Friday 14 November 2008

Awards process is ‘imperfect’’ and ‘imprecise’ say GG jurists

It’s a few days after a letter of protest from Chester Brown and Seth landed in the email boxes of the Canada Council for the Arts. Unfortunately since then, they haven’t had much of substance to say about the Skim debacle.

The last I heard (via Quill and Quire’s blog) the Canada Council’s Melanie Rutledge—head of Writing and Publishing—had rejected the idea of adding Jillian Tamaki’s name to Skim’s nomination, saying: “The horse has kind of left the barn, unfortunately, and we’re not really in a position to simply stop and re-do things.”

I’m not quite sure what she’s talking about, since no “re-do” is required: just a simple matter of bending the rules a little to add Jillian’s name on the citation alongside her cousin’s, Mariko. Rutledge’s reaction seems kind of pat and toothless, and smacks of the kind of bureaucracy that we have come to expect from faceless government departments not the august, artist-friendly Canada Council. (Their motto being "Supporting Canadian Creativity.")

Her reaction is doubly puzzling when you consider the thoughts of the jury members, who seem to agree that the GG process is flawed and in need of an overhaul.

Kevin Major and Teresa Toten, two-thirds of the jury for Children’s Literature – Text (the category Skim is nominated under), seem to agree that the situation Jillian finds herself in is a symptom of the fact that the GG’s long-standing categories are outdated. Toten, a Toronto-based author, told me this morning that she thinks the process is “imperfect and imprecise” and that the events of this past week have been “a learning opportunity, for me and the Council.”

Admittedly not well-acquainted with comics and graphic novels before she was asked to be a GG judge earlier this year, she stressed that she thought Skim was “a stunning piece of work” and expressed regret that one of it’s creators was feeling snubbed by their decision.

“I get it now,” she added. “I don’t think I got it before, but I get it now.”

As Toten (and others) have pointed out, the GGs operate under a set of categories that seem to have been created without the medium of comics in mind. Skim, thanks to its young-adult orientation, was submitted for consideration in two categories: “Children’s Literature – text” (Mariko Tamaki) and “Children’s Literature – illustration” (Jillian Tamaki).

I’m sure if they had a flux capacitor and a DeLorean handy, the staff in charge of applying for awards at Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press (the book’s publishers) would fly back in time in an instant and undo what I see as the initial, grave miscalculation. By submitting to these outdated categories, they kind of guaranteed that either Mariko or Jillian would be snubbed. Maybe they thought a comic didn’t have a chance anyway, and decided to hedge their bets by pretending that Skim was an illustrated kid’s book?

Anyways, I also talked with Major via email in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Also an author, he was very forthcoming about what he thought was wrong. When asked where he thought the fault lied, he said:

"The book was submitted within the present classification system and guidelines, which the publisher was well aware of. We were asked to consider the word text only, and could really do no more than that in submitting our shortlist. I would say there has been an awareness among juries (past and present) that it is an imperfect system, for picture books as well as graphic novels, since in both cases the two elements (words and images) work in unison. However, that debate has been on-going for years (at least back to the 1970s), long before graphic novels were in the mix. As have other debates about the system, of judging YA [young adult] fiction in the same category as books for 5-year-olds, as an example."

And, a little later on:

“In the case of SKIM, the artwork of many of them conveys parts of the story that the words alone do not. In my opinion the drawings in the best picture books, as those in graphic novels, do not simply illustrate text, but are equal in their contribution to the telling of the story…SKIM is indeed a wonderful book, with two contributors of equal merit.”

While both jury members sympathize with Jillian’s predicament—and acknowledge the arguments made in the open letter—they stopped short of saying her name short be added to the nomination. Considering how much they liked Skim, and the crucial role that Jillian’s art plays in it, not formally acknowledging—even at this late point in the process—seems like losing on a technicality.

Major did however close out his email with this small light of hope:

“No doubt this matter will be raised at the next GG awards meeting of the Council. Maybe it is time to rethink the classification system. If the protest is loud and long against what is in place now, then the Council would have no choice but to rethink it.”

So, speak up comics fans! Blog your heart out or contact the Canada Council now! Vote early, vote often!

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.....

Monday 3 November 2008

At last, the truth can be told

If memory serves, this was one of the possibilities floated out by me and my buddies back in the summer of '77. (courtesy The Onion): "Burned Lower Half Of Mort's Face Revealed In 'Bazooka Joe' Stunner""

"Bazooka Joe has always been about mankind's search for meaning in a world marked by pain," said staff artist Martin Shore, who claimed that the idea for Mort first came to Gelman after he watched entire villages burn to the ground in the Philippines. "Sure, the sight of Mort's charred and blackened jaw may shock some of our readers, but maybe they should be shocked. Maybe it's time they woke up and realized the true, unrelenting nightmare that is our very existence."

Added Shore, "If they don't like it, they can buy another fruit-flavored gum."