The following is an interview with Michael Dooley, a Los Angeles-based Creative Director and writer, a PRINT Contributing Editor, and professor at ArtCenter College of Design and Loyola Marymount University. In this interview, Fanbase Press President Bryant Dillon talks with Dooley about his experiences serving as a judge for the 2020 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.
Bryant Dillon, Fanbase Press President Bryant Dillon: You’ve been writing comics features, essays, and reviews for more than 30 years, but for those readers who might be unfamiliar with you, can you describe your background in comics?
Michael Dooley: I’ve had a crush on comics since I picked up my first Kurtzman Mad as a kid, back in ’55. Best dime I ever spent. And now I’m applying my 65 years of reading, research, and rumination to teaching “Design History of Comics and Animation” at ArtCenter College of Design. My class includes guest lecturers such as Chaykin and Sienkiewicz. And, hey: I’d like to thank you and Barbra again for your captivating presentation about Fanbase Press.
I was writing for Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journal in the late 1980s. And in 1991 I was appointed Contributing Editor at PRINT, where I’ve written hundreds of features, essays, and reviews. My books include an anthology titled The Education of a Comics Artist, with more than 60 comics pros and experts. I also created and directed programs and events for “Masters of American Comics”, the blockbuster exhibition at the Hammer Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art that opened in 2005.
BD: And how did that background lead to you being selected as a 2020 Eisner judge?
MD: Hmm. I don’t know all the specifics. I never even considered that I’d be asked. In fact, I’ve been an outspoken critic of various aspects of the Eisners in PRINT, even as recently as a few days before Jackie Estrada first extended her invitation. But my complaints have never been about the judges, for whom I’ve always had the utmost respect.
Anyway, I didn’t ask Jackie for specifics. I just prefer to think that, in addition to my accomplishments in comics, part of her decision was due to to her magnanimous spirit.
BD: Can you describe what the typical Eisner judging process is like and how it was changed and/or affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
MD: Typically, it’s a six-month process, communicating via emails and social media, and culminating in an intense, lengthy, up-every-night weekend read-a-thon, where the judges are sequestered in a San Diego hotel room with, I imagine, zillions of submissions stacked to the ceiling. There, they discuss, debate, and decide on the nominees. And shortly after that, the Eisner committee would announce the nominees.
And that was this year’s original plan, as well. We’d all made our travel arrangements, which included arriving at the Westgate the last Thursday in March and returning, totally exhausted, the following Monday. Then, the pandemic hit. So instead, we wound up working separately – from here in Southern California, in Kansas, Pennsylvania, Maine, and Ontario, Canada – from early October to the very end of May, and conducting post-shutdown Zoom meetings. Still, we bonded fairly quickly and grew to trust and respect each other, which was an indispensable key to operating efficiently. And what we lost in physical camaraderie we gained in concentrated contemplation of all the parcels of material we were shipping to each other.
ComiXology and many other publishers also deserve credit for providing us with digital access to hundreds of submissions, which helped enormously.
BD: Why are the Eisner Awards important?
MD: I’ve long considered the Eisners comics’ most important award, for several reasons. Most significant for me is the sheer amount of works that are scrupulously investigated by the judges. No other award in this field comes close to examining and evaluating the quantity, range, and depth of material that the Eisners do. Publishers and creators send somewhere close to two thousand category submissions that need to be pared down to around 180. And, hey: that’s just for starters.
There are more than 200 comics-related “Best Of” announcements released through all sorts of venues every year, and they add up to more than three thousand total category listings. And our fellow judge Jamie Coville – who always posts a complete list on his jamiecoville.com blog – sent us each of these lists as soon as they’d appear, often daily, over several months. Obviously, this greatly expanded the thoroughness of our selections and greatly diminished the prospect that we may’ve missed anything noteworthy. In fact, in my opinion, the Eisners should appoint Jamie to an official, permanent position as a Reference Resource Provider for the benefit of future judges.
And, of course, since all six of us are voracious comics consumers, we also added our own recommendations, which included material that wouldn’t have been seen, much less nominated. So, yeah: six expert judges, six to eight months, unparalleled thoroughness.
