Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What's Wrong with the WCCAs!

Gosh, I haven't updated here in a while. Some holiday break, right?

So for some reason, it's Webcomics Awards season. Yes, the "controversial" (read: not really) Web Cartoonist's Choice Awards are up and at 'em again. They've moved up the date and decided to scale back their advertising of the awards at the same time. I finally saw one person link a week ago, but as it was in livejournal and I was scrolling through just parsing, I made a note in my head and thought I'd get back to it. After all, I've been voting and nominating in this thing since its conception and they certainly have my email on file from last year, right?

Oh no. And I've always contended that the nominations are the most important part of the awards, since it's hard for people to have some good comics to choose from if no one nominates them in the first place.

But then LO! I email and get a nomination ballot on a quick turnaround and have voted. This is entry is going to have a lot of this: Rant, Good Thing, Rant, Good Thing.

I've always liked the core idea behind these awards. Awards, especially ones "in the industry" do tend to be, well, stupid. And people act very stupid about them. The way the WCCAs are set up, their stupidity is only as great as those nominating and voting. Only creators of webcomics can nominate and vote. So it's our damn fault if Real Life wins for Reality comic.

(Personal disclosure - I've been nominated a few times, and am married to one of the award committee admins, but basically that means I hear things they publically disclose instead of by other means. I happen to agree with pretty much all his stances, except one time last year which I'll get to in a bit. But you should know how intimate (hahaha) I am with this thing.)

Lack of publicity about the awards this year is pretty much my reason for writing here, but I have some other bones to pick on that my husband is probably sick of hearing about.

# 1 - People have trouble nominating for Categories

Oy, categories. These have been the greatest drama generators since webcomics awards were first talked about. It is definitely possible to screw comics out of awards by not giving them a category to shine in, and also to award merit to a subpar comic because people didn't know anything else for the category. And then there are the comics that win in a category because they're good though they don't represent the category at all. See above Real Life, a mostly fantasy comic winning "reality" almost entirely because of the name of the comic. Superosity has been nominated for best superhero comic, a category I can't recall ever having an honest to goodness superhero comic winning, ever. Superhero as a category has been plagued since the first comic to win it was Sporkman, which I cannot even link to, since Mr. John Troutman has done the world a favor and hidden it away. (Disclaimer - I love Trout, but I only read a handful of Sporkman because it buuurrrrrnnnssss. Oh wait, he did link to it again. Ladies and Gentleman, Trout hates you.)
That plus webcomics have responded to the oversupply of superheroes in print by supplying almost nothing of the sort to the internet.

# 2 - Genre categories are hideous

The one point where my husband and I disagreed was last year when Eric Millikin recommended his fabulous comic Fetus-X be considered for best romance comic. I stuck it in my nominees and was astounded that enough people did it to see it make the nominations. Here's another time where the committee acted rashly and then thoughtfully. First they released the nomination results. THEN they considered whether or not to approve Fetus-X in that category. I think my position was like the dark side to Mark Mekkes' idealistic democratic one. Many people thought it should stay. Let the voters decide what the categories mean and whatnot. Me, I thought it was a grand eye opener for people to realize how dumb "Romance" is as a category (which I've been nominated for at least a couple times). You really could justify nominating Fetus-X in the category. My husband prefers a more defined approach to categories and ultimately the committee decided that votes made in jest shouldn't lead to a nomination and withdrew the comic with Eric's consent. But still, kerfluffle.

The idea that people should be able to choose what a category means is often at odds with the fact that people don't always get what the committee intended with a category. Some people want to explain the categories better. I think any category people don't immediately get should be scrapped. These are peer awards. Supposedly people creating comics vote in these, so they should know something. If they don't, drop the category and don't worry about them getting it wrong. Also, way too many people who vote, vote for themselves and are stupid.

Genre categories are doubly hideous because anyone can vote in all of them and some cartoonists don't read comics in certain categories. The Anthropomorphic category gets the brunt of this. VG Cats and Digger have won in this category, as have other comics featuring talking animals that most people don't think of as "furry" comics. Me, when I nominate, I inevitably put in Fight, Cast or Evade. It's one of my favorite punny newspaper style comics and pretty much the only thing I read with talking animals. Many, many other voters think the same way I do.

The way this is handled in other awards, like the Academy Awards for movies, is only people who actively work in a particular field get to vote in it. So since I don't work on a furry comic, I really shouldn't vote in it. But this is much too weird and complicated for something as fun and simple as webcomic awards. I advocate dropping the category.

