Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

October 23, 2005

CR Sunday Magazine

MoCCA and Harvey Awards Split

Heidi MacDonald has run a press release from the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art announcing the termination of that institution's relationship with the Harvey Awards -- by what they say is mutual agreement. The museum hosted a Harvey Awards ceremony the last two years in conjunction with their popular early summer Festival in New York City's famous Puck Building, and the year before that enabled a barebones announcement of that year's winners for the then-orphaned awards as basically a part of programming.

This was at its core a strategic financial failure for the Museum. MoCCA Chair Lawrence Klein was always blunt when interviewed that the museum's interest was dependent on the awards bringing money and prestige to their organization. That not only provided the final arbiter of success -- no way this latest development takes place if money was coming in hand over fist -- but it sparked the various difficulties that plagued MoCCA's stewarship. To make the Harveys the event they needed it to be, MoCCA tried to ramp up the ceremony so it was more in line with similar awards programs held in New York City, the kind of shows that can be covered by mainstream press and perhaps, one day, even televised. They acquired food and beverage sponsors, got donations from companies big and small, made fancier the other elements of the awards like the ballots, instituted payment policies for guests of nominees, and attempted to have a grown-up dinner and drinks-type ceremony.

This turned out to be, by nearly every account I've come across, a horrific failure. One contributing element -- but really only one element and don't believe anyone who tells you this is the sole difficulty that doomed the partnership -- is that comics in general is just not suited to a fancy awards program. Comics isn't Big Money and Little Money. It's Some Money and No Money. Attempts to raise funds via sponsorship from some companies that are frequently nominated came up empty because those companies have no money to speak of. Most cartoonists aren't rolling in it to the extent they naturally want to drop money to dress up while on the road during an exhausting art show exhibition weekend and pay money for friends and loved ones to attend that awards ceremony with them. Others, the stars of their own art-hero movies, are outright dismissive of any standard-setting that comes with such a show and wouldn't dream of attending, let alone paying for it.

But as everyone in comics knows, there are awards show that avoid these problems, or at least negotiate around that element of comics culture with bemused grumpiness and the occasional rolled eyes. It's my opinion the MoCCA/Harveys partnershp went from troubled to doomed because MoCCA pushed way too hard for its unrealistic vision of what a comics awards program should and would be, prefered to think in grand strokes rather than take care of amateurishly loose details, and refused to adjust when its first year's show went poorly. That, when combined with the show's failure to reach any supposed new audience that would be attracted to the high-end goings on, was what led to yesterday's announcement, which many have been expecting for more than a year. Half the time it was impossible just to find out who was making what decisions.

It's also important to note that people actively upset by the awards were a relatively limited crowd in scope, and that they drew on a variety of factors, a general feeling of being treated like shit, rather than any specific offense. Various industry folk didn't simply resent being asked to pay to have their dates attend. They resented being asked that on top of the aggressive fundraising and sponsorship seeking that preceded it, against a background of general confusion as to whether or not that kind of attention to the bottom line was, in the long run, a proper way to honor Harvey Kurtzman's great talent and some of the best the art form has to offer. This was exacerbated by some generally poor administration -- ballot typos, representatives on hand to accept awards not acknowledged -- that indicated not getting one's money's worth, and, perhaps even feelings that resentment was being directed at various people in the form of ignoring their wishes. In addition, in at least the first year the proper awards ceremony was held at MoCCA, the policies of paid attendance weren't enforced for everyone, giving these rules an unpleasant, capricious air. When a scaled-down version of the same awards was pursued this last year, amidst detail-light assertions that the first full ceremony hosted by MoCCA lost money, without any attempt to reach out to aggrieved parties, and without a successful strategy to build on what had worked about the previous year's effort -- well, the show seemed kind of doomed in its MoCCA iteration.

My suspicion is that this latest version of the Harvey must have been discouraging enough simply ending them might be appealing. The good news for the Harveys if they want to continue could be that there's a New York Comic-Con now that might concievably host such a show or give an independent ceremony its logical weekend dates. There are also more publishers potentially interested in having a chance to have their graphic novel lines honored. I could be wrong about this but Denis Kitchen and other comics industry-based admirers of Kurtzman may be able to be more fully involved in finding a new home now that MoCCA is out of the picture. This could be it, though. The Harvey Awards could also fade from view, after a fine run. It's not that comics needs another awards shows, but ideas like a pros-only ballot and a New York platform may have enough appeal that if the Harveys enjoy one more try I doubt anyone will object.

