How should we recognize and award the best webcomics?

It’s comics awards season again, which means the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth over how webcomics don’t get no respect from the stodgy old comic book/strip establishment. Even those awards that give at least one token category to webcomics get accused of simply paying lip service to the medium, or of judging the new medium by the standards of the old. And so it is that we get Lauren Davis complaining about how ridiculous it is that webcomics only get one measly category at the Eisner awards, echoing Xaviar Xerexes’ sentiment that this year’s Best Digital Comic field is so wildly divergent it’s hard to fairly judge them all. (My hunch is, if they’re really right about that, the Eisners actually will add at least one new digital category within the next two years, just because whoever’s picking the winner will want it.)

Then you have El Santo over at the Webcomic Overlook, who’s more in favor of webcomics having their own awards:

I’m kinda partial to the notion of webcomics having their own awards — a little like the Webcomic List Awards I helped judge some time back. Something to separate the new wave of cartooning from the stodginess of the Reubens and the more entrenched traditions of the Eisners, but those never seem to take off. They probably won’t unless there’s a physical ceremony (as opposed to purely online) where you get an excuse to be all dolled up and stuff.

My problem with the “online ceremonies” of the Webcomic List Awards and some of the WCCAs (the last couple WCCAs actually had physical ceremonies at MegaCon) wasn’t so much the being online in and of itself, so much as how goofy they were. For some reason both awards decided that, to match the medium they honored, they needed to hold ceremonies in webcomic form, complete with “presenters” and, in the case of at least one WCCA ceremony, actual webcomic characters “accepting” the awards. It made both awards feel less like actual awards and more like parodies of actual awards shows; if you won’t take yourselves seriously, why should we? I actually would have had less of a problem if all the awards were simply posted on a Web page. (My personal inclination is that webcomics should be focusing less of their attention on acceptance by the comics part of their name and find a place in awards for the best of the web, but most of those either have specific focuses (thus justifying the existence of webcomic-specific awards) or are otherwise complete messes and/or semi-hostile to independent creators.)

The bigger problem, to me, is how past webcomics awards have been conducted. The Webcomic List Awards that El Santo refers to seems to have had nominations determined by a poll of the users of the eponymous website, with the winner chosen by the judging panel. Throwing the doors open to anyone to participate in the nominating process seems to me to turn it into a popularity contest. If anything, this almost seems backward to me: let the judging panel narrow the vast universe of webcomics down to a small number for the people to sift through. In a way, the recent Webcomic March Madness tournament played out about as well as any awards might have. Every phase of the process was controlled by the people, but putting webcomics against one another one-on-one made it easier to compare webcomics on their own merits. In the end, it was still a popularity contest to some extent, but would Gunnerkrigg Court and Goblins both have been nominated in a typical people-controlled awards contest? Maybe. Would the Court have won? Possibly. Would Goblins have come close to winning? Pretty sure the answer is no.

The WCCAs were better, with near as I can tell, both nominations and awards handled by “webcartoonists” themselves, making it a peer award. The problem there was probably not so much the concept as the execution and how much anyone cared about it; Eric Burns(-White) didn’t even know about it until the executive committee caused a huge controversy by throwing out one of the nominations one year, and the running of the awards generally comes off in its Wikipedia page as a comedy of errors. Still, Bengo has left me with a deep distrust of webcomic artists’ ability to overcome various personal biases, and there’s no guarantee that webcomic artists won’t be too busy making their own webcomics to read any others beyond the ones they already read. More to the point, the WCCAs ended up being almost every bit as much the popularity contest; would any of the Eisner nominees have picked up a single WCCA nomination?

The nominating process is the part that needs to be treated with the most care. Nominations need to be handled by people who read as many webcomics as possible and can discern the good webcomics from the bad, and the best webcomics from that group. Thus, my preference would be that the nominations be made by webcomic reviewers and journalists. (And no, I don’t just say that because I happen to belong to that category.) The problem with that, though, is that there aren’t that many webcomic reviewers and pretty much none of them hold the title as a job. Most webcomic reviewers got their start by reading a few webcomics and then deciding to set up a blog to talk about them, so it’s questionable how qualified some of them might be. Still, if we brought in me, Eric Burns(-White), Robert A. Howard, El Santo, Xaviar Xerexes, Gary Tyrell, Heidi MacDonald, and Davis, that’d be a pretty nice eight-person nominating panel, in my opinion, though I accept any alternate names you might want to suggest (and in any case it might need some occasional shakeups in the long term).

Rather than simply submitting lists of nominees and the five most-picked comics get nominated, I imagine the panel would submit some lists – taking requests from people throughout the year to help inform those lists – and then would get together, online or otherwise, to debate the selections and try to get a vague consensus to put together a list of five nominees in each category. The actual winners could be chosen by a larger group – webcomic creators, everyone, or some sort of mix – once the nominees have been narrowed down for them. Any physical ceremonies would need to be held at a con that most of the nominees in question would be likely to attend, which likely means a very webcomic-friendly con.

Now, if you think all this is just an excersize in egotism, I can’t blame you, or definitively say you’re wrong. You could probably say that about all awards. But for a medium still insecure about broader acceptance as webcomics still is in, it’s still important to recognize some sort of definition of “best”, preferably one that will provide motivation to those looking to create works of the highest artistic merit. Besides, it’s fun to debate which comics would be most deserving of which honor, and I suspect those two things, more than straight-up egotism, are greater contributing factors to the proliferation of awards out there.

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