In defense of the Eisner judges

More Eisner reactions from The Hooded Utilitarian, where Noah Berlatsky says,

So while the lack of manga at the Eisners isn’t a big deal for manga, I think it is maybe a big deal for the Eisners, and for the industry they represent. In short, it’s a sign of a a big, fat failure on the part of American comics. As is so often the case, a snub says more about the quality of the perpetrator than it does about the object of scorn.

You know, I have had the pleasure of knowing at least one of the Eisner judges every year for the past few years. In 2007 and 2008, the committee was graced with two librarians, Robin Brenner and Eva Volin, who read manga, appreciate its worth, and lobbied for its inclusion. Of this year’s committee, I have only recently met John Shableski but I have heard people speak highly of him for years. I believe that John gets the big comics picture. I have never met Andrew Wheeler or Mike Pawuk personally, but I regularly read and link to Andrew’s manga reviews on ComicMix, and Mike is a librarian who has written a book on graphic novels and manga. My point is, I don’t think this group is particularly inbred or anti-manga. On the other hand, in 2007 and 2008, many manga were nominated but few won. I think the true fault lies in the voters, who are not as well read as the committee and vote accordingly, and that comes back to what the Eisners are. People do tend to prefer one type of comics over another, and the Eisners speak to a more traditional crowd.

Take a look at the Best Continuing Series nominations: All Star Superman, Fables, Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, Thor, and Usagi Yojimbo. One of these things is not like the others; Monster is so different in format and concept that I would have a hard time comparing it to All Star Superman. Also, to be honest, manga readers can be as provincial as the Wednesday crowd; I try to branch out a bit, but I haven’t read any of the other series. In fact, Robin Brenner is one of the few manga folks I know who reads superhero comics at all. If the rest of us were handed an Eisner ballot, we would probably just check off the manga, just as the superhero guys would just check off their comics.

(And you know, it’s not entirely our fault, either. I used to read Thor when I was in high school, but when I went to the Marvel website just now to find an image of the nominated comic, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. The “Browse by Family” feature was useless to me, and the brute-force search turned up nothing that was simply titled “Thor.” You would think that a publisher would want to make their website accessible to newcomers, and maybe even link to the catalog page of the nominated title in their press release, but… no. So here’s a Fables cover instead.)

What to do? I would love to see a separate set of manga awards, but while we wait for that to become a reality, I think the Eisner folks need to rethink the format a bit. The categories seem to be broken down very finely for the Western comics—I say this as a dunderheaded manga reader who can’t tell a good colorist or inker from a bad one—yet all of manga is lumped into a single category. Perhaps it’s time to tease that out a bit and look at awards for best writer, best artist, best toner, most creative monsters, most complicated clothing construction, whatever, for manga. This doesn’t have to be exclusive; there are manga that fit into the traditional categories, so by all means nominate them there, but also acknowledge that we are talking about a different format and mindset than monthly superhero comics and give the manga creators a place to shine. Because really, there’s a lot of great stuff out there, and frankly, I’d rather see anything from Deb Aoki’s list of manga that should have been nominated this year make the cut than yet another Yoshihiro Tatsumi manga.

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Comments

  1. primeparadigm says:

    Speaking as an Asian Comics/Manga reader, I for one think it is alright for Manga to have limited participation in the Eisner awards, otherwise giving it a seperate category. We must not forget that there are similar awards catering exclusively to manga in Japan itself, and Monster has already won quite a fair share of them many years back when it was first published. On the flipside, we don’t find them handing out awards to western comics over in Japan, but we do need some way of acknowledging excellence in western comics. Citing the examples of AS Superman, Usagi Yojimbo and Fables in your article, having read all of these series I can say they are all fantastic reads and very much deserving of such acknowledgement.

