Editor's note: Christian Sager is the creator of "Think of the Children" and "Border Crossings". He has also written essays about the comics industry, punk subculture and national identity.
If you’re not a comic book reader, you probably already associate comics with powerful people punching each other. Your assumption wouldn't be wrong. The rack at your local comic shop is filled with superhero comics, not romantic dramas or police procedurals.
Superheroes might own sales in the comic book world, but when comics professionals honor the best the industry has to offer they go fringe.
Non-superhero comic books won 75% of the winners at the 2011 Harvey Awards, held on August 21 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Harvey Awards are a respected annual awards ceremony hosted in conjunction with the Baltimore Comic-Con. Comic book professionals from across the industry attend this ceremony to celebrate their accomplishments. This year’s event featured big names like Stan Lee, "Thor" and "Hellboy".
Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of Richard Stark’s crime novel “The Outfit” won two awards. Three awards went to comics featuring talking animals, “The Muppet Show,” “Blacksad” and “Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites.” Each of these is vastly different from the other, using humor, horror and noir with their anthropomorphic protagonists.
Reviewing the comic book sales of August 2011, only 2 of the top 100 selling comic books (“The Walking Dead” and “The Infinite”) were not about superheroes. Only 2%, compared to more than 75% of the Harvey Awards going to diverse material. That’s a huge discrepancy. The Harvey Awards' Brad Tree wasn’t surprised by the statistics. In his experience, the Harveys always balance the mainstream and the fringe.
The San Diego Comic-Con Eisner Awards might be the Oscars of the comic book world, but Baltimore's Harvey Awards are its Golden Globes. The Harveys are laid back, faster-paced and often irreverant.
Beside its loose nature, the Harveys also have a very different selection process than the Eisners. Harvey winners are nominated and voted on solely by their peers in the comics industry. A blue-ribbon committee of judges instead selects the Eisner nominees. The Eisners also allow retailers, librarians and comics educators to vote on the final awards.
“I think within the industry there is more attention paid to the fringe work, the non-mainstream, nominally superhero work and that ends up reflected in the Harvey Award,” said Adam P. Knave, co-editor of this year’s Best Anthology winner “Popgun, Volume 4.”
To take a deeper look at the discrepency between comic books that sell well and the ones that are praised within the industry, let’s start by examining the man the Harveys are named after. Harvey Kurtzman was a prolific American cartoonist who first earned attention for his work at EC Comics and subsequently was the founding editor of Mad Magazine. Kurtzman later gained notoriety creating “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy and managing Trump, Humbug and Help! magazines.
The Harvey winner for Best Single Issue or Story in 2011 was “Daytripper” a dramatic series created by twin brothers Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon that meditated thematically on the meaning of life. “I think the American comics market is more open nowadays to non-superhero works and people have been discovering the variety these books have to offer,” said Bá, whose work varies from “The Umbrella Acadmey” featuring a dysfunctional family of ex-superheroes, to the dimension-hopping, sc-fi, spy series “Casanova.”
“They are telling fresh, original stories,” he said, ”While the superhero genre is always reinventing itself, recycling, going around in circles. There are great superhero comics out there, but the true surprises have been coming from other works, I think, where you can explore so much more, be bolder, deeper, work in different formats, lengths, languages.”
The “Popgun” volume that won Best Anthology exhibits the kind of exploration within the comics medium that Bá refers to. Described by some as a “comic book mix-tape,” the “Popgun” anthologies are huge volumes published by Image Comics that contain short stories with a diversity of styles and genres. “Popgun is all about variety,” says Knave’s co-editor D.J. Kirkbride, “Quality mattered - and a lot of it is subjective.”
Knave agreed that for “Popgun” their goal was to “find the best comics possible and give them a showcase.” “Genre didn't matter, the act of communication did,” he said, “We wanted to push great comics of any genre, any type of story and I think we did a pretty good job of that. Telling a story will never be limited to certain tropes or structure, and once you go looking for unique voices telling great stories you find a whole new world of people to pay attention to.”
As Bá, Kirkbride and Knave all suggest, unique stories can still be told within superhero comics as well. Several Harveys went to comics featuring the character Thor, who Marvel Comics flooded the market with in anticipation of their film adaptation released this May. “Thor: The Mighty Avenger,” was critically acclaimed for its unique, all-ages accessible take on the hero. Despite these commendations, Marvel cancelled the book after eight issues due to low sales. Its writer and artist, Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee, were nonetheless honored at the Harveys for Best Writer and Most Promising New Talent respectively.
Even Thor’s co-creator Stan Lee was on hand to celebrate, honored by the Harveys with the Hero Initiative Lifetime Achievement award. When presenting Lee with the award, Mark Waid referred to him as “the poster child” of never giving up, who is still trying to do new things and transform the medium. Lee himself noticed how diverse the Harveys were, joking during his acceptance speech about how they had “categories no one had ever dreamed of before.”
Considering this and the tremendous diversity represented in the Harvey winners, it becomes clear that industry professionals value good storytelling, no matter what the genre. Kirkbride said, “The fact that any comic pro can vote for any comic published in a given year really broadens the playing field and leads to some unpredictability. I love that about the Harveys. The more people that vote, the better.”
“Comics are coming to age, really becoming a mature art form and we have amazing stories being told. Stuff that really matters, that makes the readers think and reflect about their lives,” said Bá. “ I think these works are getting space and leaving a more long lasting impact and that's what mature stories can do.”