Monday, July 23, 2018

On The Eisner Awards

I was happy to see so many women and people of color win Eisners this year, in unprecedented fashion. Indeed, Marjorie Liu, for example, was the first woman to ever win a Best Writer award. Taneka Stotts, Roxane Gay and Alitha Martinez became just the second, third and fourth black women to win Eisners, and Jackie Ormes became the first black woman in the Eisner Hall of Fame. Emil Ferris continued to rack up every award for My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. The slate this year was more skewed this year toward the mainstream than last year's slate, when I was a juror, though it was still quite solid. However, when it came time for voting last year, the people who did the voting chose a lot of the same old things. This was really disappointing, but not surprising. This year, it was surprising to see who won, and I think it might represent a shift in those who are choosing to vote.

For those who don't understand the process, the Eisner Awards are split into current nominees and a Hall of Fame. Six jurors are selected, representing six different categories: a creator, a retailer, an academic, a librarian, a critic and someone related to Comicon itself, representing "the voice of the fan". It's an intense, bonkers process that culminates in a weekend where the jurors meet in San Diego and nominees are chosen for over thirty different categories. Once lists are narrowed a bit, the jurors then vote on a scale of 1-5 (1 is awful, 5 is absolutely outstanding) for each work in each category. The comics or books with the highest scores get nominated.

The Hall of Fame is broken up into two parts. What's important, first of all, is to understand the selection criteria as given to us by the folks who run the Eisners. We were told to select people who have had outstanding achievements and/or influence in creating comic books (which includes floppies and graphic novels but NOT comic strips.) Comic strip artists are considered only if they have had a demonstrable and significant influence on comic books. For example, Milt Gross was inducted last year, and I argued that he had a powerful effect on the artists who would create MAD, among others. I'm not sure this is really a compelling distinction anymore, especially as more work by strip cartoonists from the past is being made public. Also, the Eisners give awards for webcomics, many of which are indistinguishable from comic strips other than the format. I think some of this had to do with not competing with the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben award in the past. For better or worse, the Eisners are now the award most singularly connected to comics as a whole, and I think it's past time the Hall of Fame rules changed to incorporate comics of all kinds under one roof. The election of Charles Addams is a good step in that direction.

That said, here's the process. First, the judges get a choice on artists who are deceased. Most years, they get to select two artists. The process works like it always does: a first ballot is discussed which is influenced by past candidates, who are mentioned as possibilities. Then voting commences. The top two choices are automatically chosen for the Hall of Fame as the jurors' picks. Then a list of candidates is selected for the Hall of Fame which encompasses all eligible artists. That includes deceased artists as well as artists whose career spans at least twenty-five years. This year, that means any artist whose first work was published in 1982 or before is eligible. If you've wondered why more women or alternative-era cartoonists aren't in the Hall, this is one reason why.

Here's the other reason: once the nominees are chosen, it's up to the comics industry to vote on them. That means anyone who has been published as a writer, artist, editor, letterer at any level, as well as retailers. This may be stating the obvious, but there won't be greater diversity in the Eisner award votes without greater representation in comics itself. It is very clear that this year was an example of just that kind of diversity starting to assert itself in a public way. There are a lot of reasons why the creator pool is becoming more diverse, including but not limited to more and a greater variety of comics being available to the public now than at any other time in history; the internet wiping out gatekeeping, both in terms of consumption and creation; and the proliferation of comics schools.

I mention all of this because many are noting that Rumiko Takahashi's entry into the Hall of Fame felt overdue. In a sense, this is true, but one must remember that this was only her fifth year of eligibility. The show awarded her an Inkpot Award in 1994 when she attended the show. It can absolutely be argued that she should have been voted in in her first year of eligibility, but it's also not surprising. Her Ranma 1/2 was one of the first manga series to be widely printed in English in America, but that wasn't until 1992, meaning that older audiences who are voters didn't understand its significance or popularity; indeed, considering that "manga" is still a slur for many comics fans, it was just a matter of time until there was a tipping point of eligible, interested voters. That tipping point is now. The voting this year will not be a blip but rather the start of a trend.

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