Robot 6

Unbound: Reconsidering the Eisners

bodyworld

Bodyworld

Half the fun in awards like the Eisners is second-guessing the judges—everyone loves to discuss what should have been put on the list and what should have been left off. Reading through the nominees for Best Digital Comics, though, raised a bigger question for me: What comics really belong in this category?

All this year’s nominees are good, but as I read them, I kept thinking “This isn’t really a webcomic.” At first I attributed this to the lack of gamer jokes, Project Wonderful ads, and “about” pages. As I kept going, though, I realized that most of them would work just as well on paper as on the web, and their presence side by side in the same category was simply an accident of distribution.

What’s in a webcomic? A creator named KEZ recently articulated this very well:

My comic, The War of Winds, is a webcomic. It exists primarily in the digital format, and uses the internet as a vehicle for promotion and advertisement. It is read on a live connection to the world wide web. It has a site full of extra information that heightens the reading experience. It was created expressly for online distribution, not for print. It is free, and I’m there a lot communicating with the people who read my work. My comic would NOT exist without the internet due to logistical problems and the need for print publication.

Looked at in this light, only one of the Eisner nominees really fits the bill. The others would work as well on paper. Already we have seen Brian Fies win an Eisner in the Best Digital Comics category for Mom’s Cancer and then, two years later, get two nominations for the print version. This year’s nominations include not only the print version of Fishtown but also the MySpace Dark Horse Presents anthology.

As the landscape shifts, I think it makes more and more sense to nominate online comics in the appropriate categories—best writer, best short story—and reserve the Best Digital category for comics that could only exist on the web.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at this year’s nominees.

Bodyworld, by Dash Shaw: This is a wonderfully complex, thought-provoking sci-fi comic, and Shaw really uses the web as a medium: Each chapter is presented as a series of three-panel strips that scroll smoothly down the page, with a few breaks for bigger scenes. (It does break neatly into comics pages, but this isn’t obvious when you read it on the web.) The saturated color also looks good on the screen but would be tough to duplicate on paper. The website is plain but makes it easy to read the comic (or resume reading it after a break) and it includes one extra feature, a map of the story’s setting.

Finder, by Carla Speed McNeil: A single episode in the long-running Finder saga, this comic works pretty well as a stand-alone story but would do better with some context. The format strongly suggests that it’s a print comic that’s making its first round on the web, though. It’s available on two websites. The Shadowline site has a very basic, stripped-down reader. McNeil’s own site gives a bit more context, in the form of earlier volumes, but neither site orients the reader to the setting or the place of this story in the series.

2008-05-29-13

The Lady's Murder

The Lady’s Murder, by Eliza Frye: This is a short story, just 33 pages, in which the murder victim, a woman of pleasure, shall we say, is described by the men who knew her, each from his own perspective. The art is lovely; it reminds me of Toulouse-Lautrec posters with a dash of Edward Gorey. The comic has its own dedicated website, with a blog and links to the creator’s other works, but nothing would be lost if it were to be moved to print. This should be nominated for best art, not best webcomic.

Speak No Evil: Melancholy of a Space Mexican, by Elan Trinidad: An odd little comic about migrant workers who are literally voiceless—their mouths and noses are removed and kept in a vault. You can read all kinds of social metaphors into it if you like, but the creator really just intended it to be a simple story that’s sad but has flashes of humor. Trinidad’s real accomplishment, to my mind, was to illustrate this odd concept convincingly and set it into a world where everything makes sense, in a skewed sort of way. The comic is on its own site, with easy navigation, and it’s formatted to be read on a screen. There’s an interesting afterword that puts the work in context. I’d say this one is marginal, because the website does add to the reader’s overall experience.

Vs., by Joe Infurnari and Alexis Sottile : This short story has a few clever, if not entirely original, conceits: Typical New York types are transformed into imaginary animals and torment the narrator with their noisy lifestyles. The art is expressive and dynamic—it reminded me strongly of Mad’s Dave Berg—and color is thoughtfully and sparingly applied. On the downside, it’s in rhyme—well done, but not to my taste, I’m afraid. This is part of a continuing series hosted by Smith Magazine. It’s easy to navigate, the comic is formatted for the screen, and there is a spot for readers to comment. The color looks better on the screen than it would on paper, but other than that, there’s no need for this to be a webcomic.

