Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Comic Industry Awards

This is the third installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine UNL’s, Nebraska’s, and the larger literary world’s connections with the comics medium.

Perusing Prairie Schooner's website recently, one could sensibly gather that it’s about that time of year again for the awarding of prizes and fellowships. Also, in light of the recent Pulitzer Prize for Fiction snub, I thought it might be worthwhile to look at some of the distinguished literary awards out there that have crossed paths with the comics medium.

As with any field within the arts, awards and prizes are a means of honoring the best (and marketing the hell out of them) and the comics industry is no different (with some awards even named after winners of other prestigious awards—see Reuben Goldberg ). Wikipedia has a list of the current comics awards out there, each with its own history, reputation, and specialty/focus.

The Pulitzer Prize, perhaps one of the oldest and most significant literary prizes out there, includes a category for “editorial cartooning.” Despite what Farhad Manjoo says, congratulations are due to Matt Wuerker, the well-deserved 2012 winner. Though they began in 1917, the first comics/cartoon recognition from under the Pulitzer umbrella was established in 1922. Since then, the Pulitzer committee has made no distinction between the comic strips one finds in the back of the newspaper (such as Berke Breathed’s "Bloom County") with those found on the editorial page. The Pulitzer Prize Board has only once recognized the achievements of non-newspaper-related comic art. In 1990, Art Spiegelman’s Maus won for the Special Awards and Citations – Letters category.

The Guardian First Book Award was established in 1965 by The Guardian, making it one of the oldest awards sponsored by a newspaper. Ironically enough, its mission is to honor new writing in fiction and (since 1999) non-fiction--not newspaper writing. In 2001, Chris Ware won for his book, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Ware beat out Miranda Carter, Glen David Gold, and Rachel Seiffert, making it the first time a graphic novel won a major UK book award. The judges described Ware’s book, a semi-autobiographical novel that depicts the troubled relationship between an absent father and a disappointed son, as “a whole new experience.” Long time readers, of course, will recognize that Ware illustrated the Fall 2007 edition of Prairie Schooner.

A “close, but no cigar” mention should also be made regarding Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese. Composed of three interwoven tales that merge, Yang artfully depicts the folk tale of the Monkey King, his immigrant parent’s arrival to the United States, and his own contemporary tale of trying to fit in today’s society. This compelling book was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, making it the first time a graphic novel appeared on its short list since being founded in 1936.

With the recent good news of Prairie Schooner’s esteemed editor, Kwame Dawes, being chosen for a Guggenheim fellowship (cheers!), it’s worth noting that he has some good comics company. Also chosen for this year’s award was Alison Bechdel. Though much of her career was writing and drawing the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," Bechdel has a wider recognition for being a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist with her memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Fun Home was described by Time Magazine (from which she also won Best Book of 2006) as “a masterpiece about two people who live in the same house but different worlds, and their mysterious debts to each other.” Bechdel has also edited Best American Comics 2011, as well drawn comics for Slate, McSweeney’s , the New York Times Book Review, and Granta.

Other Guggenheim fellows from the comics world include Phoebe Gloeckner (2008), author of the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2002), and Joe Sacco (2001), who won the prestigious American Book Award in 1996 for his comics-journalism book, Palestine.

The intention of honoring the best of one’s field has at times, invited criticism that dismisses literary prizes as worthless PR gimmicks. To rank writers and creators in order of importance is a distraction from the real business of literary and artistic appreciation. Well…try telling that to the writers.