• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Transcendent Comics

The nominations for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards 2020 were announced recently and will be awarded at (a COVID-19 altered) Comic-Con. The nominees are for works published between Jan. 1, 2019, and Dec. 31, 2019. Named for acclaimed comics creator Will Eisner, the awards are celebrating their 32nd year of “bringing attention to and highlighting the best publications and creators in comics and graphic novels.”


The 2020 Eisner Awards judging panel consists of graphic novel reviewer Martha Cornog (Library Journal), comics journalist Jamie Coville (TheComicBooks.com), academic/author Michael Dooley (Art Center College of Design), comic writer/novelist Alec Grecian (Proof, Rasputin, The Yard), journalist/blogger/podcaster Simon Jimenez and retailer Laura O’Meara (Casablanca Comics, Portland, ME). With the nation in lockdown, the jurors all communicated via email, a social media group and Zoom. All professionals in the comic book industry are eligible to vote on the final selections at www.eisnervote.com. The deadline is June 18, and winners will be announced in July.


To put some perspective on the importance of this 32-year-old award, I’ve asked Dooley, himself a PRINT contributor, to tell us in his well-chosen and equally excited words about this year’s competition.


Nell Brinkley, 2020 Eisner Hall of Fame selection, Judges’ Choice.



E. Simms Campbell, 2020 Eisner Hall of Fame selection, Judges’ Choice.


The Eisner Awards is a combination hall of fame and comics academy award. I would say that being a juror is as much an honor as being a recipient. What do you do as a juror? Briefly, here’s the process. After lengthy and scrupulous deliberation, Awards Administrator Jackie Estrada chooses six accomplished and respected professionals, each of whom bring a vast and diverse spectrum of interests, perspectives and expertise. Here’s a rundown of this year’s [jurors], starting with Martha Cornog:


Martha writes articles and reviews graphic novels for Library Journal, and her Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics is a valuable resource book for librarians, and includes contributions from the likes of Trina Robbins. And currently, she’s writing and drawing a comics adaptation of Russian satirical literature.


And there’s Laura O’Meara. She and her husband own and operate Casablanca Comics, “Maine’s Coolest Comics Stores Since 1987,” in Portland. Part of the cool factor is that she critically curates the stores’ inventory, rather than simply stocking shelves. They also run the Maine Comic Arts Festival.


I already knew of Alex Grecian from his smart and sharp storytelling on comics like Proof and Rasputin, illustrated by one of my favorite artists, Riley Rossmo. And after working with him, I’ve become hooked on Alex’s series of period Scotland Yard murder novels.


Simon Jimenez has a podcast, Captain Cats and the Nightrider, that covers a whole slew of pop culture subcultures, from American comic books and Japanese manga and anime to video games and professional wrestling. And beyond.


And Jamie Coville. He runs a comic book history site that includes free access to an enormous amount of audio files from important comic convention panels that he personally records. He also sleuths out every “Best Comics” list in existence, an obsession that proved invaluable in broadening the scope of our selections this year.


Quite a super variety, right? And I feel very fortunate to’ve been a part of a group that I respect and admire so much. We were a solid team: Every single judgment we made, large and small, was a collaborative decision, agreed upon by a majority if not unanimity. And to say I learned a great deal from each of them over the past eight months would be putting it mildly.


Oh, and my Eisner judge writeup gave me the honorific “academic,” even though I only play one in front of my design, comics and animation history students. I prefer the term “freelance wisenheimer.”


Making Comics by Lynda Barry (nominee: Best Publication Design, Best Comics-Related Book).


Rusty Brown by Chris Ware (nominee: Best Graphic Album—Reprint, Best Publication Design).


What did receiving this year’s Eisner judge honor entail for you? For me, receiving it entailed not even entertaining the notion that I’d ever receive it. In fact, not that long before I was invited I’d written a PRINT feature in which I harshly critiqued the Eisners. In my lede, I called the public voting “… much more a popularity contest among comics industry professionals than it is any real gauge of who and what is most worthy in any given category.” I’m not sure what conclusion we can draw from my anti-strategy strategy. 

I also went on to write that the Eisners themselves do serve a valuable and commendable function. As I see it, it’s not only an honor just to be nominated, it’s also the only worthwhile honor, inasmuch as the nominee list itself is the news that readers can most usefully use. And with that perspective, I was very thrilled and most grateful that I was asked. I was then faced with needing to live up to a high standard that I myself set up. I’d praised the Eisner judges for their diligence and dedication in winnowing down the enormous amount of category entries to the crème de la crème. And indeed, after eight months of pleasurable yet demanding work, the six of us narrowed down a list of 1,800 to 180 Eisner-nominee-worthy contenders, with each of us applying our own standards.