And I find it really unfortunate that so many widespread – and frankly, damaging – misconceptions persist. As an example, I feel I must critique a conversation from one of your recent episodes of The Fanbase Weekly podcast. When Scout Comics’ Charlie Stickney declared that “the nomination process comes down to what people have read”, he was stating the obvious, but he was also, simultaneously, totally off-base in what he was trying to criticize.
From a quantitative basis, it’s the voting process that’s the real problem with regard to what people have read. The voters, each on their own, simply decide based on which nominees they read or who they might be familiar with. That’s what’s mostly predictable, and often inevitable. For instance, George Takei’s win was such a foregone conclusion that once we put his book in Best Reality-Based Work, I joked, “Okay, now we don’t need to nominate any others.” Except, of course, we absolutely must.
Plus – and I wouldn’t get into this unless I really felt that it’s very important to address – I must also respectfully take issue with Fanbase Press’ Barbra Dillon, who went on to say in that interview, “Predominantly in these awards, they go to the mainstream publishers, and you see a lot of the same names and a lot of the same titles and publishing companies nominated for every single category, and this year was no exception.” And to that, my response is a polite: well, actually, no.
This issue is best clarified with specifics. If we’re talking about mainstream, then we’re talking about the top three: Marvel and DC – with about 40% and 30% of 2019’s market share – and Image, which had 8%. Yet it was Fantagraphics, Dark Horse, IDW, and First Second that earned the most nominations.
Additionally, the Eisners have seven “creator” categories – writer, artist, etc. – which includes work among multiple publishers, which leaves 24 actual “publication” categories. Of those, Marvel, DC, and Image are represented in the Continuing, Limited, and New Series categories, with six, three, and two nominations, respectively. They also had two – a Bendis and a Brubaker – in Graphic Album Reprint, and one – Harley Quinn – in Teen Publications. In other words, they were only nominated in six – one-quarter of two dozen – categories. That’s it.
As for “a lot of the same names”, James Stokoe makes five appearances – with his work for Dark Horse and Shortbox – but no other creator is mentioned more than three times. And this isn’t even to mention all the familiar names and titles from 2019 that weren’t included. All told, I think our selections are exceptionally diverse, in all sorts of ways.
Okay: enough, already. Just to wrap up, I’d like to invite your audience to tally for themselves just what percentage of our nearly 180 nominations are ones that they’re most familiar with.
BD: As someone who’s been involved with the comic industry for decades, what do the awards, and the ceremony itself, mean to you as a professional and a fan?
MD: As I’ve often publicly stated – even before I was appointed as a judge – I don’t really care about who wins. The actual ceremony is a good place to run into friends and chat with them during the boring parts, but it has no relevance for me. The winners lists are useful as an industry sales tool, but the nominee list should be an indispensable shopping guide for anyone who wants to broaden their reading horizons. It always works for me.
And that’s why I consider Fanbase Press’ annual pre-ceremony “Countdown [to the Eisners] series” of nominees to be, by far, the most worthwhile of all the Eisner coverage, because it focuses on the information that’s most beneficial to the comics community. And, as I’ve already said in PRINT, I applaud you for that.
Nevertheless, I can’t be completely dismissive of the wins. For instance, it was very gratifying to see that women – who’ve never before won even half the Awards – emerged victorious in 20 out of 31 – nearly two-thirds – of the categories, either as winners or as part of a winning team.
I think it’s also worth noting that neither Marvel nor DC made it anywhere into the winner’s circle. No action-adventure superhero books won this year. Everyone can draw their own conclusions as to what that says about the status of mainstream comics.
BD: Given that opinions can be very subjective, especially in regard to artwork, how exactly does the panel “judge” which entries should get nominated?
MD: All judges’ opinions are subjective, inevitably. How could it be otherwise? But it works. It actually works exceptionally well, on a continuing basis. And for that, true credit goes to Jackie Estrada and her committee. As Eisner administrator with 30-plus years of experience, Jackie has established very high qualification standards and takes an enormous amount of consideration and care every single time to consolidate a broad diversity of disciplines and competencies into a richly dynamic team.
