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It’s Time for the Eisner Awards to Expand Their Digital Categories [Opinion]


Each year when the Eisner Award nominations are announced, I rush to my computer to see who was nominated for the Best Digital Comic category. Just like fans of print comics, I have my favorites: creators who really rocked this year; workhorses who have turned out solid comics every week for years; innovators who are doing exciting new things with the format.

But each year, I find that I’m inevitably disappointed. It’s not that the nominees aren’t good; they’re usually great, in fact. It’s just that they don’t really encapsulate the rich landscape of webcomics. Sometimes the Eisner committee honors digital comics that I’d hesitate to call webcomics at all. The problem is that the definition of digital comics is just too wide for one tiny category to contain them. If the Eisner panel truly wants to honor the diversity and innovation of webcomics, it’s time for them to offer more digital categories.The Eisners first introduced the Best Digital Comic category in 2005, when they honored Brian Fies’ autobiographical webcomic Mom’s Cancer (which is now, unfortunately, available only in print). When Scott Kurtz’s long-running webcomic PvP took home the 2006 Eisner, it looked like webcomics had carved out a little glory for themselves in the mainstream comics award.

But some of the later winners have been a bit baffling. In 2007, the prize went to Steve Purcell’s Sam & Max: The Big Sleep, even though Sam & Max usually appears in print. In 2008, Joss Whedon won the award for the Sugarshock! comic he wrote for Dark Horse Presents with artist Fabio Moon. Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder, another print comic, won in 2009 after she posted several (largely unfinished) pages from the story Voice online.

And yes, I get it. The category is “Best Digital Comic,” not “Best Obscure Webcomic Creator Whom Lauren Happens to Like.” But what is the point of having a digital comics category if you simply award the prize to comics that are fundamentally the same as print comics, but happen to appear online?

Why, you might ask, have a digital comic category at all? After all, with ComiXology boasting 50 million digital comics downloads, and folks like Greg Rucka and Jeff Parker writing webcomics, the line between print and digital comics is getting ever blurrier. Why ghettoize webcomics by putting them in a separate category?

Well, the Eisners have plenty of very specific categories for print: Best Black-and-White series, Best Continuing Series, Best Album and so on, because we understand that reading comics with different formats results distinct experiences. Reading a long-running webcomic, even one whose art is formatted in much the same way as a print comic, is also a distinct experience from reading a similar comic in print.

Some webcomic creators are masters of suspense, making their Friday update the most tantalizing one of the week, leaving their audience to squirm until Monday. Some use the mouse-over text to add secondary jokes. Many make news posts or comments in their forums with each update, discussing their thought process and discarded jokes as they go along. Some use tricks that only work on the web, like the occasional animated gif or the infinite canvas. Andrew Hussie’s MS Paint Adventures was, for a time, interactive, mirroring the experience of playing a text adventure game, but communally. Randall Munroe played an April Fool’s prank on his xkcd readers this year, showing different readers different comics based on their geographic location, browser and even window size.

Webcomics are not print comics that happen to appear on the web. They’re a distinct animal, offer a distinct reading experience, and should be evaluated accordingly.

In more recent years, the Eisner panels seems to have made a greater effort to honor such long-form webcomics. Karl Kershcl’s The Abominable Charles Christopher and Cameron Stewart’s Sin Titulo won the 2010 and 2011 digital Eisners, respectively. This year’s nominees include Tony Cliff’s gorgeous webcomic Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Mike Norton’s strange and hilarious Battlepug, and a story by Dylan Meconis, who has been a staple of webcomics since her historical fantasy comic Bite Me! first appeared online.

But the latest crop of nominees exposes another wrinkle in the Best Digital Comics category. Josh Neufeld’s Bahrain is a short, timely autobiographical piece; Battlepug and Delilah Dirk are long-form fantasy adventures; Meconis’ Outfoxed and Ryan Andrews’ Sarah and the Seed are short fantasy stories, with Andrews making use of the web’s infinite canvas. There is more that separates these stories than what connects them. You might discover them through the same online avenues, but they’re extraordinarily different types of work.

I’m not asking that the Eisner panel offer as many awards to digital comics as they offer to print comics. Print is, after all, the heart of the Eisner Awards. But I can’t help but feel that, with this single category, the Eisners pay lip service to digital comics rather than invite them to the table. Webcomics would be better honored with three categories in lieu of one: Best Continuing Digital Series, Best New Digital Series and Best Digital Short Story.

There’s certainly no reason to ignore print creators who have stepped into the webcomic waters (Kerschl and Stewart are perfect examples), but a Best Continuing Series Award would honor those who have invested some time in the medium rather than creators who will hop out of the pool as soon as their print collection comes out. And separating short-form webcomics from long would go a long way toward showcasing the diversity of online comics. If long-running webcomics are like your morning cup of coffee, so many short works serve as a perfect media meal.

Sure, a lot of this personal for me. I want to see the Octopus Pies and Bad Machinerys and Cat and Girls of the Internet sharing a stage with the big boys and girls of print. But that’s because I know that there are so many incredible webcomics out there, and I think the Eisner Awards could help other people realize it, too.

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