Friday, April 10, 2009

Aha! That's What the Controversy Is This Time!

I've been through the judging-an-award mill once before myself, as well as being an observer and kibitzer for many other awards over the years, so I knew that every shortlist -- no matter what award it's for -- will create a controversy. I just didn't know, until now, what the controversy would be for this year's Eisners. (And how major it would be.)

There was a brief flirtation with "Todd Klein was robbed," but that turned out not to be it. [1]

No, the real controversy is that we "ignored" manga. (Heidi MacDonald at The Beat has a good summary, and links to several people who raised the issue, semi-independently.) I'm not sure if there's any reasonable case to be made that we shunned Japanese comics entirely -- besides the possibly-ghettoizing "Best U.S. Edition of International Material - Japan" category, we placed manga projects in "Best Continuing Series," "Best Publication for Kids" and "Best Archival Collection/Project - Comic Books," which to my eye would look even to an outsider like we were considering manga projects across a wide range of categories. (As, indeed, we were.)

Much of this probably comes down to taste -- the five of us certainly didn't entirely agree on what were the best works in any category, so there's no reason to expect the rest of the world will agree with our gestalt choices. The nominees reflect our consensus of what the best work of last year was, in those category-defined areas, and we did see many (if not all) of the alternative manga suggestions that I've seen.

I do wonder if there's a selection bias at work here, too -- if the best thing you're familiar with doesn't get onto an award ballot, then that ballot is going to look lousy in your long as you continue assuming that you already know what the best is. And I definitely get the impression from some of the comments that there are people who wouldn't have been satisfied unless the list of nominees were half, or more, manga. (Though I imagine that particular outcome would have led to a different controversy.) That could happen, some day -- but this particular panel, looking at the works from this particular year, didn't see it that way.

What I'd love to see, and haven't seen yet -- though someone might have done it already -- is a listing of what manga projects that missed the final ballot should have been on it -- 1) slotted into in a particular category in which they're eligible, and 2) specifying which other nominated item should have missed the ballot because of them. Here's the ballot, if anyone wants to try.

It's easy to list great stuff; it's much harder to cut those lists down to about five items in specific, defined categories. Not having tried to keep track of the whole universe of comics in any one year before, I can't say whether 2008 was a strong year among other strong years, or an outstandingly strong year -- but there were a boat-load of very good books last year, and about a shelf's worth of excellent ones.

Tell you what, I'll start, at least halfway. I really loved Hideo Azuma's Disappearance Diary last year, and was one of the ones supporting it in the "Best Reality-Based Work" category. (On the other hand, I wasn't as thrilled by Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack -- despite its manic energy and deeply nutty plots -- as much as I was by his Dororo, which was also published last year.)

Another issue is the difference between discrete books -- like Skim and Alan's War and COWA! and Swallow Me Whole -- and ongoing serials, like most manga and most Marvel/DC projects. A single story has a shape and unity that a serial can't touch; the serial's strengths are in novelty and excitement. When comparing the middle of one set of stories to another set of stories that have beginnings, middles, and ends, the pure-middle stories will inevitably come off worse. That affects things like Thor (which was a really gripping story, but what came out in 2008 was entirely middle) as much as manga, and I think it's inevitable. The best time to honor particularly strong manga (and superhero series, and other long-form works) is probably either when they begin, and are new and fresh, or when they end, and can be seen as a successful whole. (Monster fits that bill well, since it ended its story in 2008.)

I have seen some people calling for the Eisners to have more categories, which sends a shudder down my spine -- we cut the list down to twenty-six, combining or eliminating three categories, because we thought it was already too huge and sprawling. But there's always next year -- those judges will have the power to combine or add as they see fit, and it's completely reasonable for people who love manga to call for more categories to honor the great work being done in that area. I'm just glad I only had to deal with twenty-six categories...

[1] I'm very flippant here, but I want to emphasize that Klein is a fine letterer who's done tons of excellent work in comics for a long, long time. The judging panel this year believed that some other letterers were doing really exceptional work right now, but that doesn't take anything away from his skill and professionalism.


Glenn Hauman said...

Well, they can't say you aren't ignorant of manga-- I mean, you've been doing Manga Friday at some unnamed website for how long now?

Christopher Butcher said...

I did think that the absence of Azuma's Disappearance Diary was the most glaring omission, either for Foreign book or for Reality-based work. I think Red Colored Elegy didn't really get its due for Foreign book. And just for technical awards, DeathNote was still being published in 2008... best penciller/inker for Obata?

Anyway, it's a strange list Mr. Wheeler, particularly for the Eisners, with so little superhero representation this year. Best penciller is usually a category featuring 5 Marvel/DC dudes and then 1 unlikely candidate, and this year Copiel is the lone superhero pick. Actually JMS is the only superhero writer on that list as well, I guess a couple of you REALLY DUG THOR eh? ;)

Very few nominations that are entirely unworthy, just a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't have picked myself.

- Christopher

Andrew Wheeler said...

Christopher: It's not precisely the list I would have picked all by myself, either -- and I doubt it's the list that any of the judges would have. That's one of the strengths of a judging system, or at least it's supposed to be: that it blends the tastes of a bunch of different people, and the things that appeal to more of them then rises to the top.

I can't speak for the other judges, but I admired but didn't love Red Colored Elegy -- it seemed to me to be a work very much of its time, and one that had no effect in the West at that time (since it was unknown here). So it was neither new nor influential (on these shores, at least) -- and, for me, there were a number of other books that I thought were stronger.

The penciller/inker is a difficult category to think about all at once. (Or I found it so; all of the "technical awards," actually.) We did have a list of everything that all of the various companies (and individual creators) had nominated, and we also had the ability to add to that list as we felt necessary. But then the tough part was cutting it down -- sure, the original list was a few dozen names, and we could lop that in half easily, but once we got down to twenty-five or so, it was less simple to say how or why X was better than Y. We did cut the initial list down by discarding things we all agreed weren't worthy of nomination, and from there we voted -- and the final ballot is the way it ended up.

The Eisner process is so short -- all official nominations were supposed to be in by March 13th (but weren't -- one very large publisher sent a lot of nominees a full week late) and then we met on the weekend of March 27th -- that it inevitably relied somewhat on what we all had read and liked during the year. (We simply physically couldn't read and vote on everything nominated in a weekend, though we all read huge piles of material, and ended up nominating a number of things most of us hadn't seen before that weekend.) And this year I think several of us weren't really pamphlet readers anymore, so that probably had an effect. (I can't say if we'll be an outlier or a sign of things to come, but, given pamphlet sales tendencies, I'd think the former is more likely.)

Anyway, thanks for your thoughts on this year's nominees, and I'm glad to hear you mostly agree with them. (Judged awards often raise WTF reactions from outside -- which the judges tend to think means they've dug out wonderful, unknown stuff and the outsiders thinks means the judges are "angling for legitimacy" or "have an agenda" or something else. I think it's more likely the effect of small groups, but I've only done this twice; I'm no expert.)

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