Wednesday 12 November 2008

Comics' big guns take aim at the Governor General's Literary Awards

So, i've heard some rumblings from my comics pals in the past few weeks about this, so it's nice to see that someone finally had the gumption to put pen to virtual paper.

Below is an open letter sent (like an hour ago) to the Canada Council for the Arts (which administers the Governor General Literary Awards) that takes issue with their puzzling decision to omit cartoonist Jillian Tamaki from the GG nomination for her book Skim (her cousin, Mariko Tamaki, wrote the book).

This is especially galling since it marks the first time a graphic novel has ever nabbed a nomination in the prestigious awards, and yet the cartoonist is unable to share the glory (not to mention the $25,000 prize it offers). Part of the blame here can be placed on the seemingly obsolete categories at the GGs - Skim is honoured in the "Children's Book - Text" section - but, still. The three members of the jury for the category should have expressed concern about this when they voted for the book. The official nomination summary clearly identifies Skim as a "graphic novel" (an "audacious and original" one at that) yet it makes zero mention of Jillian's contribution, which simply cannot be understated. Anyone who has read the book realizes that her art is an integral part of the story-telling. If you don't believe me, check out this six-page excerpt.

And if you don't believe your eyes, consider the New York Times. In it's recent review of Skim it said:

The black and white pictures by Jillian Tamaki, Mariko's cousin, create a nuanced, three-dimensional portrait of Skim, conveying a great deal of information often without the help of the text. The book's most striking use of purely visual communication occurs in a lush and lovely double-page tableau of Skim and Ms. Archer exchanging a kiss in the woods that leaves the reader (and maybe even the participants) wondering who kissed whom. In another sequence, Skim and Ms. Archer sip tea without ever making eye contact, the pictures and minimal text communicating the uncomfortable emotional charge in the room and the two characters' difficulty in knowing what to say to each other.


Tamaki's palette often becomes noticeably darker or lighter to signal a change in mood. Various night scenes communicate Skim's depression, her unhappy moon-face isolated in fields of inky black, streetlights casting long, lonely shadows. In contrast, Tamaki sets the outdoor memorial service for the dead boyfriend on a frozen winter field, the participants drawn in lightly, almost as if they're ghosts, the snowy backdrop and blank white balloons (shown caught on bare winter trees) conveying absence and emptiness.

Anyway, Jillian briefly blogged about her feelings but otherwise that's been the extent of the commentary on this. Which makes this letter all the more sweet. Seth and Chester Brown wrote it and a Who's Who of comics cognescenti signed on in support, including Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Dan Clowes, Lynda Barry, Joe Ollman, and hey - me too! Ha ha.

Anyways, read em and weep. (Take that Michaƫlle Jean!)

- B.


November 12, 2008

As individuals involved in the art form of comics and graphic novels, we are glad to see that a graphic novel has made the short-list for this year's Governor General's Literary Awards. SKIM (by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki) is a wonderful book and deserves the attention. But we're troubled by the fact that only one of its co-creators is receiving credit for the creation of the book's text. We understand that an award-category exists for illustration, but to have nominated Jillian in that category would not have rectified the problem. Indeed, that would have highlighted how our medium is misunderstood.

We're guessing that the jury who read SKIM saw it as an illustrated novel. It's not; it's a graphic novel. In illustrated novels, the words carry the burden of telling the story, and the illustrations serve as a form of visual reinforcement. But in graphic novels, the words and pictures BOTH tell the story, and there are often sequences (sometimes whole graphic novels) where the images alone convey the narrative. The text of a graphic novel cannot be separated from its illustrations because the words and the pictures together ARE the text. Try to imagine evaluating SKIM if you couldn't see the drawings. Jillian's contribution to the book goes beyond mere illustration: she was as responsible for telling the story as Mariko was.
In an October 21st article for the CBC website, one of your jurors, Teresa Toten, was interviewed: "Toten praised SKIM for using the graphic novel format to tell a sophisticated story about what life is like for teenaged girls. The work is remarkable in part because of how the words and pictures both contribute to the literary quality, she said." And that is the point of this letter. "[T]he words and pictures both contribute to [SKIM's] literary quality".
A new category does not need to be created to properly address the graphic novel. In fact, it is best to see graphic novels appear in literary awards only when they deserve to compete equally against prose on their literary merit alone.

In writing this letter, we don't mean to slight Mariko. One of the reasons this collaboration works so well is because she understood how to write for this medium. But we feel that as things now stand, Jillian is being slighted. We want both of the enormously talented creators of this book to be honoured together for their achievement.

Chester Brown
(Author of Louis Riel)
(Author of It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken)


Lynda Barry (Author of What It Is)
Peter Birkemoe (Owner of The Beguiling)
Dan Clowes (Author of Ghost World)
David Collier (Author of The Frank Ritza Papers)
Julie Doucet (Author of 365 Days)
Brad Mackay (Director of The Doug Wright Awards for Canadian Cartooning)
Chris Oliveros (Publisher of Drawn and Quarterly)
Joe Ollmann (Author of This Will All End in Tears)
Bryan Lee O'Malley (author of Scott Pilgrim)
Michel Rabagliati (Author of Paul Moves Out)
Art Spiegelman (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus)
Adrian Tomine (Author of Shortcomings)
Chris Ware (Author of Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth)

UPDATE: In a news piece on,
the Canada Council responds to this letter via Melanie Rutledge, head of writing and publishing.

"We'll certainly take the suggestions in the letter under advisement."

"We do take the feedback very seriously. At this point, it is too late for us to make any changes this year: the finalists have been announced. In terms of making the change now — for the 2008 edition of the awards it's a little late in the game to do that."

"But as I said, we take the feedback very seriously. We welcome it. And when we're planning for next year, we'll certainly take it under consideration."

This is interesting, but I'm still curious what the jury members themselves (Michael Kusugak of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Kevin Major of St. John's NFLD. or Teresa Toten of Toronto) think. Sure would be good if there were any journalists out there with a bit of spare time on their hands.....

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