May 2007

Jeff VanderMeer


The Eisner Award Interrogations -- So Long (If Fascinating) You’ll Want to Print it!

Imagine spending two days in a room that looks like something from Versailles made out of white chocolate and gold leaf, comic books in a flurry of blues, reds, greens, and yellows piled high, smorgasbord-style, on end tables and strewn across the middle table. Imagine having spent months and months reading comics only to find you still have at least a day of reading ahead of you, followed by an intense session of discussion and voting. Imagine spending two long, hectic days with:

Imagine all of this being presided over by Jackie Estrada, a woman who has administrated the Eisners for over 17 years, seen almost every permutation of judging panels, and is still passionate and excited about comics.

Then imagine it all being over and one of your fellow judges, in this particular case, Chris Reilly, basically succumbing to Eisner fatigue moments after Jackie Estrada has said, “No, no one’s ever had a medical emergency during judging.” Chris’s finger pointed to the ceiling, arm rigid, strange cry, eyes rolling back, caught by fellow judge James Sime as he fell. A squadron of doctors in the pub calmly coming to his aid and, after being rushed to the hospital late on the last night, waiting in a David Lynch emergency room with puke green 1970s chairs and Steven Seagal interrogating someone on the TV using extreme surgery.

Being an Eisner judge was, as Chris Reilly put it, like a combination of The Breakfast Club and 12 Angry Men. Except none of us were angry. Tired by the end of it, fatigued, really, but very happy.

It was a little like being in a comic book.

So now that it’s all over, I thought it would be interesting to interview Jackie Estrada, the administrator of the Eisners, and my fellow judges. The results you’ll find below -- what amounts to a celebration and discussion of comic books.



How long have you been the administrator for the Eisners?

I became the administrator in 1990. The awards had been established a few years earlier, but the first administrator had to vacate the post. I was asked by Will Eisner and Denis Kitchen to fill the role in conjunction with Comic-Con International taking over as the "owners" of the awards.

How has the award changed over the years?

At first the Eisner nominations were handled the same way as the Harvey Awards: professionals received blank nominating ballots, filled in their choices, and the top vote-getters went on the final ballot. I felt that people trying to fill out these forms were at a disadvantage because (a) they hadn't seen everything that came out in the previous year, and (b) they weren't sure what things they read were actually eligible. Having observed how nominations are handled for some awards programs in book publishing and art/design, I came up with the idea of having a judging panel. So the Eisners have had judges since 1992.

Each year the judges have the opportunity to change some of the categories to reflect ongoing changes in the comics industry, so some categories have disappeared and others have been added. There are many more categories now than there were 15 years ago, with some of the notable additions being Best Digital Comic, Best Reality-Based Work, and (this year) Best U.S. Edition of International Material, reflecting the growing impact of manga.

Every year also sees a growth in submissions from a wider variety of sources. Back in the 1990s almost all submitted works were from comic book publishers; now many submissions come from mainstream book publishers and other sources. Also, the ratio of comic book-format submissions to book-format submissions has changed radically, so that there are now more books than comics.

How do you see your role with regard to the judging weekend?

Well, I actually have several roles. The first is to get all the judges in the same place where all the submissions are. The second is to make sure the judges are well prepared ahead of time. I send them every cover letter I receive with submissions, I compile a master list of everything submitted and send it to them, and I encourage them to read as much as possible beforehand, especially of works that have received some critical acclaim. I also facilitate advance discussion online among the judges about some of the potential issues they'll need to deal with, especially relating to categories. At the judging, my job is to keep the panel focused on the task at hand, since we have nearly 30 categories to get through. I try to provide guidance and insights based on all my past judging weekend experiences. Finally, I keep track of all the judges' scores during the final selection process and help the judges deal with voting ties and other questions that arise.

What are the main reasons for getting the judges into one room for 48 hours at the end of the process?

