Opus Twelve:

1.  At Long Last: Comic Books Cop a Reuben (11/5)

1. At Long Last: Comic Books Cop a Reuben.  It's taken over fifty years,
but the National Cartoonists Society has finally given a long-overdue
recognition to cartooning in the comic book format.  Last May, they
gave the Reuben to Will Eisner.  And Eisner, believe it or not, is
the first working in the comic book genre to win the Reuben, that
somewhat heavy statue that NCS gives to the cartoonist deemed "best
cartoonist of the year."
     Well, okay.  Mort Drucker (who received a Reuben in 1987) works in
Mad in the multi-page format; but I suspect his Reuben was more for
his surpassing skill as a caricaturist than for his storytelling
skills.  And, sure, Sergio Aragones (1997) works in comic books.  But
I suspect his pantomime comedy was the basis of his Reuben.  Yes,
Groo helped, I'm sure.  
     Okay, okay.  Drucker and Aragones.  Both cartooning geniuses, no
question or quibble. And they both worked in comic books.  So you
admit I'm wrong, eh?
     But Drucker and Aragones are Mad men.  Their comic book work is high
comedy.  And that's fine.  (In their case, it's more than fine: it's
superlative.)  But serious storytelling--plumbing the depths, scaling
the heights of the potential of the comic book medium--storytelling
that aims to affect more than our risibilities, that kind of
storytelling in the multi-page format is the kind Eisner has been
doing.  And that, you'll have to admit, is a different sort of comic
book work than the work done by Drucker and/or Aragones.  (Both of
whom I love.  But you knew that, eh?)
     The comic book work of Drucker and Aragones emphasizes the comic;
the comic book work of Eisner emphasizes the book.  And the
difference is significant.  Literature over laughter.  
     Regrettably, NCS has seldom in its history looked upon comic books
with much favor.  Historically, NCS has been the turf of syndicated
newspaper cartooning.  Its founders were in fact vaguely suspicious
of cartooning in any of its other forms.  Those few who suggested
that the club reach out to include cartoonists in these other forms
were often sniffed at.  That has changed somewhat in recent times,
but the club still hasn't quite figured out that some of the best
cartooning being done these days is being done in comic books.  It's
as if time has stood still for NCS.
     Given the shrinkage of the newspaper strip, it should be obvious to
anyone who understands cartooning that the most potent format for the
practice of the art in print is the comic book.  The multi-page
format offers more than mere length (sufficient to the telling of a
complex tale): page layout can be exploited for dramatic emphasis,
panel size and shape can be varied for effect.
     There are still great things being done in a few comic strips, but
the most promising potential for the future of cartooning is in the
comic book.  Or, to employ the slightly pretentious term, the
"graphic novel."
     It is therefore supremely fitting that Will Eisner, who has been on
the cutting edge in developing the graphic novel in form and subject,
should be honored by his profession in this fashion.  Considering the
extent of Eisner's pioneering achievements in cartooning (in
developing the grammar of the traditional comic book in the early
days, in exploring the educational and instructional uses of comics,
and in introducing the graphic novel), the award this year is surely
going to a deserving recipient.  More than deserving.  Richly
     Incidentally, the reason that NCS has always shied away from comic
book cartoonists is that in the early days comic book artists only
drew their features, they didn't also write them like syndicated
strip cartoonists did.  So comic book cartoonists weren't considered
full-fledged cartoonists.  (The possibility that sometimes strip
cartoonists wrote but didn't draw their features was not, apparently,
a disqualification.)  
     Through the 1970s, this bias doubtless continued to infect the
voting ranks of NCS (consisting mostly of syndicated cartoonists who
wouldn't be caught dead reading a comic book).  The only person this
bunch was sure wrote as well as drew his comic book was Will Eisner.
So Eisner won the category award for Best Comic Book Cartoonist for
four years, 1967-69 and 1988.  The comic book category was split into
two (humor and story), 1970-1987, and Eisner won it under "story" in
1979 and 1987.  
     Eisner's history with this award is ample testimony to NCS's
dumbfounding myopia (even outright blindness) with respect to comic
books:  Eisner wasn't producing a comic book during the sixties when
he won three times; he was doing a maintenance magazine for the Army
and other instructional comics.  Comic book format but not fiction,
not literature.
     The list of winners in the comic book category is somewhat spotty:
it skips years with astonishing regularity.  The "humor" sub-division
has a winner every year, but the "story" listing skips from 1981 to
1987 as if there were no story-telling comic books during that
period.  Frank Miller finally got the nod in 1991, but no one won the
next year.  
     Perhaps now that the ice has broken, the achievement of other
cartoonists who work in the multi-page format will be recognized.  We
can hope.  But first, NCS needs to figure out how to find out who the
best in the comic book field are.  That's difficult to do if you are
working from so far inside the newspaper syndication system that you
can't see out.
     This year's nominees for comic book excellence were Alex Ross (for
Uncle Sam), Jeff Smith (for Bone), and Aaron Warner, for the comic
book version of his weekly newspaper strip, The Adventures of Aaron.
Good guys all, but they've been doing work of the caliber represented
here for some time.  Why pick this year to honor them?
     Well, better now than never, of course.
     But what about Paul Chadwick and Don Rosa?  Surely they're in the
same arena as Ross, Smith, and Warner.  (Maybe not Ross; but he's
here probably because of his spectacular artwork, not his
storytelling per se.  And if so, whatever happened to that bias
against "cartoonists" who merely draw but don't write their
     NCS has already missed the opportunity to recognize the giants
(other than Eisner): Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Cole, Carl
Barks, John Stanley, C. C. Beck, Curt Swan, even Wayne Boring (who
put Superman in the imaginations of the generation of readers before
     Here's hoping they don't miss out with Gil Kane.
     Then, they could move to Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, John Byrne.
     And then, to return to the current crop, they shouldn't overlook
Mike Mignola, Erik Larsen, Duncan Fegredo--even Todd McFarland (whose
purchase of a multi-million-dollar baseball surely counts for
     If NCS doesn't get in step with the times pretty quick now, the
outfit will live to regret its provincialism when the comic book pros
leave the club languishing where it began --in the New York saloons.
     Stay 'tooned.

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