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Behind the Scenes of the Eisner Comic Awards

On Friday, the San Diego Comic-Con plays host to the 20th Annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. The Awards are named in honor of pioneering comic book artist and writer Will Eisner. The Eisner Awa

Behind the Scenes of the Eisner Comic Awards

(Judging panel for the 2008 Eisner Comic Industry Awards. Beth Accomando/KPBS )

On Friday, the San Diego Comic-Con plays host to the 20th Annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. The Awards are named in honor of pioneering comic book artist and writer Will Eisner. The Eisner Awards are often referred to as the “Oscars” of the comic industry. KPBS’ Beth Accomando takes us behind the scenes of the Eisner Awards.


Presenter: And so without further ado, the nominees for best penciler/inker are John Cassady for Astonishing X Men…

Okay… it’s not the Oscars but a penciler/inker is as important to comics as a cinematographer is to film. Plus, the Eisner Awards had something the Oscars never had—the unique distinction of being handed out by the man they were named after. Graphic novelist Neil Gaiman says that made the ceremony magical.

Neil Gaiman: You would receive your Eisner Award from the hand of Will Eisner, who was one of the greatest comic creators ever, a man whose career spanned, went from the 30s through till his death a few years ago.


Gaiman accepted more than a dozen awards from the hand of Will Eisner for works such as Sandman and Signal to Noise.

Neil Gaiman:  I got to go up on stage and shake Will’s hand and get the awards and that in many ways was actually more important and much more thrilling than initially having the plaque.

Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer says Eisner was a big presence at the awards ceremony.

David Glanzer:  There was a very large chair that would sit on stage for Mr. Eisner who would sit and was very, very active in giving out the awards to the recipient, there’s also the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retail Award that goes to a comic book store that embodies the great things that Will felt were necessary to promote comics.

By highlighting the best the industry has to offer, the Eisner Awards have helped draw attention to comics as an art form says Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman: I think the Eisners are an enormously important award… And one of the things that’s most interesting about the Eisners is that the initial nominees are picked by a judging panel… and they put together, and I’m sure there’s an awful lot of people being locked in rooms arguing, and they produce their short list and it’s that that gets voted on.

But arriving at that short list can involve intense debate…

CLIP: I’m Feeling ornery…

080724-comiccon-ba.jpg 2008 Eisner judging panel. Beth Accomando/KPBS

That’s this year’s judges discussing the relatively new category of Japanese comics or manga, with librarian Eva Volin taking the lead. This year’s judges met back in April at the Sheraton Mission Valley. In addition to Volin, the five-judge panel included Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen, Bookazine’s John S. Davis, Brave New World Comics’ Atom! Freeman and science fiction writer Paul Di Filippo.

CLIP: Just getting you to open the books… and willfully read from left to right…

Despite differences of opinion, the judges must to come to some kind of agreement or Jackie Estrada, administrator of the Eisner Awards, won’t let anyone out

Jackie Estrada: They’re trapped here for the weekend till I let them out. I don’t let them out till they get their work done.

CLIP: Jackie interrupts we only have one category done… yes ma’am.

Estrada’s been administrating the Eisners since their inception in 1990. She treats the judges like a sequestered jury. Their task is to wheedle down this hundreds of comics, manga, graphic novels, and even online comics to five nominees in twenty-nine different categories. Judges are expected to read a lot of the eligible entries before arriving in San Diego in April.

CLIP: I knew that work I did at home was worth something…

But a lot of reading is also done late at night at the hotel. Last year’s judge Chris Reilly describes the experience.

Chris Reilly: I’ve dug ditches when I was a kid and this is one of the most tiring things I’ve done but in a great way.

Reilly’s judging colleague last year was fantasy writer Jeff VanderMeer.

VanderMeer: we all started reading as soon as we came in and it’s kind of when you come into this room and you see all this material spread out it’s humbling because so much of it is worth reading so all of us are operating on a minimum of sleep and I feel like an old man because they stayed up till five and I went to bed early and I don’t know what’s holding them together they are still very coherent and everything.

Every year the Eisners receive thousands of entries. Publishers get a call for entries and then judges like Whitney Matheson must pare down the piles of books. Matheson is USA Today’s pop culture blogger and she served on last year’s judging panel.

Whitney Matheson: It’s pretty intense. It’s kind of like college because it is like a really intense cram session. But there’s no way I’m gonna complain about spending a weekend reading comic books non-stop. It’s definitely the most fun and the hardest I’ve worked all year.

Stacks of Eisner Award entries. Beth Accomando/KPBS

Comic book storeowner James Sime worked hard alongside Matheson on last year’s panel.

James Sime: They’ve set up stacks of the comics that are eligible for each categoty and then the people sitting around the table people say I haven’t read it and we’ve been doing this for two days… we’ve talked about the merits of every single book my voice is go a little bit.

The task placed before judges can be daunting but Jackie Estrada decided that a judging panel, rather than an open vote among professionals and retailers, was the best way to insure that good work did not get overlooked in the nominations. Each year she selects five new judges who meet to discuss and choose the nominees.

Jackie Estrada: So I try to pick people who represent different areas and knowledge… so I try to bring in a lot of viewpoints, but the main criteria is not being beholden to anyone in industry, being an independent thinker.

Estrada’s commitment to diversity is reflected each year in the judges she chooses. Last year librarian Robin Brenner described her judging colleagues and the work before them.