Hey, I let them out for a couple of hours each day to have meals! But to answer your question, I don't think this is the kind of judging that can really be done by people in remote, disparate locations. At the judging, all the potential nominees are piled on tables around the room, by category. And especially when it comes to such categories as lettering coloring, cover artist, and design, it's indispensable to be able to assemble all the potential nominees in one spot and look at them as a group. Particularly vital to the process is the interaction between the judges, as they discuss the pros and cons of some of the submissions and make their cases for giving certain items high (or, sometimes, low) scores. And each year there seem to be items that the judges bring in themselves that may not have been formally submitted by publishers and that end up on the ballot because all the other judges fall in love with the books.

How do you feel the comics field has changed over the past decade?

We've definitely seen a huge increase in books (graphic novels, reprint collections, archival collections, books about comics) and a reduction in the number of periodical comics. We've also got a lot more variety now, and a general elevation in quality. Many items that didn't make the ballot this year would have been shoe-ins as nominees, say, five years ago.

What do you most enjoy about being the Eisner administrator?

Having the opportunity to promote the comic book medium. It's just such a great art form and has developed such a rich output in a relatively short time -- 70 years. More people need to discover and read comics -- there really is something for everyone!



Why did you agree to become an Eisner judge?

Robin Brenner (librarian and manga expert):
I felt it was a great honor to be asked, and was very proud of being the second librarian to be asked to serve as a judge (the first being my colleague and mentor, Kat Kan). I knew being a judge would be a difficult task, but I also felt like I might be able to bring a different perspective to the proceedings being a librarian, and being female (much as I hate to bow to stereotypes, there still seems to be a marked difference in what men and women read, comics or otherwise).

Whitney Matheson (USAToday Pop Candy blogger):
For me, becoming a judge was a no-brainer -- who wouldn't want to spend a weekend in San Diego reading and talking about comics? I knew it would be an experience I'd never forget, and, better yet, I knew it would be one that could teach me a lot about comics. I turned out to be right on both counts.

Chris Reilly (Punch and Judy comics writer):
I thought I would be chock full of helpful input and could bring some odd titles to the table that others may have not known about but were books, in my opinion, that needed to be considered. I hadn't met the other judges, and didn't realize that they were all so committed to reading every submission... I thought it would be difficult to remain nonbiased, but it wasn't. I had to vote against some folks that I really like as people and I voted for a few people that I can't stand being in the same room with.

James Sime (owner of Isotope, San Francisco):
As a comic retailer, there simply is no higher honor in my industry than to judge the Eisners. But more than that, I'm a firm believer that if something is wonderful in life you pop the champagne and throw a party to celebrate it. And that's exactly what the Eisner Awards are all about, shining the spotlight on the wonderful funny book-things people are making and celebrating the best and brightest the world of comics has to offer. Honestly, what could be better than that?

What is it you most love about comics?

Robin Brenner:
I think what I love about them most in the kind of literacy they require -- the combination of text and image is really unlike any other medium. As both an artist and a writer, naturally I love both words and images, and to have them both combined inextricably... is a very compelling way for me to experience a story.

Whitney Matheson:
I love that there are certain things you can accomplish with comics and certain stories you can tell that you can't do with any other medium. It's a hard thing to explain to people unless you actually shove a comic book under his or her nose, but once they get it, it often becomes an addiction they can't shake. Sequential art takes a variety of talents to pull off, and I have such admiration for those who work in the field.

Chris Reilly:
That's a tough one, in that I love so much about comics, narrowing it down to one thing is difficult. This is a lame, lazy answer, but reading and creating them are my favorite things about comics. I love collaborating with other creators.

James Sime:
The thing I love most about comics is that everyone making them, selling them, and buying them is doing so because they have a genuine love for the art form. As prevalent as graphic novels have become in American society, nobody is making those things to get a Coca-Cola sponsorship, y'know? No doubt that will change someday, but in 2007 comics are all about the love. And when you read a comic, you can feel that love just pouring off the pages. Also, comic books are the punk rock and hip hop of the arts and entertainment world... where high and low art collide. That's pretty cool, too.


How was the judging experience different from what you expected?

Robin Brenner:
I was delighted at how open all the judges were to considering titles they hadn't heard of in the lead-up to the actual judging weekend, and I was also pleasantly surprised at how much we agreed on a lot of issues right off the bat... nothing quite compares with bonding so immediately with strangers by talking intensely about comics for three days straight.

