DOUG WRIGHT AWARD STRIPS, AND GRUMPINESS
So for the last week I've been the diarist at The Comics Journal. It's something they started when Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler took over a few months ago, and I've really enjoyed the other cartoonists who have taken part. Not only in terms of the actual work, but as part of the larger "online magazine" whole, it's nice to have that kind of content there to balance things a little bit.
I approached Dan before I went to this year's TCAF, and suggested that a week of strips about the Doug Wright Awards, a Canadian comics award ceremony, would be interesting not only to do a week of strips about, but just as something that's not all that covered in our world. He agreed, and now they're all done, check them out for yourself, I dare you!
I'd like to make a bit of a small tirade, if you'll grant me the indulgence. I know that industry awards are possibly the most esoteric things in all of the world to discuss, and comics industry awards are probably 1% of that subset, maybe moreso. But I am a part of this industry, and it is an industry I enjoy being a part of, and one I'd like to see improve.
A tiny bit of background on the Doug Wright Awards: they're for Canadian books/cartoonists, specifically for works published in English within a certain calendar year. There's a nominating committee who nominates not only the works/creators to be considered each year, but also the jury who will make the final decision. There is no outside voting at all. There are four total prizes: Best Book, Best Emerging Talent, Pigskin Peters Award (for avant garde or experimental work), and an induction each year into the "Giants of the North," essentially a hall of fame for Canadian cartoonists.
I'm a little nervous about getting too critical of "other" awards, especially in the process of being so blindingly adoring of the Wright Awards. On the other hand, part of me thinks I'm not being critical enough. Although maybe there's a better place than this little diary comic for that.
Tom Spurgeon said yesterday, regarding this, "..why not have awards that honor things like best lettering? why is that view of comics not legitimate?" And he's right. There's a place for everything, for sure--and my thin arguments in the strips themselves are further robbed of nuance by the need to be brief in the cartoon form, lest my carpal tunnels surely explode. There's room to celebrate everything; it just irks me on some--or all--levels that our American comic awards seem to have become so bloated and slightly foolish over the years. With an award for every conceivable category, precious little coverage for online comics--which are read by far more people than print comics--but a voting model that depends on votes cast online.
For instance, this year's Eisners--the top of the comics food pyramid, in terms of awards and their importance within the industyr--were nominated by a small jury of 6 people, none of whom is a working artist, or even an active creator of comics. After the nominations were announced, voting was opened to anyone who has professional credits, which in today's world is almost everyone, honestly. Especially since people who make webcomics are included. Dave Kellett was nominated, and has made his nominated work free to download on his site. Which is smart, don't get me wrong. He also points out that the pool of eligible voters is pretty large, and likely includes a lot of his readers. You can't argue with someone who wants something exercising his fair right to try and get that thing, operating within established rules. On the other hand, I think it diminishes an award, and the importance of that award within its culture, to have nominees shilling publicly for votes. Is that bad of me to think? But listen, it's what I think! It takes something meant to be a meritorious award and makes it a political award.
No disrespect meant to Dave Kellett, who works hard and is doing what anyone who worked hard to create something of value and promote that value to the world would do--I sound all high and mighty, but I'm not 100% sure that I wouldn't do something similar if nominated. I'd like to think I wouldn't, but then again, having "Eisner Award Winning" in front of my name for the rest of my career wouldn't be too shabby, right? It certainly would open some doors. But maybe that's the problem--I think I'm not the only person who might shrug and say, "well there are some problems, but hey who's going to argue with having an Eisner??"
Ditto times a million for the Harveys; you can tell each year which company's editors got on the ball and stuffed the ballot boxes correctly. It's hard to take an award seriously that is so easy to gimmick. And beyond that, it's hard to take an award seriously--for me anyway--that is based pretty much entirely on the work-for-hire model of the DC/Marvel part of the industry, where the creative process is broken down to writer/penciller/inker/letterer/colorist/cover artist/editor, etc.
It's not that amazing works can't be done under this model--I think all my favorite comics were done this way--Batman Year One, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns.... And I work within that model--I hand letter Casanova, my checks say Marvel on them, et cetera. But I would suggest that subdividing all the various tasks within the art of comics storytelling, rather than enlarging those tasks' importance, diminishes them, or at least diminishes the work they're a part of. I made a joke within my strip about "does anyone care anymore who is 'Best Letterer'?" There is so much technology around now, most--maybe 90%--of lettering being done in comics is by font anyway. I'm not trying to minimize the importance of lettering or say it could be done by monkeys or anything. But lettering and inking are just parts of "cartooning". So is writing, so is coloring. You're basically creating comics--the real stars should be the works themselves, the books, the online comics, the pamphlets, the newspapers.
I'm suggesting, I guess, that after a few top prizes, important prizes, each subsequent smaller prize diminishes the importance of the first few. Should letterers be praised for hard work or enlarging the discipline of their craft? Sure. Ditto for inkers, colorists, etc. But after Best Book, Best Cartoonist, maybe a couple others, it's hard to see where subdividing helps anything anymore, except to create a Byzantine web of associations and categories, resulting in a ceremony that approaches 5 hours in length and is dreadfully, famously boring to everyone who attends.
I don't think the Wright Awards are perfect, by a long shot. But I do think they're very well-conceived. They're simple and elegant and they convey a deep sense of importance, not only to the awards themselves, but in the awarding of them. It was something I really appreciated being a part of, even only as an observer, and something I think is really lacking in our current American awards.
I should say, in closing, that while my tone seems very contrarian, it's only because I think these points are rarely articulated by people in comics, and I think there's a lot of value in that articulation. Comics people all know each other, all work with the same editors, and are all faintly terrified of destroying future opportunities with this company or that company. I'm lucky to not have this worry, so I feel like I can comment honestly about it. No disrespect is meant to what I presume is the CRUSHINGLY hard work of organizing both the Eisner and Harvey Awards. I know Jackie Estrada, who has organized the Eisners since 1990 or so, works really hard to make them what they are. I don't know who organizes the Harveys, but Marc Nathan is involved in some way, and he is similarly a great guy who takes what he does seriously. I just think that some changes would be very healthy for both entities, and would win back some of the lost prominence and respect to those awards, and by extension the legacies of their namesakes, Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman.