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The 8th Annual WCCAs: An Interview with WCCA Chairman Frank "Damonk" Cormier

With the Eighth Annual edition of the Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards (WCCAs) coming up I wanted to get an interview on the state of the awards with current WCCA Chairman Frank "Damonk" Cormier. Frank worked with me on ComixTalk in the first two years of its existence and I know from experience that he is quite passionate about comics and isn't one to shy from stating his opinion. So I put a range of questions to him regarding this year's awards, changes from last year and how to improve things in years to come.

 

This is the Eighth Annual WCCAs. Looking back at the beginnings what are the big changes if any from the start of this award.

It depends on perspective, really. From the eyes of those who’ve been involved in webcomics since 2000, it’s gained some momentum and respect – from being misperceived as a self-interested “backpatting” exercise run by a bunch of “Keenspace smallfry”, to being accepted as an earnest event that reaches the ever-growing corners of webcomicdom, both big and small.

From the eyes of a newer webtoonist, the biggest change is more logistical: we’ve attempted various voting/balloting systems (some more successful than others), have gone through a fair bit of turnover in terms of committee members, and have now starting holding a live presentation in Orlando.

But at the heart of it, the event’s objective -- to celebrate and acknowledge the best and the brightest talents in the global webcomic community -- hasn’t changed an iota since day one.

 

I believe [this is] the first one not headed up by Mark Mekkes. How much work has it turned out to be to run an award program? How many people actually are working in a significant way on this year's WCCA?

You are correct -- this is the first year that Mark Mekkes does not serve as the Chairman. I stepped in this year, if only to give him a well-deserved break; this event has been Mark’s painful labour of love, and he has shown both superhuman tenacity and herculean inner strength to take the punches and do the tireless work he has to to make each year the success it was.

I will be perfectly honest: it *is* a lot of work, but it could be a lot easier if certain efficiencies were put into place. A lot of it is about streamlining the boring stuff (administrative duties, rules and regulations, day-to-day operations, etc.), Of course, it’s never as easy as just tossing in a few “business processes” -- as with anything, the more manpower and resources you have, the easier things are to run.

Which is why I have to admit I’m surprised that the event runs as smoothly as it does. It’s a volunteer organization run by a skeleton crew of 8, yet each year we manage to put together something that (albeit with occasional bugs and cracks) holds together nicely, and that the public appreciates, if not fully respects.

Each member offers a lot to the event, mostly through their wisdom and guidance when it comes to deciding issues, directions, and game plans. I’d like to list them all and tell you what they all do, but that would be a whole other interview (or two!), they do so much...

 

I understand there will be a live ceremony again this year. What's the plan for that in terms of host, presentations, and the audience?

The live ceremony will be held on March 8 at Megacon, in sunny Orlando Florida. Mark Mekkes will be the host, and presentations will be held in the same manner as last year – not all winners will be announced at the event (to keep some of them exclusive to the web, in respect of the nature of the medium we’re celebrating). According to Mark (and I believe everything he says!), last year was a blast, and this year’s presentation promises to be just as exciting, if not more so...

 

I believe the audio of last year was captured in part (or the whole thing) by the Gigcast. What kind of media coverage of the ceremony are you working on for this year's edition?

My understanding is that the Gigcast will be there again this year, but you can tune into the WCCA website as the event gets closer to the big announcement – we’ll have all the details there, including any additional info on coverage.

 

I also understand from your interview with the Webcomic Beacon podcast that there will be a signficantly smaller "comic presentation" that was traditionally the way the awards were announced online (last year being the first in-person ceremony). What awards will still be given an online presentation this year?

This year, to try something a little different, we will be putting out online presentations for the top four awards only – so that’s for Outstanding Comic, Outstanding Newcomer, Outstanding Artist, and Outstanding Writer.

 

I'll put in my 2 cents as someone who plays a journalist on the Internet; it wasn't the existence of the online comic presentation that drove me crazy and made it difficult to cover the actual award winners as the complete lack of a proper press release at the time of the announcement of the awards. And all I care about are webcomics so imagine how unlikely a less focused reporter would be to cover this. That in and of itself really runs against a key point of an award which is to promote the award winners to the general public. So will there definitely be a real press release out at the time of the in-person ceremony this year?

Yes, there will be a press release come March 8, and we will still be announcing all of the winners on the website. The only difference this year is that we will not have a webcomic presentation for each category.

