And the WCCA Goes To... An Interview with WCCA Chairman Mark Mekkes
Webcomic creator Mark Mekkes is the co-founder of the WCCAs and the current Chairman of the award. The WCCAs recently shifted from a mid-year presentation to a January-Februray schedule more closely aligned with the calendar year. The 2007 WCCAs will be presented online and in person at Megacon on February 19, 2007. I recently interviewed Mark by email to catch up with all of the changes and what's in store for this year's edition of webcomics' own awards.
First off, tell us a little about your role with the WCCAs. How did you come to help start them and what's been your role since then?
In 2000 Scott Maddix and I developed the Cartoonists' Choice Awards (later the Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards). Scott handled most of the technical arrangements and I organized a committee and tried to guide them to create a webcomic award process that would do the most to help the webcomic community and encourage creators to strive toward greatness. Since then I have continued as the Chairman of the committee and continued to try to guide the awards and keep them moving forward.
Who else was on this year's committee?
Thanks for asking this, these people never get the recognition that they deserve. Damonk stepped down as our Registrar a few years ago, but he remains an adviser and an active member of our administrative committee. Over the year's he's been my conscience, supporter and cheerleader. The WCCAs would have died long ago without his help. Mike Payne took over as our Registrar and has been my right hand for the last few years. I would definately be completely insane without all of the incredible work he does each year.
Ryan Estrada is completely responsible for the incredible online presentations that have happened the last couple of years. While I love the ceremonies, it's great to be able to focus on the voting and leave the ceremonies to Ryan. It's always a treat to see what he's developed.
Reva Sharp has been designing our award banners for the last couple of years. It's another duty that's extremely nice to be able to have in someone else's capable hands.
Several other people have come and gone through the committee offering various levels of involvement, but I've valued each and every contribution that they've all made. There is always a lot to do with these awards and there's no such thing as a small contribution.
I'd also like to point out that there are still several holes in our committee. The people that I've mentioned above are doing a ton of work to try and compensate. We're essentially working with a skeleton crew which makes it pretty miraculous that we're able to keep this going year after year.
The Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards (WCCAs) are now in their 7th year. When you got all of this started did you think it would last? And how long do you think you can keep this up?
When we started them we knew we were in it for the long haul. These kind of things aren't going to be an overnight success, it's only after we've shown our consistency that we're going to have the notoriety and respect that will really make us what we need to be. And no, I don't think we're there yet, but we wouldn't have 7 years behind us if we hadn't started when we did. And every year I swear it's my last. It's incredible how much work and trouble this is for something that generates so many arguments and complaints. But each year I'm really proud of the winners and really excited to find some of the great new titles that I hadn't known about previously.
How many webcomic creators typically participate in the nomination and final rounds of voting? Has there been an increase in the number of voters each year?
We have well over 800 registered voters. While we have had an increase in voters, many of those voters seem to take part in different aspects of the process. Only about 100 took place in the nomination round, but we expect many more will take place in the final round now that they have a list of titles to choose from.
It's been awhile since I've participated (I stopped voting in the WCCAs when I began working on Comixpedia) but does the process of becoming a voter still essentially consist of webcomic creators contacting the WCCAs each year? In other words does the list of voters start from scratch each year or do you keep voters on the "rolls" once they've been accepted as a webcomic creator for any given year. Another related question, or maybe it's a suggestion, is whether you've considered partnering with large creator directory sites like comicspace.com or thewebcomicslist.com to send WCCA ballots out to the large number of webcomic creators who use those sites?
This year the timing of the awards was shifted to the beginning of the year from its traditional mid-year spot. You're also planning on having the first live ceremony to present the awards at Megacon. Were those two changes connected? Why the change in schedule and what benefits do you see from it?
