Writer-artist's spirit to live on in kudos, medium

The Will Eisner Comic Book Industry Awards will be a mixed blessing this year: As one of the five judges who decided the nominees in 27 categories, the awards reaffirmed my belief in comics as a medium as capable as any other for telling outstanding stories. On the other hand, this will be the first year the awards will be presented without the man they’re named for. Will Eisner died Jan. 3 at 87.

How Eisner’s passing will affect the awards ceremony, set for 8:30 p.m. Friday at Comic-Con Intl., remains to be seen, but his presence will definitely be missed. Eisner is treasured in the comics world not just because he’s a master of the form and one of the best teachers of its secrets, but also because he was the sort of man who was so honored that these awards bore his name that he presented each kudo to the winners personally.

When comics and TV writer J. Michael Straczynski won an Eisner a few years ago, he said: “You know, you get the Emmy, you don’t get it from Emmy. You win the Oscar, you don’t get it from Oscar. How freakin’ cool is this?”

But this year, Eisner won’t be on stage to hand out the honors.

The judging took place the first weekend in April in a San Diego hotel conference room, where Gib Bickel, owner of the Laughing Ogre comics shop in Columbus, Ohio; librarian and graphic-novel expert Katherine Kan, freelance journalist Tom Russo; and cartoonist/Web maestro Steve Conley and I assembled with awards administrator Jackie Estrada and a copy of everything submitted for consideration to do our work.

Eisner himself was not discussed much that weekend. Most of our time was spent staying up into the small hours poring over entries and whittling down long lists of eligible books and creators to what we considered the best material put out last year.

For me, it was after the judging ended and I looked at the final list of nominees and thought of the hundreds of outstanding comics and books I had read that the aptness of naming these awards after Eisner became fully apparent. The evidence for this is apparent in everything from his best-known work, “The Spirit,” which Eisner had done in the 1940s and ’50s, to his seminal instruction book “Comics and Sequential Art”; the influential early graphic novel “A Contract With God”; and lastly in his own words in “Eisner/Miller,” a sprawling conversation between Eisner and Frank Miller.

One of the most encouraging developments in comics in the past 10 years or so has been the diversity that has sprouted in the medium. Where it was almost nothing but superheroes in the early 1990s, there’s now dozens of new comics, graphic novels and high-end anthologies using the medium to tell stories of depth and great beauty. And Eisner was the one who really showed the world how to do that.

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