Every year, The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards honors the best in comics from monthly comic books to graphic novels to web comics and beyond. And every year in the buildup to and voting for those awards, countless online opinions surface about which series, creator, etc. could have been nominated -- or should have been nominated -- but didn't make the list. However, occasionally questions about the nominations arise outside the armchair quarterbacking of the blogosphere -- questions as to the fairness and openness of the nomination process which warrant a public vetting. It appears as though 2011 is one of those years.
For the 2011 Eisner Awards -- honoring 2010 releases of North American comic publishers -- one of the judges on the six-person nominating committee was longtime industry veteran Rich Johnson. As his Eisner Award profile states, Johnson has worked numerous jobs within the comics business including serving as the first vice president of book trade sales for DC Comics and co-founding manga publisher Yen Press. One job not included on the bio is Johnson's role is independent consultant on book trade relations for publisher Archaia -- a position he worked in 2010 at multiple industry events.
Overall, Archaia received nine nominations, including two for the latest iteration of David Petersen's previously Eisner-winning franchise "Mouse Guard" and an overall dominant five nominations for "Return of The Dapper Men" by Jim McCann and Janet Lee. Many of those Archaia books received strong reviews and press throughout the year from many outlets, including a #12 ranking for "Dapper Men" in CBR's Top 100 Comics of 2010 This comes after a 2009 that saw no Eisner nods for the publisher.
After receiving queries from multiple sources within the industry as to the level of knowledge all the Eisner judges had regarding Johnson's work with the heavily nominated publisher, CBR News reached out to all parties involved to investigate how this year's Eisner nominations worked from start to finish. (In the interest of full disclosure, CBR News should note that we are also nominated in this year's Eisners, our second nomination, and that site owner Jonah Weiland served as an Eisner Judge in 1997.) While CBR found nothing that would indicate the intent or practice of unfairly influencing the nominations, our look into the proceedings gives valuable insight into how the Eisners work and how that process might be more clearly communicated to the comics community.
In e-mail communication, Johnson stressed to CBR, "I am not an employee of Archaia. I am an independent consultant. I am consulting on book trade relations for Archaia, and so I have traveled for them to the Diamond Book Sales Conference, the American Library Association trade shows and will be going to the upcoming BookExpo America. So, as you can see this is a somewhat limited relationship. Also, as an FYI, I do not receive any commission on sales and therefore do not benefit on Archaia’s sales.
"My role as a judge has absolutely nothing to do with my consulting for Archaia," he added. "You should also be aware that the Eisner administrator was aware of my consulting for Archaia, and it was not an issue at any time, including when the votes were tallied."
Archaia's founder and Chief Creative Officer Mark Smylie also spoke with CBR, saying that once the publisher learned Johnson would become an Eisner judge, they felt it impacted them very little. "Rich has a great reputation in the industry and we saw no reason not to trust his impartiality, and our relationship with him was public industry knowledge," he said. "The nominating judges at the Eisner Awards (as at any other Awards nominating committee, be it at the Oscars or the Cannes Film Festival) are by definition people that work in the industry, be they editors, reviewers, librarians, writers, publishers, retailers, consultants, or journalists. By definition they have a web of connections, both professional and personal, throughout the comics and graphic novel publishing industry; otherwise they wouldn’t be selected as judges."
From the point of view of the Eisner Awards -- which is operated under the auspices of Comic-Con International -- longtime award administrator Jackie Estrada spoke to the interconnected nature of the comics industry in general. "You have to realize that the comics industry is a small enough industry that anybody that you bring in as a judge has friends, contacts, whatever. And when they come into the door, they all say, 'That's all left outside.' Everything is judged on the actual merit. In past years -- not this year -- but in past years I've had judges say, 'So and so's a really good friend of mine, but I'm giving him a 2 on this book because it's just not very good.' They were able to set aside whatever associations they had because they know what they're there for, and they really want to chose the best possible things.
"And when you have six judges there, you have checks and balances. If someone -- say, for instance -- wrote an introduction to a book and has a stake in that project, then they don't vote on that category and we average the vote of the other judges. They recuse themselves."
While the idea of an "in or out" policy on certain categories for certain judges may seem a simple idea to work with, this is not the first time such debate has been raised about the selection process for the Eisner's. While the curtain is rarely pulled back on the nominations process outside the occasional piece of promotion for the awards, the methods for selecting nominees and the entire history of the Eisners were dissected in a news feature by Michael Dean in "The Comics Journal" #215. In that instance, the ins and outs of deliberation were given a very public exposure, and while The Journal pressed participants on how outside factors like business and personal relationships and the opinions of Estrada and the Comic-Con staff influenced the proceedings, judges reported a fairly open process.