They weren't really connected. The mid year timing was designed to coincide with Comic Con, but since nothing ever came of that, it seemed pointless and confusing to have it at that time of the year. By moving it to the beginning of the year we can make it alot more clear that the awards are aimed at a comics performance during the previous calender year. This has always caused confusion and the move was designed to accommodate that. Also an earlier timeframe avoids conflicts from summer vacation plans (like trips to San Diego). Of course this also means that we've all had a lot less time to recover between events. So it's been alot more stressful and draining than usual. And I know it's contributed to some complications this year. But I think that these changes will definitely be worth it in the long run.
Since we did decide on the earlier timeframe, it was easier to coincide it with a convention that I had better access to and better control of. It was something that we wanted to do at Comic Con, but we would have completely disappeared there. At Megacon we stand the chance of standing out and becoming a central part of that Convention. The Megacon people have been really great and supportive and we'd really like to make Orlando THE Webcomic Convention destination.
There actually seems to be some confusion about the change in the scheduling of the WCCAs. Just to clarify for the world, this is a one-time move in the schedule, right? The 2008 WCCAs will be a year from now?
Rather than say a "one time" move I'd say "permanent". Even though it made this year a little awkward and rushed, it will remain at the beginning of the year.
What's the plan for Megacon? I saw that Ryan Estrada was organizing an online ceremony as in years past so will they be concurrent this year?
We're trying to keep our expectations low to see what works and what we can develop for future years. I already have some great webcomic names to do presentations and am working on getting even more (let me know if you're planning on being there) and the Gigcast guys are planning on recording everything for eventual presentation on the Internet. I also want to point out that we will only be announcing the top 3 tiers of categories. 4th tier categories will only be announced in the online ceremony.
The actual categories the awards are given in has always provoked some discussion. Some folks love the genre awards - others seems to hate them. Which categories have caused the most discussions amongst the committee?
I'm not sure any of them really stand out as being more controversial than others. The genre categories have definitely drawn attention as a whole, but several of the 3rd tier categories have been equally discussed.
One category that I continually get asked about is "Outstanding Website Design". Many people ask if this isn't just a "judging a book by it's cover" award. My response is usually to compare it to a culinary competition where food is not only judged by it's taste, but how it's presented. Anyone who's been to art school knows that it's not just about what's in your portfolio, but how that portfolio is presented. Usually once I've explained it that way people tend to understand it.
A new twist for the next go round in 2008 is that the voting creators are going to pick the genre categories. Let me copy the text from the WCCA website:
2008 Genre Categories - For the first time ever, the voting body of Web Cartoonists is going to be able to nominate categories for genre awards. These are categories that should fit within, and be considered a subset of, the Outstanding Concept Category. (Note that the WCCA Planning Committee has final say of which categories will be chosen. Also, the final categories will not be announced with the 2007 Award winners.)
How is this going to work? When will we see the new genre categories?
To be honest, we'll have to see how it's going to work when we look at the results. We've gotten some great suggestions and some that don't seem like they'd fit very well. We won't necessarily be using the suggestions with the most support, but we will be taking all of them into consideration. Unfortunately we won't be holding any discussions about the genre categories until this year's awards are completely over with and we've all had a chance to have a good rest.
Another part of the equation is going to be how many people refused to suggest genre categories and how many suggested that we abandon these categories. It's always possible that these categories fade away. As you pointed out earlier, some people love them and some people hate them.
Has there ever been any thought given to limiting voting for the genre awards to only those creators who self-identify as working within those genres?
Some awards in other mediums take a similar approach with some categories. Our approach has always been to allow the voters to help define the awards, the categories and the direction they take. We never want to limit the voters choices in any way. We don't allow comic creators to refuse the will of the voters and giving creators that kind of control would definitely go against that philosophy. Part of the value of these awards for the creators is to see how their work is perceived. On the other hand, there have never been any rules about creators campaigning for their comics in any way. If a creator wants to promote his or her work within any specific genre, there's nothing to prohibit it.
