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TCJ On-Line Essay About Various Comics Awards
posted July 8, 1999
Arts awards are generally useless. In healthier industries surrounding other art forms, such as the film and recording businesses, awards may hold temporary and significant financial value of the kind comics may never hope to match. A uselessness comics shares with those other industries is that the real reputation of artists and their art is mostly made apart from awards: partly in the public consciousness and partly in critical dialogue taking place in magazines and academia. Awards impress fewer people than ever in today's cynical world. At most, awards are one voice in a continuing dialogue about the value of art. So any discussion of the current state of comics awards is predicated by the fact that they are not in any way the last word about what is best in the art form. There are many things that The Comics Journal has found important over the years; comics awards are not one of them.
However, since comics has such a bizarre relationship with its more artistic side, and the economic conditions are generally so depraved for the majority of its practitioners, comics awards can be useful in helping shame retailers into acknowledging the existence of a once-a-generation talent (Chris Ware) or in making another step in the sort of best-foot-forward campaign of comics awareness that may one day yield comics a healthier place in the realm of arts commerce (although I'm skeptical about this happening). In other words, comics awards are a subject worth talking about, but not one worth getting angry about.
Rather than obliquely detailing the issues surrounding awards in general, I'd rather prescribe concrete improvements to the existing awards programs. If all of my suggestions are taken, the root problems of comics won't be solved, but we'll have three more effective awards programs, a not insubstantial thing.
Let's face it, the Eisner Awards are the big magilla going right now, as far as comics awards. They're not far off in comparing themselves to the Academy Awards in terms of their relative stature within most of the industry good and bad. They take place at the biggest venue (San Diego's Comic-Con International), enjoy the most professional attendees as a result, have the biggest promotional budget and most effective press relationship. Will Eisner is a widely-respected, well-regarded figure whose physical presence keeps the participants from sabotaging the proceedings to any great extent. And by including industry folks in the voting process, it enjoys the widest support from comics' supportive "community."
The biggest problem with the Eisners is its method of nominations, done by a committee named yearly based on industry "role": professional, store owner, fan, journalist and industry member. This James Watt-style voting procedure probably does what it sets out to do: reinforces the egalitarian notion of the Eisners by the appeal of its constituent formula, and also by allowing for yearly shake-ups of the nominations due to the whims of a brand-new committee. The problem is that the Eisners vary a little too much year to year, but not in an interesting or useful way. Only certain kinds of books tend to suffer. Anyone with a halfway working knowledge of the comics industry can look at the makeup of a specific nominating committee and judge how well the arts/alternative end of the industry is going to be represented in the final nominations. If your view is a touch more nuanced, you can tell if the high-genre/independent wing of the industry will do well. The end result of new committees every time out isn't a wildly different vote every year, but a consistent match-up of broadly-regarded favorites and hapless "outsider" contenders, whether very alternative, or obscure yet genre-based.
Structural difficulties are the toughest to overcome. The answer is probably either abandoning the committee system for a two-tiered voting process (the Eisners certainly have the financial resources to solicit two votes) or to find some way to put stability into the committee (rotating memberships, like a school-board, perhaps) so that people are no longer high-fiving their co-workers based on a press release of committee make-up six months before the awards. For many reasons, not the least of which is having to admit there may be a problem in the first place, this isn't likely to happen, at least not soon.
So in the meantime, I'd like to make another suggestion. A concrete change in the Eisners that would be much easier to make is to eliminate all awards that have nothing to do with the comics medium. They are: "Best Comics-Related Periodical," "Best Comics-Related Book Publication," "Best Comics-Related Product/Item," and "Best Comics-Related Sculpted Figures." I don't wish to sound ungrateful, because the Journal has benefited in some ways by receiving the last three awards in "Best Comics-Related Periodical." I also realize it's just plain nice to get awards, making it difficult to deny this real pleasure to people for the sake of subtly but substantially improving an awards program's effectiveness. But let's face it: awards to non-comics things are just inappropriate, the same way Film Comment doesn't win Academy Awards or Simpsons calendars Emmys. Now that such awards have been expanded to include statues and candy bars, the poor logic at the heart of these categories has become even more apparent. The comics industry, in its desire to include as many people as possible in the passion/hobby of comics reading, has long promoted the idea that anything related to comics is really just the same as making comics. It's not. God bless the statue-makers and magazine-publishers, but there are probably journalistic awards and statue-making awards for which they are very appropriately eligible. The Eisner needs to decide if they're going to represent the medium or if they're going to reinforce their favored-son status in the industry. I don't think they can do both, and I think they underestimate the good will with which they're regarded if they think they have to. Getting rid of the superfluous awards would be a great start. If they want to give out more awards, they should expand into comic strips.