So there you have it. Five very good comics, all worth a read, and all deserving of Eisner nominations—just not in the same category.

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Comments

7 Comments

This is a great article and KEZ’s definition makes a lot of sense. There’s also an important creator owned aspect to webcomics. When you say that a comic wouldn’t exist if not for the internet, I think what you’re saying is that now, because of the low cost nature of internet, 1,000s of new artists are able to enter the field, which never was possible before. While I have nothing against traditional publishers creating digital content, I think there’s something exciting about the fact that an unknown creator can produce something that can be discovered and enjoyed by new readers, creating an entirely new community of fans. That’s what I think makes webcomics special. If in the end only well-known ‘published’ creators get nominated for Eisners in webcomics then the comics community would be ignoring what webcomics are all about.

I think you’re probably right, but maybe a decade too early.

Since I first became aware of webcomics, I’ve been excited about their potential and eager for them to mature as a unique medium. When movies started, they were stage plays on film. When television started, it was radio with pictures. Both soon found their own strengths and weaknesses, developed their own storytelling techniques and stylized languages. We take them for granted because we grew up with them, but I wonder if a person from the 1920s would even understand what they were seeing in a modern TV program or movie. I think they might be as lost as the people who say they don’t read comics because they *don’t know how*, they can’t decode the images–a common complaint that those of us who grew up with comics have a hard time understanding.

I think KEZ’s definition is too narrow and partly misses the point. In saying that the webcomic experience involves detailed supporting material and interaction with readers, it seems to me KEZ is talking about everything except the comic itself–which ought to be the important part. I think both of those characteristics could exist in print–say, a comic book with a letters column accompanied by a bible (e.g., “The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe”) that “heightens the reading experience.” I also think a webcomic can be a webcomic without either of those things.

My ideal webcomic would be its own THING distinct from print or animation, which could fully exist only on the web and would depend on the characterstics of the web to impart the full reading experience. Some concepts like the Infinite Canvas or Balak01’s flash demo (http://balak01.deviantart.com/art/about-DIGITAL-COMICS-111966969) come close, but don’t hit it on the nose for me. I don’t know what it is, and don’t actually know if the medium is capable of it. If I did, I’d do it and get rich.

In that light, I don’t think I agree with you that Bodyworld is representative of the essential webcomic form. In fact, I could imagine Bodyworld published as a very cool and clever book, perhaps with the spine at the top instead of the side, with long pages folding down. To me, it’s just as much or little a webcomic as the other four nominees.

In my case, I’d argue that “Mom’s Cancer” fits most of KEZ’s and Patrick Scullin’s criteria. It was free, on a website filled with extra information. I communicated a lot with readers, whose feedback helped guide its progress. It was published to the web as a near-zero-cost method of distribution, it wouldn’t have existed without the Internet, it wasn’t created by a traditional publisher. All the book stuff happened after it had been online more than half a year. I’d also defend “Mom’s Cancer” as a webcomic not only for its origin but because it was *serialized*, something for which the web is ideal that is much harder or impossible to pull off in print. If it’d been a print comic or comic book, there’s no way I could’ve expected readers to follow the story in small snippets, and no newspaper or magazine editor would’ve committed to print it weekly. It simply wouldn’t have been seen by anyone because it wasn’t a product that met the requirements of any traditional media. But online, all an interested reader had to do was click a bookmark once in a while. And as I’m sure you’ve experienced yourself, reading a work one bit at a time over several months is a much different experience than reading those same bits collected.

And yet, by my own definition, “Mom’s Cancer” is certainly not what I’d want or expect of an authentic webcomic either. For one thing, it obviously exists just fine in print. I suggest that for now we simply have to live with the idea that this is an early, developmental, transitional time for webcomics, like film in 1910 or TV in 1945. These are webcomics’ Vaudeville years, when performers use tried-and-true routines from other media because they work and they’re all they know. As much as anyone, I’m looking forward to a time when webcartoonists stop drawing everything with black lines in four panels (why so many people remain stubbornly locked into formats and materials meant to work with print technology of the 1890s is beyond me) and show me something I’ve never seen before, something with a language of its own impossible to duplicate in print, that knocks my socks off. I expect it will happen in time.

