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Eisner Awards: a profile of comics Oscars, courtesy of organiser Jackie Estrada

With today’s announcement of this year’s Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards nominations, now seems to be as good as any to repost an interview I held with organiser/Comic-Con International board member, Jackie Estrada, for my An Englishman In San Diego blog, back in 2016.

Jackie and her team have been responsible for making the Awards the grand event and the centrepiece of comics celebration at SDCC for thirty years – and for this thirtieth year, she will be facing additional challenges in transforming the presentation ceremony into an online affair, in the wake of the cancellation of San Diego Comic-Con 2020 amidst the current global pandemic crisis of COVID-19.

Jackie was very forthcoming with what it takes to put on the Eisners and I hope you enjoy this retrospective interview – and who knows, maybe it’ll encourage you to check out the show yourself when SDCC returns in 2021…

Again, please note this interview was first published on An Englishman In San Diego in May 2016 – I would very much like to repeat my thanks to Jackie Estrada for taking the time to answer our questions and a huge thanks to David Glanzer for officiating the conversation at the time.

AEISD: First up, thank you very much for doing this, Jackie, it’s very much appreciated. For those attendees who don’t know you, who are you and what is your relationship with San Diego Comic-Con / Comic-Con International?

JACKIE ESTRADA: I am an employee of Comic-Con International. I serve as coordinator for most of the Convention’s awards programs, including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Russ Manning Promising Newcomer Award, and the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award. I’m also involved in publications: I edit articles for the Comic-Con and WonderCon Souvenir Books, and I’m the editor of Comic-Con’s onsite 200-page Events Guide. In addition, I serve as chair of the guest committee for both of our events.

AEISD: What is your role in the organisation of the Eisner Awards? How long have you been involved with them?

JACKIE: I’ve been administrator of the awards for 26 years. I handle all aspects, from facilitating the judging process to supervising the voting to working on the gala awards ceremony in San Diego.

AEISD:  When you became the Awards administrator in 1990, who approached who? Were you asked if you were interested in taking them on, or did you actively seek the role?

JACKIE: The first two years of the Eisner Awards (1988 and 1989) were administered by Dave Olbrich (who had previously administered the Jack Kirby Awards with Fantagraphics) through a non-profit organization. Trying to run the awards while carrying on his own career and other commitments proved to be a bit much for Dave to handle. In 1990, Dave, Will Eisner, and Denis Kitchen approached Comic-Con about taking over the awards, since the past ceremonies had been held at the show (albeit as a daytime program) and the awards could come under CCI’s non-profit status. It was Will who suggested my name as possible administrator. At that time I was a contract worker for the Convention, editing publications. Will had known me from having worked with him on material for the Souvenir Book and from my earlier role as a guest coordinator. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. (For more on the history of the awards, you can find info here: http://www.comic-con.org/awards/history)

Jackie Estrada

AEISD: What are your memories of your first year, running the show?

JACKIE: It was so completely different then, it’s difficult to remember. We didn’t have a judging panel; everything was done through mail-in nominating ballots from comics pros, and the final voting was conducted the same way. I was the MC for the awards program and was up on the stage with Will, who greeted every winner and personally handed him or her the plaque (which is the form the award took back in those days). And that included folks like Neil GaimanFrank Miller and Dave Gibbons that first year.

AEISD: On a practical level, what is the time frame of organising the Eisners today? Is it a year-round thing for you? That is to say, when does preparation really start to ramp up for them, in terms of selecting the nomination panel, getting in contact with people, arranging the venue… Are we talking from the moment the lights go out on the ceremony in July, or are we talking more years in advance?

JACKIE: It’s definitely a year-round thing. After the show each year we get feedback from attendees and from our staff about what they liked best about the ceremony and what aspects we might want to do differently the next year. We start thinking about potential judges, and most are contacted and secured by October, in order to give them as long a time as possible to do the reading in preparation for the in-person judging weekend in the spring. There are lots of other things that need to be done behind the scenes beginning early in the new year, such as getting out the call for submissions and conducting the Hall of Fame voting.

Once the judges have met and made their preliminary choices, we still need to notify publishers and nominees and verify eligibility. Other tasks include getting the ballot online (www.eisnervote.com) and publicizing it to qualified voters, contacting presenters, contacting staff to help out, working with the ceremony producer and director, lining up sponsors, getting the trophies made, orchestrating the nominee slide show, preparing cue cards for the presenters, getting table decorations made, and all that sort of thing.

AEISD: The Eisner Awards have always held an impressive place in the comics industry, even when they were the Kirby Awards, but many people who haven’t witnessed the ceremony live before are often struck by how lavish and big the modern production is at the Hilton Bayfront Hotel. How many people are involved in putting such a show together?

JACKIE: At the ceremony, I have a staff of about 20 people plus several volunteers to handle things like checking in and seating VIPs, coordinating presenter logistics, distributing signs and table placards, placing table decorations, handing out programs, and so on. I also have an assistant who works as a liaison with the hotel regarding room setup, food for the VIPs, and setup for the afterparty (with live music) in the Indigo Room’s foyer. In addition, we have staff photographers who operate a photo area as well as taking candid pictures.

