Emanata: Notes on This Year’s Eisner Nominees

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The nominees for this year’s Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards–effectively the comics business’s Oscar’s–were announced Thursday night. (The actual award winners will be announced at this July’s Comic-Con International in San Diego.) Half the point of making a short-list of award nominees, of course, is to get people to argue about what’s on them and what should have been on them, and I’m happy to oblige. (The whole point of the Internet is, after all, “why wasn’t I consulted?”) I’ve served on the Eisners’ nomination committee (in 2001), and was fortunate enough to take one of the awards home (in 2008), so I’ve got a bit of insight into both how the sausage is made and what it tastes like.

It’s very easy to think that one’s own taste in comics is the One True Aesthetic, and that an award ballot that isn’t close to it is missing the point, or the result of some kind of sinister hidden agenda or anti-quality conspiracy. In fact, the Eisner ballot always reflects the particular tastes of its judges more than any particular ideology: the judges are a small group of people who usually don’t know each other too well going in, and get to spend a few days hammering the lists out and arguing the merits of their favorites. So please take these comments not as a complaint that the committee didn’t bow to my personal preferences, but just me noting how I might have gone about things differently.

That said, what a weird ballot the Eisners have this year. The official press release declares in its third sentence that “unlike in past years, superheroes are very much in the minority in this year’s selections.” No kidding. I don’t think that’s a bad thing–in some ways, it’s a refreshing change–but it’s also clear that this year’s group of judges don’t appear to be particularly into the single genre that’s the direct comics market’s bread and butter. (And yet I occasionally get the sense that what some people who dislike superhero comics–especially contemporary superhero comics–on principle find most off-putting about them is their hegemony. I think it’s unfair to assume that this year’s committee made any of its selections on the William Shatner-in-Airplane II “that’s exactly what they’re expecting us to do” principle, but I know from having been on nominating committees for various awards that that principle can be tempting.)

(More on TIME.com: Weekly Comics Column: “Morning Glories,” Types and Archetypes)

I also know that, as an award judge, it usually seems appropriate to nominate a relatively wide range of stuff in each category, and to stack the deck a bit by making sure that particularly excellent work shows up in multiple categories. By that metric, the biggest favorite among the nominees is Morning Glories–it appears among Best New Series and Best Continuing Series (should those categories really overlap?), writer Nick Spencer and cover artist Rodin Esquejo are both nominated on their own, and Spencer and Esquejo had their unrelated short story in the Fractured Fables anthology nominated too. On the other hand, it’s a little odd that two of the five nominees for Best Single Issue were written by the same person (Joe Hill).

There are some excellent and overlooked books I’m very glad to see getting a nod in the Eisner nominations: Barry Deutsch’s sly, charming kids’ book Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, Osamu Tezuka’s mammoth family tragedy Ayako, Joyce Farmer’s bitterly truthful Special Exits, Jason Little’s mold-breaking adventure Motel Art Improvement Service. At the same time, a few books and creators that have gotten widespread acclaim elsewhere are either overlooked altogether or get what seem to be consolation-prize nominations. Chris Ware’s savagely brilliant Lint is nominated for lettering and coloring, but it’s conspicuously absent from “Best Graphic Album – New”; Adam Hines’ Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One and Jaime Hernandez’s “Browntown,” both the subjects of rapturous critical discussion, are nowhere to be found; Grant Morrison is nominated for his shaky Joe the Barbarian, not for the Batman work that some sectors of the comics Internet were freaking out over. The big indie-comics commercial success stories of last year, Scott Pilgrim and The Walking Dead, are curiously absent too.

(More on TIME.com: Weekly Comics Column: Adam Hines’ Duncan the Wonder Dog)

Finally, this year’s nominees suggest that it may be time to condense certain semiredundant groups of categories on the overstuffed Eisner ballot. It seems curious, for instance, that there are separate sets of nominations for “Best U.S. Edition of International Material” and “Best U.S. Edition of International Material – Asia,” and for “Best Publication for Kids” and “Best Publication for Teens.” And I suspect that the distinction between “Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team” and “Best Painter/Multimedia Artist” may be becoming less meaningful, especially since I’m pretty sure at least a couple of nominees in the former category work in digital media. The point of having multiple categories is, of course, to allow a broader range of work to be nominated–but awards mean more if everything in each category is heartbreakingly good.