Roll Out the Red Carpet, Cue Joan Rivers, It's Time for Webcomics Awards!
The comics medium has more than its fair share of awards. There are multiple awards for comic books and comic strips including the Eisner, Harvey, Ignatz, and Reuben, (see sidebar for more details) so it should not be surprising that with the explosion in webcomics publishing, there would inevitably be an award, or even two, for webcomics. But while everyone seems to agree that webcomics should be recognized for excellence, there is no agreement on the best way to present awards to webcomics.
Arguably, there are two approaches to recognizing achievements in webcomics: either institute a separate award program for webcomics or incorporate webcomics fully into existing comics award programs. At least one award – the Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards (WCCAs), which is centered on webcomics – is now entering its third year. However, this year also marks the first significant recognition by the print comics medium of a comic published on the web. We talked with WCCAs director Mark Mekkes about the evolution of the WCCAs, and with writer/artist Justine Shaw about being nominated for two Eisners this year. Shaw's webcomic, Nowhere Girl is the first webcomic to be nominated for an Eisner.
Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards (WCCAs)
2003 marks the third year of the Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards (WCCAs), an awards event focused solely on webcomics. Nominations for WCCAs awards and the selection of award winners are both tallied through a voting process open to anyone creating and publishing a webcomic. Mark Mekkes, himself a webtoonist, has been the lynchpin of the WCCAs since their inception. Mekkes feels that even if the print-oriented comic award programs begin to recognize webcomics, the WCCAs will continue to play an important role. "I think the biggest thing that the WCCAs have going for them is that they're specifically a Webcomic Award. While the other awards may broaden their recognition of webcomics, they remain 'other' awards that are simply giving a nod to us rather than specifically targeting what we do."
The first edition of the WCCAs came about as a discussion amongst a few webtoonists seeking to create an award reflecting a broader consensus of the webcomics community. Creators wanted something more than the many individual awards or the recognition in the form of links that individual webcomics often extend to other webcomics. Mekkes explains, "Basically I started out by asking myself what kind of award I would be most honored to win. I decided that the more people that supported giving me an award, through the fewest restrictions, the better it would be. Also, I would have to be up against as much competition as possible. But I also decided that, while reader opinion is important, someone who actually creates a webcomic is going to have a better understanding of what goes into it than a casual reader. Therefore the [WCCAs] were created."
Like other awards, the WCCAs have changed the categories used for their awards after each event. Their first year was dominated by awards for genres and characters, but there are now as many awards based on format as for genre. The third edition of the WCCAs has also featured awards such as Outstanding Technical Achievement, Outstanding Use of Flash and Outstanding Use of Infinite Canvas – categories that appear to be more squarely aimed at the "web" aspect of webcomics. Mark Mekkes points out that the WCCAs Organizing Committee has been responsive to feedback in their changing of the award categories.
"We started developing the [WCCAs] with somewhat of an Academy Award format, for example Best Male Character, Best Female Character, etc. While these seemed like a good idea at the time, we realized that it really didn't represent the uniqueness of the webcomic artform. The character categories also became unique categories in that they only recognized one element of a comic rather than the comic as a whole. We all agree that creating strong, likable characters is an important skill that needs to be recognized; and if an artist is capable of doing that, it doesn't matter if the characters are male, female, or other. Therefore we chose to break down and award specific abilities that are used to bring out a character, both visually and creatively through the Outstanding Character Design and Outstanding Character Development."
The organizing committee of the first WCCAs was heavily represented by cartoonists associated in some manner with the Keenspot or the Keenspace hosting services. As such, there was a fair amount of criticism that the first year did not involve a significant amount of non-Keen cartoonists. But the very existence of the WCCAs was the impetus for the spawning of several significant threads on message boards at Comicon, Talkaboutcomics, Zwol, and The Comics Journal, concerning both the WCCAs and awards for webcomics in general. Some of the other issues discussed in these online conversations included the fact that the WCCAs are open to anyone who has ever posted a webcomic, which rankled those who believe that there should be some additional criteria (however that might be defined) to determine who is allowed to nominate and vote for the awards. There are also some who were proponents of an award selected by a committee, or at least where a committee chooses the nominees.
A Gathering of Tribes
In the vastness of the Internet there are a lot of webcomics that individual creators don't know about, simply because there are so many out there. To compound that, comics as a whole already has several tribes – allegiances to which creators and fans don't completely shed upon arrival to the Internet. For example, in the print world, comic books and comic strips have to a large extent diverged like Homo sapiens and the chimpanzee; they may share most of the same DNA, but on the surface they don't look that much alike anymore. Involvement in one tribe doesn't necessarily lead to a seeking out of other tribes.