  2. Everything here is so well, said. Especially this:

    Also, to be honest, manga readers can be as provincial as the Wednesday crowd; I try to branch out a bit, but I haven’t read any of the other series. In fact, Robin Brenner is one of the few manga folks I know who reads superhero comics at all. If the rest of us were handed an Eisner ballot, we would probably just check off the manga, just as the superhero guys would just check off their comics.

    I know there are plenty of fans who are more well-read than I am, but I think we all have our own particular tastes, and hell, there’s nothing wrong with reading and spending money on what you like and leaving the rest alone. But it’s a little unrealistic to expect that won’t affect voting habits in something like the Eisners.

  3. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey Brigid. Thanks for your thoughtful response…and for linking to HU in general over the last weeks. It’s much appreciated.

    I posted a short response on the post, and thought I’d leave it here as well:

    “Brigid offers a polite dissent, pointing out that many of the Eisner judges are quite aware of manga, and suggesting again that manga needs its own awards. She also suggests that the Eisner’s should maybe expand to include more manga categories in the meantime…which they should, and which, if they did it whole hog enough, would preclude the need for a separate set of manga. If you’re the Eisners, why not create a whole parallel set of manga categories? You’ve got a leg up to begin with, so why not become the prestigious award for manga as well as for comics? Again, that seems like a great way to seem, and for that matter, to actually be, relevant to a whole new group of comics consumers.

    Brigid also offers a mini-apology of sorts for the fact that manga fans (and she herself) aren’t necessarily all that into Western comics. I don’t think any apology is ever necessary for matters of taste like that; there isn’t any moral duty to read one comic or the other. With an institution like the Eisners, it would make sense for marketing and industry reasons for the awards as a whole to be more open to manga, but that’s really a different issue than saying, “this judge should like manga more” (especially since, as Brigid notes, many of the judges like manga fine.)”

  4. primeparadigm, I don’t really care whether the Japanese hand out awards to manga or Western comics in Japan. I’m over here! Manga as produced and marketed here have become, de facto, American comics, and I think they should be judged and recognized as such. And I don’t doubt that the comics you cite look good—I would love to read All Star Superman and Usagi Yojimbo, I just don’t have the time or the money—but I don’t think they are directly comparable to Monster. They’re just too different.

    Melinda, you’re right. People read comics for enjoyment, and they shouldn’t be constrained by categories. I do think that bodies such as the Eisners should stretch bit farther, though, and try to give good coverage to the entire industry.

    Noah, thanks for the kind words! I’m really enjoying your manga posts.

  5. Good post Brigid, I appreciate the thoughts though I usually don’t spend much time thinking about the Eisners. I usually feel like indie American comics usually get overlooked more than Manga, truth be told.

    Here is the heresy surprise: I am a die-hard Monster fan, but in this case I actually think All-Star Superman probably deserves the award. I read it and loved it (There, I said it!).

  6. I guess I meant to be more precise: By “indie” i mean really small-press of self-published, not Fantagraphics/D&Q books.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The idea of a seperate Manga awards is idiotic. Comics is comics, they should be judged the same, regardless of national origin.

  8. First Brigid, thanks for the props both personally and as a former Eisner judge for the process. It’s an extraordinarily tough job, just considering the sheer volume of reading, and it requires the judges often to veer way outside their comfort zones. That’s part of the fun and the challenge.

    I must say I agree with your assessment of how these awards tend to go — the final word comes from the voters, not the judges, and that is the reflection of what these awards truly represent. I’ll let everyone else discuss what that means. :)

    In terms of creating a whole set of manga categories — I think that is one, highly unlikely to ever happen, and two, unnecessary. I agree that the best tack to take, if publishers and fans want manga to be more integrated into the Eisners, is to actively lobby for manga creators to be nominated for categories outside the manga category, such as best writer/artist, etc. I don’t really see why it would be necessary to create separate manga categories — just nominate them for the categories that already exist! This burden falls to the publishers. If you really wanted separate categories, then what you’re really saying is that you want US manga awards, something I agree we need, but tacking them on to the Eisners I don’t think would actually make sense.

