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Sunday, July 20, 2003

Not waving but drowning. Well, waving a bit.

Yesterday was fun, although the schedule was slightly punishing, and around 5:30pm I wound up with a clear-cut choice between attending a dinner, two receptions and a meeting before I did the CBLDF late night reading, or going to my hotel room to sleep for a couple of hours. Holly and Pam Noles, who is moving me from place to place at this thing, ganged up on me (it didn't take much) and I went off and slept, before going down to the end of the CBLDF Auction (the Quilt Michelle Made went for $2600) and doing the late night reading.

Today is a CBLDF panel, a Dave McKean conversation and an autographing...

...

Here's the Eisner Award Keynote Speech from a couple of nights ago.

Eisner Keynote Speech 2003



Being the Eisner Keynote speaker is a huge honour. Not just because they're the Eisner Awards, our industry and our artform's Oscars and Pulitzers and Tonies, but because it's a rare opportunity to speak, without being interrupted, to thousands of people who actually create comics, who sell comics, who care about comics -- and because it's still early in the evening, and the awards have not yet been handed over, people have to pretend to listen to what I say.

I thought I'd talk about awards, and why they matter, and comics and why they matter and making art and why it matters.

I don't have anything huge and controversial to say. The last time I had anything controversial to say was ten years ago, when I told retailers not to get caught up in a speculator bubble that would, I predicted, soon pop like the Dutch Tulip Bubble. Creators, publishers and retailers were bathing, Uncle Scrooge-like, in money, and I got up and told them that there were bad times just around the corner, and what mattered was selling stories that people cared about and wanted to read.

And most of my predictions, bizarrely, came true.

Ten years on, I think it's a good time to take stock of where we are. A state of the comics nation, if you will...

And we aren't doing badly at all.

I started working professionally in comics about seventeen years ago. I was writing about comics as a journalist, whenever anyone would let me, for two or three years before that.

In my dreams, back then, I would think about a comics utopia. A future golden age.

So let's look back and remember what that comics utopia would be.

First and foremost, I wanted comics to be taken seriously.

That didn't mean that I wanted all comics to be serious. I wanted all kinds of comics. And I wanted them to be able to stand beside theatre, cinema, books, TV, Grand Opera, as a valid and unique way of telling stories. A fairly young medium, perhaps, in which a lot of great work was still to come, but a medium that shouldn't be sneered at for simply existing. A medium whose name can be used as a put-down has a long way to go.

When I was a journalist, as once upon a time I was, I would ask editors to be allowed to write about comics. Normally I'd be reprimanded, and told that I couldn't write about Watchmen, or Maus, or Dark Knight, or Love and Rockets, because something had already been written about comics within the last year -- it had recently been English comics character Desperate Dan's 40th birthday, and simply mentioning this had soaked up all the available newspaper column inches. I tried to explain that the action of acknowledging the existence of a book or a film didn't preclude interviewing authors or directors in the future, and sometimes they'd let me write something about comics just to shut me up, and if they ran it it would run under the heading "Wham! Bam! Pow! Comics Are Growing Up!", a headline that every editor around the globe was convinced was original and smart.

So in my utopia, if a journalist wanted to write about comics or comics creators, his or her editor would say "of course".

I wanted to explain why people should know who Alan Moore and art spiegelman were, and who the Hernandez Brothers and Frank Miller were and why people should care.

I wanted people to know who Will Eisner was.

And I wanted to live in an alternate universe, in which the cool comics stories from the past, the ones I'd read about in the fanzines but would never have a hope of actually reading, stories by Jack Cole and Bernie Krigstein and Winsor McKay and George Herriman, in which those stories were in print, and available. A world in which lots of good, long comics stories were collected. A world in which libraries stocked graphic novels. A world in which girls read comics, and in which girls and women made comics.

I wanted a world in which collections of comics existed and were routinely sold in places that other things were sold. Like bookshops.

I wanted a world in which superheroes existed, and did just fine, but in which there was also room for any other kind of comics one could imagine.

And, frankly, we're getting there. We may not have reached that glorious shining comic-book utopia yet,

But we're getting there. Things are different. A world in which Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan can take the Guardian Best First Novel award, is the kind of future I wanted. It's an alternate universe...

I read reviews of a recent movie in which the complaint in most of the media seemed to be that the film makers had dumbed down a witty and intelligent comic. Now, this has happened scores of times over the years, and it is not unique. What was unique is that people had noticed -- that the journalists writing the reviews knew. That's the kind of future I wanted, when I started out.

We are, for good or ill, where we always wanted to be: just another medium. The bastard child of Art and Commerce has become, if not respectable, then at least no less respectable than any other.

So. Now is the time we learn that we should have been careful of what wished for...

On the one hand, we are, right now, this minute, in a golden age. There are, quite simply, more good comics available to be read than there ever have been before. More classic books, more good books of recent vintage.

Last summer, at the American Library Association, a number of comics people were invited to talk to Librarians. I was one of them. I went along, expecting to be talking to the 250 comics fans who had grown up to be librarians. I couldn't have been more wrong: the librarians were getting pressure from their reades. The librarians knew that graphic novels -- whatever they are -- were popular, and they wanted to know what they were. So they got me, and Jeff Smith, and Colleen Doran, and art spiegelman, and several other people in to tell them what we thought they should know. And the libraries have started ordering the books.

There's a potential downside, of course. Comics as an industry seems particularly prone to a peculiar sort of boom and bust. It's the place where commerce takes over from art, and we suddenly find ourselves staring at yard after yard of shelving containing lots more things kind of like what the people were buying last month, only not as good. Bad comics, bad graphic novels, drive out the good. And then, in six months, or two years, we find ourselves staring at empty shops and empty shelves.

Let's try not to let that happen again.

One way we can help avoid the next implosion is by trying to do good work. Do your best work, and then get try to get better for the one after that.

The Eisner Awards, like all awards, are flawed. But they reflect something very important, which is a striving toward excellence.

Fifty, sixty years ago, Will Eisner was an oddity and a weirdo. In a world of people who were writing or drawing comics until they could find more respectable work, who lied to their friends about what they did, people who couldn't wait to get out and make real money, make real art, Will was one of the few people convinced that this nascent mixture of words and pictures really was an art form. Other people believed it was about the quick buck. Will was certain, against much of the available evidence, that there could be well-written comics, well-drawn comics, and that the strange magic of comics that comes from combining sequential pictures and words into a story was really something powerful and unique and true.

It was true then, and it's no less true today. This is an artform in which you can make magic. Magic for kids, magic for adults. And that is what these awards are about, and notwithstanding those who like to think of comics as a cheap feeder unit for Hollywood, that's what this convention is about.

The awards that bear Will's name are about that. They're about more than patting ourselves on the back. They are more than marketing tools, more than pretty things to hang on a wall and be proud of, if you've got one, or to envy or disdain if you haven't.

They represent striving for excellence. Doing it as well as you can, and doing it better.

They're about improving the medium. If you want an Eisner award, strive for excellence. If you want one, do it better. If you feel it went to the wrong man or woman, and it should have been yours, then do it better next year, whatever it is that you do. Strive toward excellence. If the judges don't put you on the Eisner list, then fuck 'em, and let posterity be your judge. If you feel that great work by other people is going unrecognised and unrewarded, then make a noise about it. Tell everyone you know. Word of mouth is still one of the best sales tools there is.

Nobody wants a world of identikit comics. Do the comics only you can do. Tell the stories only you can tell. Do not lose sight of the fact that this is an industry that can create real art.

And in the meanwhile, do it better. And love what you do.

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