2010 Eisner Award Countdown – Week 3

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A great temptation when writing comic reviews is to let your comments about a book’s art become an afterthought. We reviewers, after all, are writers ourselves, and it is easy for us to sometimes mistakenly conceive of a book’s story as simply a function of the writer.

The obvious reality is, of course, that comics are primarily a visual medium, even if we aren’t always consciously aware of the many ways that an artist’s work is contributing to our reading experience. Just as an actor’s performance can make or break the success of a movie, so too does the execution of a comic writer’s vision hinge upon the efforts of his or her artist.

To honor those who make our favorite stories look great (and to atone for neglecting to mention them from time to time), our Eisner Countdown this week focuses on the role of the artist. In addition to high-profile categories like Best Penciller/Inker and Best Cover Artist, we’re shining a spotlight on the oft unsung nominees for Best Digital Comic.

Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team

The nominees are...
  • Michael Kaluta, Madame Xanadu #11-15: "Exodus Noir" (Vertigo/DC)
  • Steve McNiven/Dexter Vines, Wolverine: Old Man Logan (Marvel)
  • Fiona Staples, North 40 (WildStorm)
  • J. H. Williams III, Detective Comics (DC)
  • Danijel Zezelj, Luna Park (Vertigo/DC)

Chris Kiser:

Deserves to Win:
In theory, the Eisner Awards should be ferociously difficult to predict, with the best of the best going head-to-head against each other in a competition based on almost purely subjective criteria. In many cases, the choice is between a set of creators or books who have achieved equally impressive feats in vastly different ways.

Not so, however, with this year’s nominees for Best Penciller/Inker. If any segment of next week’s awards ceremony could be considered a predetermined coronation, it would be this category, where J. H. Williams III may as well be clearing space on his trophy shelf right now.

Did anyone else’s name so dominate the conversation about sequential art in the past year? During a Detective Comics run that suffered no lack of potential discussion-starters (the presence of the award-winning Greg Rucka; the long-awaited solo debut of Batwoman), all anyone seemed interested in talking about was the mind-blowing beauty of Williams’ pencils. Harkening back to the early 90’s, people were once again buying comics just for the art (but in a good way).

Like your characters rendered photo-realistically but don’t want to sacrifice a sense of motion? Williams has you covered. Looking for wildly innovative page layouts that are still easy to follow? J. H. is your boy.

In J. H. Williams’ absence, DC might have earned a desired pat on the back from the cult of political correctness for turning over one of their longest-running series to an openly gay protagonist. With Williams’ art providing such a lovely distraction from that goal, the publisher may just have to settle for an Eisner Award instead.

Biggest Snub:
Ivan Reis? Ryan Sook? Andy Kubert? They’d all have lost to Williams.

Best Cover Artist

The nominees are…
  • John Cassaday, Irredeemable (BOOM!); Lone Ranger (Dynamite)
  • Salvador Larocca, Invincible Iron Man (Marvel)
  • Sean Phillips, Criminal, Incognito (Marvel Icon); 28 Days Later (BOOM!)
  • Alex Ross, Astro City: The Dark Age (WildStorm/DC); Project Superpowers (Dynamite)
  • J. H. Williams III, Detective Comics (DC)

Chris Kiser:

Deserves to Win:
With my vote so decidedly cast for J. H. Williams in the Penciller/Inker category, he ought to be a shoo-in for Best Cover Artist, right? Well, not exactly. Though Williams thrashes the competition when it comes to interior art, his Detective Comics covers don’t hold quite the same draw. Bearing the look of a pack of tarot cards and often utilizing a puzzling split-screen design, the images are no doubt unique, but they are an odd choice given the tone of the book inside. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to find on the front of a trippy, New Age Vertigo title, not the street-level crime story Rucka was writing.

Despite the presence of all-star coversmiths Alex Ross and John Cassaday, it’s actually Invincible Iron Man’s Salvador Larocca who turned in the best work of the year. His covers for “World’s Most Wanted” are snapshots of pure drama, spewing forth human emotion even when depicting the gears and circuitry of the Marvel U’s hi-tech corners. However, if this had been Larocca’s only achievement, I’d be hard-pressed to crown him the victor over Sean Phillips’ memorable series of covers for Incognito.