# 2.5 People are dumb about Genre Categories

Dropping it would also eliminate the complaint from people who do comics that don't fall into various standard genres. The first year, the awards tried giving out an "Other Genre" award. It seemed to work well in terms of the nominees it garnered, but it seemed like such a backhanded complement. I advocate dropping ALL genre categories.

Now I don't say all categories that get complaints should be dropped. I've heard, but don't remember exactly, that one creator is boycotting the awards this year because they moved up their date and he thinks that will make it harder for people to nominate his comic for "Best Newcomer". So? Let's keep some perspective. These are still just webcomics back-patting. There's nothing wrong about giving thumbs up within the creator community (really, there's no community, but whatever), but it's the end all or a great sign of success either way.

# 3 - Too many damn categories

To tie in with all of the above, there really are too many categories. At one point, my husband was reading hundreds of comics. Eric Burns of Websnark reads a ton, more than Frank does now. So they're pretty much the only people even capable of thinking about what comics should win in so many categories.

As someone who reads a few comics and tries very hard to nominate well every year (except this one, obviously) I find it a daunting task. It's even hard to vote, with 4 or 5 nominees per category, and number of categories never dropping behind 20+.

You are not going to get any quality when you make it so hard to vote and nominate. You will get a lot of people entering in their own comic for everything, or their buddies' comics for everything. Why? Not really just favoritism, but laziness.

I've also noticed a swing in "what's important" by what categories change from year to year. This may be of interest to a webcomics historian (hey T!), because it shows how the community responded to flash and "moving" comics (Homestar Runner wins, then the category disappears since no one considers that extreme to still be a comic, only a cartoon), to infinite canvas (category disappears as it becomes more common), and other movements and higlights. While this is interesting, it really does show how silly these categories are that they change to suit what's popular or noticeable at the time. It wasn't as if any of the comics winning these awards weren't already getting notice.

# 4 My recommendations for categories

You might want to take a glance at the current list.

Keep the ur-categories: Outstanding Newcomer, Outstanding Comic, Outstanding Artist, Outstanding Writer. Everyone fits into these, except newcomer, but that's a tried and true category that has worked well.

The subcategories under art and writing should merely be weened down.
Keep for art:
Outstanding Use of Color
Outstanding Black and White Art

They're such classics. I can see dropping both of them and having NO subcategories for art, but 4 categories seems a little short even to me. They pretty much cover it all, and since designing how to work in either can be so radically different, as separate categories they work well.

Definitely drop:
Outstanding Photographic Comic - This can be color or black and white, correct? Besides, they are so uncommon that people have very little to choose from, which will give perhaps undue notice to certain comics without input of their merit, simply because of how they are composed. Perhaps a "collage" category that includes clipart and other "not drawn" media might pass, but still. It's art that can either be in color or black and white.
Outstanding Character Rendering - (Tangentially, I'm thinking of rendering fat. Sorry. Been making biscuits.) Characters are part of the overall drawing. Why call attention to them? What about comics without characters? It's unnecessary and pretty stupid.
Outstanding Environment Design - Same as Character. I'd like to see this kept in, say, an all Sci-Fi or Fantasy awards. But it's just a part of the color or B&W art, again.
Outstanding Use of The Medium - What? I think this category was meant to replace the infinite canvas and other experimental awards. I think, however, that it makes NO SENSE WHATSOEVER, especially thusly named. Anything falls into this cateogry as is, making it exactly the same thing as Outstanding Artist. Maybe a "Outstanding Creative Use of the Medium" would get the point across, but even so, who is to say you can't be creative within a comic book page style? (Oh hell yeah you can!)
Outstanding Website Design - While there are some amazing website designs that really enhance the comic they contain, I think this is much too like "Best Lighting Design", where the average person isn't going to realize what's so good about certain things. I wrote a whole column on website design for comics I haven't published, so yeah, I'm in the camp that thinks it know something about websites and I really, really think this award has never worked and that's why it should go, not because website design isn't important.

Outstanding Layout - I'd take this as the real replacement for infinite canvas, since it actually refers to how the comic is presented. It can also cover website areas, since it is about presentation of a comic on the internet. Layout wouldn't discriminate against any comic, as every comic is laid out in some way. Forget the debate, it's a keeper. But I'm too lazy to go back and edit what I just wrote to adjust for that decision. Sorry!