I was also surprised, I will admit, at how much everyone was willing to consider Japanese manga, especially in figuring out how best to recognize its presence and influence on the whole market... Now judges [in the future] will have to deal with what to do with everything else, like the Korean manhwa currently nosing its way in.

Whitney Matheson:
I have a feeling other judges will say this, but I went in expecting to fight! I really thought the other judges might have opposite tastes, so I arrived thinking I might have to defend a bunch of titles I enjoyed last year. In the end, that didn't turn out to be the case. We all agreed a lot more than I thought we would, and I think we may discuss comics amongst ourselves even after this whole shindig is over.

Chris Reilly:
First off, I thought we'd be screaming at each other by Sunday, and that didn't happen and I found myself really becoming friends with the other judges. Talk about a Cracker Jack team with great character and just brimming with integrity. It was sort of The Breakfast Club meets 12 Angry Men, but no one wound up dating, Jack Klugman never showed us how a killer would use a switchblade, and there was no anger. Most of us were such different types of people, when we were out in public, we must have looked like Ed Wood's entourage... I found I became, over the weekend, much more open to stuff I had dismissed in the past, mostly using the other judge's inclinations to respect views that may have differed from their own as my inspiration to think outside my box. Something that really surprised me in the best possible way was realizing that Ed Brubaker and Bob Burden were both going to be up for best writer. I really love their work, but I never thought I’d see such diametrically different writers in the same category. Same with Brian Chippendale’s Ninja; I never thought that would have a snowball’s chance, but it turned out everyone in the room thought it was just an amazing accomplishment. Onion Head Monster and Truth Serum being up for Best Humor Publication is just amazing...

James Sime:
We all know that taste is subjective and I'm an opinionated kind of guy... and a room full of opinionated people discussing the subjective merits of art sure sounds like a recipe for arguments! Boy was I wrong! I was utterly blown away to find how often my fellow judges and I were in agreement. From the big epic books of immense importance like Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators to the silly little brilliant books like Gumby, we were all on the same page from the first day. Amazing!


What's your most enduring memory of the judging weekend?

Robin Brenner:
I think my most enduring memory of the weekend is probably the shift from the exuberant and slightly raucous celebration of finishing the list, complete with memorable in-jokes and great beer, to having everything cut short by the medical emergency that capped off that evening. The shift from happy celebration to shock and worry to contemplating the dreary but oddly mesmerizing emergency room waiting area (all on about three hours of sleep over 24 hours) was an emotional whirlwind to experience. It kind of exemplifies the weekend to me, that despite coming out of a traumatic seizure, Chris was still trying to explain what the Eisner Awards were, and at the end of that long night, we were all that much closer and still discussing what an achievement we'd shared by composing that list. It exemplifies in a rather extreme way how committed we were to creating a great list.

Whitney Matheson:
There are really too many to mention, but a nice one is when voting began on one of my favorite books -- I won't say which one -- and, to my surprise, I heard everyone give it a high score. Then there was also the sheer, geeky pleasure of talking comics with other judges at 3:30 a.m. in a hotel conference room...

Chris Reilly:
One would think our late Sunday evening in the emergency room (my bad) would top the list, but it turned out to be scary but not that serious. It was the boot camp feel of the whole thing, which we were given fair warning about before we signed on. It was really all work, practically sequestered in that room. There was one day, Saturday, that we worked 21 hours, because we wanted to make sure that nothing was missed and there was just so much great stuff to read. This was in no way mandatory, and I think if Jackie had walked in at, say, 3:00 a.m., she would have told us to go get some damn sleep... The second great memory was seeing the final ballot. I can't say I like everything on it, but I do love a good 90 percent of it, and it just felt like a massive achievement. Oh, and the third great memory: realizing that this was the first time Stan Lee had ever been nominated for an Eisner for writing. I know some people are scratching their heads over how "Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man" got on the ballot for best short story, and all I can say is that you really have to read it.