The clincher for our friend Sal came towards the end of the year with his ingenious designs for the “Stark: Disassembled” arc. Synthesizing the aesthetic of a computer-rendered technical schematic with brightly colored pop art sensibilities, Larocca crafted a compelling visual depiction of Tony Stark’s psychological rebuilding process. I’d read the rave reviews, but it may have been these covers that finally convinced me to check out what Matt Fraction was doing on this top-notch superhero monthly.

Biggest Snub:
I thought I might actually make it through a week of this stuff without mentioning Batman and Robin, but dang, that was a snubbed series! I defy you to think back upon that book's fun-loving, adventuresome spirit without conjuring up mental images of one of Frank Quitely's colorful covers. Can't do it, can ya?

Kate Trippe:

Deserves to Win:
First off, let me describe my cover ranking system. Covers should catch the eye, they should be an accurate representation of the interior art (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Buffy comic books), and, lastly, the visual path the eye follows should be dynamic. Also, I’m a lady, and seeing lady bits on a cover is not going to sell me a comic book. So, my criteria for ranking covers are the following: color, flow, honesty and lack of T&A.

With that in mind, my choice is, hands down, Salvador Larocca. The “Stark: Disassembled” 50/50 variant covers (issues 20 & 21) are very graphically appealing to me. They perfectly meld the traditional cover one would expect from a super hero book with unique design elements. The combination of the colors and design made me read these issues before all others whenever I saw them in my pull. I even showed them off to non-comic reader friends, and they were shocked that it was a comic book cover and not some pretentious art magazine.

I want a little innovation; covers tend to be either a T&A show or misleading. Plus, even when Larocca isn’t knocking it out the park with unique designs, his art does not require gimmicks. The covers are as well thought out as any movie poster and just as stunning. The lines, colors, and shading are always solid. Not to mention that every cover he draws uses the space perfectly. Look at issues 10, 11, and 17 in particular and tell me that the flow of the page isn’t dynamic and perfectly executed.

Larocca is willing to play around with his covers and experiment with cover styles that aren’t the norm for super hero comics. And I have yet to be disappointed with the quality and eye-catching ability of this series.

One last note: while Alex Ross is worthy of endless praise, I think that Salvador Larocca has really invigorated the mainstream comic cover scene and contributed to a book that people consistently want to pick up every week based on the cover alone. Those people won’t be disappointed once it’s in their hands.

Biggest Snub:
When I looked at the list of nominees, I was a bit peeved that James Jean was not nominated. Sure, he only had a few covers out in 2009, but I think he should have gotten a courtesy nomination for the end of his amazing run of Fables covers. Maybe he shouldn’t have won, but every time I see one of his covers I stop to pick up that comic and look at it. I would like to gush more about his artwork, but I don’t think anything I could say about it hasn’t already been said.

Dave Wallace:

Deserves to Win:

A perfect cover has to do several things. It has to be an attention-grabbing piece of art that sells a comic to you when you see it on a shelf. It has to give you a flavour of what kind of visual style you can expect from the book’s interior art. It has to hold some meaning in relation to the story that you’re about to read. And it has to stand as a beautiful-looking image in its own right.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one nominee who deserves to win the 2010 Eisner Award for Best Cover Artist on the basis of those criteria: J.H. Williams III, for his superb work on Detective Comics.

Williams’s covers were not just great-looking images in their own right. They were arresting images that leapt out from the shelf with a bold use of colour and design. They also gave you a taste of what you could expect from his interiors, often making inventive use of multiple art styles just as he did in the stories themselves. And Williams’s frequent use of reflective imagery when depicting Alice and Batwoman on the same cover turned out to have far greater significance for Greg Rucka’s story than most readers may have at first suspected.

Cassaday and Ross are great artists, but their covers set up expectations for the likes of Irredeemable and Project Superpowers that weren’t met by the interior art. Salvador Larocca’s covers may have looked as great as his interiors on Invincible Iron Man, but they were too often pin-ups that didn’t hold any bearing on the stories inside. Sean Phillips perhaps comes closest to Williams with his moody, atmospheric work on Criminal and Incognito, but I think that Williams pips him at the post when it comes to the innovative and intricate qualities of his art and the sheer craftsmanship that he poured into every image.

Best Digital Comic

The nominees are…

Danny Djeljosevic:

Deserves to Win:
The “Best Digital Comic” nominees really make up for the dismal print nominees, huh?

For me, Sin Titulo is the webcomic I just can’t miss. It’s not quite done yet, but its mix of crime, autobiography, and surreality makes it unclear where the story is going, and I find that exciting in a way that the others aren’t.

