I don't know quite how I qualified, but the Eisner nominees are decided by a panel of five professionals. These are chosen by Jackie Estrada, the award's long-time administrator, and a woman with whom you do not want to battle over "Little Lulu" trivia. The other four judges included Charles Vess, a longtime comix artist and illustrator; Jeremy Shorr, a jocular Texan who runs a comic store in Dallas; Steve Leaf, a purchasing agent for Diamond, America's largest comic distributor; and Jen Contino, a fellow web-based comix journalist. With the exception of Jen, who stayed home for personal reasons, we were all flown into San Diego to gather like the members of the Mission: Impossible team. Soon we were hunkered down in the basement of a mid-level hotel. With no window to let in the So-Cal sunshine, we would spend the next 48 hours bathing in the fluorescent light reflected off the thousands of pages of comix that sat on tables lining the walls.
Publishers submit their entries for consideration in such categories as Best Short Story, Best Continuing Series, Best Graphic Album, Best Single Issue or One-Shot, Best Writer/Artist, Best Letterer and nearly twenty others. The resulting master list made for a humbling experience as I realized a year's-worth of constantly reading comix kept me apace of only about one third their total output. Luckily half of this list was slashed away on the first day as we eliminated works that were not worth consideration. Other outstanding books were left out for more technical reasons. Charles Burns' "Black Hole" and Jason Lutes' "Berlin," couldn't even be considered a series since they produced only one issue each last year, neither of which worked as a stand-alone.
The most surprising loss of this first round was the very high-profile "Dark Knight Strikes Again," Frank Miller's sequel to his extraordinary 1986 book, "The Dark Knight Returns." I came prepared to argue against including this top-selling but second-rate work (see TIME.comix review) only to have my criticisms trumped by the outright scorn of the other judges. With the bitterness of a jilted fan, and unconsciously echoing the Simpsons' Comic-book-guy, one of them dismissed it as "the worst Frank Miller book ever."
After this first elimination round I was still left with quite a bit of reading. So I gathered an armful of books and, bearlike, climbed out of the chamber and squinted at the cloudless sky. Seating myself by the pool I began to read comix while, in a sad echo of my entire life, twenty or so frolicsome teenagers splashed about and engaged in healthy socializing and sexualized horseplay. Retiring to my less distracting room, I discovered several good books that had passed under my radar.
"The Amazing Screw-On Head," by Mike Mignola is a delightfully goofball one-shot about an animate doll's head that gets called upon to save the world. It was nominated for best humor publication. In a completely different vein, Junji Ito's "Uzumaki," an English-translated series of fat Japanese manga books, is a really interesting horror comic about a town whose residents suddenly discover their lives are plagued by spiral shapes. Their bodies twist into snail shells and those who try to leave get returned back again. On the more serious side it was a great pleasure to find Madison Clell's "Cuckoo," an intense graphic album that collects her very hard to find series of the same name. In it she details her experience with Multiple Personality Disorder. Though the artistry can be somewhat crude, its mixture of honesty, discovery, humor and pain make up for the lack of polish.
Eyes bloodshot, the group reconvened the following morning for the final round of voting. Each judge would rate the remaining books from one to five, with five meaning "This absolutely must be a nominee" and one meaning, "This is absolutely unworthy of being on the list." High-scoring books would then be made nominees. Only four nominees garnered five fives: "Fleep" by Jason Shiga, for Best One-Shot (see review); "The Yellow Jar," by Patrick Atangan for Best Graphic Album -- New (see review); "Tintin: The Complete Companion," by Michael Carr for Best Comics-Related Publication; and Todd Klein for Best Letterer for his work on such books as "Promethea" (see review).
My only disappointment was in not getting "The Comics Journal," the only necessary comics-related periodical (see review), nominated. For certain judges its relentlessly anti-corporate/mainstream/superhero editorial stance is like an offensive rebuttal to something they are personally passionate about and even dependent on for their livelihood. Arguing in favor of its inclusion was like arguing that they should hit themselves in the head with a hammer.
Even so, the final Eisner Award nominee list made far more sense than any committee-created list had any right to. It has a very strong showing of interesting, independent works. I arrived at San Diego worried about having to argue the merits of David B.'s masterful "Epileptic," (see review) and Lynda Barry's fascinating "One Hundred Demons," (see review) but instead I was pleasantly surprised at how open the judges were to the strengths of such material. Both ended up with a Best Graphic Album New nomination. The nominees will now be voted on by industry professionals and the winners announced at the San Diego Comic-Con in July.