Oh hey. Cool. I’ve been quoted somewhere! :D

My quote there was really about pinpointing what makes webcomics DIFFERENT than digital comics, not what makes digital comics…digital comics. Technically, all webcomics are by definition digital comics, but not all digital comics are webcomics. Which is why I was talking about a lot of stuff not related to the comic itself. The parts “would not exist without the internet, ” and “created expressly for online distribution” refers both to publishing it as well as the digital/interactive nature that simply cannot be replicated in print. I just write these things at about 2am, when I don’t realize I’m not being all too clear. However, the purpose of my studio blog is more about the “web” nature of webcomics, rather than the “comic” nature of webcomics, which everyone else talks about. I’m weird, I know. Thanks for the quote! I feel all smart and controversial now. :D

I’ve started promoting my own webcomic, and for weblogs posting on webcomics as a display-medium, I’ve been taking the opportunity to link to it. It has a fancy-schmancy panel-display to back-up my boast that no one else has presented anything like it before: http://www.king-spot.com

…and why’d you put a link to the second page?

[Hmmm. I wrote a whole nice essay about web comic and the Eisners and it didn’t show up. I thought it might need approval from someone, but my last little message just showed up.]

Okay, I’ll admit. My comic is just a normal print comic that happens to be on the web. Two pages of “Speak No Evil” equal one print page. In actuality, its a 19 page story rather than a 38 page story.

I submitted this to the Eisners with a “Why the f*** not” attitude. My thinking was that the least I’d get out of this would be one or two of the judges liking it and then blogging about it and telling their friends. Obviously, it went better than I thought.

My current work is more like a web comic. http://theoryofeverythingcomics.com/god/01/index.htm There’s a few bells and whistles. Enough to make the difference between reading it online from reading it on paper somewhat noticeable. The way I paced the story is taking account that one has different expectations from a computer screen than a book. There’s a multi-task/ADD attitude we have when we’re in front of a screen.

I feel like the difference between reading a comic on the web and reading it in your hands is the difference between watching your favorite move in the theater vs broadcasted on TV vs buying the DVD vs illegally downloading it. Very very subtle differences. I could add animation to my comic if I wanted to. And I do plan to. But I’ve also worked in animation and know how time consuming it could be. Alone, what I could do within the time frame of producing 5 seconds of animation, I could’ve done 10 pages. If I’m going to put animation or video in my web comic, it’ll be for a part of the story that needs it. Otherwise, I’ll just be doing busy work for bells and whistles that could easily distract from the story. And I worry if I started putting animation into my web comic, it’ll evolve into an animated webisode. That’s a whole other beast that I don’t want to bother with.

I think the web comics scene will become more like the amateur manga scene in Japan. It’ll be where the major publishing companies and entertainment corporations find new talent and make them into stars.

I agree that there should be more categories for web comics. The past winners and past nominees are sort of a mish-mosh. The judges don’t know exactly what this category is yet. And I highly doubt that the Digital Comics category will diversify.

The reason? Well, one of the jobs for an industry award is to get people to buy more product. People who aren’t regular movie-goers are more likely to check out Slumdog Millionaire because it won an Oscar for Best Movie. Someone who hasn’t been to a comic shop for a while, or has never been at all, is more likely to buy an Eisner Award Winning book when they have no idea what to buy.

Why do you think retailers and comic shop owners, the only non-creative, non-production people could vote for the Eisners?

Web comics, as they currently stand, do not make money for this system. Sure, there’s PvP which is online and printed and distributed at comic shops (but I hear not for long). But what does a book like mine contribute? There’s a few minicomics with “Speak No Evil” in it at a few LA comic shops. I make a few cents from my projectwonderful ads. I could possibly make some merchandise and distribute through Diamond, but most likely I would go with cafepress or zazzle. Web comics, like mine– and there are more theoryofeverythingcomics.com’s than PvPonline.com’s– don’t help the current system. Why would more attention be spent on web comics? This would only make, what I hear is a long and boring ceremony, even longer.

This category is just a bone thrown into the electronic wilderness. And any opportunity that will help me make a living off of the sort of comics I want to do is much appreciated. And I’m happy that this bone has unexpectedly fallen in arms length of me. I mean, before this, who the hell ever heard of Elan’ Rodger Trinidad?

…and the Eisner is a big bone.

….

…like, this big! [My arms are stretched REALLY REALLY wide]

….

…I feel like a Boston terrier trying to drag an elephant leg bone through a doggie door.

Kevin Melrose

June 12, 2009 at 5:40 am

Sorry, your original post was snagged by the spam filter.

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