I'm not sure that's what I was getting at. What I was suggesting is that for genre awards only those webcomic creator-voters who self-identified as working in that genre would have their votes counted for that genre category (You could take this tack in both rounds or just the nominations round). The idea being that perhaps those creators who are working on science fiction webcomics might be more aware of the work done on science fiction webcomics that year than the entire population of webcomic creators.
Ah, I see. The problem with that suggestion is that voters would have to be trusted to be honest about their self identification. Some may be able to vote in multiple genres while others wouldn't. Eventually this would lead to the requirement of the committee to judge comic genre classifications which is something that we feel should try to remain the choice of the voters.
I saw that the Outstanding Newcomer award is now defined as: "Outstanding Newcomer - This is an award that acknowledges the best new comic of this year. Eligible candidates would be any comic that debuted within the last year." Is that new to this year or did I miss a previous clarification. I had always been slightly confused in the past over whether this was a comic or creator-centered category.
No, not new. There have been several nominees from creators who have had previous strips. I think the spirit of this category encourages voters to go for new creators, but it's not limited to them. Once again, we feel that it's important to allow the voters to help us define this category.
There are a few awards that I think of as our equivalent to the technical awards at the Oscars. I'd include Outstanding Environment Design, Outstanding Website Design , and Outstanding Use of The Medium in this group. Do you think the current categories here and the resulting nominees are doing a good job of recognizing the "web" part of webcomics?
The Oscar technical awards tend to be considered second class awards and I certainly don't think that applies to these categories, they are certainly a strong indicator of what makes webcomics unique.
But are they doing enough? I don't know. As webcomics grow, there seems to be a pendulum swing between pushing the medium and creating "printable" work. We actually used to have a second tier "Outstanding Technical Achievement" award that sat right next to "Outstanding Art" and "Outstanding Writing". But it seemed to be less and less popular currently. I'm not sure that there are as much experimentation out there right now, but I definitely think that when someone does step out of the box artistically they deserve the title of "Outstanding".
I noticed that you're referring to several "tiers" of awards. I wasn't aware that the awards were grouped in anyway (I don't see anything on the WCCA website about "tiers"). Can you explain what you mean by first tier, second tier, etc.
The Tiers are references to the level of inclusion and importance of the awards. The fourth tier categories are the genre awards. Obviously these are generally regarded as the least significant and the categories that are the most restrictive to specific titles. The bulk of our categories are third tier categories, these are divided into Art and Writing categories and are designed to represent the various aspects of those disciplines. While every comic may not fit into the "Outstanding Use of Color", it's certainly more inclusive than the specific genres and it tends to be ballanced by an "Outstanding Black & White" category. The Second Tier are the Art and Writing categories which are essentially the two core requirements of the first tier categories "Outstanding Comic" and "Outstanding Newcomer.
I just want to get your reaction to a list of the Outstanding Comic winners:
- 2001: 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 Nick Gurewitz
I think all of the winners have had some great moments but it's interesting that all of them except for Nowhere Girl seem to be designed as open-ended serializations. Also how surprising was it when Count Your Sheep won both Outstanding Newcomer and co-winner of Outstanding Comic? I was pleasantly surprised to see last year's Outstanding Newcomer Gunnerkrigg Court nominated for Outstanding Comic for this year (has that ever happened before?).
I'm not aware of a newcomer being nominated the following year (but I could be wrong). But I absolutely LOVE the 2004 results. Every time someone complains about the same comics always winning these awards I like to point out those results. Not only did Count Your Sheep win the outstanding comic as a newcomer, but it's sitting side by side with Penny Arcade. It didn't win because any of the "big boys" were disqualified, it won right along with the biggest. It's been very important that we not "water down" these awards by controlling the results and I believe that the list of winners have stood up to that decision. We've had a great amount of versatility and quality in the decisions that the voters have made and I'm very proud of the titles that we've been able to award and recognize. And the list of this years nominees continues that tradition. I can't wait to see who wins.