In an era when the most well-known awards are prompting hashtags, and less recognizable cousins are struggling with issues of their own, the announcement of this year’s Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards prompted that awkward mixture of excitement and dread that’s becoming more and more familiar for many people in creative industries. Though the Eisners have not historically practiced the same intense level of exclusionary politics as Angoulême, many fans and pros alike worry about the results of an industry-driven nomination process; the inherent design can neglect less mainstream players, and result in a narrower field of nominations.
By and large, the nominees this year do reflect a relatively wide swath of talent. And while there are some expected names on the list, it’s not nearly as predictable as it could have been. That said, the nominations illuminate one troublesome topic—the Best Digital/Webcomic category. This isn’t to say that the nominees aren’t deserving—they absolutely are. But there is a problem when the Eisner committee conflates “digital comics” and “webcomics.”
With the advent of comiXology and the subsequent creation of programs like Marvel Unlimited and DC’s Digital First titles, it’s clear that the industry has embraced the paperless future of comic publishing. But digital-first comics share far more in common with their printed counterparts than not. With the exception of double-page spreads and the occasional large-panel layout, the formatting of a paper comic is similar enough that the average reader would be hard-pressed to find the divergences. Fresh Romance, Bandette and The Legend of Wonder Woman are perfect examples of how digital comics can (almost) seamlessly transition from screen to paper without significant impact on readability. As the term “digital-first” implies, these books are typically designed with the future leap to print in mind. They’re worth celebrating as digital successes, remarkable for their foray into a new medium as the industry continues to change.
But these are not webcomics—sequential art posted on the internet for consumption on, and only on, the internet, rather than crafted into what amounts to an advance e-book edition. That may seem like pedantry or semantics, but there is a very important distinction between something that is formatted as a digital reading experience and something that is posted online for sole on-screen consumption.
Posting comics on the internet affords creators opportunities that simply aren’t available in traditional formats. Stu Campbell’s These Memories Won’t Last, one of this year’s nominees, uses motion and music to ensnare the reader’s attention, forcing them to actively engage with his comic in a way that would be impossible in any other medium. Though Lighten Up, Ronald Wimberly’s nominated piece, was also printed in The Nib’s anthology Eat More Comics, the layout is different enough online that it changes how it’s read. Online, Lighten Up fills the “page” almost entirely, a continuous scroll downwards as Wimberly relates and reflects on being instructed to change the color of a character’s skin. The feeling is a little claustrophobic, confrontational—perfectly suited to a comic about race, art and capitalism. In Eat More Comics, which is also nominated for an Eisner this year, the comic has a little more space to breathe, but it’s also sandwiched between other comics on completely different topics, removing some impact.
This is what it means to be a webcomic: the experience of reading a webcomic online and reading the same comic in print is fundamentally different. While the difference between reading Legend of Wonder Woman on a screen versus on paper is basically nil, webcomics use different tools and different skills. They push beyond the confines of a traditional printed comic. While this alone is not an arbiter of quality, it does change the metrics by which successes in the medium must be measured.
The Eisners have always been, and will likely always be, dominated by offerings from larger publishers and well-known names. It’s the nature of the beast when it comes to a nomination process that relies so heavily on submissions, and isn’t actively curated by a board. But it means that webcomics, which have been standing as a largely separate industry with their own cliques and trends for nearly two decades now, will continue to stand behind mainstream digital comics until they’re provided their own category.
The fraught relationship between mainstream comics and webcomics is not a new thing by any stretch of the imagination. Webcomics are often still treated as amateur hour compared to print comics, despite the growing number of creators courted by print publishers after building an online reputation and audience. It’s hard to argue that cartoonists like David Willis, Tom Siddell and Danielle Corsetto are not professionals because they created sustainable careers with webcomics, yet work such as theirs is often excluded by the Eisners and ignored by mainstream comics press.
Webcomics are changing and evolving faster than the rest of the industry can catch up. Though not entirely new concepts, services like Tapastic and Stela are only making webcomics more marketable, more accessible and, particularly with the latter, sustainable for creators. Popular web cooperatives have flourished in the past, but what sets Tapastic and Stela apart is their focus on mobile display. The user design is intentionally designed for people to consume comics on their smart phones, not as digital comic books but as scrolling narratives. Nominee Ron Wimberly has a comic on Stela that perfectly illustrates the mechanics of scrolling and background art to engage the reader, pulling them through the stories, using a different layout than traditional comics—or even his work with Lighten Up. But tools like Stela and the comics they host will continue to take secondary status to major publishers’ traditionally formatted digital comics if they continue to be lumped into the same category.
The solution is simple, though some may complain that it will extend the list of categories significantly. Just as the Eisners recognizes the difference between short stories, single issues/one shots, limited-run series and continuing series in traditional comics, they should delineate the differences between digital comics and webcomics. Even creating four new categories—one each for one-shot and ongoing series for each of the two types of electronic comics—would vastly improve the chances of remarkable comics bubbling up to the top of the list of nominees, providing a broader pool of talent to highlight. Perhaps more importantly, this expansion would provide fans of webcomics and the readers of traditional comics a vehicle to interact and discover new stories to explore and new creators to follow. It will further legitimize the Eisners as a progressive curatorial force, push other similar groups to consider the very real skill and large audiences that webcomics have and pull some of the most respected parts of the industry closer to the reality of modern comics.