 

The other big news is the elimination of the genre categories. Is that true -- absolutely no genre awards this time around?

Yep. You may recall that, as part of last year’s nomination ballot, we asked voters to provide suggestions for new genre categories. What we did not necessarily expect was that a number of voters felt that we should get rid of the genre categories altogether. Now, before I go on, I must point out that this issue is one where the committee is almost split right down the middle – and one where Mark and I have never quite agreed upon.

I will give my argument here (i.e., not Mark’s or everyone’s): I have always been against the genres because of their non-inclusive nature. Not all webcomics fit into the genre categories we were recognizing, and that, I feel, sends the wrong message – suggesting that only genres recognized by the WCCA are worthy of recognition or respect.

I personally don’t find it fair to -- say, a horror comic -- that we don’t recognize their genre’s best while we recognize, say, romance. Ditto for adult versus gaming, or historical versus superhero, or etc etc. In my opinion, we should ensure that every webcomic genre out there is eligible to win an award, and ensure that each category we present covers all possibilities, either individually (e.g., everyone can win Outstanding Comic), or in complementary sets (e.g., colour and B&W; writer and artist; comedy vs. Drama; etc.).

Given that there are infinite genres, it’s easier to abolish the genre categories than to try to cover them all (who wants to fill out a ballot sheet that’s a thousand pages long?? Voters are already impatient with having to vote for 18 categories as is...).

 

I'm ambivalent myself about the elimination of the genre categories I guess. I have always wondered however, if the WCCAs should do more to distinguish between the radically different formats of webcomics. Right now there seems to be only single panel, short form and long form. What about being more specific in having categories for a short story, a stand-alone novella-length comic, a storyline from a serialized work, etc. Has there been any discussion of this type of approach?

I both agree and disagree with you here. In terms of “agree”, I have to point out that the “long form” and “short form” categories were always supposed to fit your proposed mould – long form comics were always supposed to stand for serialized comics and ongoing storylines, while short form comics were supposed to stand for the standalone, one-shot strips... but for some reason, both the committee and the public have had problems with trying to find how to explain/define it. Maybe next year?

The “disagree” part is a result of one of my not-so-secret plans for future years with the event: to reduce the number of categories to at least 10 or less. While I understand the desire for many to want to recognize as many possible types of achievements, it comes down to two simple (yet hard to admit?) truths:

  1. People are naturally impatient: while all cartoonists may want more chances to win an award, most of them are not willing to take the time to vote for everyone, much less only in categories where they themselves qualify. Therefore, the more categories you add to a ballot, the less people will vote, simply because it becomes too much work.
  2. Limiting supply increases demand: the more categories you add to an event, the less important each award becomes – it’s not as cool if everyone has one, right? It becomes one of those “participation” ribbons you used to get at school track meets or science fairs.

Drop the categories to the most essential fundamentals, and not only does it become more easy for people to vote (imagine a one-page ballot rather than a 4-page one!), but everyone wants that award even more. Think of a collectible card game or even a MMORPG – the rarer the item, the more people both know about it and want it, because it is harder to get (and you feel like you’ve earned it when you get it!).

Of course, I’m oversimplifying here; moreover, this is not something that can be done overnight. I’m going to have to get both committee as well as public support on this initiative, and I can only hope that people will understand what I’m shooting for, rather than rail against what I’m trying to “take away”.

 

Fetus X by Eric MillikinRegardless of categories the WCCAs may not be able to get around some of the controversies regarding some nominations for certain categories, in particular the nomination (and subsequent removal) of Fetus-X from the Romance category. This year the website for the WCCAs states that "a ny webcomic that was active between February of 2007 up to the present is eligible to win as many categories as they qualify for. Common sense rules apply, of course (a full-color webcomic can't win the "Outstanding Black & White Art" category, just like a five-year veteran can't win "Outstanding Newcomer"), but we trust your judgement -- I mean, hey, if you're smart enough to realize how awesome webcomics are, then you're clearly one heckuva intelligent and all-around great person."

I can see how there could be consensus on what's "common sense" in some areas like the 2 examples given but why not just spell out those rules for those types of categories ahead of time?

Yipes, big question! Are you trying to be wordier than me, the ex-English major? ;)

It’s never easy to try to define “limits and boundaries” for categories, especially when it comes to genres -- which is one more reason why they were removed this year. That said, for the non-genre categories, it should be pretty simple to figure out what the limits are through the category definitions without us having to spell it out in a “micro-management” fashion.