The Harveys suffers in many ways in comparison to the Eisners, from a departed and much-missed namesake to a less attractive venue for its awards ceremony, one which has moved in recent years to a convention of admirable but not vital importance. Its advantages are its saner double-tiered nomination and awards process, and the fact that voting is restricted to participating professionals. This not only yields a healthier final slate of award-winners (I think the final results in recent years are a wider sampling across comics' varied aesthetic camps, from Lynn Johnston to Kurt Busiek to Evan Dorkin to Chris Ware to Frank Miller, with fewer acknowledged shoulder-shruggers and even fewer jaw-droppers), but changes the way the awards are perceived by the winners. Two professionals who have won both Eisners and Harveys in recent years mentioned to me in private conversations on other subjects that the Harveys were specifically valuable to them due to their being the accolades of fellow professionals.
I'm not sure how many of the Harveys' minor difficulties can be adjusted (there really is no competing venue for San Diego, for instance, let alone a counterbalance to Eisner's personality and acknowledged stature), but one thing I'd suggest is now that the awards administration has been stabilized, the Harveys should aggressively pursue more effective relationships with comics companies and the wider professional community. The Harveys have sometimes been criticized as a Fantagraphics-influenced awards program: nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does my own personal experience as a journalist snooping around for this kind of thing and someone with access to FBI goings-on confirm in my mind the awards' fairness, but the awards administrators have excellent reputations, and the awards are sponsored by several comics industry business interests that wouldn't waste their time with a tainted awards program. Beyond that, the final results over the years should really nip any arguments of this type in the bud. Kitchen Sink and DC have as much claim to undue influence as my former employers.
What I do know is that Fantagraphics values the awards enough to help facilitate their freelancers to vote via distribution of voting materials and inclusion of a reminder sheet of eligible FBI titles. And I'm not sure anyone else systematically values the awards as highly, although I recall similar if not more concerted efforts at getting out the vote from individuals at Dark Horse and Marvel when I was working at the Journal. I would challenge the administrators of the Harvey Awards to pursue "getting out the vote" strategies with each major company one company at a time, and via an Internet-related campaign, taking as models successful get-out-the-vote efforts of the past. People in comics are quick to believe any number of conspiracies that work against their self-interest the fact that pros still faithfully vote the Harveys (more than ever last year, I think) shows just how clean they are. But a wider range of participants, and a corresponding sense of these participants, can only emphasize that awards program's most important strength, its voting bloc.
The third awards program that interests me is the Ignatz Awards, given out in conjunction with the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. The awards results at the Ignatzes have been uniformly interesting, as they often represent artists in attendance, and are judged by the vote of an extremely small-press and arts-comic conscious audience. Top to bottom, they're probably the most artistically consistent awards going.
But after attending the awards ceremony in 1998, I would suggest the Ignatzes completely overhaul themselves to become a festival prize. If the Expo is to model itself on European festivals, why not go all the way? While 1998 Ignatz winners such as Chris Ware and Dan Clowes are great artists, they were given awards for work published months before the Expo, and their wins in no way added to the charming collective-effort atmosphere of the show. The current Ignatzes should be scrapped in favor of awards given to those works which make their debut either at the show or directly preceding the event. This would further enhance the Expo by giving it a buzz of new works "in competition," and the awards would reflect those books everyone is talking about at the show. If knowledgeable voting is a concern, a committee like that of the Cannes film festival could be named, perhaps featuring if only as a figurehead one of the convention's guest of honors (last year's for example, was Max). The program could even award concrete laurels to the victors, say an advertisement in Previews paid for by the awards.
I don't mean in any way to suggest that awards going to great artists is a bad thing. In fact, I think the Expo is going to have to make tough choices about how many bad artists they're going to let into the Expo itself in future years. I'd love to see them screen the exhibitors at some point, although that runs smack in the face of non-judgmental "up with comics" ethos in certain portions of small- and self-publishing. Still, if the Expo is to reach an arts audience outside of comics aficionados, it needs to find a way to let people meet a Dylan Horrocks without having to walk past a room full of moderately-talented amateurs with crude genre mini-comics to get there. And the quality of participants is bound to get worse as the convention grows. But good luck with that one.
Still, as far as the awards go, enough artists are already inclined to debut books at SPX that enhancing the festival aspect of the Expo via the awards could only improve its status as an event. Unlike the other major awards, the Ignatz's primary concern should not be art but the Expo's relationship to art. If they want to add awards to recognize artists' contribution during the year, that can be done in addition to the regular awards. Same with the Eisners recognizing non-comics efforts, come to think of it.
...AND THE REST
As for all the other awards the Goodies, the Snobbies, the Don Thompson awards, the Squiddies, Diamond's awards, the CBG awards, and whatever Wizard is calling theirs they should all be eliminated immediately. Too much white noise is too much white noise.
We'll give a pass to the Reubens, which nonetheless may be the most politicized and specific-aesthetic biased of all comics awards, and the Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning, although most of the recent winners differ very little in the eyes of any but the most avid editorial cartoon followers. We'll allow those awards programs to survive because they enjoy the respect of either an important comics constituency or (to a certain extent) the world-at-large, and each by way of longevity and mainstream credibility have a certain amount of undefinable stature. It's not much, but it's something. None of the comic-book centered awards will even reach that debatably lofty status until they take steps at improving on their strengths rather than playing to inherent industry or professional community weaknesses.
Published by TCJ On-Line, July 8, 1999