Take this year’s line-up. Martha Cornog writes graphic novel reviews and articles from a scholarly perspective, and is herself a comics creator. Jamie’s a comics researcher and audio archivist who records a variety of important convention panels that he posts on his site. Alex Grecian is a bestselling novelist who co-created and wrote Image’s Rasputin and Proof series and has won an Inkpot Award. The multi-lingual Simon Jimenez writes, blogs, and podcasts about manga, anime, and various pop culture subcultures. And Laura O’Meara co-owns Casablanca Comics, organizes comics festivals, and helps libraries build their graphic novel collections on an ongoing basis. And that’s just skimming the vastness of everyone’s expertise, knowledge, and interests.
So, sure: We each began the judging process with our own “agendas”, our own personal experiences, tastes, and viewpoints. And going forward from there, we constantly expanded and enriched those agendas by conversing, and, yes, arguing. I know for myself that that dialogue, that synergy has made me a better critic, in several important ways. Even when we disagreed, we did so with understanding, sensitivity, and empathy, despite our physical separation.
I also found all my fellow judges to be unflinchingly honest and scrupulous. As for myself, whenever I felt I may have potential conflicts of interest, I voluntarily recused myself from participating in certain determinations.
And yes, as you say, opinions on artwork can be very contentious. In fact, while I was clearly the most outspoken and opinionated in general, I was particularly vocal about visual aspects of the material we evaluated. Still, in the end, I’m only one-sixth of the final decision, which is exactly how it should be.
BD: For you, personally, what were some of the standouts titles and creators nominated this year?
MD: Mmm. There are several categories in which I loved every single entry: Single Issue, Humor, International Material, Archival Strips, Comics-Related Book, Academic, Publication Design.
But personally, the ones I love the most are those that push boundaries, that take risks and experiment with form and content. And, happily, there were plenty this year. Nina Bunjevac’s Bezimena is bold, unconventional, haunting, and with two nominations. Emil Ferris’ Our Favorite Thing Is My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a delightfully quirky hodgepodge. Plus, it’s the first Free Comic Book Day comic ever to be nominated… and it won! Of course, I do wonder just how many voters actually mistook this 32-page giveaway as the graphic novel that already won three Eisners back in 2018.
Then, there are a good number of design-focused books which, of course, pleased me to no end. Comics artist Ryan Hughes got two nominations for his nearly 600-page Logo-a-Gogo. I mean, this could qualify as a textbook, but it’s also lively, colorful, and delightfully informative for anyone with an interest in graphic communication.
There’s also ABC of Typography, David Rault’s episodic history book in graphic novel form. Here, we have an entertaining and enjoyable appreciation of letterforms and language, illustrated by nearly a dozen diversely talented artists. And Peter and Maria Hoey’s Coin-Op is an extraordinary exploration of the phenomenal potential of comics as a unique visual communication tool. It’s also just plain fun.
Of the standout creators, David Mack comes immediately to mind. He’s doing exceptional work on his new Cover series with Bendis, which earned three nominations. In its own ways, Cover is on a par with his best Kabuki work. The two of them have produced a masterful, imaginative graphic novel, and I can hardly wait for volume two.
Of the publishers, I’m extremely elated that Europe Comics is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves. Four of the six in Best Digital were Europe Comics, and my favorite among them is Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin, which was also nominated in Best Lettering.
Digital’s other two nominations were from comiXology, one of which won. Still, I’m now hoping that fans will now become more aware, and appreciative, of the bounty of beautifully-illustrated English-language editions that Europe Comics has been bringing to America, in most every imaginable genre.
BD: Now that you’ve seen the Eisners from inside and outside, what would be one thing you could share with our readers that they would be surprised to learn about the Eisner Awards?
MD: I’ll give you three. No extra charge.
I learned that Humor is typically the hardest category to judge. But this year, the six of us actually came to a consensus fairly quickly. And that’s saying a lot, because I was easily the most contentious and argumentative of the group in general.