If you think about it, the only time we’ve ever had controversy with categories is when it involved a genre category (your example of the Fetus-X/romance category being an excellent example). So by removing them, we hopefully remove the brunt of (if not all) risk of eligibility controversy...

 

I know there's been a lot of anguish over the years over self-nominations for the awards by participating webcomic creators. Is anything different this year? Why let people nominate themselves to begin with?

Hehehehe. NOW you’re getting to one of my own biggest issues with awards events, and something that really hasn’t changed since the first year the WCCA graced the interweb.

Were it up to me, I would invalidate all ballots where someone had voted for themselves. The whole point, in my mind, is to be recognizing the best and the brightest out there as a community; yet if everyone believes that they themselves are the best and brightest, then you end up with twenty thousand separate votes and no clear winner (how can you get a strong majority when you have 20000 people tied at one vote??). I mean, sure – everyone has the right to believe that they are the best at what they do, but seriously... c’mon.

In my honest opinion (which I know has insulted many a person in the past), a person who feels they have to vote for themselves is someone who is so insecure that they think that no one else is going to vote for them. Personally, I think that if your (royal you) comic is good enough to win a WCCA award, you shouldn’t be worried about voting for yourself, because the other voters will do it for you. Having been a ballot counter for 7 out of 8 years, I can honestly say that I can’t recall a single instance where someone made the finalist ballot because they voted for themselves...

Now, in the spirit of compromise, I do have a crazy idea that I hope to propose to the committee next year, if I can figure how to make it work from a technical standpoint: that by virtue of submitting a ballot, each voter will automatically receive one vote for their own comic in all eligible categories... provided that they did NOT vote for themselves in any category (if they do, their entire ballot would be disqualified). My argument is as follows: if we all accept that every cartoonist thinks their work is awesome, and we count each voter once for their great work, then the votes that they *do* submit for other will hopefully be more reflective of the webcomics collective as a whole, and less pragmatic.

But again, I know that I’m fighting an uphill battle here...

 

Is any effort going into expanding the actual number of nominating creators? I was a bit surprised at Mark Mekkes' answer in our interview last year that only about 100 people voted in the nomination round (the interview took place before last year's final round). I just can't believe the number is that low with explosion in the number of webcomics over the last couple of years.

Sadly, and despite having currently over 1000 registered voters, voter turnout has been an issue these last few years. The biggest culprits, I suspect, are twofold:

One, we have never worked hard on PR and spreading the word (when you have a budget of *zero* dollars for marketing, it’s hard to make headway). This is something that we are now slowly working to improve. One good start was acquiring a volunteer who wants to focus on PR and to spread the word – Carl Flannagan has already tried a few innovative approaches (through group sites like Facebook and Myspace) and some more classic methods (distributing Public Announcements to various media sources).

Secondly, the voting system has quite possibly been the WCCA’s biggest bugaboo from day one of operations. We currently refer to our lack of a suitable electronic voting system as “the WCCA Curse” – we have now had three consecutive years where a seemingly very eager and capable webmonkey has bailed on us in the clutch, offering us the world in terms of voting systems and then leaving us with nothing at all come voting time...

After having been personally slapped in the face this year by the curse, this is something that I am now making our top priority for next year. I will be calling in a few favors from some webdesign professionals I have come to know in my “real life”, and I pledge that there *will* be a workable, simple, and effective balloting system in place next year, which will definitely increase voter turnout.

Once we have a solid voting system in place, I believe that we will be able to retain more active voters, and thus help spread the word on the event through voter word-of mouth...

 

Let me ask you a question I asked Mark last year and get your reaction to a list of the Outstanding Comic winners:

  • BoxJam's Doodle by Boxjam2001: Boxjam's Doodle - by Boxjam
  • 2002: Megatokyo - by Fred Gallagher & Rodney Caston
  • 2003: Nowhere Girl by Justine Shaw
  • 2004: Count Your Sheep by Adrian Ramos and Penny Arcade by Mike Krahulik & Jerry Holkins
  • 2005: Scary Go Round by John Allison
  • 2006: Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch
  • 2007: Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch

All excellent comics, to be sure – and each for very different reasons. It interests me to see how the voting masses have shifted back and forth between recognizing art and writing, between story and gag...

ll I can add is that I’m really excited to see who the voters think is the outstanding comic this year!