Robin Brenner:  What I find most interesting about it is the sheer diversity of what we’re looking at. There’s a huge amount of stuff and it’s all very different and I think all of the judges, we’re very diverse judges as well which makes it really interesting.

But USA Today’s Whitney Matheson, who served as a judge with Brenner, says she was a bit disappointed that they ended up agreeing on so much.

Whitney Matheson: In a way I was a little bit let down that I haven’t really gotten the chance to have that big speech to declare my love for a certain book, because everyone’s sort of agreed with me, it’s pretty cool everyone has a chance to voice opinion and say what they want and everyone’s fairly civil so far.

She was pleasantly surprised by one of the books they all agreed on in the best humor category for 2007.

Eisner voting: Judges talking: Onion Head Monster Attacks… oh my god, the dark horse of the century… oh my lord it’s so great but I didn’t think it had a chance…

Whitney Matheson: There’s a really small humor book called Onion Head Monster that no one’s really heard of that’s going to be recognized and that’s pretty cool. What’s great is there’s such a mix of things that have been done really well and things that are just these hidden gems…

Paul Friedrich, the creator of Onion Head Monster Attacks, was thrilled to be nominated.

Paul Friedrich: That was a great honor and I was very excited till I looked at the other names in the list I was nominated in at first I thought wow to be in this category with these people and then I realized I had no chance of winning.

Alas poor Onion Head was beaten by another veggie themed comic, Flaming Carrot. 2007 judge James Sime is proprietor of Isotope, the Comic Book Lounge in San Francisco. He appreciates how the Eisners recognize the different crafts involved in comics starting with the writer and then the artist…

James Sime: In more cases the artist is only a penciler, so they have to pass it on to an inker. An inker adds finishing touches and then it goes to a letterer who puts all the lettering in which is an art form in and of its self. Sadly the best lettering you cannot see because it does its job. So that was a really difficult category. And then you have best coloring that’s a whole other person.

Jackie Estrada relies on each year’s judging panel to color the awards. The judges are allowed to determine if they want to change categories each year. This year they debated the youth category.

Jackie Estrada: One of the thing we are talking about is splitting younger audience into younger kids and teens… we had an international category so Japan is a category on its own.

CLIP: If we are going to set a category, the titny toons book, 0-5, the books are good… Owly.

They judges decided to postpone splitting the youth category to another year. But recent additions have included best reality-based comic as well as a brand new category focusing on U.S. editions of Japanese comics known as manga. Librarian Robin Brenner says that reflects the changing marketplace.

Robin Brenner: It’s a new thing and it’s something that just, it’s boomed onto the market and it’s something we’re trying to recognize and that’s very good but I think it’s also complicated to compare all these things. It’s 30 books a month from major publishers.

But what doesn’t change, says Jackie Estrada, is the goal of the awards.

CLIP: This is a good slate…

Jackie Estrada: My agenda is to gain wider recognition and show the variety of material, quality material that’s being done in the comics medium.

That’s why it’s appropriate for the awards to be held at Comic-Con, the largest gathering of comic book and pop culture fans in the U.S.

David Glanzer: We’re a non profit organization which a lot of people don’t realize and we have a mission statement to promote comics and pop culture to a wider audience so it’s very appropriate for the Eisners to be associated with us because the Eisners are the pinnacle by which we can acknowledge people who have attained a certain level in their craft and having them associated with Comic-Con which is the permiere event for comics is just a natural fit.

Glanzer says people use the list of nominees like a shopping list. Former judge and librarian Roben Brenner says the awards and the nominations can help librarians choose what books to put on their shelves.

Robin Brenner: We use it all the time… for a lot of librarians if they are unfamiliar with the format that’s something they can look at and go that’s been recognized that’s something I can put in my library and it will stand up to what people are expecting.

Jackie Estrada has been pleased with the type of press the Eisners help generate. She’s hoping that one book submitted for the 2008 awards will get noticed.

Jackie Estrada:  I think the book of the year is the Arrival by Shaun Tan it is a wordless graphic novel about an immigrant leaving his native home to find anew place then suddenly things with strange tentacles are there and the building are a strange architecture that you wouldn’t recognize. And he is showing what going to a new place must be like.

The Arrival attests to the diversity of style and content currently available, and the type of book that would have pleased Eisner. In accepting an Eisner award two years ago, Frank Miller paid tribute to the man who had inspired him and an industry.

Frank Miller: Only one comment, what Will said again and again was the main thing we had to conquer was the question of content. The story is the thing and he proved it again and again and we have to learn from that.

Miller, who wrote the graphic novels that inspired the films Sin City and 300, is currently adapting Eisner’s The Spirit to the big screen. The Spirit was a regular guy who was thought dead and lived under his own tomb while fighting crime in a gritty urban setting. Again Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman: Will believed that there was something very real and very unique in creating comics… and that’s why naming the awards after him was so incredibly appropriate. It paid tribute first to him and second to the whole lifespan of American comics.

A lifespan that Eisner influenced. The Spirit, which debuted in 1940, appeared as a comic book insert in Sunday papers. Eisner not only created it but he maintained ownership of the character, something that was unheard of at that time. In 1978, he helped define the graphic novel and turn it into a book for adults with A Contract with God.

Neil Gaiman: I mean Will Eisner was the Orson Welles of early comics he was the person who started to think completely outside the box. Eisner was one of those creators who made you want to create.

This will be the third year without Will Eisner sitting in his big chair on stage. He handed out the awards himself every year until his death in 2005.

For KPBS, this is Beth Accomando.