Keep for writing:

Outstanding Long Form Comic
- This category has worked well, and since there is a big difference between how long form comics are even read over the internet, what with the immediate delivery, but pages being required to be read in sequence, I feel it should have the attention.
Outstanding Short Form Comic - Classic and it's worked well. Voters seem to get the difference between it and long form, and also feel free to nominate things in both categories that blend between the two, but lean to one side or the other, like long form comics told in newspaper strip format, which they include in long form. It is under writing, which explains a lot to the voter. Short form fits comics, even if told in multiple panels in ways other than a newspaper strip, that don't actually have ongoing story.

Definitely drop:
Outstanding Character Writing - What's so important about the characters? Seriously, there is good character writing out there, but do you balance this with a "Outstanding everything else other than Character Writing, including gags, puns, Far Side style, philosophy, slice of life, etc"?
Outstanding Comedic Comic - and
Outstanding Dramatic Comic - For a long, long, long time in literature, plays, and all forms of entertainment and storytelling, the distinction between these two has become downright stupid. Yes, the distinction is stupid. I have no other way to describe it.

Outstanding Single Panel Comic - I can see a place for this alongside Long Form and Short Form, despite it obviously falling into short form. The single panel comic is a classic. It also follows vastly different rules for making a comic. It's not even "sequential art", having no sequence. I can see it remaining, but I don't see a problem if it's cut. But, might as well keep it.


Cut them all:
Outstanding Anthropomorphic Comic
Outstanding Fantasy Comic
Outstanding Gaming Comic
Outstanding Slice-of-Life Comic
Outstanding Romantic Comic
Outstanding Science Fiction Comic
Outstanding Superhero/Action Comic

There is too much they don't cover and not enough justification for keeping any of them. Perhaps we could see in the future a fan group of all Sci-Fi comics voting for their favorites in the genre, but that wouldn't be the WCCAs.

This is on my ballot. Notice I didn't fill in the genre slots, either.

# 6 - The WCCA Committee

I absolutely must add some part about an internal debate in the awards. That is, should members of the committee, who vote on such decisions as what awards to include, be allowed to vote/nominate their own comics/accept awards for their own comics. Ever since the awards began, I know that Mark Mekkes has turned down any votes his own comic, Zortic, was given. When my husband joined in to help, even if it was just counting nominations under the old system, he turned down votes for his comic Framed!!!, even though he knew from counting the nomination votes it would have gone on to the next round of voting. During this time he didn't nominate, despite being qualified as I mentioned above, but did vote, since the final votes were automatically counted. He has campaigned that no one on the committee can nominate or can accept any votes for their own comics, which seems super sensible, but only the admin committee has agreed to do so. Regular members of the committee are allowing themselves to be portrayed as conflicted over their own interests and with a definite stake in what categories are used.
I'd also like to mention, thanks to a comment from Frank (who is currently tiling our bathroom), the registrar Mike Payne, who took over the job from Frank, has been excellent. I should probably apologize publically for ranting at him when I emailed to be registered for voting, since I thought I had just missed the nomination round, and all I could find on the website was a random email with no name attached. It was his, I found out later, but yeah, sorry for being mean, but it wasn't user friendly there. Mike was very nice and super professional and fast at getting back to me.

Mark Mekkes deserves a little more praise, too. He basically started the whole awards. They're his dream and he's realized them. Throughout criticism and contemplations of juried awards, he's kept a group of people working to actually get them done, instead of just complaining and ranting and theorizing.

Actually, pretty much everyone involved has done very good work for a much criticized (including by me!) and dramatized awards for which they get nothing. I can see why some would want to be able to at least win an award if other people vote for them, but the awards would have much more credibility if they would abstain from the nominating rounds and decline nominations.

# 7 Keep Making it Better, Folks

The awards have vastly improved every single year to be more noticeable, more relevant, and all around better. It's easier to vote and nominate. But they have to keep improving.
The website is better, but still difficult to navigate and find out information. Like above where I found an email to ask to be registered, but no idea of whose email it was or what information I should include with my request. Perhaps it's a no-brainer to include your name and what comics you do, but people on the internet do often need things spelled out and I'm sure that would make it easier on the registrar.
Really advertise this thing, too. Especially if you're moving it and it's around vacation times. I was not paying attention to the internet much this first half of this month. There was also no "registration time" before the nomination time.

