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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today in San Diego, the largest comic book and popular arts convention in the world kicked off. Comic-Con International includes lofty sounding seminars and sneak previews of films such as "Beowulf" and "Stardust." And for the 19th year, Comic-Con hosts the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, named in honor of the pioneering comic book artist, writer and entrepreneur. The awards are sometimes called the Oscars of the comic industry.

Beth Accomando of member station KPBS reports on the awards and the man who continues to inspire them.

Unidentified Woman: The nominees for Best Penciller/Inker are...

BETH ACCOMANDO: It may not be the Oscars, but a penciller/inker is as important to comics as a cinematographer is to film. And winning an Eisner can give a comic book or graphic novel lasting value, says Robin Brenner. She's a Massachusetts librarian, serving on this year's Eisner judging panel.

ROBIN BRENNER: For a lot of librarians, especially if they're unfamiliar with the format and how to read it, that's something that they can look at and go, that's been recognized. That's something I can put in my library and it'll stand up to what people are expecting, they don't know what they want to read.

ACCOMANDO: One of the most popular past Eisner winners is Neil Gaiman. He's won 14 Eisner awards for such internally acclaimed works as "Sandman" and "Signal to Noise."

NEIL GAIMAN: One of the things that's most interesting about the Eisner is that the nominees are picked by a judging panel.

ACCOMANDO: Five judges are selected from different professions associated with comics - writers, retailers, librarians or media critics among others. They're picked by Jackie Estrada, the person Will Eisner selected to take over administering the awards in 1990.

JACKIE ESTRADA: The main criteria is not being beholden to anybody in the industry, you know, being an independent thinker. And I tell them ahead of time, look, you're going to have to read a lot.

SIEGEL: I think some people are still reading and it's not just right now.

JEFF VANDERMEER: Yeah, there's still some stuff that I haven't had the chance to either look at again. I mean...

ACCOMANDO: Judges must agree on five nominees in each of 28 categories, from lettering to writing to online digital comics.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

ACCOMANDO: This year, they debated in a room at the San Diego Westgate Hotel.

BRENNER: You can't just pick up an issue and you know what's going on.

SIEGEL: I should probably just let us sink or swim like a (unintelligible), yeah.

VANDERMEER: Sink or swim, okay. Yeah.

ACCOMANDO: The experience is a bit surreal, says fantasy writer Jeff Vandermeer.

VANDERMEER: We have a padlock on the door. We're basically living inside what looks like kind of a faux Sun King Versailles room, you know. The walls look like they may be even made of white chocolate and you can just take a bite of them. And then you have these side tables along two of the four walls that are just piled high with comics in different categories.

ACCOMANDO: Thousands of them. Publishers receive a call for entry and judges like Whitney Matheson must pare down the piles of books. Matheson is USA Today's pop culture blogger.

WHITNEY MATHESON: It's pretty intense. It's kind of like college because it - yeah, it is really like intense cram session. But there's no way that I'm going to complain about spending a weekend reading comic books nonstop. It's definitely the most fun and the hardest I've worked all year long.

ACCOMANDO: As hard as they debated such categories as Best Coloring and Best Cover Artist, comics and graphic novels ultimately come down to story. As Frank Miller said when he picked up an Eisner last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WILL EISNER COMIC INDUSTRY AWARDS")

FRANK MILLER: Only one comment here, what Will said again and again was that the main thing we had to conquer was the question of content. The story is the thing. He proved it again and again and we have to learn from that.

ACCOMANDO: Miller, who wrote the graphic novels that inspired the films "Sin City" and "300," is currently adapting Eisner's "The Spirit" to the big screen. "The Spirit" was a regular guy who was thought dead and lived under his own tomb while fighting crime in a gritty urban setting.

Again, Neil Gaiman.

GAIMAN: Will believed that there was something very real and very new and very unique in creating comics. And I think that's why naming the awards after him was so incredibly appropriate. It paid tribute first to him, and second, to the whole lifespan of American comics.

ACCOMANDO: A lifespan that Eisner influenced. "The Spirit," which debut in 1940, appeared as a comic book insert in Sunday papers. Eisner not only created it, but he maintained ownership of the character, something that was unheard of at that time. In 1978, he helped define the graphic novel and turned it into a book for adults with a contract with God. The book told four stories linked by common themes of life, death and faith within the immigrant community of a Bronx tenement.

GAIMAN: Will Eisner was the Orson Welles of early comics. He was the person who started to think completely outside the box. Eisner was one of those creators who made you want to create.

ACCOMANDO: This will be the third year without Will Eisner sitting in his big chair on stage. He handed out the awards himself every year until his death in 2005.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando in San Diego.

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