And this brings me to another “Eisner Inside Info” tidbit: The judges’ decisions are not unanimous. There are some of this year’s nominees that, frankly, I find embarrassing. In fact, I was such a strong advocate for one particular contender that didn’t make the final list that I gave it a write-in vote. But again, majority rules, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Finally – and, I think, most importantly – way too many comics people don’t know the difference between the Eisner Hall of Fame’s “Judges Choices” and “Voters Choices”. Now, part of the problem there is Comic-Con’s fault. Anyone who wants to learn the Hall of Fame’s “Judges Choices” requirements won’t find the answer on its website. For the record, a Judges Choice winner must have made a major contribution to the medium by creating one or more major characters, by producing memorable stories considered to be “classics,” by having an art style that influenced numerous others, by innovating storytelling devices, or by having been otherwise influential. “Voters Choice” winner qualifications: none, other than being on the nominee list. And, of course, being very well-liked.
And here’s why the distinction between the two is important. Let’s use Thomas Nast as an example. He’s the Father of the American Political Cartoon. He solidified our modern images of icons such as Santa Claus and Uncle Sam. He was crucial to Abraham Lincoln’s re-election and acclaimed by Ulysses Grant for his role in bringing the Civil War to an end. In summary, he’s the most influential cartoonist of the 19th century. And: he was one of this year’s Voters’ Choice nominees. But there’s no way in hell that he’d ever get enough voter ballots.
The truth of the matter is that Nast’s only chance of being honored by the Eisners is as a Judges Choice. As I just noted, he meets – and far exceeds – all the necessary criteria. He’s had his share of controversy, but so have past Judges Choices winners such as Hergé, Outcault, and Crumb. Besides, being offensive is part of his job description, and it’s why he excelled at it.
So, anyone who wants to judge the judges’ choices should first know what they’re talking about.
BD: In a recent interview with PRINT, you suggested that perhaps the Eisners should consider a brand new category, “one that directly and specifically honors creativity,” in order to stay true to their “essential values.” Can you tell us more why such a category would be important to you?
MD: It’s important to me because what I always look for beyond anything else – in visual communication in general and comics in particular – is something I’ve never seen before. I want to be surprised. I want to be amazed and awestruck. And it’s a struggle to find much innovation in comics, especially with such a glut of material that shows little or no regard – much less respect or reverence – for the medium itself. But that’s just me. What’s really important about any new category proposal is how important it actually is to the Eisners.
For decades, the Eisners have been the most visible component of Comic-Con to the general public. And Comic-Con’s stated mission is for them to be “dedicated to creating the general public’s awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular art forms”. And that includes participating in, and supporting, “public outreach activities which celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture”. And I firmly believe that comics’ most important historic and ongoing contribution to art and culture, more than every single one of the current Awards categories – and certainly a great deal more than Comic-Con’s other two “major attractions”, cosplay and Hollywood celebrities introducing genre movies – is, in a word, creativity. Hence, I propose what I’ve been calling a “Best Innovation” category. And this name could just be a placeholder until a better one comes along.
There are plenty of other reasons why such a category would be important to the Eisners. One of them is what we discussed earlier, the assumption that the nominee list is always predictable. And, yeah: the usual suspects usually keep cranking out what they know will be popular.
So I’m advocating for a category that’d encourage creatives, editors, and publishers – from the well-established to the yet-unrecognized – to take risks. Big risks, even. With Best Innovation, the Eisners would generate excitement and elevate their public image by spotlighting and rewarding and works that would be, by definition, unpredictable. In other words, the un-usual suspects.
BD: And what else do you think could improve the Eisner process and/or Awards?
MD: Well, for starters, since the Eisners don’t need any more categories than it already has, it could make room for Best Innovation by dumping Best Digital. Digital isn’t even a “category”, it’s just a method of delivery. Digital, print: so what? It’s already past time to take Europe, comiXology, and all those other publishers out of their ghetto and let them compete with their equals in all categories.
Beyond that, Comic-Con’s website needs to improve its information about the Eisners, to help clear up some of the rampant misconceptions about the Awards. Paying more attention to the content would certainly be a step toward clearing up some of the rampant misconceptions about the Awards, such as what I was saying about the Hall of Fame’s Judges Choices.
And speaking of Comic-Con, I think it also might consider updating its logo. Rick Geary’s wonderful toucan from 1983 was – literally – a brilliant mascot, but that was retired and replaced 12 years later with Richard Bruning’s “Big Brother is Watching You” eyeball, which has been branding SDCC for the past 25 years. And that’s all well and good, but perhaps it’s time for a 21st century makeover.