I just mailed in my nominations and have to say using an excel sheet was even easier than last year's process, I only hope they don't mind I use Open Office or have any problems with people who don't have microsoft office.

And WHEW! I think I'm good. I really wish this had been a post with who I nominated and why, showing off some awesome comics. But it isn't. It's something else entirely.


Todd said...

"Outstanding." They kip using that word. I do not thin it means what they thin it means.

There is such a thing as diluting a word by using it so much ("awesome... like a hot dog?") And the awards use "outstanding" to mean "the only one in the category that I've heard of".

In the beginning, the awards were a good way to get exposure for underexposed, yet quality, comics. Now, it's just so much fluff.

Damonk said...

For those who are curious, the word "Outstanding" was chosen because it was decided by the Committee some years ago that giving awards for "Best" something-or-other as chosen by only a select portion of the webcomics community was not an accurate representation.

The logic was more or less along these lines: if there are 10000 wecartoonists and only 1000 vote, then only 10% of the community is expressing its opinion, and that's not a satisfactory sample to justify a claim that "the community" voted something "the Best" of the pack).

Add to that the vocal dissent of those who in the early years claimed that some winners were 'clearly not the best' of all webcomics out there, and the committee felt that it would be better to change the qualifier.

Since the word "Outstanding" signifies excellence within a group without implying that it is necessarily also "the BEST of" the group, it was felt that it was a better word choice, and that's why it is used for each category.

Now whether or not people agree that the winners of these awards are truly "outstanding" as in "demonstrating notable excellence that sets it apart from the masses", well, it all comes down to speaking with your vote.

People who whine that only "big names" win these things should let their votes do the talking instead of screaming from the sidelines without even trying to fill out a ballot.


And don't even get me started on how the majority of the voters participate only to vote for themselves to begin with -- and often, these are the same people I see screaming in the forums that the awards are flawed because only popular comics win...

If everyone used their ballots to vote for other people than themselves, you can bet that you'd see some much more interesting results.

Todd said...

WHOA! Did I just coax Damonk out of his Internet hidey-hole by leaving myself open for a smackdown? OWITCH!

(Just kidding... I hope!)

I haven't been involved in the awards for a long time--when we used to make our webcomics by shoving a stack of punchcards into a ENIAC--but I think a better term might have been "Achievement in ..." There has only ever been ONE truly outstanding comic in the history of webcomics, and I ran out of time to draw comic strips a long time ago.

John said...

Honestly, I still think that semi-public voting is the worst idea in a long sad history of bad ideas (Jeff Goldblum, represent). We need a COMMITTEE. Technically, we need "the Academy," the group of mysterious people that determine what's good or not.

Furthermore, maybe they could also do what the Academy does - only consider things that are submitted for consideration to begin with. It'd certainly help with the "nobody has read every comic" problem. The major problem with that is that I doubt most creators actually give a shit about the awards, so you wouldn't be seeing a "For Your Consideration" packet from Penny Arcade anytime soon.

Returning briefly to the mythical Academy for a second, I propose that it should be comprised of maybe ten to twenty people that actually read a lot of comics. Get Frank, and Eric, and Xavier, and that Fleen dude, and whoever else - people that read a bazillion comics and can actually formulate informed opinions about them. Don't let jackholes like me (who regularly readers dangerously close to no comics at all) vote, because I don't read enough to vote intelligently.

Which is another way of me saying that voter are morons, but since everyone already knows that I'm an elitist asshole, it's okay.

Tim Tylor said...

That plus webcomics have responded to the oversupply of superheroes in print by supplying almost nothing of the sort to the internet.

I beg to differ with you on that point. ;) I honestly don't think superheroes are doing so badly in webcomics; I think it's just that they don't dominate them as they do with printed comicbooks.

Anonymous said...

John -

I hate to tell you, but the "Academy" is very similar to the way the WCCAs work.

For example, I worked for a Hollywood agent for a little over a year. This man had no formal film training of any kind. His only right to be part of this "Academy" was that he had important friends and was involved with important projects in the past.

During the Oscars, he (like other "Academy" members) received a whole bunch of tapes. He watched most of the important ones. Then, he passes judgment on catagories as varied as sound production and video editing.

All awards are 90% bullshit. Even Richard Feynman once said the Nobel Prize was meaningless.

