Reflections on the 2023 Eisner Awards Judging
This year’s judges for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards describe the judging experience, and administrator Jackie Estrada comments on the judges’ selections.
Graphic novel librarian
I've always loved the "best of lists" that book awards like the Eisners produce. As a 20-year librarian, I've spent a lot of time recommending books to people with all different experiences and interests. Eisner nominations feel like the one time that someone else curates my next favorite comics list just for me! I am fortunate to do what I love, which is work closely with comics publishers and creators, and seeing these friends and colleagues earn well-deserved recognition for their accomplishments is surreal and amazing.
The actual experience of being an Eisner judge was at once grueling and rewarding—I read literally hundreds of comics and advised fellow judges on my category-specific picks. I was pretty sure my eyeballs would fall out eventually, but instead, I emerged victorious with new friendships and a wonderful list of comics for readers of every interest. Thank you to Jackie, CCI, my fellow judges and the comics community for this opportunity—I am so excited to see which titles ultimately emerge as industry-voted favorites!
Comics collector, event organizer
As a lifelong reader, I am so grateful to have been a part of the Eisner Award nomination process, not only to contribute to the comic book community but also for realizing a personal dream: For a few months I could say, “I have to go to work now” and head to the den to read the latest stack of Eisner Award submissions. How cool is that? As the book pile grew there came an element of “be careful what you wish for,” but it was a fun mountain to climb.
The committee of judges brought a mix of professional backgrounds and experience, and everyone took this task seriously but with humor and grace. It was extremely difficult to whittle long lists down to five or six nominations, and everyone saw some personal favorites get cut, but disagreements were always resolved sensibly. We never resorted to arcane nerd-on-nerd virtual combat rituals, and it was a pleasure to work together. If, at times, we were also a herd of cats, we didn’t know it because of the expert wrangling by Jackie Estrada and the staff at Comic-Con. I thank them for their guidance and support.
It is rewarding to read such a variety of high-quality work and expand my personal reading list. The only downside of those darn Eisner Awards is the hit to my bank account because my reading list increases so much. I want to have my own copies of the books that I read, go forward with the continuing series, and turn everyone else on to reading them. Not such a bad problem to have, I suppose.
Judging the Eisners was an eye-opening, truly humbling experience. As you might have been able to guess, as a comic shop owner, I am an uber fan of comics and graphic novels. I spend most of my time reading them, connecting with comic creators, and working with them to get their work into the most hands that I can. I had thought that my reading and connections meant that I had a super deep well of books that I had read this last year. As it turned out, I hadn't even scratched the surface of what had been released, and so much of it was incredible! Honestly, narrowing these books down to 5ish for every category felt a little like when someone says "What's your favorite movie?" but raised to the tenth power. For me it’s an impossible question. MAYBE I could get it down to my favorite movie I watched this week. MAYBE. This process is tough, but not as tough as the one that the creators went through to make these books. I'm super excited to celebrate with them all in July.
Comics journalist, author
When I was a young boy first getting into comic books, I'd hoped that one day I might get one of my letters printed so that I could say that I contributed something to the world of comics, however small. I can't begin to imagine the shock that young me would face if he learned that he would one day become a judge for the Eisner Awards; my adult self was still pretty taken aback when Jackie approached me about it late last year. To be asked to participate in the judging this year is an honor and a privilege.
I knew going into this that it would require a lot of reading, even more than my avid interest was accustomed to. But I think it's comparable to running your first marathon; no matter how much training you do beforehand, the actual marathon itself is longer and more challenging than literally anything you've done before. Unlike a marathon, though, reading through more comics than you knew were even published is a joy. I told many friends as I was working my way through everything that, while it was a lot of effort to get to everything, it was all worth getting to. There was just so much phenomenal material that it was always a joy to pick up the next title and, more often than not, still be able to be surprised at how excellent it was. It really was inspiring to see how much fantastic work is being done in comics!