  9. the thing with the separate part, I dont agree because many mangaka use assitants that go unnamed so we wouldn’t know who to give the award too.

    It might not be that you dont know the difference between a good or bad colorist more like you have a different aesthetic? because ‘manga style’ art tends to be more brighter and lighter then many of the saturated colors in comic books. I dont read much comic books, but after megacon I found out that I watch a lot of comic book pros on DA so there is some cross over if we’re talking about art

  10. >The idea of a seperate Manga awards is idiotic. Comics is comics, they should be judged the same, regardless of national origin.

    Gosh, you’re right.

    I suppose then we should get rid of the Sundance, since movies are movies.

  11. Love the idea of a dedicated manga award! I vote for calling it the “mangies.” Winners get a golden statue of Astro Boy…

  12. Manga Blog

    Hi Brigid!

    The categories seem to be broken down very finely for the Western comics—I say this as a dunderheaded manga reader who can’t tell a good colorist or inker from a bad one—yet all of manga is lumped into a single category.

    That’s a great suggestion but it’s not a practical one due to the cultural dissonance. What do I mean by cultural dissonance?

    Well, for the most part, the Eisner’s is really America’s Comic Awards. It’s not Europe’s, it’s not Japan’s, it’s not the world’s. A comic published in the Philippines will never qualify for nomination in the Eisners. Similarly, when it comes to the heirarchy of achievements, it’s based on American values. Pencilers/Inkers/Colorists for example are highly valued in America (they get credited in the comic they’re published in). In Japan, their services are valued but they’re not really acknowledged. And this is in due part to the manga production process and if you look at most of the manga we read, most of the credit tends to go to the publisher, the artist, and the writer when possible. The rest are invisible, at least as far as the public is concerned (manga pencilers/inkers within their industry eventually “graduate” to produce manga of their own and get credited as writers or artists).

    And yes, this cultural dissonance also reflects the categories. If their criteria was solely based on manga, we’d group the awards based on genre (shonen, shojo, seinen, hentai, etc.). But this is American comics we’re talking about and categories that easily fit manga don’t fit the American publishing industry.

    Let’s look at Best Continuing Series for example. I wouldn’t classify All Star Superman as shonen also there’d be concessions to that category. Fables is more seinen in my opinion. Sure, let’s throw Thor into the shonen category. Then Usagi Yojimbo is like All Star Superman: there’s a part of it that’s Shoen but a part of it that’s something more.

    And yes, Best Continuing Series isn’t a good fit for Monster because heck, most manga being published in the US ARE Continuing Series.

    So the clash of cultures comes into play here but we must also remember that the Eisner’s agenda is promoting US comics and values, not manga’s (which is arguably Japan’s).

    As for manga getting lumped into a single category, manga fans need to wake up. Originally the Eisner’s has one concession category to “international” manga–those that were originally published elsewhere but got reprinted by a US publisher. Europe for example produces a lot of great comics (and much like elsewhere in the world such as Japan, superheroes are the rarity rather than the norm). All of those European countries (along with any other country that manages to get reprinted in the US) gets lumped into a single category: Best U.S. Edition of International Material. It’s actually a big progress for manga to have its own category: Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Japan. I don’t think the output of the rest of the world–America aside–is equal to that of Japan but hey, that’s a testament of how big manga is in the US because there’s a lot of imports and it’s quite popular. Arguably the category doesn’t do manga justice but again, the Eisner’s agenda isn’t to push manga as a whole as it is to promote US comics and hence they’ll be using US values rather than Japanese criteria.

    The only time manga will have an awarding criteria under its own terms is if a) somebody creates their own awards for manga or b) manga somehow comprises 90% of the US market in the Eisners that the Eisners have to adapt to manga’s standards.

    And I’m not even considering the Western paradigm/bias of the judges and the voters (in much the same way that Japanese readers simply won’t understand or appreciate certain Western titles).

