The Eisner Awards Are Short-Changing Letterers

The announcement of the nominees for this year’s Eisner Awards – which are considered to be the most important of any comic book awards – were met with generally positive reaction. Every year the awards diversify a little, start to expand out beyond their very limited focus, and reward a wider and more interesting base of people.

But every year, for me, it feels as though they’ve got no handle at all on one particular group of people: comic book letterers.

Aside from Stan Sakai’s win in 1996, letterer Todd Klein won the award every single year between 1993 and 2008. Every single year! And then he won in 2010 as well. Out of the 21 years that the Eisners have recognised lettering, he’s won 16 of them. On top of this, the subsequent awards have all been won not by full-time letterers, but instead by writer/artist/letterers like Chris Ware and David Mazzuccheli. These are creators who not only wrote the words they lettered – but also drew the images they’re lettering over.

So one letterer has dominated the award since the start, and the only other people to have ever won weren’t actually letterers, but all-round creators. Which is fair enough. I’m not maligning the ability of Chris Ware. But doesn’t it seem strange how the biggest comic book awards have spent the last twenty years ignoring professional, full-time letterers?

Because the thing is, full-time letterers like Joe Caramagna, Chris Eliopoulos or Richard Starkings (who has NEVER won, despite being perhaps THE most important name in comic lettering of the last several decades) are working on a different level to the level that Ware has to. Ware is preparing a whole comic at once, so he can draw a panel with the dialogue required already in mind – allocating the words a space. If he can’t fit the words into this space, he can always rewrite the dialogue to fit. He has complete creative control.

Letterers don’t have that luxury. They’re given a script they had no hand in, and art they can’t dictate, and told to put the two together in a way which tells the story. It’s an incredibly difficult, technical task to pull off, especially with the level of style that someone like Annie Parkhouse or Dustin Harbin can achieve.

So as far as I’m concerned? Simply put: the Eisners need to put in a stipulation of some kind here which allows letterers to actually be nominated in their own category. Whilst Chris Ware does good work – he’s not achieving the same level of technical difficulty of someone like Clayton Cowles.

Here are this year’s nominees – all of whom I’ve looked at, and all of whom did sterling work with lettering.

Darwyn Cooke, Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground (IDW)
Carla Speed McNeil, Bad Houses; “Finder” in Dark Horse Presents (Dark Horse)
Terry Moore, Rachel Rising (Abstract Studio)
Ed Piskor, Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics)
Britt Wilson, Adventure Time with Fiona and Cake (kaBOOM!)

But of that list, Wilson is the only one of them who SOLELY worked on the lettering. Everybody else was either the writer or artist of their project.

What I’m saying is absolutely that the Eisners should stipulate a clause into the nomination process for letterers which blocks writers and artists from being eligible. The phrase “best lettering over someone else’s work” would be appropriate, in this respect. Because by cutting letterers out of the last twenty years, the Eisners have been inadvertently – perhaps “advertently” – suggesting that their work isn’t worth rewarding.

Because apparently it seems, letterers will be ignored otherwise.

It’s a dodgy way of putting it, but I want to see lettering awards reward letterers – the people who work tirelessly, right at the end of the creative process, in making sure the stories make sense. Looking at this year’s nominees, it seems ridiculous and – frankly – patronising that only one full-time working letterer has been nominated. This is in a year where people like Clayton Cowles and Ellie deVille and Joe Caramagna and so many other letterers have made their work a vital part of books like Young Avengers or Daredevil.

For me, it seems embarrassing that the Eisner Awards seem to have no idea how to judge, rate, or rank letterers. That they give up entirely and just nominate the people they’ve already nominated for art or writing feels cheap. I want to see, moving forward, an Eisner Awards committee which raises up the lettering community and points to them as professionals who should be afforded equal respect to every other creative in comics.

I want to see a shortlist in 2015 where every single person is a letterer. I wouldn’t award a “best inker” nomination to somebody who inks their own work – why should we do the same for somebody who letters their own script over their own art? 

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