Excelsior Awards!

A column article by: Regie Rigby

There is no shortage of comics awards out there. The Eagles and the Eisners are perhaps the most famous and most sought after, but there is a new kid on the block that might well give them a run for their money. The Stan Lee Excelsior Award is a new prize, endorsed by the man himself, that has been created by Sheffield based librarian Paul Register. A shortlist has been drawn up, and pupils from participating schools will read the Graphic Novels and Trade Paperbacks from that shortlist, review them and rate them. In this way the shortlist will be narrowed down to three, with the winners and runners up being announced at a special ceremony at Ecclesfield School, Sheffield on the first of July. Kev F. Sutherland (noted Beano artist, comedian and old friend of this column) will be the keynote speaker, and much fun, I am sure, will be had by all. My own school, in the form of Lynne, our irrepressible Librarian and her motley crew of book crazy kids* will be taking part, and I have to say that I approve wholeheartedly. I’ve been working to get comics used in my school since I arrived there ten years ago** (five foot high pages of The Simpson’s version of Romeo and Juliet currently adorn the walls of my classroom, for example) and the School Library’s willingness to encourage kids to read through comics has been a constant source of delight throughout that time. I mention this for a couple of reasons. The first is simply to note that school librarians like Lynne and Paul do an astonishing amount of good work to promote the medium we love. Indeed, it’s not just school librarians, but librarians and libraries in general. Despite the fusty “Giles from Buffy” image that librarians have in much of the popular psyche, they are, in my experience, likely to be keen to promote almost any form of written material that is worth reading, and likely to encourage people to read. This is vitally important not only to the intellectual health of the nation (and this is true whichever nation you happen to be in…) but also to the health of the medium we love. I know I often go on about the importance of introducing new, younger readers to comics, but repetition doesn’t make me wrong! The age of your average comics reader continues to escalate and if that carries on sooner or later the last of us will simply die of old age. But comics are quite hard for kids to get their hands on – at least here in the UK, I pray that the news stand situation in the US and elsewhere is better. Your average UK newsagent or Supermarket can provide nothing comic related beyond reprinted American comics (most of which are the ones aimed a pre-schoolers) or strange “goodie bag” style things which focus more on the cheap “free gift” they contain than their comics.*** As for dedicated comics shops – well, good luck with that. Living in the small North Yorkshire town of Harrogate I’m lucky. Comics readers, and would be comics readers, here have access to the lovely Destination Venus. The kids I teach, who live fifty miles away in the larger town of Doncaster would have to travel to the city of Sheffield to find their nearest comics emporium. It’s only half an hour by train of course, but unless you know you want to read comics, it’s not a journey you’re going to make. So, where else are kids going to get to see comics? Libraries are such a vital resource here it is literally impossible to overstate their importance. The introduction of this award does two things. First of all it encourages kids (and others, there are titles on the short list I haven’t read – as we’ll discuss later) to read comics. This is an indisputably good thing. Like all participatory book awards, it also encourages kids to just plain read. Another indisputably good thing. Honestly, as an English Teaching comics fan, I’m so happy I could burst in a four colour explosion. So – it’s all good. But what’s on the list? The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects by Mike Mignola. Personally, I’d not even heard of this before – and I haven’t read it yet. Have to say though, from the lightning fast flick though I did when this book arrived in my school’s library, I like what I see. From my point of view Mike Mignola is always good value – I’m interested to see how his artwork goes down with the kids. Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Philip Tan. Well, I suppose a big spandex book was inevitable, although I’m a little surprised to see this particular one. Putting my prejudices aside**** it seems to me that this trade is almost designed to be impenetrable to the casual reader. If you’ve not been following the death and time travelling re-birth of Bruce Wayne, how the heck are you supposed to know why Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman anymore, or why Robin is now an arrogant little tosser called Damian? On the other hand, while I don’t think his work on Batman qualifies as Morrison’s best, he is a stonking good writer, and his dialogue is always worth a go. As for Quitely’s art, well, even if the kids hate the story, I think it’s good for them to see that comics can be presented using visuals of this quality. To be honest, I’m very interested in their reaction to this one too. Grandville: Mon Amour by Bryan Talbot. