The Eisner Awards, arguably the most prestigious in the comics industry, will be presented July 25 during Comic-Con International. Among the assortment of awards given to artists, writers and colorists, there's an odd little thing that's a relative newcomer: the Best Digital Comic Award. Here's the criteria: "The best digital comic category is open to any new, professionally produced long-form original comics work posted online in 2012." They have to have a unique domain name, and they have to be "online-exclusive for a significant period" before being available in print.
Rather odd, considering that many of this year's nominees barely qualify under those parameters. A "long-form comic" suggests an extended, dramatic story. The Oatmeal doesn't really qualify (unless you consider the bid for a Tesla museum to be a real-life epic). High Crimes technically has a domain name, but it directs you to comiXology for digital download. It's all part of the challenge in determining what, exactly, a "digital comic" is. Looking at previous nominees, there are several that don't fit neatly within the rules.
Comic book awards. You can't live with them, you can't live without them. On the one hand, there are several challenges to clear. Who's worthy of nomination? If it's "Best Digital Comic," what are you awarding it for -- the way it takes advantage of its online environment, or the content? Generally, it's the content, but if that's the case, shouldn't it be competing in the existing comic categories rather than be banished to the sidelines? (Several webcomics, including The Adventures of Superhero Girl, have been in contention in other categories ... but only after their digital content has been converted in the traditional currency of ink and pressed wood pulp, as God intended.)
And, most importantly, is it worth it to even hand out these awards when only those few who follow the process barely remember who won the previous year? Can any of you even name the 2012 Reuben Award winner for Online Long Form comic?*
On the other hand, you definitely want to give worthy creators recognition for the fine work they've done. There are thousands of webcomics out there, and most of them will be immediately forgotten. Winning an award may not guarantee remembrance, but at least there will be a record that, once upon a time, it existed, and someone out there thought it held value.
For a while, webcomics had a somewhat-unified award in the Web Cartoonist's Choice Awards. It was hosted on Keenspot back when that was a thing, and it ran from 2001 to 2008. The awards were a casual affair. No one physically met, and there were no trophies to put on your display case. The "ceremonies" were handled online, and at one point were cheekily visualized by fellow webcomic artists. It was also important. I'm not sure if this is the case still, but winning the WCCA was one of the things that would merit an entry on Wikipedia.
Webcomics have since been represented in other awards ceremonies. The venerable National Cartoonists Society started an On-Line Comic Strip category in 2011, then took the uncharacteristically progressive step in splitting the award into Short-Form and Long-Form categories in 2012. The Harvey Awards have had an Best Online Comics Work since 2006. In Canada, the Joe Shuster Award has recognized the Outstanding Webcomic Creator/Creative Team, since 2007.
Taken with the Eisner's Best Digital Comic Award (established in 2005), you more or less get a pretty concise history of the history of webcomics. You begin with PvP, Perry Bible Fellowship,and Least I Could Do, which blew past the limitations of newspaper comics with bawdier humor. Later, established creators like Carla Speed McNeil and Cameron Stewart start experimenting in a form that had already been trailblazed. And now digital comics platforms like comXology have gained wider acceptance as comics are increasingly being downloaded to readers.
It's breathtaking to follow, even if the names of the winners tend to escape you.
* - It was the Untold Tales of Bigfoot, by Vince Dorse.