Our Favorite Thing Is My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris (nominee: Best Single Issue/One-Shot).


The Complete Crepax, vol. 5: American Stories by Guido Crepax (nominee: Best Archival Collection/Project—Comic Books).


What particular standards did you employ?

First, some background. In 2005 and 2006 I worked in various capacities for the “Masters of American Comics” exhibition. This is the one that created, for the first time, a—hotly contested—canon of what the curators considered to be 15 of the most important comic strip and comic book artists over the past century. And I greatly admired the criteria they came up with. It was to select, and I quote, “pioneering cartoonists who brought this genre to the highest level of artistic expression and had the greatest impact on the development of the form.” So in essence, their standards boiled down to “most innovative” and “most influential,” covering the widest spectrum of genres as possible. This was particularly valuable during our first judging project earlier in the year, which was for the Eisner Hall of Fame.


Cover, vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis, writer and David Mack, artist (nominee: Best Cover Artist, Best Painter/Digital Artist, Best Graphic Album—Reprint).


Anatomy of Authors by Dave Kellett (nominee: Best Humor Publication).


There’s no industry award more prestigious than the Eisners, and no honor greater than to be inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame. What were some of the factors that you (wisely) considered in selecting your two Judges’ Choice inductees, Nell Brinkley and E. Simms Campbell? For me personally, Nell’s worthiness was a no-brainer. As I saw it, her “Brinkley Girl” illustrations not only epitomized the iconic Victorian womanhood of the early 20th century, they were also vastly superior to the cold and distant “Gibson Girl” of that same era. And indeed, her girls went on to replace Gibson’s in public popularity. I also factored in Brinkley’s astounding artistic transformation from her early, lush Nouveau to the sharp and self-assured Deco stylishness that so enlivened her 1920s and ’30s liberated women, who rivaled John Held’s flappers. And speaking of those 15 Masters of American Comics artists, I would’ve happily kicked out Lyonel Feininger in favor of Nell, who is more deserving by far, even by the curators’ own standards. And I brought up Campbell when we were discussing gag cartoonists. I’d already featured him in a PRINT piece I wrote a few years earlier. In that piece, I noted that, “in the words of Esquire’s founding editor, Arnold Gingrich, Campbell’s full-page color cartoons ’catapulted the magazine’s circulation from the start.’ He may also be the first African American illustrator not only to break the color line in mass-market publications, but to earn widespread public acclaim as well.” It also tickles me to realize that the comics world is now celebrating the man who created the Esky mascot!

I also think it’s worth noting that Françoise Mouly is in the running for the Hall of Fame’s “Voters’ Choice” award. Those winners are usually announced along with all the others. And as of right now, you can file when, where and how all that will happen under “to be determined.”


Coin-Op No. 8: Infatuation by Peter and Maria Hoey (nominee: Best Single Issue/One-Shot).


Comics: Easy as ABC by Ivan Brunetti (nominee: Best Publication for Early Readers).


It’s doubtless that each judge brought an agenda to the table. What was yours? Well, my particular “Bauhaus salad” is hardly a new dish at the Eisners’ buffet table. They’ve given nods to design professionals in the past as well. Chip Kidd has had a couple of wins over the years in both Best Publication Design and Best Comics-Related Book. And you may’ve heard of the “graphic novelist” Seymour Chwast, who got a nomination in 2013. This year’s lineup includes others whose names are familiar to designers, such as Lynda Barry, Chris Ware and Emil Ferris.


But I’m very saddened by how few people in our profession barely acknowledge the relevance of the medium, much less pay attention to the Eisners, even though some of the most innovative and inspirational graphic design is happening in comics, and its quality and quantity has been growing exponentially. And hell, many graphic designers such as yourself are even qualified, as “comics historians and educators,” to be Eisner voters.


Designers should also be interested in discovering some of the other comics artists with design gigs. Take Guido Crepax, whose American Stories volume is up for Best Archival Collection. This guy began his career by working on album covers, and went on to create ad campaigns for companies like Shell, Honda and Rizzoli. And it ain’t just him. The nominee list is a rich resource of fascinating design work, from pros to complete novices: checking out David Mack, Dave Kellett, Peter and Maria Hoey, and Ivan Brunetti would be a good start.


Logo-a-Gogo: Branding Pop Culture by Rian Hughes (nominee: Best Publication Design, Best Comics-Related Book).


ABC of Typography by David Rault (nominee: Best Anthology).