A. David Lewis
Comics writer, academic/historian
Being a judge for the Eisner Awards was an exhilarating and challenging experience. I was tasked with evaluating an exceptional array of comic book works from around the globe. It was a pleasure to witness the incredible talent, creativity, and dedication of the artists and writers who poured their hearts into their work. The task of selecting the nominees was no easy feat. It required careful consideration, thoughtful analysis, and robust discussions with fellow judges. The opportunity to be a part of celebrating and honoring the best in the comic book industry was an absolute privilege, and one that will always hold a special place in my heart.
Comic art exhibition curator, teacher
While superheroes and horror tend to be what I lean to the most, I’ve always been open to books of all genres, voices, and publishers. No matter what kind of fan I thought I was, being an Eisner Judge made me a better reader. This year was incredibly special because the creators and subject matters were so varied across every category. Books like It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood, Chef’s Kiss by Jarrett Melendez and Danica Brine, Wash Day Diaries by Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith, and Traveling to Mars by Mark Russell and Roberto Meli were absolute standouts for me this year—and that's a bold statement considering the plethora of fantastic reading material. From Young Adult to Reality-Based works and everything in between, the majority of books we read this year all came with such emotional depth. It makes for a better medium and, speaking for us judges, a better reading experience.
Congratulations to the nominees. You all continue to raise the bar and make comics the one-of-a-kind medium it is. Thank you to my fellow judges: Your hard work, passion, and dedication to comics is awe-inspiring. To be able to talk, debate, and gush over the books we read was an honor and a blast. Thanks must also go to Ron McFee and Natalie Powell for keeping us fed, hydrated, and mentally sound during our long weekend at the Comic-Con office. Finally, thanks to Jackie, our fearless leader. She kept us on track and made sure we were honest with ourselves and our choices. As daunting as the expectations are in this position—and you don’t realize it until you’re actually in the thick of it—she managed to make this experience smooth and enjoyable. We’re all bonded by this and I’m forever grateful for that.
Eisner Awards administrator
Each year, the Eisner Awards judges are chosen in the fall so that they can start reading comics and graphic novels with the various categories in mind. At first, their reading is guided by “Best of the Year” lists, and then submissions from publishers start arriving in January. All submissions must be received by March 31, and the judges are kept up to date on what has arrived, via copies of the submission letters and emails. To lighten the reading burden a bit, judges volunteer to become “screeners” for some of the categories, narrowing down the reading lists for the other judges to a bit less daunting number of works.
This year the in-person judging was held at the beginning of May. An area in the Comic-Con offices was set up with tables full of submissions for each of the Eisner categories, so that the six judges could easily find works in each category. They spent three days discussing the categories, narrowing down the choices for each one, reading, and then voting to select the nominees. They started with a list of over 2500 entries in 32 categories, which they narrowed down to a total of 169 nominations.
What the judges arrived at is a remarkable slate of works and creators, providing a snapshot of the state of comics and graphic novels in 2022. In looking over the nominee list, I found an incredibly wide range of subject matters, storytelling techniques, and media used—something that would have delighted Will Eisner. For instance, in addition to traditional superhero fare, the subject matters include such diverse topics as working in a factory, saving the world using monarch butterflies, adopting a dog, the wash day experiences of Black women, becoming a chef, the history of pinball, life on a middle-school swim team, animals taking over a castle, and the lyrics of Tori Amos and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
I also noted that women have their highest representation in the history of the Eisner Awards, with nominees in 30 of the 32 categories; in addition, works with women creators dominate the nominations in the Best Publication for Teens, Best Reality-Based Work, Best Graphic Memoir, Best Adaptation from Another Medium, and Best Writer/Artist categories. All told, 67 women have one or more nominations.
Continuing a trend from recent years, the nominations are truly international, with more than 61 for creators from 15 countries. European nations boasting multiple nominees include France (with 17), Spain, Italy, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Japan leads Asian countries with 9 nominees, while South America is represented by creators from Argentina and Brazil. When it comes to English-speaking countries, Canada has 9 nominees, the UK has 6, and New Zealand has 1.
I’d like to thank the judges for all their hard work, and I encourage readers to use the nominations list as a guide to their comics, graphic novel, and webcomics reading.