Not that the other nominees are bad. At all. Let me explain:

The Guns of Shadow Valley is a western comic with not only good art, but also dynamic, often mind-blowing layouts--truly shocking in a medium that I often slag as being repetitive in form. Even Sin Titulo, great as it is, stays within the confines of its four-by-two grids. Plus, Shadow Valley has lots of shooting and genre antics.

I wish I’d read Bayou before Zuda became another victim in DC’s campaign against good comics, but what I’ve seen looked great. As for The Abominable Charles Christopher it reminds me of Masashi Tanaka’s Gon, and I loved that book. The weakest for me is Power Out, but only on a technical level. For how well-made it is, it feels like someone took a print comic page and just put it online. It feels unwieldy and might not be the best digital comic per se. If it were in a print comics category, however...

If any of these win, I’ll be pleased. Especially Sin Titulo.

Biggest Snub:
Oh jeez, the Internet’s a vast, unending thing and full of comics. Let’s just look at my RSS feeds: Abandon: First Vampire, American Barbarian, Bad Machinery, Cleopatra in Spaaace!, Death-Day, Dicebox, Diesel Sweeties, Family Man, FreakAngels, Ghost Zero, Goats, Hark a Vagrant!, K.G.B., Kitty Hawk, Necessary Monsters, Octopus Pie, Paul Grist’s Big Cosmic Comic, Plan B, Seedless, Sailor Twain Or The Mermaid In The Hudson, Savannah & Georgia, She Died In Terrebonne, Spacedock 7, The Futurists, and The Loneliest Astronauts.

So, pick one.

Chris Kiser:

Deserves to Win:

If I’ve learned anything in the time I’ve spent researching for this series of Eisner columns, it’s that the Internet is outright filled with highly skilled creators happy to let you enjoy the product of their labor for free. I guarantee you’re paying for at least one or two pull list titles a month that aren’t as innovative or moving as anything from this set of nominated digital comics. With the exception of Bayou, you can (and should) access them all at no cost from the links above.

For a weekly strip that can be equal parts hilarious and heartfelt, Karl Kerschl’s The Abominable Charles Christopher is hard to beat. If continuing drama is more your forte, you would be wise to look into The Guns of Shadow Valley, a beautifully rendered Western. And, while none of these series are corporately controlled, Power Out feels the most traditionally “indy” with its perceptive portrayal of adolescent awkwardness on both sides of the gender line.

Only one nominee, though, is as addictively enjoyable as Cameron Stewart’s Sin Titulo. Loaded with ever expanding mysteries and game-changing twists at just about every turn, it may be the closest thing to Lost I’ve ever experienced in comic format.

Already a recognized star in the print world, Stewart demonstrates his mastery of webcomics as an art form. Each 8-panel installment of Sin Titulo contains a discrete story beat of its own, yet the entire work reads smoothly as a whole. My only disappointment in tearing through all 100-plus pages occurred upon finally catching up with the series to date, realizing that I’d now have to wait to find out what happens next.

Biggest Snub:
Beats me, but, thankfully, my colleagues here have plenty to say about where you ought to be pointing your browser bookmarks.

Charles Webb:

Biggest Snub:
I'll have to confess to having read none of this year's selections, but I do feel it's a shame that Chris Hastings' The Adventures of Dr. McNinja hasn't received wider critical notice.

Comedy is hard, and wrapping it in well-staged action is harder still. Born of the internet meme Pirates vs. Ninjas, Dr. McNinja tells the story of a Ninja who also happens to be a successful general practitioner and the many supernatural/generic action tropes thrown his way on a daily basis. Hastings’ wry sense of humor propels the ridiculous into the tense as each installment leaves you waiting on the edge of your seat for the next.

What's surprising for a book sprung from a meme is how strong and engaging the characters are, with the title character struggling to reconcile the family business of being a Ninja with his lifelong dream of being a doctor. Then there are his demanding parents who are alternately trying to kill him and test his ninjitsu prowess while his younger brother and the teen trick shootist with a premature mustache remain locked in a pitched rivalry for the title of most extreme teen.

With no offense to the current nominees, hopefully in future years Hastings will be recognized by the Eisner committee as one of the superlative digital works of the last few years.

Your homework: Check out some of these great digital comics, then come back next week for the final installment of our Eisner Countdown, where we’ll be taking on the granddaddies of them all--Best Graphic Novel and Best Ongoing Series!

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