As a journalist, I have always appreciated the Will Eisner Comics Industry Award nominations because they are such great blog fodder—there's always something to say about them, whether about the books that were included or the books that were left off.
This year, though, I was on the other side of the firing line—I was an Eisner judge. I spent an amazing weekend in San Diego with five other judges, with nothing to do the whole time but read comics and argue about them. If that's your idea of heaven, well, pull up a cloud and let me tell you about it.
It all started back in October with an e-mail from Jackie Estrada, who has been the administrator of the Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards since 1990, inviting me to be part of this year's panel. It took me about 30 seconds to say yes.
Jackie warned the judges that we needed to read as much as possible before the judging weekend. "No sweat," I thought. I'm a comics journalist. Reading comics is what I do.
The problem is that as a freelancer, I tend to read the books that interest me most. If there's a book on my stack by Naoki Urasawa, or Joelle Jones, or Darwyn Cooke, that's the one I reach for first. My comfort zone is broad, but it is finite.
The Eisners shook me out of that rut. Now I had to consider the whole world of comics, not just the ones I knew. Jackie peppered us with best-of lists, and the judges also had an e-mail discussion group where we pitched books we particularly liked. I took the precaution of reading Habibi early, not wanting to cram it in at the end, and I worked the inter-library loan system hard. Publishers sent boxes of books as well; combine that with my regular review copies, and my house could have been featured in a special graphic novel edition of Hoarders.
As the weekend drew near, I bailed out of the other obligations in my life and just focused on reading. In one epic weekend I covered half the webcomics list and almost the entire kids' and teens' list. By the time I got on the plane for San Diego, I thought I was in pretty good shape.
As soon as I arrived, I knew I had been way too optimistic.
Comic-Con treats the Eisner judges well. They put us up in a very nice hotel, and we did our judging in a conference room with a lovely view of the waterfront. Long tables lined three walls, and the tables were piled high with books and comics.
When I walked in, my fellow judge Calum Johnson, of Strange Adventures Comics, was organizing the single-issue comics, and Jackie had arranged most of the other comics and graphic novels by category. "I'm not sure where to start," I said, and soon there was a stack of comics in front of me; Cal was my Sherpa through the world of superheroes and other monthly comics.
The other judges filtered in, one by one: Jesse Karp, the school librarian at LREI in New York; Tales of the Beanworld creator Larry Marder; English professor Ben Saunders, of the University of Oregon; and Mary Sturhann, the secretary to the Board of Directors of Comic-Con. We got acquainted over hamburgers in a nearby restaurant, and then the reading began.
And that's what we did, from first thing in the morning to late at night. Having come in from the East Coast, I woke up early, so I had time to take a walk on the waterfront and get a little reading done before breakfast. It was like being in training, like Rocky if all Rocky did was read and eat. Did I mention that it was awesome?
One of the great things about our little group was that everyone knew a lot about different types of comics, and there was a lot of overlap; there was no one person who was "the manga expert" or "the superhero expert." We relied on each other for suggestions as to what to read first and what to push to the side, but we also grazed the stacks on the tables, pulling out whatever interested us.
Larry Marder summed up the reading experience perfectly: "Okay, comic book, it's just you and me now. Let's see what you got." That's exactly how it was. I pushed reputations and recommendations out of my head and just focused the comic in front of me. Jackie handed out fresh master lists each day, and at last they started getting shorter, as we winnowed down the entries. I made little notes and started thinking about which books I would fight for and which were good but not quite good enough.
Sometimes a book caught me by surprise. I never thought I would be arguing for a book of Playboy cartoons, but The Art of Doug Sneyd caught my funnybone just so. I'm not a big superhero fan, but I was reaching for one issue of Daredevil after another. Even after I went upstairs for the night I stayed up late in my room, wrapped in a blanket, ignoring the twinkling lights of the city below as I read Ed Brubaker's Criminal and Tyler Gelatt's Petrograd. At night, I dreamed of comics.
It all came to a head on Sunday, when we did our voting. We started early, with a few of the easier categories, and kept going all day, with a break for some catch-up reading. It was hard, because the books were so good. Every category had more than five contenders that were high quality—"Eisner-worthy"—which made for some tough choices. This is where our differences started really showing up—a book I thought was brilliant would be rated much lower by someone else. Sometimes a judge would advocate for a book before we started voting; we considered that, but we didn't always agree.
We wrapped up late Sunday night, with a list that we thought was pretty damn good. Each one of us individually would have come up with a different list, but we had stood over those tables for three days, handing books back and forth, recommending, arguing, agreeing, and this final set of nominees was truly a group effort.
"You know," Jackie said as we wrapped up, "people are going to criticize your choices." That's fine with me; aside from the fact that I'm usually the one dishing it out, I think the true value of awards like the Eisners is that they get people talking about comics, and maybe reading outside their own comfort zones a bit. So I can handle some criticism.
Besides, it was time to move on: I had a spring graphic novel roundup that was due in two days. I read three new graphic novels on the flight home, and if at least one of them doesn't get an Eisner, I'll be writing a column about it. Next year.