First, a little background: The first Eisner Awards were handed out in 1988 — that’s right, during the Reagan presidency, so the Eisners are younger than the current incarnations of Transformers and G.I. Joe. Before the Eisners, the industry was rewarded with the short-lived Kirby Awards (started in 1985). The Kirby Awards were the first time in ten years that there were high-profile comics awards after the Shazam Awards went down like a sack of wet hair in 1975. They picked up the baton after the Alley Awards shut down in 1970. To understand the scale, the first comic book in the United States was Famous Funnies in 1933.
So, when you look at the span of comics history, the Eisners are a troubled millennial, struggling with the realities of the modern world while seeking to elevate the best work being done in sequential art. The description on the official site says, “considered the “‘Oscars' of the comics world ... named for the pioneering comics creator and graphic novelist Will Eisner, the awards are given out in more than two dozen categories during a ceremony each year at Comic-Con International: San Diego.” Feeling pretty confident there, weren’t they?
Unfortunately, like the Oscars, there’s rot at the root and that’s not been dealt with. On one hand, there’s a claim to represent greatness, but on the other hand, there are a lot of amazing, influential, talented creators who have had humongous impact on the industry yet not been lauded with an Eisner Award. When you look at the diminished numbers of women and people of color who have been awarded, there clearly seems to be trouble in River City.
Have you ever heard of Dwayne McDuffie? Created Damage Control, was one of the founders of Milestone Comics, revolutionized animated writing on Justice League Unlimited? Do you know how many Eisners he has? None.
The oft-imitated Larry Hama, who architected the most successful incarnation of G.I. Joe, whose oft-imitated silent issue has influenced a generation of creators? No Eisners either.
Oh, how about Fabien Nicieza? Co-created Deadpool, decades of experience, amazing skill in almost everything he did? Surely, he has an Eisner, right? Wrong.
How about Barbara Randall Kesel? She edited a book you may have heard of, Watchmen. Nominated, but no wins. The list goes on.
In the film world, April Reigns started a hashtag called “#oscarssowhite” in 2015 that scandalized the largely homogenous Academy of Motion Arts and Pictures and called that state into scrutiny by the public in a way that never happened before. In the tradition of Black people, the hashtag was intended to say, “Look at this messed up stuff white people did,” and it morphed into a movement, spotlighting the makeup of the choosers, which clearly influenced what was chosen. From the Grammy Awards to the Tony Awards to the streets of the cities of the world, people are acknowledging that the same set of voices is not enough, the same set of names is not representative, the same awardees will not stand.
In 2020, the judges for the Eisners included no people of Asian descent, no Black people, and only a third of their number were women. In 2019, one judge was Black, and the gender makeup was identical to 2020. 2018 had different names, but the same exact demographic judge composition as 2019. There were no women of color anywhere in any of this.
This makes a difference.
Let’s be crystal clear: In no way is this a slight against the hard-working people who put on Comic-Con International or the Eisners. None of these people are mustache-twirling villains, actively looking to exclude anyone. This is time for a hard look at an entire industry, a business which has a number of problems: placing dangerously flawed people in positions of power that have resulted in abuse, harassment, and worse, being supported and protected from on high for decades. People who rubbed Christopher Priest’s head “for luck” in the Marvel Bullpen still work there. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature, and that plays into the construction of the industry, and therefore its greatest honor.
So, how do things change? First of all, a larger, more diverse advisory committee for the Eisners must be chosen, at least thirteen in number. They will select an uneven number of judges every year that represent different aesthetics, different voices, and so on. Recommendations herein would be people like legendary visual craftsman Shawn Martinbrough, iconic editor and writer Barbara Randall Kesel, visionary editor Andy Khouri, web comics genius Stephanie Williams, and more.
Second, that advisory committee will also have to create a scouting committee to find the new and underrepresented voices that will continue to innovate and invigorate the work. People hunting through Tumblr accounts and Webtoons and everywhere else to find the creators doing work that’s new and noteworthy. Jamal Campbell made his way from The Immortal Nadia Greene to DC’s Black Label, but what about Dan Schkade? Justin Peniston?
Third, as a gesture of restorative justice, there must be an immediate expansion of the Hall of Fame to include a number of voices (Simonson, Hama, Priest, McDuffie, Nicieza, etc.) that have gone on without proper acknowledgement. The makeup of the heroes forever honored should not look like a weekend with Meghan McCain.
Finally: youth. New aesthetics and new ideals about what’s good must constantly be injected into the Eisners, so it can be a reflection of its time. Thus, a committee of voices no older than 25 years old must be culled from the ranks of professionals eligible for pro badges at conventions, whether they attend or not, working to accomplish the same kinds of diversity. This youth committee should have veto power over one quarter of the Eisner winners selected by the judges (whether they use it or not), so they must select their hills to die on carefully and will force better choices from the judges.
Let’s be clear that there is not a recommendation to change the name of the awards (say, to the Ormes) due to problematic elements in Eisner’s work (i.e., Ebony White). It is better to rehabilitate the name and fix the situation than attempt to retire it, as we have seen the Kirby, Shazam, and Alley Awards disappear. We’ve had the Bat since 1939; maybe we can create an institution that can have longevity and be worthy of the praise.
Given the intensive changes to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that started with #oscarssowhite, maybe such a shift can help the Eisners better represent the world that is instead of just the fragment it’s historically over served.
Hannibal Tabu is the head comic book reviewer at Bleeding Cool, a corespondent for the iHeartRadio podcast Nerd-O-Rama with Mo and Tawala, and winner of the 2012 Top Cow Talent Hunt and the 2018-2019 Cultural Trailblazer as awarded by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.