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Comic-Con Spotlight on the Eisner Awards

Gaiman has won 14 Eisner Awards for works such as Sandman and Signal to Noise.

"Will believed comics were an art form," says 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."

Will Eisner's The Spirit


A lifespan that Eisner influenced. Eisner's 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. The Spirit was a regular guy who was thought dead and lived under his own tomb while fighting crime in a gritty urban setting. In 1978, Eisner helped define the graphic novel and turn it into a book for adults with A Contract with God. The book told four stories linked by common themes of life, death and faith within the immigrant community of a Bronx tenement. Frank Miller, author of 300 and Sin City, is adapting Eisner's The Spirit to the screen. In accepting an Eisner award last year Miller paid tribute to the man who had inspired him and an industry.

"Only one comment," Miller stated, "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."

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

"I think the Eisners are an enormously important award," says Neil Gaiman, "And one of the things that's most interesting about the Eisners is that the initial nominees are picked by a judging panel and I'm sure there's an awful lot of people being locked in rooms arguing."

Actually, one of the first things you notice about the judging room is the enormous padlock on the doors.


"They're trapped here for the weekend till I let them out. I don't let them out till they get their work done," says Jackie Estrada. She's the person Will Eisner selected to take over administering the awards in 1990. She treats the judges like a sequestered jury.

Technically the padlocks not there to lock the judges in but rather to secure the thousand books inside the judging room at San Diego's Westgate Hotel. Fantasy writer and judge Jeff VanderMeer says the whole experience is a bit surreal: "Were basically living inside what looks like a faux Sun King Versailles room. The walls look like they're made of white chocolate and you could take a bite out of them. And then you have these side tables along two of the four walls that are just piled high with comics in different categories, and its so colorful too because all this stuff have bright covers so its somewhat festive, a Mardi Gras of books."

The task of the judges is to wheedle down this festive array of literature to five nominees in twenty-eight different categories. Judges are expected to read a lot of the eligible entries before arriving in San Diego in April. But a lot of reading is also done late at night at the hotel.

"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," says judge Chris Reilly, a comics writer at Slave Labor Graphics.

"Its pretty intense," says Whitney Matheson, pop culture blogger for USA Today, "Its 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."

Reilly says the voting was especially hard in two categories: "best humor publication and best publication for a younger audience, and there were so many good entries that I had to take a microscope to this work and say okay what was just a micron better than the other book and there were some painful cuts in there."

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.

"I try to pick people who represent different areas and knowledge," says Estrada, "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."

This year judges Chris Reilly, Whitney Matheson and Jeff VanderMeer were joined by comic book store owner James Sime and librarian Robin Brenner.

"What I find most interesting about it is the sheer diversity of what were looking at," says Brenner, "There's a huge amount of stuff and its all very different and I think all of the judges, were very diverse judges as well which makes it really interesting."

It also makes for a lot lively discussion. But not as much as USA Today's Whitney Matheson had expected, & ldquo;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, its 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 that they all agreed on one book in best humor publication.

"There's a really small humor book called Onion Head Monster Attack s that no ones 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."

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 "who 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 itself. Sadly the best lettering you cannot see because it does its job. So that was a really difficult category."

Jackie Estrada relies on the judges to influence the nomination process as they see fit: "The judges are allowed to determine if they want to change categories each year if there's something that needs addressing. This year in particular judges got rid of a category called best serialized story."

That way they could make more room for a recent category called best reality-based comic and a brand new category focusing on U.S. editions of Japanese comics known as manga.

"I think the awareness of Japanese manga this year is interesting," says librarian Robin Brenner, "because its a new thing and its something that just, its boomed onto the market and its something were trying to recognize and that's very good but I think its also complicated to compare all these things. Its 30 books a month from major publishers."

But what doesn't change is the goal of the awards.

"My agenda," says Estrada, "is to gain wider recognition and show the variety of material, quality material that's being done in the comics medium. That's why its appropriate for the awards to be held at Comic-Con. Comic-Con is dedicated to promoting the comics medium. That's it. You want to have the best awards at the show that's non-profit, that's there to promote the medium and the related popular arts. So it's been its home the whole 19 years that it's existed."

The Spirit draws Will Eisner

The ceremony, held in the Grand Ballroom of the San Diego Convention Center, is open to anyone attending the convention. Estrada suggests that anyone wanting to sample the best in today's comics can use the list of nominees available at the Comic-Cons website as a shopping guide. This will be the awards' third year without Will Eisner sitting in his big chair on stage. But the fact that the awards bear his name will keep his legacy alive. And that's important.

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

Check out the complete list of Eisner Winners.

Related links:

You can listen to my NPR feature on the Eisner Awards.

Whitney Matheson USA Today:

Robin Brenner, Brookline Massachusetts librarian:

James Sime, Isotope the Comic Lounge in San Francisco: