The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards: A Spotlight on Quality or A Sticker for Sales?

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Self-described as the ‘Oscars’ of the comic industry, the annual Eisner Awards bestows recognition to a select number of books published or distributed in the United States. From its first ceremony at San Diego Comic-Con in 1991, a small panel of rotating five to six judges confer and select the winners for works printed in the previous year. 2023 marks the Eisner Award’s 35th anniversary, but it wasn’t without dispute. Earlier this year, the controversial nomination of Thomas Woodruff in multiple categories led to public outcry from critics and former students. But perhaps the biggest—and continual—problem with the Eisner Awards is its whopping thirty-two categories, with manga sequestered under the questionable, Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia category. With so many different avenues to discover new stories, why should potential and longtime manga readers care about these awards?

Looking back at the range of groups, it’s a question why the ‘Asia’ category even exists if it’s primarily full of nominations for Japanese manga. The messy history of this category begins with its creation as Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material in 1998, splitting into Best U.S. Edition of International Material and Best U.S. Edition of International Material–Japan in 2007, and finally, the most recent name change to Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia in 2010. Before the division in the category nearly sixteen years ago, manga dominated the international comic book bracket and won seven out of the nine years. Not only does this come off as an apparent move to isolate manga into its own category, but it serves as a poor excuse to exclude it from competing directly with European (mostly French) works. Somehow, there isn’t a separate grouping exclusively for European comics.

Going further, only four countries from Asia—Japan, South Korea, China, and Singapore—have even been represented in that classification. Japanese manga, again, overwhelmingly takes the lion’s share of nominations. Only five non-Japanese works have been nominated amongst over eighty selected materials in sixteen years. Even worse, only one of them has won an Eisner. Why even call it the ‘Asia’ category? There’s no doubt that Japan produces many renowned books translated and distributed in the U.S. That leads to interesting face-offs, such as the situation in 2020 where both Witch Hat Atelier and Cats of the Louvre tied for the win. Authors can also qualify in other categories, such as Junji Ito, who won in 2022 for Best Writer/Artist. So far, he is the only Japanese manga author to win in that grouping.

In recent years, the average consumer’s familiarity with manga has exponentially increased as it continues to dominate sales. According to NPD BookScan, a provider of print sales from retailers with point-of-sale systems, manga contributed 90% of the gains from 2022’s overall 4% increase in unit sales for adult comics and graphic novels. In addition, manga sales have grown “27x faster than the total print book market,” as BookScan highlights several Midwestern U.S. cities for their over-index in manga growth within that year. Given the increased quantity and quality of Japanese manga circulating in the U.S., the expectation would be that the comic book industry—and, therefore the judges—would also improve their choices.

However, First Second Books‘ win with their 2022 English translation of Shuna’s Journey raises eyebrows on whether the award decision was based on merit or purely brand name recognition. Part of the issue could be attributed to the publishers not submitting enough other printed works in the Call for Entries since they can only make at most five submissions in each bracket. This year’s other nominations in the Asia category were Black Paradox, The Hellbound (Vol. 1 and 2), Look Back, PTSD Radio, and Talk to My Back. Among this list of books, how did the panel of six judges decide to choose Hayao Miyazaki‘s 1983 novel? It’s a picture book that arguably isn’t even categorized as a manga in Japan. Instead, it’s halfway between an illustrated storybook and a light novel.

The lack of diversity, or even knowledge of manga, among the chosen judges, plays a major role in the nominees and the awards overall. In a similar vein to the Academy Awards, the choices may reflect the bias of the current year’s judges. These five or six members are comic book industry professionals that range from “a comics creator, a critic/reviewer, a graphic novel librarian, a comics retailer, a scholar, and a member of the Comic-Con organizing committee,” as stated in the Eisners’ FAQ. If the judges are unenthusiastic about manga or have no awareness of it, author familiarity might weigh more heavily in their minds. Miyazaki is a household name in entertainment and one of the most recognizable creatives among non-anime and manga fans. Even if the judges read all the nominated books, the selected winners reflect their expertise or lack thereof.

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Photo by Kalai Chik

I would’ve liked to see the reaction in the room as they crowned Shuna’s Journey the winner in the colloquially termed ‘manga category.’ After Viz Media put on a spectacle parading Junji Ito at San Diego Comic-Con—hosting two panels and an exclusive “Welcome to the Ito-verse” exhibit featuring his original manga panels—they had nothing to take home for all the pomp and circumstance. Even so, he’s won Eisner awards in the past, and his work will continue to proliferate, as evidenced by the throng of excited fans who filled his panel rooms and signings.

At the end of the day, the awards are most relevant to the comic industry and aren’t usually reflective of an average comic book reader. Not to say they should cave to the court of public opinion, but there’s been no real change in its thirty-five-year history. There’s been some improvement in their choices over the past five years, but it amounts to little if the awards continue to be highly dependent on the partiality of the judges. For the Eisners to be more relevant or even meaningful, it needs to be revamped. Otherwise, they risk becoming an unsatisfying parade of participation awards.

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