What was your goal in nominating design exemplars such as one of my favorites, Sir-in-the-making Rian Hughes? Ah, Rian Hughes. Our panel was impressed enough with his Logo-a-gogo that it wound up with two nominations. As for goals, speaking for myself I’d say that if books like this help raise everyone’s design awareness, then comics will look better, and that will make the industry look better. And the more that happens, the greater the chances are that comics will eventually, finally, be right up there with other respected forms of media and art. And, not so incidentally, Rian has been an essential part of doing just that with his brilliant work over the past couple of decades. And speaking of design, I see that Best Anthology includes ABC of Typography, a graphic history that spans from Trajan’s Column and Gutenberg’s letterpress to Morison’s Times and Licko’s Emigre. Yes! ABC was originally published in France, so the art by the dozen or so contributors has a lovely European flavor. And since it doesn’t, say, delve into Eric Gill’s personal life, it’s even kid-friendly!


Life on the Moon by Robert Grossman (nominee: Best Graphic Album—New)


Alay-Oop by William Gropper (nominee: Best Archival Collection/Project—Comic Books).


I know that you take pride in pushing the envelope with respect to graphic design and comics. Were selections like Robert Grossman’s Life on the Moon and William Gropper’s Alay-Oop part of that push?

Well, yes and no. Yes, in that they’re having been nominated may help expand the parameters of what audiences consider “comics.” And also in that Gropper and Bob Grossman’s names are much more familiar among designers and illustrators. But also “no,” in the very real sense that they’re both components—very significant and substantial components—of a grand cartooning heritage that dates back from William Hogarth to Frans Masereel.


Europe Comics: Black Water Lilies by Frédéric Duval; Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin by Tania de Montaigne; Tales from Behind the Window by Edanur Kuntman; Elma, A Bear’s Life, vol. 1: The Great Journey by Ingrid Chabbert and Léa Mazé (nominees: Best Digital Comics).


As comics have increased in commercial and cultural popularity, how have the Eisner Awards evolved in terms of their rigors and the rigorousness of the jurors? Popularity—commercial, cultural and otherwise—was totally irrelevant to us. Statistics show bookstore sales for superhero titles down below 10%, while sales of kid-oriented comics and graphic novels have risen to more than 40%. But those are publisher concerns. Our rigor there is to evaluate each work regardless of publisher. And we did pretty good on that score. Our nominations included more than 60 publishers. And mostly independents.

The real comics awards challenge, moving forward, is to adapt to internal industry changes, like evolving technologies and shifting means of distribution. Take Europe Comics as an example. This digital-only publisher holds four of the six “Best Digital” slots this year, and that’s terrific. Digital is still a niche market, and so it still deserves its own category. It’s also in a couple of other comparatively minor categories: twice in “Best Painter/Digital Artist” and once in “Best Lettering.” Fine. However, it’s prohibited from competing in majors such as Best International. And that’s even though “international” is all that Europe Comics publishes. And the expansive varieties of its genres would fit in plenty of other categories: early readers, kids, and teens; graphic albums, series, and single issues; reality-based, humor, and … OK, you get the idea. The Eisners really ought to think about being less rigorous in its structure, especially when its categories become too confining. Every symbol of stature such as the Eisners must stay true to some values and build upon others. What are the values that you believe are essential to hold this place in comics art? I’d put creativity at the top of the “essential values” list. And actually, Martha summarized my feelings about this during a group discussion we were having about the relevance of the Eisners. She said, “We know that by setting a high yet diverse standard, the Awards motivate newbie creators, as well as old hands, to produce their own visions in unique directions.” I love that. Very succinct. And very inspirational.

And—envelope-pusher that I am—I’ll go even further and propose for Eisner Committee consideration a brand new category, one that directly and specifically honors creativity. Such an award would certainly serve to fulfill Comic-Con’s stated mission to increase the public’s appreciation of the comics form and celebrate the medium’s contributions to art and culture. Furthermore, it would instill in future Eisner judges and voters—and in anyone who pays any attention to the awards, really—a heightened appreciation and respect for bold graphic and narrative experimentation. It would also address and rebut one of the most common bad raps against the Eisners, that it’s by-and-large just an annual listing of “usual suspects.” And best of all, such an honor would be aspirational, serving to further encourage everyone in the profession—writers and artists, letterers and colorists, editors and publishers, and so on—to push and to break the boundaries of conventional word-image storytelling. It could be titled “Best Innovation of the Year” or some such thing. It could also quickly become the most exciting and invigorating of all the Awards categories.


Finally, what is the single attribute that you believe all the winners have in common? Again, I’ll have to say “popularity.” As I mentioned earlier, favoritism is the primary determinant of who ultimately wins. In fact, I don’t even care who wins. At this point, my only hope is that designers—well, everyone—will review that 180-nominee list, see what looks appealing, and seek out those works.

And that’s pretty much it for me. My work as an Eisner judge is done. It was very exciting, very memorable, and great fun. And I think—I sincerely hope, anyway—that I did an honorable job in the service of the comics community.


RECENT POSTS: