The Evolution of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards

By Kat Kan, MLS

The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards have seen significant changes over the past 14 years, and I have been honored enough to be a part of the process. I witnessed first-hand the impact librarian judges have made on the Eisner Award voting and how the Awards have evolved to reflect emerging trends in publishing and society at large. It has been a fascinating journey to witness and participate in.

shutterstock_1130802248I’ve worked in libraries for about 36 years now. For most of that time, I have pushed to promote the acceptance of graphic novels as a vital component of library collections. For a couple of decades, it felt like a long, hard slog to convince other librarians of the value of graphic novels. Writing my “Graphically Speaking” column in Voice of Youth Advocates since 1994 may have helped—at least I like to think so! In late fall of 2004, when I was serving as chair of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Graphic Novel Task Force proposal, I received a phone call from Jackie Estrada, who administers the Eisner Awards for the San Diego Comic-Con International.

Kat Gift Picture

I spent my 50th birthday traveling to serve as a judge for the 2005 Eisner Awards. Jackie Estrada and my fellow judges surprised me with a cake and a very cute stuffed bunny, which I still have to this day.

She said that she wanted to add a librarian to the judges’ panel for the 2005 Eisner Awards, and she asked me to be that librarian judge. The Eisner Awards are the Oscars of the comics industry, so it was a huge deal that she wanted a librarian to be part of the awards. Of course I said yes! I didn’t find out until years later that Mr. Eisner himself had requested librarians to be included as judges for the awards. Incidentally, he passed away in early 2005. I’m sad I never had the chance to meet him.

I had served on various book list selection committees for YALSA over the years, so I had experience with having to read a lot of books, but this time all the reading was comics! For the Eisners, we judges were to select up to five nominees for each award category. We were also tasked with creating a new award category for best digital comic.

We all gathered in San Diego over the first weekend in April 2005. We spent the next two days in marathon discussion sessions, punctuated by someone dashing to a table or box to pull out the comics in question. We talked about the writing, the art, the stories. It was amazing and invigorating. We argued, but things never got heated among us. Jackie sat with us, ready to referee if needed, but our discussions remained cordial. I imagine the interaction between judges is similarly animated and stimulating every year.

There are two stages to the Eisner Awards process (from the Comic-Con Eisner Awards FAQ):

Judging (Nominations)

“The nominees in each category are chosen by a blue-ribbon panel of judges who meet in San Diego in the spring of each year… The judging panel, which changes each year, consists of five or six people representing various aspects of the comics industry.”

Voting

“Once the nominees have been chosen, voting…usually occurs in mid-April, with a deadline in early June. Voting is open to comic book/graphic novel/webcomic creators (writers, artists, cartoonists, pencillers, inkers, letterers, colorists); all nominees in any category; comic book/graphic novel publishers and editors; comics historians and educators; graphic novel librarians; owners and managers of comic book specialty retail stores.”

Serving as an Eisner judge is a once in a lifetime opportunity; I can never serve again. However, what Jackie did was open voting privileges, first to me, because I had served as an Eisner judge, then to all librarians who work with graphic novels. Why was this so special?  Before 2005, only those people working directly in the comics industry as publishers, creators, retailers, and journalists, could vote. Librarians were excluded from this list. But within a couple of years, voter eligibility was expanded to include not just comics industry professionals, publishers, and the librarian judges, Powbut also any librarian who works with comics and graphic novels. Broadening representation among judges and voters has helped the Awards to develop.

The following 11 awards categories were introduced after librarians were added to the judges’ panel and are still being presented:

  • Best Publication for Early Readers (up to age 8) (2012-present)
  • Best Publication for Kids (ages 9–12) (2008–present)
  • Best Publication for Teens (ages 13–17) (2008–present)
  • Best Reality-Based Work (2007–present)
  • Best Adaptation from Another Medium (2013-2014, 2016–present)
  • Best U.S. Edition of International Material — Asia (2010–present)
  • Best Archival Collection/Project — Comic Books (2006–present)
  • Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism (2008–present)
  • Best Academic/Scholarly Work (2012–present)
  • Best Digital Comic (2005–present)
  • Best Webcomic (2017–present)

Since librarians became eligible voters, and as more librarians have taken advantage of that opportunity, we are seeing more independent comics creators and independent book trade publishers being nominated—and winning. Certain categories, especially YA and international adaptations to English, have been expanded. These changes reflect the maturation of the comics/graphic novels segment and growing contributions from what were once considered fringe sources.

Each succeeding year has brought more nominees from outside the Marvel/DC superhero mainstream, and various judges’ panels expanded the younger reader category into three age levels. The international comics category has also been split into two, separating Asian comics from those published elsewhere in the world.

shutterstock_521328379In 2005, seven women were nominated and two of them won. Fast forward to the 2015 Eisner Awards, when there were 30 nominations for women, and 12 of them won. Of the 29 categories, independent comics publishers and trade publishers won most of the awards; DC won one, and Marvel didn’t win any.

In 2019, there were 31 categories. New this year, the webcomics category was divided into digital comics and webcomics. More than 40 of the nominees were women, and Image Comics swept the entire Best New Series category.

The Eisner Awards have undergone dramatic changes over the past 14 years. I’m looking forward to seeing even more diversity and representation among nominees and winners in the years to come.

Sources:

Eisner Awards FAQ

2005 Eisner Award Winners

2015 Eisner Award Winners

2019 Eisner Award Nominees

2019 Eisner Award Winners

Kat_Kan_Better_Pic

Katharine

If you’re looking for a graphic novel guru, you’re looking for Kat Kan. Kat looks like the stereotypical librarian with glasses and a bun, until you see the hair sticks and notice her earrings may be tiny books, TARDISes from Doctor Who, or LEGO Batgirls. Click here for more.

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