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November 15, 2008

Canada Arts Council: Too Late To Add Co-Author Jillian Tamaki To Finalists List

In one of those stories where the fundamental problem and the obvious solution are so simple that describing it feels like diving through 100 mattresses to flick away a pea, the Canada Council of the Arts today declined to consider changing a 2008 awards finalists list for the prestigious Governor General's Literary Awards to include the book's co-author, artist Jillian Tamaki.

imageIt's unclear whether the Council simply made a mistake in not listing Tamaki, is operating under the commonly-held perception fueled by the division of labor in many North American comics and in the contextual culture that emphasizes the writer as primary author, or is operating under an older distinction of words = writing and art = illustration of that writing. According to a statement by CCA Head of Writing and Publishing Melanie Rutledge to the CBC news, it's simply too late for the change to be considered.

This site noted the discrepancy when the nominations were announced on October 21. Writer Mariko Tamaki was named in the children's literature -- text category, and as such received a $1000 cash award and was up for the $25,000 cash award and general prestige due the prize winner when announced November 18.

Cartoonists Seth and Chester Brown sent a letter to the Council on Wednesday, pointing out the discrepancy and asking that a change be made in the list. The Rutledge statement was in response to that letter, signed by comics luminaries such as Art Spiegelman. Seth and Brown made the point that the Council's own juror cited the art as part of the book's literary merit, prestigious reviews did as well, and, if I'm understanding them correctly, that a new category or a tabled objection wasn't necessary because overall literary merit was at issue meaning they simply failed to list a co-author.

Seth told CR he found the Council's response, "Disappointing, but not unexpected. In only my most optimistic moments did I believe they might actually change the nomination and add Jillian's name. Still, I was (and continue) hoping that our protest might cause them to reconsider the separation of text and image in their future nominations in regards to Graphic Novels."

He noted further, "Truthfully, this is a matter that is most shamefully handled in the standard comic book awards themselves. I think it is time that cartoonists who both write and draw stop being nominated for best writer, or best inker or best whatever. It's a hold-over from the assembly line system of commercial cartooning and personally I think it is kind of insulting to nominate say, Dan Clowes as a best letterer in a year where his book may not be nominated. I'd like to throw out all those assembly line categories and just nominate best books. But, that is a different battle.

"In the end, I'm simply gratified to see Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's Skim receive a bit more attention and I hope Mariko wins the Governor General's."

Jillian Tamaki sent along her official statement:

"I am so appreciative of Seth and Chester's letter. They, along with many of the co-signers, are my heroes.

"Graphic Novels are experiencing some growing pains right now, as they are gradually being accepted into the mainstream "Book World". I honestly think that as people come to understand them, and the process behind their creation (discussions like this are significant first steps), these bumps will be smoothed out. The Governor General Awards deserve a great deal of credit for nominating a graphic novel in the first place, and I hope to see more in the future. These are really exciting times to be a comics creator.

"We are having a discussion about comic authorship and the concept of storytelling! That is a huge victory in itself and the intent, I believe, behind the letter."

And added, in her e-mail:

"I have been blown away by the support from the comics community, in the letter but also online. As someone who considers herself a relative comics newcomer, to receive such an acknowledgment from Seth, Chester, and the co-signers is fairly mind-blowing. Many of these creators are the reason I wanted to start doing comics in the first place. Comics people are some of the most passionate, opinionated people that I know and I'm immensely proud to be part of that community."

It's encouraging to hear about comics people sticking up for other comics people, as well as seeing them convinced enough of comics' value as literary work to run the risk of seeming ungrateful to be included in the initial deliberations in the first place. Since it's clear that the voters are capable of judging the work on its complete literary merit above and beyond its attribution, CR can't see any reason why the Council simply can't do the right thing and correct their mistake in leaving off a co-author, and encourage them to do so. They will be lauded for making that move far in excess of any trouble it might bring them.
posted 11:00 am PST | Permalink

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