Pardon my dwelling

So today I woke up in a world where Tove Jansson’s timeless gem Moomin (Drawn & Quarterly) can be nominated in the same award category as the Witchblade Manga (Top Cow). I’m not comfortable with this, obviously, and I’m even less comfortable with the possibility that I live in a world where the Witchblade Manga could possibly beat Moomin for that award. Because the pool of people eligible to nominate works for the awards is identical to the pool of people who decide which of those nominees will receive Harveys:

“Nominations for the Harvey Awards are selected exclusively by creators – those who write, draw, ink, letter, color, design, edit or are otherwise involved in a creative capacity in the comics field. The Harvey Awards are the only industry awards both nominated and selected by the full body of comic book professionals.”

Greg McElhatton notes that the Harvey nominations are “SO easy to stack,” and if anyone was on the fence about that, well… Witchblade Manga. The prosecution rests.

This is a problem. It’s not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things, obviously, but it’s a problem for the Harvey Awards, because the possibility of shoving a piece of crap into the field of nominees unfairly casts the worthiness of everything on the slate into question. If I can conclude, not unreasonably, that a bunch of people who work for Company A sat around the break room and decided to force a piece of crap onto the ballot, then I can conclude just as reasonably that a bunch of people who work for Company B sat around the break room and decided to force something brilliant onto the ballot. A desirable outcome doesn’t make a leaky process any more ethical.

Of course, it’s a universal problem for awards programs of any sort. All of them have to decide where they want to land on the continuum between potentially out-of-touch gatekeepers and a democratic process that leaves itself open to abuse. I think the simplest solution would be to use precisely the same pool of potential nominators but to prohibit them from nominating any work published by the company that employs them. (That’s how nominations work in the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens program.) That would still leave open the possibility of collusion among publishers, obviously, but that seems less likely than self-promoting ballot-box stuffing.

There is the remote possibility that what one might consider counter-intuitive nominees (some listed here by Dirk Deppey) wound up there as the result of an entirely democratic groundswell of support, heretofore unexpected by the casual observer. I’m cynical, so unless I get a bunch of e-mails or comments that support that optimistic possibility, I’m going to suggest that the Harvey Awards nomination process is broken and needs to be fixed if the sponsors want to cultivate a reputation for promoting meritorious work. Because there’s plenty of meritorious work nominated, and it’s not fair that it stands a real chance of losing to something awful because the system can be massaged.

For further reading, please see Brigid Alverson’s noble attempt to list more award-worthy works. I thought about doing that, but then I decided that the bar was set so low that I’d never stop.

11 Responses to Pardon my dwelling

  1. The percentage of people who nominate versus vote in the Harveys is pretty staggeringly different; with an actual awards ballot, you just have to check off who you want to win. For a nomination ballot, you need to stop and take the time to think about what is the best.

    That’s why it’s so easy to stack — all it takes is a minorly concerted effort to get a small handful of people to all nominate the same item(s) and voila, you’ve got yourself a nominee.

    Every year there’s always something really questionable/surprising on the ballot — do you remember the year that CrossGen dominated the ballot after the blank nomination ballots were handed out to all the employees? — but they almost never win.

  2. davidpwelsh says:

    That’s some consolation, but I still think it needs to be fixed at the front end.

  3. Oh, certainly, but I don’t think it can/will. The Harveys hold themselves up as being different to the Eisners in two different ways: the “everyone who can vote can also nominate” set-up (versus a jury, which the Eisner and the Ignatz Awards both use), and that retailers are barred from nominating/voting.

    So if you want to fix it, you either need to throw out the existing nomination process (never going to happen), or somehow urge people to actually fill out a nomination ballot. Consdering this happens almost every single year with the Harveys, clearly most cartoonists ultimately don’t care. And if they don’t care, it’ll never change.

    (The fact that Kim Thompson seems to have stopped his “here’s a list of everything that came out in the world of indy comics that would be eligible” lists on TCJ’s message boards the past few years says it all, really.)

  4. […] bloggers have weighed in with criticism of the Harvey Awards nominees this […]

  5. […] David Welsh laments the ease with which the Harvey Award nominations can be skewed by a small group of ballot […]

  6. Kenny Penman says:

    This has bothered me for years – it’s clear that Gemstone are amongst the most dedicated in making sure they get nominations – is there any other reason their books would get on these ballot, no shame in that , well done them but the process is nuts. Some are not without merit but it just wouldn’t happen given a normal batch of creators nominating their favourite works. If they don’t change the nomination process, and the same thing happens here in the Uk with the Eagles which have become a farce and need replaced, they should at least let us all know how many people nominated to get on the ballots. You might find it’s 30, in which case what is the award about – certainly not the groundswell of support for merit. Given the penetration of comics into bookstore markets now an award is a marketing persons dream whilst selling and that is why skewed awards are now much more significant than when they were restricted to the direct market where we all sat back and laughed and resolutely did not increase our orders. Potentially you get more crap pushed to bookstores with fewer repeat sales as the quality doesn’t bring people back and we end with another false dawn. I’m a comics retailer and i want the book stores to succeed as ultimately we still have it within our power and do it better to service NEW comics readers – it’s not like our own market is producing loads of new young readers. The greater comics community should work out which awards matter, insist on voting numbers or your out, give them the prestige they deserve and consign fix-ups like the Eagles and potentially the Harvey’s to history.

  7. ericshanower says:

    I used to get a Harvey Awards nomination ballot in the mail. I usually tried to fill it out to the best of my ability. But I haven’t received one of those in years. Do they send these out anymore? Is the nomination process online? If the people running the Harveys would put a real nomination ballot in front of my nose, I’d still fill it out, unless I was on a heavy deadline and wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the world at the time. Don’t ask me to fill out something online–it’s far too easy to ignore.

  8. Ben Towle says:

    The Harveys (as well as the Igantzes) are also very susceptible to being gamed I’d wager because of an extremely small sample size of people participating in the voting process. The fact that the number of votes received is kept secret suggests to me that the number is small enough that it would cause a stir if it were made public.

    I know just from some anecdotal evidence, having received a bulk “hey, nominate my book” email, then seen that book wind up nominated in multiple categories, that a relatively small number of respondents can likely place a book on the noms list.

  9. I’m a fan of juries, myself. I get e-mails come nomination time from two publishers, listing books eligible, and while I have no problem with that (I’m terrible at remembering what comes out each year, and appreciate the memory assist) I can see Ben’s point when it comes to abuse.

    I’d like to see a rotating jury consisting of a theorist (someone like Wolk or Don Ault), two industry vets known for producing good, cannonical work, and two well-respected up-and-comers to keep things fresh. Something along those lines.

    But I always find myself thinking poorly of people in the collective (myself included, when part of that collective). Bring on the philospher-kings!

  10. davidpwelsh says:

    I’m reminded of that Simpsons episode where Lisa tried to turn Springfield into a meritocracy. I’m sure the philosopher-kings would work out better, though.

  11. […] their favorite peers and works in a wide variety of categories. You may remember me keening and gnashing my teeth over some of last year’s […]

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