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see Talbot’s work on this list. Obviously not all of Talbot’s work could be described as “school friendly”, so it’s fortunate that this came out when it did. What I particularly like about Grandville is the way that, for all the talking animals, it presents a serious “grown up” story. Too many of the kids I teach are quick to dismiss “funny animal” books, or anything else that doesn’t conform to their perception of what “adult” means. Grandville will, I think, open their eyes to some new possibilities. Mezolith by Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank. and Black Butler: Vol. 1 by Yana Toboso. I can’t comment on either of these because I have neither read nor seen them. I was too slow to get to the library when they came in and they’d already been checked out. That’s a good sign, when you think about it… ABC Warriors: The Volgan War, Vol. 2 by Pat Mills and Clint Langley. Now, this is another one that strikes me as odd. If I was going to introduce a new audience to the ABC Warriors, it wouldn’t be with this part of their story. It’s a long, long way from being Mills’ finest work, and that’s a shame because the ABC Warriors are fabulous characters. If I’m being honest, I’m not a big fan of Clint Langley’s art either, but I’d have to acknowledge that that’s largely down to my personal dislike of obvious computer graphics in comics. I like lines. That is however a matter of taste, not quality, and as an example of what it is, Langley’s art is second to none. The kids I’ve spoken too certainly love it, so I guess it’s a good choice on that score. What I’m not sure about is the violence. Perhaps mostly as a result of Langley’s art style, it seems rather more graphic, and rather more gratuitous than I would expect for a kids’ book award. Perhaps I’m being a little over sensitive – it’s fair to say that many of the eleven year olds I teach profess that their favourite movie is SAW 4, which does kinda make any such worries a little redundant. That said, I bet if there are any parental complaints, they’ll be about this book… Dark Reign: The Sinister Spider-Man by Brian Reed and Chris Bachalo. Another one I haven’t read. Having flicked through it, I’m loving Bachalo’s art as much as I ever did. Twilight: The Graphic Novel Vol. 1 by Stephenie Meyer and Young Kim. Oh, and see here I am genuinely torn. The fashionable thing to do here would be to dismiss this book utterly, and condemn the whole Twilight phenomenon as a lightweight emo fad aimed at wistful thirteen year old girls. I can’t though. For a start, what’s wrong with having a book aimed at thirteen year old girls? Or emo kids, for that matter? As novels I’m more than happy to accept that the Twilight series are seriously flawed. The plots are paper thin and so full of holes you could use them to strain vegetables. But then, I’ve read The DaVinci Code, and many other books of that ilk so I know this does not make them in any way unusual. As an English Teacher I’d even concede that they’re not particularly well written either. But then neither was Dracula, or Harry Potter. Or, frankly, at least 30% of D.H. Lawrence*****. The Point here is that the Twilight series is, actually, tremendous fun. I’ve read ‘em all, and enjoyed them all. Not as great literature, but as what they are, brain bubble gum. To be honest, even if they were the turgid dross they are often portrayed as, like Harry Potter they get kids reading, and I’d love them just for that. I’d never bothered with the comic versions, but having flicked through the adaptation, I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised. Young Kim’s art is beautiful and, even better, presented in glorious black and white******. Given the general resistance of the younger generation to anything that isn’t in gaudy technicolour hues, I like the fact that something many of them will genuinely want to pick up and read has adopted a more subtle palette. It might well make them more likely to try other black and white books and broaden their horizons a little. So, for better or worse, that’s the shortlist for the inaugural Stan Lee Excelsior Awards. I’d be interested to know what you all think of it – the message board has been quite for a while, but it is still there and ready to receive your comments. Kudos to Paul Register for getting them up and running, and to Stan Lee for allowing the use of his name. In other news, but still on the subject of awards, you will probably also be aware that voting for the nominations in The Eagle Awards is now open. There are a lot of nominations to wade through, but the Eagles are the awards for real comics readers, and it’s worth having your say. It is with some sadness that I note the awards will be presented in May at the MCM Comics Expo in London, and not at Bristol, but I fully understand that it’s difficult to get professionals to travel up the M4. Ah well. More on the Eagles in subsequent editions of Fool – for now just go and have your say! *They don’t call themselves that, obviously. **With, it has to be said, variable degrees of success ***An honourable exception to this sad state of affairs is Doctor Who Adventures, which is usually pretty good. ****Although my feelings about the whole Batman Reborn thing have changed, it’s only because they have grown ever more hostile… *****Mind you I’d have to qualify that by pointing out that the other 70% is sublime, and with Lawrence the good and the bad is often mixed up on the same page. ******Well, greyscale at least.

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