I think the WCCAs definitely serve a purpose, but I don't believe anyone is arguing that it is to determine the best comic. The main role of these awards (like any other awards) are these two reasons:
1) Raise awareness of the medium.
2) Make the committee/voting body feel important.

Any award show is going to be about 90% fluff, and 10% real. It's sort of like doing an Alexa search. You're not getting great data, but you are seeing trends. You might not see the BEST comics (whatever that means), but you'll see some pretty good ones.

That said, I agree with your note about the categories. Their ambiguity basically eliminates the potential for that 10% to shine through.

I wonder if perhaps the type categories would work better if the voters were of the corresponding type. For example, if only self-identified Romance comics could select the best Romance comic.

Having a guy like me select the best Romance (incidentally, I always opt out of voting in this category section) is like having a talent agent pick who did the best sound editing.

PS: Megs-

In response to the Single Panel award. I feel I should speak for it since I was the guy who brought it up for the first time a few years ago.

Basically, I wanna second your point that it is a medium very different from strip comics. As someone who has done single panel, strip, and page comics, I appreciate that they are very different. There is a much bigger difference between single panel and short form than there is between short form and long form.

I had felt like comparing a single panel strip (like mine, or Toothpaste for Dinner, or Chopping Block) to a strip comic was like comparing apples and oranges. Well, maybe more like oranges and... say... pommelos. But still, very different.

John said...

Fair enough. The Academy itself may be a poor example, though I still believe that a panel of relatively informed judges would be responsible for the voting, not Joe Average ComicGenny.

megs said...

Tim - What about The Japanese Beatle, huh? Only the best superhero webcomic ever! K&T is only marginally a "superhero". The web does offer lots of wish-fulfillment adventure like superhero comics do, just in various different genres and not hard-core tried-and-true superhero style.

John - Frank keeps talking about doing his own "juried" awards where there would be folks like him who read bunches choosing the nominees and everyone votes, or something like that. I think it'd be grand to have two totally different styles of awards going on.

In the meantime, I'm really just going to keep linking to stuff I like. Or hate. ahaha.

megs said...

and OH DUH, Magellan is probably the best superhero comic out there now. Check that puppy out.

Anonymous said...

My comic won Superhero/Action last year, and I don't think there's anything you could call it BUT a superhero comic. Of course whether it deserved the price is a completely different story.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most points of he original point. But...

IMO even the color<>B&W distinction is not the most useful one. There's lots of mixed cases, like monochrome, B&W&R, B&W with spotlights. At least the first is technically exactly equal to B&W, and I think the 2nd case is functionally closer to B&W than full color, too. "Black and white" - which usually does not even mean "nothing but black and white" as much as "grayscale" - is just one out of many different possible restrained-color schemes; and as a distinction between "restrained" and "non-restrained" use of color would be even more ludicrous IMO. Ultimately I suppose the blame of the distinction is on semantics, however. Most peeps consider "color" to be in opposition to "grayscale"; leaving no word for the full continuum. :(

OTOH I would consider Photography worth saving, if it weren't for your "too rare" argument; ditto Environment Design, if it weren't for the "down with genre awards" argument.

Thirdly, I disagree with the common sentiment that single-panel comics wouldn't by definition be serial. They can achieve that at least by means of word balloons, recurring caracters/environments, or maybe even full-on having a story (tho I don't think I've seen an example of the latter anywhere.) This is a technicality however, since I again agree that while the slot doesn't harm anyone just because it exists, its getting cut wouldn't be much of a loss either - by the "too rare" argument again.


> Frank keeps talking about
> doing his own "juried" awards
> where there would be folks like
> him who read bunches choosing the
> nominees and everyone votes, or
> something like that. I think it'd
> be grand to have two totally
> different styles of awards going
> on.

I more than epsilon this idea, whatever the actual realization'll be. Do you plan on requiring other notability (like running a blog or something) besides just reading a few hundred webcomics? And if not, where does one sign up? :)

T Campbell... said...

Genre awards are a bone of contention every year, I know, but they matter to those of us whose work falls WITHIN those genres more than we'd like to admit. But let's not make this all about Gisele's and MY nomination. :)

I'm not sure all the genre categories should stay, and sure, lots of comics are not represented within them-- we could discuss cases for hours. But bottom line: webcomics' diversity of genre is one of the things I've always loved about the medium, and I like to see it celebrated. Can you imagine what the DM's genre awards would look like? I can...