The Eisners are the comic industry's Oscars, but does anyone really care who the winners are? Plus, now MINISTRY OF SPACE is finally over, John Fellows gives his verdict on Warren Ellis's pop comics experiment.
17 May 2004


You watched the Oscars, right? You must have done at least once. Four odd hours of interminably boring backslapping. It's not about respecting the best there is or the most amazing achievements, it's about two things; Increasing customer awareness in products to enhance sales, and, mutual metaphorical masturbation.

We all know this. We are all cynical. Or jealous. But we still watch. We still wait with bated breath for the nominees and debate endlessly about the winners and complain and vent and cry ourselves to sleep at night, because damn it, THE MUMMY should have got that SFX award!

But it serves its purpose. It draws attention to films, whether deserved or not, and it validates your opinion as a customer. You thought THE LAST SAMURAI was epic genius, and it gets nominated. Therefore you are justified and all-knowing and are bathed in a warm glow of smugness. It also does the simple job of drawing attention to the lesser-known aspects of cinema. Foreign films, documentary filmmaking, the various less well-known filmic arts. And it does this with great pomp and circumstance.

Because the one thing the movie business is not, is afraid of itself. It doesn't skulk - and not just because it has the balls or the finances to be bold. It's because it has an all-pervading smugness about its place in the world.

And The Oscars is when this becomes most evident, in all its red-carpeted glory. We're all smug enough to have read the trade magazines and know which film really had the best editing or the best direction, but we're also cynical enough to acknowledge that this is not what The Oscars are about.


But comics are scared. Scared to do anything more than just hide under Time Warner's wings or in dirty little shitholes in the back of shopping arcades. Compare and contrast what can be considered comics' Oscars; the Eisners.

'An Eisner means next to nothing to the majority of comics fans.' This year, the nominees include Bendis & Maleev's DAREDEVIL, Rucka's QUEEN & COUNTRY, Rucka, Brubaker & Lark's GOTHAM CENTRAL and Azzarello & Risso's 100 BULLETS. The picks for best new series include all the most obvious suspects, including Diggle & Jock's THE LOSERS and Brubaker & Phillips' SLEEPER.

There are also nominations for the anthologies; DRAWN & QUARTERLY, LITTLE LIT and the gorgeously designed PROJECT TELSTAR; as well as mentions for Canales & Guarnido's BLACKSAD, and Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS. It's not exactly fully-fledged mainstream, but it's close enough to what most critics have been saying for the last twelve months.

But despite all this, it doesn't make any difference. An Oscar win can guarantee you a boost in sales of your film. It can guarantee an actor more roles (or kill their career, if you believe in the Oscars Curse). It can make or break a director's next decision. But an Eisner means next to nothing to the vast majority of comics fans.

Oh, it allows the creators themselves the opportunity to slap each other's backs, but if it doesn't mean anything to the paying customers, why bother? It's all part of the continuing shyness of comics and its unwillingness to accept its quality. Like the cute guy who never gets a date because he doesn't have the confidence to ask girls out. (He's a friend of mine. Honest.)

Because we as a collective - the industry, and the fans - have decided that however good a comic is, it's still a comic. It's paper and ink and staples. It's nearly sixty years of men in stripy jim-jams bitch-slapping each other. And so whatever we do, it's never enough.

SLEEPER is absolute genius, from both the central concept (admittedly not highly original), through to the micro and the macro structuring. Even down to Sean Phillips' panel design. It's a million times better than most garbage I have to sit through on TV every night, or pay money to go to the cinema for.

I'm not suggesting the way forward is to turn the Eisners ceremony into a four-hour love-in with guest stars and comedy routines. I'm saying the fact that it isn't is endemic of an in-built lack of confidence in our abilities. And while I can't do anything about creators, I wish that fans were more concerned about the critical community surrounding this industry. The Eisners tend to get it right, but each year it's only a small sector of the comics community that takes any interest in them.


So Warren Ellis, Chris Weston and Laura Martin (nee Depuy)'s final issue of MINISTRY OF SPACE finally hit the shelves. I know, you couldn't hear the choirs of angels either, right? It ironically marked the end of Ellis' attempts to go it alone in the murky world of creator-owned comics for corporate bigwigs. Plenty of big name creators have decided that creator-owned was their destination and made it work, but few have strived solely to work in the mainstream at the same time.

It wasn't just a change in publishing considerations; it was also a change in content and in publishing format. His revolutionary 'pop comics' idea was to publish a series of three-issue minis, get in, get out, and get the job done. The comics equivalent of a throwaway music single. Something he can get out of his system without committing several years and a lot of energy to.

'Even among hardened fans of Ellis, there was a lack of excitement.' And unsurprisingly it's failed miserably. MINISTRY OF SPACE is the perfect example of this. It's not entirely a bad work, but its been hamstrung by production problems, ill health, and Grant Morrison. (Weston got lured away to do THE FILTH at Vertigo, just like John Cassady went to do CAPTAIN AMERICA for Marvel between issues of PLANETARY).

The fact that each of the 'pop comics' weren't received as well as he'd presumably hoped can be put down to a number of factors, but the most obvious would be, they weren't superheroes - though most of them bore some of the trademarks of superhero comics. RED had an impossibly hard ex-killer destroying his government. TOKYO STORM WARNING had giant robots fighting giant monsters. RELOAD had a team-up between reluctant government official and (another) impossibly hard ex-killer. MEK had robots and crime.

Even among hardened fans of Ellis, there was a lack of excitement. From the retailers' perspective, there's an inherent problem with the three-issue mini. Because all series are ordered three months before release, retailers are unable to judge the quality of a three-issue mini before they've ordered the entire thing. This left a lot of retailers reluctant to order them.

Fans are also reluctant to buy something deemed to have such a small creative investment. There is this innate sense in fandom that stories must mean something, and will only mean something if given a build up. They must be important to a character's life. How many times have we seen 'This issue, it all changes', trumpeted from the rooftops to sell issues? And it works.

Which is the oddest paradox of comics readers. They crave momentous changes, yet the industry and its creative output has changed very little for the last sixty years. This inability in fandom to know what they really want has led to a stalemate position between fans and publishers; neither wanting to commit to one course or the other, but still dangling the carrot of change to increase sales.

Ellis will shortly begin his self-proclaimed Year Of Whoredom with ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #7. He's not only returning to superheroes, but to the long-form superhero. FANTASTIC FOUR is a one-year commitment on an ongoing title, and a lot of his other work is either ongoing or six-issue minis.

He's realised, it seems, that it's the long haul rather than the short haul that sells comics. And while I'm sure his return to the mainstream will produce some interesting work, it's a shame that he was unable to continue doing the work he wanted to do.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

All contents