It was announced yesterday that Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza” won the Oregon Book Award for Graphic Literature this year. It’s a great work, but honestly, all the nominees deserve recognition. “Footnotes in Gaza” is a serious documentary, as well as a stunning work of art and narrative, but how do you compare it with the other nominees? Each seems to be in its own category. For example, Sarah Oleksyk’s “Ivy” is a young adult reader, telling the story of a teenager who’s struggling to find her identity. Graham Annable’s “Book of Grickle” reminds me of a short story collection, with odd characters finding themselves in odder situations. Aidan Koch’s “The Whale” is more of a “graphic poem” than a “graphic novel.” It captures the melancholy and feelings of a woman after an accident takes the life of someone close to her. Meanwhile, Greg Rucka takes the city of Portland and transforms it into a noir landscape in his mystery thriller “Stumptown.”
Each book deserves to win, but it depends on what the judges were looking for. Out of all the books, “Stumptown” is the one that oozes “Oregon” from each page. “The Whale,” however, could benefit from a boost in distribution – it was only available at Powell’s Books, and there was only one copy left. The artwork in “Ivy” is great, and the work strikes a chord with some people. I’m sure that there are many younger readers who identify with the character and the story, so if the goal is to promote reading, or a newer artist, this would be the obvious choice. The “Book of Grickle” is perhaps the lightest work of all of these, but it’s so much fun that it’s hard to ignore it. And of course, Joe Sacco’s massive work is fully deserving of the honor.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter: how can you compare these works that span genres when the category is grouped by medium? Comic books are a medium, like film, or novels. So when you’re asked to nominate the five “best” comics how do you choose to evaluate “best?” Steve Duin makes a good comment about the “Graphic Literature” category that it’s a biennial award, which casts the net even wider. If anything, the categories should be made narrower, spreading the awards and the spotlight on the various genres of graphic literature that are produced in Oregon.
Speaking of spreading the spotlight, if you really want to see what’s happening right now in graphic literature (aka comic books) in Portland, I’d recommend that you check out the Stumptown Comics Fest. It’s a showcase of graphical narratives from local and national creators that’s a lot of fun, giving both creators and readers a chance to shine.