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Inside the Eisner Awards process for Thomas Woodruff: What happened, what went awry, and what could be changed

Thomas Woodruff and the Eisner Awards controversy, from the point-of-view of an Eisner Awards insider

Eisner Awards 2022 winners
Image credit: Popverse

When the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards announced this year's nominees, it gave a bright spotlight to a late 2022 comic called Francis Rothbart! The Tale of a Fastidious Feral and its author, Thomas Woodruff. Francis Rothbart and Woodruff appear in the categories for 'Best Graphic Album - New,' 'Best Painter/Multimedia Artist,' 'Best Lettering,' and 'Best Publication Design,' making Woodruff tied for second-most nominations for this year's awards.

The book, published by Fantagraphics, was called a "grotesque-erotic epic" in an unsigned Publishers Weekly review upon its publication, even then warning it could raise "eyebrows and questions about the boundaries of art publishing." While the initial publishing of Francis Rothbart by Fantagraphics hadn't recieved widespread criticism, the four Eisner Awards nominations certainly did, launching conversation about Woodruff's professional behavior during his tenure as a university leader of a major comics division and as well as concerns about the subject and content of his book.

In the days following the announcement, as a deeper understanding of the book and perspectives revealed by those who worked with Woodruff have come to light, Popverse has been talking with various individuals involved with the Francis Rothbart nominations. On Tuesday, we highlighted the criticism of the book and its author, along with statements from both Fantagraphics and Woodruff. Now, we provide a rare inside look at how this book came to the Eisner Awards judges' attention, how it was nominated, and the general reaction the judges have had following the nomination announcement from the perspective of someone in the proverbial "room where it happened."

Popverse has reached out to the Eisner Awards organiation and its parent company Comic-Con International: San Diego for comment.

Inside the 2023 Eisner Awards judging

Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards
Image credit: Comic-Con International: San Diego

According to a source familiar with this year's Eisner Awards judging process, the 2022 graphic novel Francis Rothbart! The Tale of a Fastidious Feral by Thomas Woodruff was submitted for consideration by its publisher, Fantagraphics (as is customary with the Eisner process over the years). Released to the public in the final days of 2022, the book wasn't widely known - even to the the judges.

"It was such an unknown quantity that it didn't create discussion until the voting itself began," says Popverse's anonymous source. "It made the screened 'shortlist' as a debut comic from someone the judges had not heard of before."

Speaking as a former Eisner judge myself, the screening process is where various categories are assigned to individual judges, who serve as the 'first reader' and narrows down the hundreds (and thousands) of submissions into a more managable selection before deeper review by the judge panel as a whole. When I judged the Eisners in 2019, this screening process didn't preclude or prevent other judges from adding to the screened shortlist.

Who chooses the Eisner judges?

Eisner judges are selected by the Eisner Awards committee, in consultation with its parent organization Comic-Con International: San Diego.

One of the issues raised in the conversation around Woodruff's nominations is the fact that this year's (and many previous years') Eisner judging panel has consisted of all-white judges. Popverse's source commented on this, saying "The issue of it being an all-white panel was raised even before the voting and this controversy arose. The response was, essentially, that the judges were men and women, interfaith, geographically spread out, LGBTQ+, various professions, etc. There was diversity, though it may not have been in all the areas needed."

So what happened when the Eisner judges had a chance to read Francis Rothbart?

Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards

"The purpose of the judging was to sincerely put forward some of the best work submitted for consideration, and to have missed the problematic aspects of the book's narrative has been hugely disappointing," says our source familiar with the situation. (The book has been criticized for potentially racist depictions of characters, as well as scenes of child sexuality.) "The judges, I think, took the book as highly experimental and abstract, not accounting for the more concrete, racial elements to it."

One of this year's judges, Sean Kleefeld, shared some insight earlier this month as to how final judging, which typically includes a multi-day meeting of all the judges at Comic-Con International: San Diego's offices in San Diego, works in general. In that piece ( written before the meeting and the decision on nominations), Kleefeld wrote about the contrasting opinions that could be at play for some more contentious comics.

"I'm particularly curious, from some of our emails, about where our differences come from," he wrote. "A lot of the best material has been praised by everyone, but there have been a handful of books that some judges have really liked that I thought were awful. I expect that some of what I really enjoyed was not well-received by others as well. So it'll be good to hash through all that in person."

So, at the meeting, the judges made their picks as to this year's Eisner Awards. Their nominations were announced on May 17, 2023 - and voting on who among those nominations would be the ultimate winners was subsequently opened to those eligible. Quickly following that announcement, issues surrounding the book and its author were raised on social media, and in articles by former Eisner judge Heidi MacDonald at the Comics Beat, as well as Digital Art, Bleeding Cool, and the multi-time Eisner Award winning comics journalism website Women Write About Comics.

When asked what this year's Eisner judges thought of the new information and points-of-view brought to light about Francis Rothbart! and its author Thomas Woodruff, our source summed it up as "Distress and some recriminations, really."

Could the Eisners rescind Thomas Woodruff's nominations?

Francis Rothbart
Image credit: Fantagraphics

According to our source who has spoken with various players involved in this year's Eisners, it's doubtful.

"While I think it's unlikely anything will change this year, I do hope that this will promote greater transparency with the process and more diversity with the judges," says our source.

While a petition calls for the Eisner judges to reverse course and de-list Thomas Woodruff and his graphic novel as a nominee, as a former Eisner judge, my understanding is that once the nominations are submitted, then the decision on changes is up to the Eisner Awards committee and Comic-Con International: San Diego itself.

The most recent precedent to this current issue would be 2018's Eisner Awards, in which the anthology Love is Love was mistakenly deemed ineligible for awards consideration due to a release date listing error. Once the Eisner Awards organizer was made aware of the error (which was after the nominations had been announced), work happened behind the scenes to add Love is Love to the 'Best Anthology' category.

While none of the Eisner judges have gone on record talking about Woodruff's book and this nomination specifically, our source familiar with the judging process tells us that they think mistakes were made - but that this situation could open a path towards broader improvements to the system.

"Yes, I think the judges made a mistake, but that's bound to happen, regardless of who is at the table," says our source. "That is, the integrity of the awards and the process is still sound; over 90% of the nominations are entirely valid and well-chosen. These four nominations, though, are a shame. A miss. But maybe also an opportunity for the Eisners to revamp its system?"

Read our roundtable interview with the nominees of the 2022 Eisner Awards for comics journalism.