Also, my sincerest hope is that future judges will continue to be more inclusive in their nominee acceptance policy, creatively and in every other imaginable way. We made several steps forward in that regard this year, such as with Robert Grossman’s Life on the Moon, which is a graphic novel picture book hybrid. And Dave Kellet’s Anatomy of Authors, a hilarious cartoon book told with mock infographic labels.
Bottom line here is that the more the judges think “outside the panel”, the more the Eisners reach beyond its “popularity contest” image. Certainly, the current process is by no means flawless. There are obstacles in place that impede any sort of revolutionary improvements. It ain’t easy, but the judges must, absolutely, be celebrated every year for any and all progress they do make.
BD: As part of Fanbase Press’ 10th anniversary, we’re taking part in a company wide initiative called Stories Matter which focuses on how universal communication through stories allows all of us to examine the essentials of human existence, to understand ourselves better and to grow and/or heal, to pass on importance values, knowledge, and lessons to the next generation, and to connect with one another through empathy and compassion. So, with that in mind, I pose to you: Why do you believe stories matter, and how do those beliefs connect with your work in comics and with the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards?
MD: Illustrated stories matter most to me, which should come as no surprise, considering my chosen profession. The term “graphic design” literally means “visual communication”: conveying information, telling stories with pictures and text. And as a discipline, graphic design also means problem-solving. So, the stories that I revere and cherish the most are those that effectively improve and enrich people’s lives.
This year’s winner in Best Anthology was the emotionally compelling Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival. No one in our group questioned that it deserved to be nominated. These are stories need to be heard, from women whose experiences matter.
Also nominated in Anthology were the four 2019 issues of š!, the international quarterly from Latvian micro-publisher kuš! And there’s one in particular that deserves special commendation as it relates to your question. That issue is titled “Redrawing Stories from the Past II”, and it’s part of a larger initiative to bring to light stories of World War II Fascism that have been forgotten, overlooked, and suppressed. This issue contains four various accounts of emigration and relocation, each sensitively rendered by female artists – a conscious editorial decision, by the way – from Latvia, France, Germany, and Italy.
These tales of the dispossessed speak very forcefully to our current circumstances. As a historian, it saddens me that so few comics fans will take the time and make the effort to seek out this issue. I always remind my history students that facts and figures alone are irrelevant. What really matters are the concepts and the contexts that give substance to these stories, and provide meaning to us all.
BD: At Fanbase Press, we’re always interested in what our fellow members of the comics industry are fans of. It doesn’t have to be necessarily geeky or comic-related, but what are you currently a fan of? What have you recently enjoyed that you’d want to share with our readers?
MD: I liked The Umbrella Academy quite a bit, both the comics and the TV versions. But my favorite new series is Perry Mason, with the phenomenal Matthew Rhys. I absolutely loved The Americans, and was in fanboy heaven last summer when I ran into and chatted with Matthew and Keri Russell in front of their home while I was strolling around Brooklyn. And I found them just as sweet and down-to-earth as anyone can imagine. Geek alert!
I’ve also been enjoying the great indoors through online graphic novel book clubs. Reading Graphic Novels, a monthly gathering in Cambridge, Massachusetts and now on Zoom, is a favorite of mine. They’re a terrific group of people with excellent taste in their selections. And Europe Comics has a fun Facebook club with their own comics, and anyone can drop by and make comments, any time they like, which is nice.
And while we’re on the subject, I know you and your team are already juggling zillions of other super activities, but I wonder what a graphic novel club with Fanbase folks would be like. I think it’d be pretty cool, if you ask me.
Okay, my most recent reading recommendation would be Trina Robbins’ The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists Of The Jazz Age, which Fantagraphics just released a couple of weeks ago. And since I’ll be in permanent Eisner Judge mode for the rest of my life as I was reading it I found myself thinking: hmm, Best Comics-Related Book.
BD: Where can readers find you and/or your work online?
MD: Well, you can read a couple hundred of my articles for free online, right here.
And here’s the link to that interview you mentioned in which I do more Eisners blabbing:
Finally, “Design-Comics-Animation Events” is my Facebook notification center for all the free design-related comics and animation guest speaker presentations I have at my Art Center class, which’ll be in Zoom mode this semester.