawards.com/2009/04/02/nominations-for-the-2009-joe-shuster-awards/

    That it should be named after a Canadian who rose to fame in the United States is, well, a distinctly Canadian trait; so are the nominees. First, I’m surprised they nominate both French- and English-language artists, and in the same categories at that. But beyond that, the French-language nominees are either published by home-grown or European (Dupuis, Casterman) companies, whereas the English-language nominees are overwhelmingly published by the American usual suspects, which makes the whole affair rather a nomination-by-passport thing. Makes the genuine Canadian publisher look as though they’re published in samizdat. And bengo won’t be surprised to learn that the sponsors of the Shusters are some of the same guys funding the Eisners.

    Oh, and they also have a webcomic category, which at first glance seems a lot more balanced in its nominations, from the mainstream (how “Ménage à 3” got a nod, I have no idea) to the rather more ambitious. And most of these choices seem far closer to the general idea of a webcomic than anything nominated by the Eisners.

  13. Great comment.

    I understand they need to have a budget, and “corporate” does not = evil, but I am curious how the full time staff person spends her time. I’m sure there are many tasks I would not expect, but it seems like there would be enough time to keep up on happenings from a creator point of view, and thus avoid making some (many?) of us think they are out of touch.

    Her name is Jackie Estrada, and she has been with them since 1990. Maybe she would be a good person for one of the blogs to interview? I’ve heard her described as an approachable person.

  1. Pingback: The Gigcast » Blog Archive » Webcomic Wire - 4/17/09

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