James Sime:
Far and away the most enduring memory of the weekend we spent reading, talking, ranking, and judging this year's Eisner Award nominations is the bond the other judges and I established with one another. From the grins that erupted around the table when anyone mentioned the delightful Project X: Cup Noodle to the beer we sneakily ordered at dinner for the judge who left her ID back at the hotel to the terrifying trip to the San Diego emergency room... my memories will always be about the people I shared the time with. My affection for Chris Reilly, Robin Brenner, Jeff VanderMeer, and Whitney Matheson is undeniable. Can't wait to see them all again!

How do you think comics and the comic's field have changed over the last decade?

Robin Brenner:
In terms of the past decade, I think the biggest changes have been the increase in visibility of comics and graphic novels to the general reading public, the boom of manga onto that market, and quick on the heels of manga's rise, the final realization that yes, women and girls read comics too (and create them)!

The shift from the collector market to the reader market has been incredibly significant, in terms of just where one can find comics and graphic novels today but also in terms of signifying the growing diversity of what's out there and what people want to read. I feel the industry can only benefit from a concentration on attracting readers rather than collectors -- so the story and artistry of the title is the most important thing. It can only get more diverse from here, and that's all for the best.

Manga's impact is certainly fascinating to observe, both in cementing that reader market even more and in leading the way toward recognizing that girls and women are not so much unlikely comics readers but instead are potential comics readers with very few stories aimed at them. Manga really upended the comic-book-guy stereotype, and showed folks stateside a model that validated female creators and readers. On top of all that, it brought a lot more younger readers into the fold, of both genders.

Whitney Matheson:
I think if you just look at this year's Eisner nominees, you're going to notice a lot more independent and "indie" artists being recognized, which I think is great. There's also more mainstream acceptance and interest in comics right now, and I hope that only increases. Honestly, if I'd said I were judging the Eisners 10 years ago, I would've gotten a lot of puzzled and dismissive looks. There are still a few of those now, but there are also a lot of people who are genuinely interested and want me to make them a shopping list.

Chris Reilly:
The industry’s attempt to force-start another speculator glut, is, fortunately, somewhat of a miserable failure. The slow death of the pamphlet comic on the indie side of the fence is great, because I think most of that stuff is better served and more accessible in the graphic novel format. It's fantastic that companies like Fantagraphics, SLG, TopShelf and Drawn & Quarterly are still going strong, and newcomers like AdHouse and Bodega aren't exactly stinking up the joint. I think that's one of the biggest changes in comics -- the fact that indie comics are no longer (by most) viewed as the sub-ghetto of the industry.

I would like to see a few less comics about zombies; they're really overstaying their welcome in my opinion. They remind me of that old skit from SNL "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave"... I also think that comics have changed in the sense that if a ballot like this had come out five years ago, people would have been furious, because a lot of fan favorites didn't make the list, but there really hasn't been much complaining. It was great to hear someone like Kim Thompson say: "Well, there goes one of my most satisfying Spring rituals: Griping about the Eisners (at least for this year). That's damn solid list. Kudos to the jury."

James Sime:
The last decade has been one of the most exciting in the history of American comic books, and it all comes down to one word: diversity. An ever-expanding explosion of new themes, genres, formats, and styles has evolved the comics industry into something nearly inconceivable 20 years ago. Graphic novels are reviewed in the New York Times, creator-owned books are being made into movies with the biggest box office draws, storylines are reported on CNN, and groups that were once considered non-readers cram the comic isles with books in hand at massive bookstores. This year's Eisner Awards definitely reflect where comics are and where they're going. American comic audiences are being treated to an embarrassment of riches with new publishers and creators pushing the envelope of what comics are and what comics can be, an influx of translated works representing the best works internationally, and new readers flooding into the industry to check out these new "graphic novels" they keep hearing about. The industry continues to grow and diversify further. It'll be exciting to see where we are 10 years from now!

Next Time

Lots of reviews next time around, and an interview with Kim Deitch coming up eventually.

Contact Info

Send complaints, compliments, concerns, and rambling rants about how wrong I am to: vanderworld at (I’ll assume you don’t mind being quoted in this column if you send me something).

Send materials for review to Bookslut and to me at POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.