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Through the Looking Back Glass by Erik Melander

Recently, we’ve seen more recognition for webcomics. In fact, March featured what potentially could be the single most important news item for webcomics in 2005. The Eisner Awards accepted nominations for a new Digital Comics category.

We’ve also seen a spread of sites that cover webcomics. Last year Comixpedia wrote about the larger “comics blogosphere” but at this point a full-blown “webcomics blogosphere” has arrived with a number of commentators focused solely on webcomics.

But it’s not necessarily all good.

The Eisner Award for Digital Comics is not a done deal. As noted by Tom Spurgeon, the Eisner jurors do not have to give an award in every announced category. Regardless, this is an important threshold for the webcomics medium, much like when Justine Shaw won an Eisner for her webcomic, Nowhere Girl.

But it’s a step that is as troublesome as it is positive. Part of the charm of webcomics is the wide inclusion allowed by a broad definition of this new medium. Creators from newspaper comic strips, comic books, alternative and mini-comics, even animation, have all found a common ground in the publishing platform of the Internet and can all lay some claim to being a “webcomic”. That catholic view of webcomics is not shared by all; some would posit a more “pure” view of a webcomic, limiting it to work that could only be created on the web.

And in that distinction is where it’s unclear what the Eisner category is really about. On the one hand it’s incredibly broad because it includes both comics online “or distributed via other digital media.” On the other hand the category specifically calls for nominations to be “online-exclusive for a significant period prior to being collected in print form.” That restriction seems to speak to an unspoken concern that perhaps webcomics aren’t really a distinct animal from comics.

To top it all off, the Eisner category specifically directs that “audio elements and animation can be part of the work but must be minimal.” Although it’s a plus that the Eisner category recognizes that innovation in the form can include audio and animation, this again speaks to an unspoken concern that perhaps some of the more experimental webcomics aren’t really comics at all.

Really, this move by the Eisners points out the step that hasn’t yet been taken: a full embrace of webcomics by the larger comics industry and community. What is it that stops webcomics from being nominated in other categories? Sure, a specific digital category may be warranted for the kind of comics that use the digital medium for more than just an inexpensive and efficient means of publication. Experimental comics that, for instance, use Flash to achieve specific effects that are an inherent part of the comic itself. But the vast majority of webcomics remain close enough to their printed cousins that they lose little to nothing in the translation from bits to ink. Derek Kirk Kim's Small Stories was first published on the web, but then easily made the transition to print with little to no change and went on to win an Eisner. Before the stories were printed they could not be nominated, but afterwards they were. They are the same stories, with the same great dialogue and the same amazing art, only the medium of publishing is different.

When we said we’ve seen more recognition of webcomics lately, we’re also referring to the number of sites covering the medium. “Webcomics journalism” has had a relatively short history and jumping from Comixpedia to the Webcomics Examiner to Websnark is one way to map it.

Comixpedia and the Webcomics Examiner both, more or less, pattern themselves after the structure of traditional magazines. Websnark does not. Websnark may not have been the first blog to focus on webcomics, but it’s been one of the most successful and probably inspired others to blog about webcomics. Because when you look around now there are a number of regularly updated blogs all about the webcomics: Digital Strips, Evil Network, buzzBugle, Webcomic Finds, and Journey Into History to name a few.

And that’s a good thing as there’s even more discussion about webcomics, with bloggers adding a more personal voice to the mix. But if you closely at these new bloggers you notice that most of them share something with many of the contributors at Comixpedia and the Webcomics Examiner. They’re all webcomics creators themselves.

The most immediate way this becomes an issue is with reviews. Webcomics and reviews have had a bit of a troublesome history. For example, Comixpedia's reviews of webcomics such as Sexy Losers, Little Gamers and Ctrl-Alt-Del caused their fair share of disturbance. Perhaps it is because the reviewers to a very large extent are also creators that many reviews were the cause of controversy. Having a fellow creator critique your work publicly may make what is written seem more personal. Who is he or she to judge what I do? What if Steven Spielberg would start to regularly review other filmmakers creations? Sure, it would be interesting to hear, but there is a conflict there that is not present when reviews are written by professional critics.

And that’s why, when Eric Burns debuted his webcomic Gossamer Commons, the nature of Websnark changed. It is no longer an observer of webcomics writing his opinion, it’s now a webcomic writer with an opinion about his peers.

We’re not seriously suggesting that we expect anything published at Websnark will change solely because of this and it’s important to keep in mind that hybrid creator-critics do often write very interesting commentary, including reviews, about webcomics. What we are suggesting is that the emergence of more non-creator critics would add an extra layer of independent observation that would add much to our insight into and discussion of webcomics. It would also mean more recognition of webcomics.

And that wouldn’t be necessarily bad. In fact, not bad at all.

Erik Melander has read comics his whole life. Vir Bonus is his own attempt at creating one.

Re: Through the Looking Back Glass by Erik Melander

If it's worth anything: Comixpedia, and more specifically, Dalton Wemble, inspired me to start Webcomic Finds.

And I do think there's more do come.

Re: Through the Looking Back Glass by Erik Melander

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

I miss Dalton too!

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

Re: Through the Looking Back Glass by Erik Melander

L_Jonte's picture

I remember "Nowhere Girl" being nominated, but not winning. Can you confirm this please?

-Lisa Jonté
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Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com