Being an Eisner Judge: Pt 1

So, this year I had the honor of being an Eisner judge for the comics that came out in 2009. I wrote about it earlier here. But now I’m back from the nomination process weekend and I can spill what he job entails. Hopefully some myths will be squashed in the process.

Despite what some people think, Jackie Estrada does not influence the judging or provide any votes herself. All she does is organize the proceedings and act as a moderator. She provides the rules for the process. She gets the books sent to her at the Comic-Con offices. She reads many of the books that come in. She may recommend some books before the nomination process, but she mostly acts on other people’s “Best of the Year” lists of recommended reads. She also tallies the votes and does administration. But she does not decide who gets nominated. And yet, she gets a lot of flack whenever someone decides the Eisners aren’t “fair”. For instance, her husband, cartoonist Batton Lash, is nervous about ever being nominated because the one time he was, they were bombarded by all kinds of angst from comics pros and fans who cried “favoritism”. It’s too bad, because several of Batton’s stories for Bongo comics were favorites of the judges this year. But he didn’t make the final cut.

I can tell you that Jackie was very studious about avoiding the appearance of influencing us during the whole process.

The other common complaint one hears is: “Why wasn’t my book nominated when some book I never heard of was?!” Well, you may not have heard of some of the books nominated, but the judges read them. So they’re in a better position to decide if the nominees deserved it or not. Awards are great ways of bringing people’s attention to books that may have flown under the radar. I would have never read or even seen many of the books on the list had I not been a judge this year. I am glad to have had the opportunity because there are a lot more truly good books out there than I ever imagined and the diversity of content is very strong. If you think a book should have been nominated that wasn’t all I can say is, there are an insane number of books came out in 2009 and many of them were really good. So you may have come really close to getting a nomination, but in the end there are only room for five or six noms.

There were five judges this year. We all came from different ends of the comics business with different perspectives. Fortunately, we got along swimmingly. Jackie usually brings together a pro, a librarian, a retailer, a reviewer and this year we had an academic. Everyone brought his or her own tastes and favorite books to the table. Every judge felt passionate about a certain book or creator and would act as their champion to convince the other judges to consider a book or creator’s merits. I was happy to see some of my favorites get nominated, but I could not get all of them through. Having a judge on your side is a big help but it’s no guarantee. The others have to agree with your picks and vote accordingly.

We were all put up at a very nice hotel next to the convention center. The Hilton Bay Front, in Downtown San Diego overlooking the bay. We met in a conference room with tables all around. Stacks of comics and books were arranged by category. So, for example, anthologies were on one table, kids books on another, etc. There was an insane number of titles. We had read a lot of books going into this meeting. Jackie makes the books available to us months in advance, but there were still many to check out. At meals we would talk about which books we liked and if there was one a judge felt should not be missed everyone would take turns reading it. That was how I found out about a few that made it in. The Impostor’s Daughter by Laurie Standell made a great impression on me, because it was not only well written and engaging, it was a very honest and frank book about her father who was, shall we say, an interesting dude. Another late discovery for me was Far Arden, a very fresh an original comic that started out online.

The first couple of days we spent eliminating people from consideration. The Eisners are sent lists of people to consider by the publishers or the creators themselves. Jackie compiled them into master lists by category. These lists were huge. There were over 30 pages of single spaced lists, sometimes two columns to a page. We had to go through each category and agree which title, or creator, should to stay or go in order to narrow it down. That part was kind of brutal. But necessary. A lot of people may send themselves in to be considered, but the fact is, who stands apart is who gets through this process. At this point, entries that stood apart were more likely to remain. If you did something unique, clever, fresh, with good art or story that stayed with people in some way, you stood a better chance. But if you did nothing particularly new, the judges will probably cut you. Even if you’re really good. If you’re a famous creator, but your work that year is not as good as some of your previous efforts, you can get the axe. Hence, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore were cut in this stage because the work they did in 2009 wasn’t as notable in comparison to what they did in other years. At least, in the judges eyes.

On the second day of judging we began doing some of the final voting on the shorter lists. For instance, Reality-Based Comics, which was a very strong category. But the number of books in the list were not that many. Voting was done on a 1 to 5 basis. 1 being “Eh”, 5 being a “wow”. Since, at this stage no books got less than a 3, there were no books we voted on that got a 1 or 2. In cases of ties, we discussed the category some more and then did another vote to come up with the 5 or 6 final names. The votes from all judges were tallied and the highest vote getters got on the short list. Then, after a second vote, we had our nominees. That process was done with all the rest of the categories over the next few days.

Each night, after dinner, we would each take a stack of books back to our rooms. Some stayed up all night reading and only got a few hours sleep. We would discuss which books made a big impression, or not. The judges all had different tastes, but none of them were particularly married to any publisher. In fact, we went out of our way to give consideration to some of the more obscure books on the lists rather than favor one of the mainstream publishers or type of work. We understood that there were plenty of good books deserving wider recognition, and we aimed to do that.

In Part Two I will talk about the handling of the more popular categories and how we wrapped it up.

UPDATE: Since this post is getting a lot of scrutiny I decided to make some edits, to clarify a few things and clean up some mistakes.