Lifetime Achievements

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Awards season is upon us, and two of my favorite artists were honored in the past week with Lifetime Achievement awards. We’ll skip over how old it makes me feel to hear that creators who have been cool and hip in my lifetime also being honored for their lifetime achievements and instead celebrate two worthy artists: Katsuhiro Otomo and Bill Watterson.

Otomo was honored with the Winsor McKay Award for lifetime achievement in animation at the Annie Awards. Otomo’s contribution to animation is undeniable–Akira introduced the world to Japan’s marvelous animation tradition like no other. If you haven’t seen it recently, I highly recommend revisiting the film. Newer versions have better dub voice acting (if that’s your thing) and subtitles, the sound has been remastered, and new, clearer prints have been made from the original film. Even without the updating tweaks, though, over 25 years from its debut the film’s animation remains absolutely stunning. It’s in the little things: notice Kaneda’s undershirt waving in response to an explosion, each of the hand painted windows on the building in the background. More than anything, Akira is a testament to the power and capability of hand-drawn animation. Few computer-generated films today look anywhere near as good as Akira does.

Watterson’s award is a little more surprising. Not because he won an award–I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love Calvin and Hobbes–but where. Watterson won the Angoulême Grand Prix for lifetime achievement in comics. For those who don’t know, the Angoulême International Comics Festival is France’s biggest comics festival, and its Grand Prix is possibly the most prestigious award in international comics…on par with, and quite possibly even more prestigious (due to its international reach) than the Eisner. Watterson is only the second American to win a Grand Prix–the first was Art Spiegelman (and he won just two years ago).

Again, Watterson’s excellence as a cartoonist, humorist, and visual storyteller means he deserves just about every award we can throw at him. However, the Angoulême has always favored the European tradition, and generally snubbed American comics. The American comics industry can’t complain too much about its being ignored by Europe–it generally ignores Europe right back. However, the tension seems to come down to a European belief that American comics tend to be childish, formally boring (if not primitive), self-centered, and uninteresting and an American belief that European comics are too mature in content, too pretentious, and too experimental to be truly viable in the American market. (Please note, I am not condoning these views; this is just the stereotype). I think those of us who study comics would rather defend against accusations of being too smart than being too dumb. The market for experimental and independent comics in the US has grown significantly in the past ten years; European artists like David B., Marjane Satrapi, and Jason are popular these days. As such, the European comics elites’ celebration of Watterson could point to an increasing cooperation between American and European markets, one that is only good for comics readers and scholars around the world.

Secondly, comics scholars tend to ignore comic strips in lieu of longer form graphic narrative. Certainly a few very influential artists like Winsor McKay, George Herriman, and Charles Schulz have the academy’s respect. But take a moment to consider the case of Alison Bechdel–she had been working for decades, gaining a huge readership through her strip Dykes to Watch Out For, but she didn’t really become a name in most comics scholarship until she published her memoir Fun Home. Watterson has often been floated as a name worthy of sitting beside the greats, but it’s important to remember he’s not that long ago. His strips were printed in newspapers in most of our lifetimes. Watterson’s award is a reminder to us to remember the breadth of the comics form and not ignore the “gag strips” because we think they’re a lesser form of art.

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