25 Years of the Eisner Awards
The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards celebrated its 25th anniversary this year at Comic-Con International in San Diego. For a quarter century, the most prestigious award in comics has been recognizing the best — or, depending upon your perspective, getting it wrong for two and a half decades. However you feel about the results, the Eisners are established as our most respected and classy way for the industry to recognize excellence and put its best foot forward to the larger world.
It didn’t seem like there was a lot of acknowledgement of the anniversary, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to dive into the archives, sift through way too many numbers and names, and present 25 fun facts, figures and random whatnots.
So here now are 25 fun facts about the Eisner Awards:
1. The first Eisner Awards were handed out in 1988, but this being comics, it just can’t be that straightforward. The Kirby Awards pre-dated the Eisners and birthed both the Eisners and the Harvey awards. So while this is the 25th year of the Eisners, the Kirbys ran for three years before, and their Hall of Fame inductees were transferred to the Halls of Fame of both the Eisners and Harveys. Because the Comic-Con website also includes the Kirby winners in its lists, I’m including them as well.
2. When both the Kirby and Eisner Awards started in the ’80s, there were just 11 categories. As the comics industry has grown in quality and diversity, the categories have blossomed to 28 to 30.
3. There were no Eisners in 1990, not because 1989 had no worthy comics, but due to a colossal ballot-counting snafu that led to the cancellation that year. Afterward Comic-Con International took over administration of the Eisner Awards, headed up by Jackie Estrada, who has been running them smoothly ever since.
4. The Best Letterer category was added in 1993, and it’s only gone to someone other than Todd Klein five times. This means he has won the most creator awards in the history of the Eisners. Apparently the category is programmed to be repetitive: of the five other wins, Stan Sakai and Chris Ware each won twice, including Ware’s win this year for Building Stories. This is the second time Klein has gone two years without winning. The fifth winner was David Mazzucchelli, the only person to have won Best Lettering just once, for his stunning Asterios Polyp. After 16 wins, they might as well just rename it The Todd Klein Award for Lettering.
5. While Todd Klein has won the most creator awards, Alan Moore easily walks away with the most wins both as a creator (13) and for the works he’s written (22). Watchmen accounted for eight of those wins and Swamp Thing netted six. But it was his work on the America’s Best Comics properties like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea and Top 10 that really brought him above and beyond everyone else. That imprint alone garnered him 12 Eisners.
6. And who is that second most-awarded creator? Chris Ware has won 22 Eisners, most frequently for Best Publication Design (seven times, including three years in a row from 1995 to 1997) and Best Coloring (four times). There are lots of extremely talented creators in comics, but seeing Alan Moore and Chris Ware recognized so frequently, considering their output, seems about right to me.
7. Publisher bragging rights go to DC Comics, which has published the most Eisner-winning comics and creators, with a staggering 250. Seventy-one of those are from Vertigo, and 33 from the discontinued WildStorm (which includes 23 from the America’s Best Comics line). Even excluding the Kirbys, DC is more than 100 trophies ahead of the next publisher on the list.
8. And who would that be? Dark Horse has given DC a good run for its money over the years. In fact, for a number of years in the ’80s and ’90s, the two often walked away with nearly the same number of awards. They’re attached to 121 Eisner wins.
9. What about Marvel? It’s currently at 52 wins, coming in third among publishers. Daredevil is Marvel’s most Eisner-winning character by far, bringing in 14 overall.
10. After that, Fantagraphics has garnered 42 Eisners, followed closely by Image Comics with 37. Image’s first win, and only win for a number of years, was for Steve Oliff’s 1993 Best Coloring award, which included his work on Spawn.
11. All those awards won’t bring his parents back, but Batman can still claim 21 Eisners. His comics have also been included in 31 other wins for a total of 52. In every instance, it’s more than any other comic book property. That means that Batman has, in part, created as much Eisner-winning material as all of Marvel’s output. Ouch. The Sandman, Hellboy and Fables are the next strongest winners, each involved in more than 20 Eisner wins.
12. Depending on how you count things, the first woman to win was either Maggie Thompson, Lynn Varley or Karen Berger. Maggie Thompson and her husband Don took home the 1985 Best Comics Publication Kirby for Comics Buyer’s Guide, which would go on to win two Eisners in the ’90s. Lynn Varley shared the 1987 Kirby for Best Art Team with Frank Miller and Klaus Janson for The Dark Knight Returns. Once the Eisners started up, Varley and Miller took home the 1991 Best Graphic Album – New for Elektra Lives Again. The first woman to receive an Eisner and not share it with anyone else is Karen Berger, who in 1992 was the first to win Best Editor. She won it again in ’94 and ’95. The category was discontinued after ’97. A woman wasn’t inducted into the Hall of Fame until 2001, with beloved artist /colorist Marie Severin, and cartoonist Dale Messick, creator of Brenda Starr.