When asked by CBR if Johnson's role as consultant to Archaia came up during this year's deliberations, Estrada said, "That's not even something that comes up," adding that with two judges who worked for DC Comics "for over a dozen years" (the other was former DC editor Andy Helfer), the general connection that many participants had to publishers was out and on the table.
"I knew Rich worked for a number of publishers and had worked at DC for years, because I'm very involved in the business side of the industry," said fellow 2011 Eisner judge and owner of Lone Star Comics Chris Powell. "Because no one in the process is free of bias, some sort of organized disclosure is not a part of the process, nor would it be helpful. You're talking about a panel of industry professionals, all of whom have ties to any number of books. Do you think Jackie favors books because of the size of booth that a publisher buys at SDCC? It's simply ridiculous. Given the voting structure, any bias on the part of an individual judge is cancelled out if others didn't find the work to be worthy.
"Not having gone through the process, people probably envision a lot more 'sitting around and discussing things' than is feasible. Reading hundreds of comics and graphic novels leading up to the weekend and sitting alone in hotel rooms reading for another 12 hours a day through that weekend, no one is making some outsized push for a specific book or books. What ends up happening is that one of us might say 'Did you read X?' and three other people would say, 'Holy crap, that was great!' and then we're all back to reading. When it comes to actual voting, it's all numbers and no lobbying. We each give the books a score, and the winners are the winners. With very few exceptions, I don't think most of us could say who the publisher was on a non-superhero GN. I'm a big 'Fables' fan, for instance. If I gave 'Fables' my highest score, but everyone else found it "average" in that category, it wouldn't make the list. Once the scores are tallied, and 'Fables' doesn't make the list, there is not a way for me to try to get people to change the scores. Everything is locked in."
Overall, Estrada wished to keep the specific details on this year's deliberations process private to protect the anonymity of the Eisner judges opinions. However, she did give further details on how the six judges -- who meet over a single weekend to read and discuss the many books put up for nomination by publishers and artists -- are prepared for the task ahead of them. "What I do do for the judges -- because I encourage them to read as much as possible before they even come to judge, because otherwise they'd want to commit suicide when they walk into the room and see all the books on the table -- is, I compile a list of all the Best Of stuff that the various reviewers and websites have done by category. So it might be 'Graphic Novel' or 'Continuing Series.' I say, 'These are the things that you should at minimum be familiar with before you come.'
"The judges come in on a Thursday, and they don't do any voting on anything until Sunday. So they have two days to narrow down the category of the top 20 things that they should really focus on. Then, they all make a point of looking at those things and being knowledgeable so that they can vote on them."
Comic-Con's Director of Marketing and Public Relations David Glanzer added: "We have a dinner in the middle of the judging process. All of them were incredibly enthusiastic about the process, and all of them, I think, used the word 'daunting,' because it really is a daunting endeavor. But all of them seemed to be very, very happy about it and were very excited." Glanzer ultimately used the word "rewarding" to describe this year's process, and Estrada noted that after going over the 1,000+ books submitted, she felt there was nothing out of place.
"I always love when I see 'Oh, typical Eisner nominations this year' responses, when every year it's a different group and a different crop of things. The distribution of nominations really varies on what came out. It's a snapshot of the best of the year," Estrada said.
Asked what difference existed for Archaia that may have led to the growth in nominations from a 2009 where the publisher received no nods to a 2010 where they led the pack, Smylie explained, "We had been on a nice growth cycle in 2006 through early 2008, with the success of our debut line and titles like 'Mouse Guard,' 'Okko,' 'Robotika' and 'The Lone and Level Sands' (nominated for four Harvey Awards in 2006), culminating in 'Mouse Guard' winning two Eisners in 2008 and 'The Killer' being nominated for one. But in late 2008 through 2009, we went through a restructuring that threw our production schedule seriously out of whack (in fact, we are still in the process of finally putting some titles out that were originally scheduled for 2008). So 2008-2009 was kind of a hiccup, and now we feel like after 2010 we’re back on track.
"Coming out of our restructuring, our 2009 release schedule came mostly in the second half of the year and was a bit sporadic, and as a result we were still dealing with a lot of people in the industry who didn’t even know that we were ramping back up to full publishing again. The quality of our titles was the same, so I suppose we had been a bit surprised that our submissions from 2009 didn’t get any nominations, but it was understandable given the circumstances."
After speaking with multiple Archaia employees, Rich Johnson, Jackie Estrada and fellow judges, the conclusion may be drawn that while some may have questioned the appropriateness of having a judge who was on the payroll of an eligible publisher, there was no actual evidence of any wrong doing. However, it is more than likely that the process for selecting Eisner Award nominees will continue to be scrutinized or debated so long as the industry remains as small and insular as it is. The challenge of the Eisner's moving forward is to strike a strong balance between presenting themselves as the authoritative industry award and as an organization whose processes and practices maintain a level of transparency.
CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this report.