Any webcomic award should try to incorporate as much of the webcomics community as possible. Granting an award without giving full consideration to all webcomics to some extent duplicates the sins of a print-oriented award failing to recognize ground-breaking webcomics simply because they were published on the Internet. Mekkes agrees that broader involvement is necessary to the growth of the WCCAs. "Like anything that grows and develops, the [WCCAs] started off with an unfortunate lack of publicity and the first year participation was rather localized to a few communities. I think one of the best ways that we've grown is by broadening our scope to include as many webcomic creatures as possible."
Scott McCloud has also participated in several online discussions at various websites over the last two years about creating a new award for webcomics. McCloud also recognizes the importance of building a broad base of support for a webcomic award. "I think the best way to do it is if it's designed by several representatives from the various communities of webcomics so that it has broad support. The discussions could take place in two message board forums. One would be limited to just the committee members, the other to anyone at all. Both would be publicly viewable. That way, you have a coherent, uninterrupted discussion in the one forum, but everyone still gets to have their voices heard."
To Wash the Unwashed Masses or Not
Beyond concerns about an award being truly representative of all the work produced on the Internet, there is the ongoing question of who should get to participate in the nominations and determine who wins the awards. The WCCAs sit at one extreme, allowing any creator of a webcomic to vote for nominations and award winners. In other media there is often a clear-cut distinction between professional and amateur. In comics, especially in webcomics, it is not so clear how one could make that distinction in the same way. Certainly there are many, many artists creating webcomics who do not make a living from their work. Are they "professionals" or not? Is that even important in the context of webcomics?
McCloud suggests that an award could be run by an Academy of Webcomics. "I'd advocate an awards system nominated and voted on by working webcomics artists; probably centered around a simple academy with a very small membership fee (say, a dollar) to help fund it and to help simplify the listing of who was eligible." Such an approach could potentially help with funding the administration of the award program, but even a small membership fee would inevitably limit participation to some extent. Whether this is a good or bad thing is probably in the eye of the beholder. Less participation arguably means nominations and award winners are not as reflective of the webcomics community as a whole, but it might lead a more active and informed group of voters since there is actually a cost to participate in the process – only those who are genuinely interested enough will likely take the time and effort to pay a membership fee.
Another approach would be to discard any voting for the nominations or award entirely, and instead appoint a committee of esteemed peers to nominate and select winners for each year's awards. Most of the print-oriented awards use a committee for at least one part of the awards process. The Eisner, for example, entrusts their nominations to a panel before allowing members of the comic book industry to vote on the eventual winners. Mekkes isn't necessarily opposed to this approach, it's just not the focus of the WCCAs. "I still hear discussion of developing another award system. There seems to be some demand for more of a 'juried' system. While I know that's not the kind of system I want to develop, I do think that it can work in harmony with the WCCAs, much like the People's Choice Awards work with the Academy Awards."
The Eisners Recognize Webcomics
Justine Shaw, creator of Nowhere Girl, was nominated for two Eisners this year: Nowhere Girl was nominated for Best New Series and Shaw was nominated for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition. As such, this marks a possible turning point in the relationship of webcomics to their older siblings in print with the prospect for greater “acceptance” by the larger comics community.
Upon receiving the nominations, Shaw was as surprised as anyone. "Shock, and panic were my reactions," said Shaw. "The shock I can explain, I'm not so sure why I feel so panicked when I think about it, I guess it's like, 'wait! You can't nominate me for this! You don't understand! I'm not worthy! There's... there's been a MISTAKE!' or something."
"I have been told this is the first time this has ever happened to someone whose work has only appeared online," added Shaw. "That's in a way harder to wrap my head around, as I've hardly been doing this forever myself, and there are so many talented people putting their work online, every day. It seems very strange that this is the first time for a webcomic."
Although it is a first, if it is not the last time that it happens, it may be a sign that print-oriented awards such as the Eisners and Reubens will begin to provide an equal opportunity for recognition to webcomics. If, in fact, that begins to occur, it then raises questions as to whether a webcomics-only award is a positive thing, or whether it would somehow serve to stigmatize webcomics. McCloud for one believes that a webcomic-only award, and a greater acceptance of webcomics within all award programs, would be complimentary. Shaw likewise sees no harm to pursuing both approaches.
"For what it's worth, I think looking at past precedents is in order," explained Shaw. "Many awards have categories for different areas, like best trade collection, best mini-series, favorite colorist, etc. Maybe a webcomics category (or more than one) could be added? Favorite online comic strip, favorite online comics letterer, maybe even an award for web design or use of Flash or infinite canvas." As for webcomic-only awards, while confessing to not really being informed about them, Shaw sees them as analogous to the Sundance Film Festival's focus on non-Hollywood films, and an opportunity for webcomic creators to be recognized by their peers even if the mainstream fails to do so.