The comic book industry, like the motion picture industry, is riddled with awards it gives itself. There are awards for the highest sales, for the most diverse ethnicity, and for being the Canadian-est.
Yet there are two awards that have the greatest cachet within the field: the Eisners and the Harveys. They used to be the same award, actually, named in honor of Jack Kirby. But a split between the publisher Fantagraphics and former Fantagraphics employee Dave Olbrich (both of whom laid claim to the Kirby Awards) in the mid-1980s led to a kind of awards-mitosis. Olbrich launched the Eisners. Fantagraphics launched the Harveys.
And those have been the pillars of good-taste awards in comic books ever since.
Of course, it’s not really as clean as that, with the Eisner Awards using a rotating panel of “experts” to select its nominations each year, so that there’s no logical continuity in what might get an Eisner from year-to-year. When the Academy Awards roll around, we tend to know the kinds of films likely to be nominated, and we can handicap the Oscar winners based on the tendencies of the Academy over the years. But with the Eisners, it’s a random (well, not completely random, but certainly distinctly different) group of guys and gals picking their idea of “Best Writer” and “Best Reprint Series” and so on, each year. The selections (in terms of genre and quality) can radically differ from year to year.
The Harveys have a different problem. They are similar to the Oscars in terms of being awards given by professionals to professionals, so the comic book creators themselves are the ones who select the nominees and then vote on the winners. That would seem to offer some consistency, with the hive-mind of comic book professionals possibly different and age and temperament than the hive-mind of film industry insiders, but just as predictable in its own way.
But, no, that’s not true at all.
Because the comic book industry is much smaller than the film industry, and the percentage of voters even smaller, which means that the Harvey Awards are susceptible to ballot stuffing and a decently-focused internet, or even friends-and-family, campaign can get those 40 or 50 votes on your side and your Nascar Heroes #5 ends up alongside Acme Novelty Library and Love and Rockets as one of the best comics of the year. (It’s not.)
Plus, it’s not really the comic book professionals making the nominations. It’s anyone even tangentially related to making comics. As the Harvey Awards website says, voting is open to “those who write, draw, ink, letter, color, design, edit or are otherwise involved in a creative capacity in the comics field.” That “otherwise involved” bit covers just about anyone who has written about comics on their blog or drawn a one-panel webcomic for Tumblr. In other words, you don’t need to get Frank Miller and Alan Moore to vote for your mediocre comic. You just need a bunch of friends and acquaintances who have been “otherwise involved” in comics at some point. Their ballots, presumably, count.
All of this comes to mind because the 2011 Harvey Award nominees were announced over the holiday weekend, and the final votes are due in time for the Baltimore Comic-Con in August.
So rather than run down every single nominee and offer my thoughts, I’ll just highlight a few categories and point out who the sure-fire winners seem to be, and who the ballot stuffers likely are. If you’re looking to the Harvey nominees to get a good summer reading list in comics, well, you’re bound to find a couple of books worth your time amongst this year’s Nascar Heroes.
Dave Stewart is the best colorist in comics. If he’s nominated, everyone else is an also-ran. He’s nominated again this year for the long-running Hellboy spin-off BPRD. The ballot stuffing prize-winner here is Ed Ryzowaki, colorist of the quite-funny-but-not-even-close-to-great Gutters webcomic. He and his colleagues at that site have a lot of fans who voted in the Harveys this year, as you’ll see.?
Dexter Vines is the best inker in the superhero comics industry, but he didn’t get a nomination. So the top pick is Gabe Hardman, who inked himself on Agents of Atlas, a fine-looking comic indeed. The ballot stuffing here seems to be in the direction of Steve Ellis and Box 13. I like Ellis’s style a lot, but he’s not one of the premier inkers in comics. Then again, this whole category is a weak field this year.
BEST NEW SERIES
American Vampire is the easy pick here, though Sixth Gun is the cool choice. Thor: The Mighty Avenger was a short-lived series that was much better than it needed to be. Ballot stuffer? The Gutters. Again.
Marvel’s second volume of Strange Tales is far superior to its first, and it’s the best of this bunch (the Rafael Grampa story from the opening issue is one of the best comics of the past ten years all by itself). That Unique Tales makes the list of nominees is even more of an embarrassment than The Gutters making multiple appearances. The Gutters is at least competently-produced. Not so with the ballot-stuffing prize winners at uniquescomic.com. That stuff is laughably sub-amateurish.
BEST CONTINUING OR LIMITED SERIES
This is a weird list, with specific issue numbers mentioned sometimes instead of overall series. But, it’s not a bad list at all. Daytripper was my pick as Best Comic of 2010, but Love and Rockets is difficult to beat. Last year’s volume was the best one yet. Fantastic Four is the odd-man out here, but it seems more of a case of a group of fans giving credit to writer Jonathan Hickman for at least trying to do something ambitious with the series.
Grant Morrison usually wins these things, and deservedly so. Jason Aaron should be nominated, as should Jaime Hernandez and Chris Ware, but clearly none of them campaigned for it hard enough, and the latter two may be thought of more as cartoonists than writers, I suppose. Without any of those picks available, Roger Langridge is the top choice, although Mark Waid’s Irredeemable is a good, dark superhero tale. Guess who the ballot-stuffer is this time? Ryan Sohmer, from, shock and surprise, The Gutters!??
Darwyn Cooke’s the obvious pick here for his newest Parker adaptation, but Chris Samnee is a stellar talent. Ed Ryzowski, from The Gutters? Ballot-stuffing champion.
BEST SINGLE ISSUE or STORY
You have to wonder if the guys from The Gutters tried to rally the troops for a nomination in this category. Would it be the installment where Batman lost five bucks down Zatanna’s cleavage? Or maybe the time Daredevil stabbed everyone in the forehead? They probably split the vote between those two. Okay, the top choice here, for real, is either Love and Rockets or Acme Novelty Library. You should be reading both of those, every single time they come out. It’s only once a year, at most!
So that’s the Harvey Awards, then. A few good books get the spotlight, and others are pushed out by heavy campaigning on behalf of mediocre talent. The gang at The Gutters will sure end up with a lot of press, and you have to give them credit for using the system to their advantage. Well, the Harveys ARE named after Harvey Kurtzman, visionary genius behind the original incarnation of Mad. I suspect he’d be in on the whole joke.
Tim Callahan once sort-of received an Eisner as a staff writer for Comic Book Resources, but he’s never even sort-of received a Harvey. Next year, he vows to campaign hard to his three closest friends.