13. For a long time, the vast majority of winners of both Kirbys and Eisners was white males, which isn’t terribly surprising given the history of comics. Mexican-Americans Los Bros. Hernandez were the first winners with a significant non-Caucasian background; their Love and Rockets won Best Black-and-White Comic in the 1986 Kirby Awards. Spanish-American Sergio Aragonés won his first of many Eisners in 1992 for Best Humor Publication for Groo the Wanderer. Filipino American Ronnie Del Carmen shared the 1995 Best Single Issue Eisner with Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for Batman Adventures Holiday Special. Japanese American Stan Sakai won Best Lettering in 1996. In 1999, Kyler Baker became the first black creator to win an Eisner with his win of the Best Writer/Artist – Humor for You Are Here.
14. There have been just ties in the history of the Eisners (not counting the Retailer Awards). The first was in 1996, when Stuart Moore and Bronwyn Taggart split Best Editor. Every other tie has happened since 2004. This year was the only time there has been two ties: Chris Samnee and David Aja shared the Best Penciler/Inker Award, and Best Reality-Based Work went to both Joseph Lambert’s Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Hellen Keller and Frank M. Young and David Lasky’s The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song.
15. Manga was finally recognized by the Eisners in 1998 with Masahi Tanaka’s Gon Swimmin’ winning Best Humor Publication and Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material. For a number of years after, that latter category typically went to a Dark Horse manga publication. In 2004, Vertical, Inc. became the first company that primarily publishes manga to win this award for their translation of Buddha by Osamu Tezuka.
15. It also took a few years for the Eisners to recognize webcomics. The Best Digital Comic category was finally added in 2005, with Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies the inaugural winner. The category was temporarily renamed Best Webcomic in 2009 but returned to the original name the next year.
16. The digital revolution also altered the Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism category. Since 2008, winners have been strictly online, starting with Newsarama. Tom Spurgeon’s The Comics Reporter has won three times since then, including this year. Back in the print days, Jon B. Cooke’s Comic Book Artist dominated the category, winning five years in a row, edging out The Comics Journal by one win.
17. The Eisner judges select the nominees, which are then voted on by comics professionals. In the ’90s, the judges consisted of five people from different corners of the industry. For the first two years, each panel consisted of two women but has since usually included just one. Since 2011, a sixth person has been added to the panel.
18. One hundred sixty-three people have served as Eisner judges. Selected judges travel to San Diego and hole up in a hotel for a long weekend of extended comic book reading and fierce debating to come up with the year’s nominee list.
19. The Spirit of Comics Retailer Award has recognized excellence in comic book retailing since 1993. In the ’90s, two to three stores won each year, but since 2000 the award has gone to only one store with the exception of another tie last year.
20. The first international comic book store to receive the Spirit of Comics Retailer Award was The Beguiling in Toronto, one of three winners in the inaugural year.
21. Does California have the world’s greatest collection of comic book stores? The state has the most stores that have won the Spirit of Comics Retailer Award with nine of the 33 winning stores. Rory Root’s Comic Relief in Berkeley was the first California store to win, followed by Golden Apple in Los Angeles the next year.
22. Just two stores have closed since winning a Spirit of Comics Retailer Award, both from the first year the award was given in 1993. A moment of silence, please, for Moondog’s in Chicago and Comic Relief.
23. One hundred twenty-eight people have been inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame. Initially just two to four inductees were added each year until 1999 when a whopping 10 were ushered in. Since then, it’s typically been about six each year.
24. The first three inductees, from the final year of the Kirbys, were Carl Barks, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, all alive at the time. The first deceased inductee was Milton Caniff in 1988, the first Eisners; he had died the previous April and was the only inductee that year. R. Crumb is the sixth creator to be added the Hall of Fame and the earliest inductee still living and producing new work.
25. Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman are tied as the first creators to win an Eisner following their induction into the Hall of Fame. Eisner won the 1992 Best Graphic Album – New for To the Heart of the Storm and Kurtzman, who was inducted in 1989, won Best Comics-Related Book that same year for From “Aargh!” to “Zap!”: Harvey Kurtzman’s Visual History of the Comics. Stan Lee is the first creator to win an Eisner first (Silver Surfer: Parable with Moebius won Best Finite Series in 1989) and then get inducted into the Hall of Fame (in 1994).
There are tons more interesting tidbits to be discovered. I’ve always felt the Eisners provid an excellent snapshot of the state of comics each year. There have been some misses, some much-deserved wins and everything in between, but you could do a lot worse than creating a reading list based on each year’s nominees and winners. The Will Eisner Awards have become an institution unto themselves and a fantastic legacy for a respected creator who welcomed and encouraged excellence. Here’s to 25 more!