Editorial Update: Sarah Dyer wrote in to tell me that they served dinner in Pittsburgh, too, so that wasn't a new thing. Also, that that dinner was better-tasting.

Missed It: Chip Kidd Has a Site


Thanks to Neil Gaiman, I am slightly less ignorant than when I woke up.

Idea of the Week

It would be easy for fans of Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel's The Quitter to dismiss the Onion's refusal to review it as a National Lampoon-style stunt, but hopefully the interesting idea being floated won't be lost due to the provocative nature of the article. I've yet to read The Quitter, but the thought that a rush to a certain format might not flatter the specific skills and aims of certain cartoonists seems to me one worth wrestling. The absolutism that readers and even comics business folk bring to formatting decisions -- "I'm a trades person; I don't care if they ever publish comic books again" -- puts at risk the art of many cartoonists who might work much more effectively in a non-favored manner.

It may be more worrisome for the comics medium than other media. If a stand-up, say, takes a shot at a TV sitcom and finds they're not as well-suited for that as they are for live performance (Margarent Cho, Billy Connolly), they can usually return to those avenues of expression. Comics, where nearly all publishing efforts remain somewhat marginal due to the industry's comparative lack of heft or a giant sucking-off of profits up and away from the division itself, may not support secondary avenues of expression for as long or as effectively as other media. If comics is to gain a permanent toehold in the wider cultural world for its artistic merit, a wide variety of comics seems to better guarantee a long-term stay in the sun.

If It Helps, I Got a Flat Fee, Not a Royalty


I hate talking about my own work here, even peripherally, but I wanted to draw attention to the work of Greg Sadowski on a volume I was lucky enough to edit: The Comics Journal Library Volume 5: Classic Comics Illustrators. The interviews by the likes of Gary Groth and Monte Beauchamp are all high-quality, but now that I have one in my lap I have to say the presentation is pretty stunning for a book like this; the Russ Heath section in particular make me want to run out and buy all his comics. Sadowski is best known in comics circles for his Bernard Krigstein books, and hopefully he'll be around a long time, perhaps in part taking over the whole CJ series himself.

This early cover mock-up has Dave Stevens instead of Russ Heath and Russ Manning -- Stevens asked that his interviews not be included.

This One's For the Fans

I enjoy reading the writer Douglas Wolk's blog, and I was happy to get his opinion on Infinite Crisis #1 recently, as it's one I can test against what I've read of his before and he's generally informed without being overly invested. I was surprised that his mostly positive appraisal of the comic seems based on standards that he probably wouldn't apply to other works, but he does make clear how he approaches such material.

The part that kind of confused me, though, is when Wolk says the book fails as a jumping-on point for new readers. Is there any evidence DC is seeking new readers with this series? There are always a few readers attracted by a big noise, but I'm not sure a play for new readers beyond that is DC's intent. Heck, I didn't even know this first issue was dropping until like the day before, and I'm more informed than the average non-comics reader.

My guess from what they've been saying is that the real jumping-on point will come after this Infinity Crisis "event" with the "one year later" re-start of the various series, entry points that DC probably hopes extend beyond a first issue and reflect a more approachable quality to their books in general. I don't think they can do this, mind you, both from a degree of difficulty point in terms of the kind of storytelling required and the amount of determination and restraint required to keep from going back to the well o' stunts the next time line sales dip a bit. Plus by forcing through such a monstrosity in the current market, and causing competitors to do the same, they're shredding general market tissue that will have to heal, slowing down long-term growth.

In other words, I think Wolk's criticism will eventually apply, just not now.

Go, Read: Tons of Shuck


Sign of the times? Rick Smith has announced the posting of a massive number of his Shuck Comics pages on-line in the hopes to interest readers in buying the print comics.

Go, Read: LA Times on Masters of American Comics Show

This is a measured, smart article on the forthcoming major show in Los Angeles, with the possible exception that some of the people providing quotes don't seem as if they're clued into the full scope of the piece.

I Probably Knew This and Simply Forgot


Bart Beaty, whose writing graces this site in "Conversational Euro-Comics," will release his Fredric Wertham book next month.

Initial Thought of the Day

According to an anecdoted relayed in his new Comics Journal interview, Jerry Robinson's older brother knew a man who saw Napoleon! This completely weirds me out.
posted 9:16 am PST | Permalink

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