    There’s also one additional thing I want to add. Manga fans have to realize that a lot of manga being released right now are actually quite bland or formulaic, especially to someone who’s not into that genre already. For example, how many shonen manga is simply about fighting and tournaments and the power of friendship? (Apparently what worked for Dragonball Z still works for a title as current as… Bleach.) Or my personal pet peeve when it comes to harem manga, where the male protagonist will always stumble into a girl, touching their breast, or seeing them naked later on in a bathroom scene. If manga fans are criticizing US comics for the abundance of superheroes and lots of fanboy referencing, guess, what, manga’s guilty of it too. And to a certain extent, those titles (on both counts)) seldom qualify for the Eisners (at least if the judges are doing their jobs).

    I have a passing familiarity with all the titles in the Best Continuing Series and they’re honestly all great suggestions. And what manga-exclusive fans might not be aware of is how different each of those titles are from each other.

    All Star Superman – A self-contained series re-imaginging the Superman myth. 12 issues and you’re done, no prior knowledge of the decades of Superman history needed, although longtime comic fans will appreciate the nods to them.

    Fables – Fairy tales comes to life, with drama and horror and meta-fiction all coming into play. No superheroes here and definitely not for the young ones.

    Thor – It has some superhero roots by the current Thor series, while it has some mainstream US comics intersecting in an issue or two, is for the most part its self-contained universe. Thor basically has just returned to Earth and must re-establish Asgard, usually by finding Asgardians hidden as regular humans.

    Usagi Yojimbo – While anthropomorphic characters are used, this is a very serious and dramatic story of a samurai finding his place in the world.

    Again, the Best Continuing Series is a great list and we must also remember that the nominated titles can’t be filled up with OUR favorite titles. Deb Aoki has some great suggestions but there comes a point where I have to ask, does the Eisners really need another Tezuka recommendations when there’s a couple already in the list (or between Dororo and Black Jack, which would you pick?)? And as much as I enjoy Real, the release schedule hasn’t been quick and the title honestly has a slow pace that it won’t immediately grab the judges or the voters.

  13. Travis McGee says:

    Although I omnivorously consume both American comics and manga, I actually think it’s questionable whether manga should be included in any category other than the “US Edition of International Work -Japanese”. Firstly, I agree with previous comments that stress the Eisner’s role as a celebration of American work and artists; and to take a wordwide focus across all its categories, or to make parallel categories for manga translated into English, undermines this implicit scope. Secondly, the English language manga market does not operate in the same way that the American comics market does. All the original English-language works have appeared (roughly) within the last year. Most of the manga is years, if not decades, old. To me, the inclusion of Monster in the continuing series category is silly since, strictly speaking, it is NOT a ‘continuing series’ – it ended almost a decade ago in the original Japanese! This would be equivalent to the Oscars giving one of the regular awards to a movie that screened ten years ago.

    The only thing I really want to take up arms against in your post – but I’m can’t, as I’m afraid I don’t have the critical nuance to adequately defend his work – is your scornful dismissal of Tatsumi. “Goodbye’ is certainly deserving of a nomination, not to mention the best of the three volumes of his early works translated into English.

  14. Jay Barnett says:

    I used to read superhero comics before they became nothing but self-referential misogynistic bloodbaths. Superhero books used to have characters and stories that actual, human people could relate to.

    Then Watchmen was published and it destroyed both the genre and the industry.

    American comics could learn so much from manga without giving up what makes them unique, but people are still stuck in their either/or boxes. It’s depressing.


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  1. [...] Lots more people put a lot more thought into this than me.  People like David Welsh, Simon Jones, Brigid Alverson, Noah Berlatsky – just to name a few.  So I’m not going to get into the inner workings of [...]

  2. [...] on whether the judges “ignored” manga. Judge Andrew Wheeler wades into the debate as Brigid Alverson offers a defense of this year’s committee: “I think the true fault lies in the voters, [...]