Separately, we have a producer, a director, and their staff who coordinate what happens on-stage. They meet ahead of time with all the various presenters and others involved to take them through the paces and time everything, and they work with the A-V folks to handle the music, lighting, voice-over announcements, and other elements that make the ceremony into a real “show.” Plus, various people from other Comic-Con departments are involved with things like security, credentials, filming of interviews, and so on.

AEISD: What have been the personal highlights for you, over the years of your involvement? Have there ever been controversial or funny moments that have stood out for you?

JACKIE: Oh, gosh, there are so many. Every year there are special moments, especially with the Hall Of Fame winners and acceptors, when it is particularly touching To see how much getting the award means to people. Some of the funniest moments have been with presenters. Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant (of RENO 911 fame) have always come up with entertaining material for their intros. One time they brought George Forman grills to give as consolation prizes in the category they were announcing. Another time they commented on the recipients being too sedate in their acceptances, so when they announced Jill Thompson as the winner of the next category, she came bouncing onto the stage and they all bounced around together.

I also recall when Brazilian brothers Gabrial Bá and Fabio Moon gave one of the longest acceptance speeches ever, but their sheer enthusiasm for comics had everyone clapping wildly. Perhaps the best-known incident occurred in 2007 when Jonathan Ross and Neil Gaiman were co-presenters, and Jonathan had Neil turning pink with embarrassment trying to entice him into a big smooch. Harking back to that at the 2013 Eisner ceremony, the Ross-Gaiman kiss involved John Barrowman. Jonathan has been the “closer” for the Eisners for several years now, and he always kills. We have been fortunate to get celebrities to take time out of their busy Comic-Con weekend to come to the Eisners on Friday night when they could be doing a lot of other things. But the Hollywood folks who have participated over the years have all been comics fans, which is great.

AEISD: It’s safe to say that the Awards are very much ‘inside baseball’ – an industry insiders event with, in the main, pros nominating other pros. Is letting the average attendee know about the Eisners a priority for you, or do you recognise that the Awards may be a little too ‘behind the curtain’ for the average attendee?

JACKIE: To me, that would be like saying the Oscars are too “Inside Hollywood” for average movie-goers to want to know about or attend. I always see the Eisner nominations as an opportunity to find out about really good stuff people should be reading. The list of nominees is published in the Comic-Con Souvenir Book, which every attendee receives. I encourage Con-goers to use that as a shopping list and to seek out nominated works and creators at the show. Or if not there, at their local comics shop, book store, or online. And a lot of people tell me they do just that, starting with the initial announcement of the nominee list. But there’s nothing like being at the actual event, where you can see the people who create the comics you love get some recognition for their work. One of my favorite recent acceptance speeches was by Brian K. Vaughan, who had been working in both TV and comics. He said, “I guess I’ve learned that comics are not an equal medium – that we are a vastly superior medium.”

AEISD: Are you often frustrated at how comparatively few attendees at the modern San Diego Comic-Con are aware that the Awards even take place, overshadowed by the other draws at the convention?

JACKIE: We know that Friday night is a busy night during Comic-Con, with all sorts of activities and events competing for attention all over downtown. But for those who are really interested in comics as the centerpiece of the convention, the Eisner Awards are the place to be. And it just takes a Friday badge to get in the door to the attendee seating. The ceremony runs about two and a half hours, because there are so many awards given out (thirty Eisner categories, plus the Manning, Clampett, Finger, and Spirit Retailer awards), but it moves along very briskly. The audience gets a chance to see samples of all the nominated works, and the acceptance speeches are often heartfelt and moving. Many in our industry could be elsewhere on Friday night, but they choose to attend the Eisners because they really want to help celebrate the best that the comics medium has to offer.

AEISD: That impression amongst the average attendee may change, with online services such as Comic-Con HQ presenting the Awards as content on their channel. What are your ambitions for a higher profile making an impact on the Eisners?

JACKIE: I would certainly like for more people to have an opportunity to experience the Eisners, even if vicariously. It’s still up in the air what form the Eisners will take on digital media, but I welcome the additional exposure. We work hard to make improvements on the ceremony every year, and knowing that it could end up in places where people from all over the world will have access year-round, we are only spurred on to make it as entertaining and seamless as possible.

AEISD: Has administrating the Awards proven easier over the years as you settled in to the role? What would you say is the biggest challenge of putting them together?

JACKIE: I wish I could say it’s gotten easier, but that’s just not the case. Sure, there are routine tasks that are pretty much the same every year, but each aspect of the awards seems to get more complicated. For instance, over the years the number of categories has grown as the variety and types of materials done in comics form has expanded. As an example, there are now three kids’ categories where originally there were none, and the international category was split into two. Other recent category additions have been scholarly/academic works and adaptations from other media. And with digital and webcomics you have a whole other dimension to deal with for submissions and judging.

So I guess I’d say the biggest challenge is to try to encompass all of comics in a single awards program so that everything worthy gets included while still trying to keep the process and the ceremony from becoming cumbersome.

Leonard Sultana
Leonard Sultana
Leonard Sultana is a full-time DJ / part-time nerd and is doing his damnedest to swap those around. He is the creator of An Englishman In San Diego, The Convention Collective and a rather nice cocktail involving Dandelion & Burdock.

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