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Announcing The Beat Comics Industry Person of the Year: Gene Luen Yang

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As is our annual tradition at The Beat we ask participants of our Creator Survey to vote for a Comics Industry Person of the Year – someone who set the tone or made significant contributions creatively or business-wise.  Sometimes the winner is overwhelmingly clear – sometimes it’s a squeaker.

2020 was the latter. Voters’ picks were a wide ranging field, and no one got more than a handful of votes. However, the person with the most votes was clear and for the first time we have a repeat winner. The Comics Industry Person of the Year for 2020 is

 

GENE LUEN YANG

 

Yang won previously in 2016 (along with the March team) – that year his accomplishments included being named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and winning a MacArthur Grant. For 2020, Yang presented two books of wildly different origins but each outstanding: Superman Smashes the Klan was a timely melding of Superman’s legacy and subtext and Yang’s frequent semi-autobiography that addressed how we want to deal with racism…and how we actually deal with it. Dragon Hoops mixed the familiar tale of an underdog sports team with more personal insights. Like all of Yang’s work, they are both multilayered, thoughtful books that reward rereading; and both won Harvey Awards.

Reached for comment Yang told The Beat: “I’m deeply, deeply grateful to be recognized by the comics industry in this way.  2020 was so difficult for so many of us.  Throughout the year, I turned to the comics of my peers for hope, insight, and some much-needed distraction.  The comics community is the best.”

And our voters agreed – all comments solicited and excerpted anonymously.

  • Gene Luen Yang. TWO major graphic novels in one year – that’s amazing. SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, illustrated by Gurihiru, is my favorite graphic novel of the year. Not only is it a great story, it touches on social issues from the past that still plague our country today.
  • Gene Yang for releasing not one, but two, of the best books of the year, Dragon Hoops and Superman Smashes the Klan (with art by the consistently fantastic Gurihiru).
  • He had 2 big successful, award winning and awesome books out in 2020 (DRAGON HOOPS & SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN) as well as his new take on Shang-Chi with Marvel. He also did a clever and fun promo via Instagram for DRAGON HOOPS where he drew himself talking about the book and drew fans asking questions. Fantastic year!
  • Let’s focus on the happy and say Gene Luen Yang. Between Dragon Hoops, a hell of an achievement, and Superman Smashes the Klan, he’s somehow operating from the past, dominating the present, and representing the future at the same time. Plus: GREAT COMICS.

While Yang was the winner, many, many others made an impact in 2020, and here they are:

THE VETERANS

In a year when America finally began to confront its racial biases, two comics veterans produced work that helped shine a light on where we needed to go.

Jerry Craft reached a new height for comics when his book New Kid won the Newbery Award – the first win ever for a graphic novel. An honest story about how a Black student adapting to a new school without a lot of diversity, it was a tale that resonated with all readers.

  • Jerry Craft for his New Kid, the first graphic novel to win the Newbery (and the Coretta Scott King award and the Kirkus Award)
  • Jerry Craft for breaking a literary barrier for comics and telling a story that needed to be told, with charm and wisdom. He’s been making comics for a while and no one deserved this honor more than him.

Keith Knight also was recognized for not only his always biting comics, but the success of the Hulu series Woke, another all too timely story based on Knight’s experiences as a Black man in America.

  • Keith Knight, for the successful debut of his Hulu show, Woke, and always making great comics.
  • Keith Knight, because Woke is a TV show that feels true to his comics but also very much its own thing, and Knight’s work is so good be still under-appreciated
  • Keith Knight, who’s done excellent editorial work in the Late Trump Era and crossed over to mass media with “Woke,” the best depiction of a cartoonist’s life ever committed to film/tape/electrons.

 

THE WHISTLEBLOWERS

Tess Fowler

2020 was also a painful reckoning with the abusers who made our community toxic, and many voters singled out the brave survivors who came forward to help others.

  • Aviva Mai and many people like her. She exposed an open secret that a majority of the industry was too scared to confront at the possible expense of her career.
  • Tess Fowler. In a year we have all had challenges, She has had more than most (dealing with breast cancer ). Tess’s ( often brutal ) honesty, openness, and struggles with herself physically and mentally, which she has shared online as cartoons, self portraits, and mini comics show shows how we can use the art of Graphic storytelling to deal with life, and also to share with others the very real struggles. I am in awe of her energy in the face of chemo and other treatments. As someone who has been a carer for an ill partner, I know how debilitating it can be. Tess’s perseverance and tenacity in the face of these challenges is inspiring. I wish her better health, a verrrry long life, and many beautiful stories to come. She is a true hero. This is what Comics should be about.
  • Taki Soma and Shawna Gore, for bravely coming forward with detailed accounts of their personal trauma at the hands of powerful men in the comics world and demanding change in a way that could not be ignored. They are both amazing women who deserve acknowledgments not just for their professional contributions to comics but for putting their own well-being on the line to make the industry safer and more inclusive for everyone.

 

THE EDITORS

A couple of popular editors received mention for their achievements:

  • Long live Marie Javins (cue Survivor song)
  • Marie Javins for becoming the first female EiC at a big two comics publisher
  • Nachie Marsham. Nachie was undervalued at Disney for too long, and it’s exciting to see him exercising his considerable talents at the helm of IDW – a wonderful, if famously mismanaged, company with a phenomenal stable of creatives and a terrific staff.

 

THE CREATORS

 

Other writers and cartoonists who made a mark in 2020:

  • Ryan Estrada. I am amazed that after decades of plugging away — since he was carrying a briefcase in elementary school, the better to project the image of a truly professional cartoonist — Ryan Estrada is sudden an overnight success. BANNED BOOK CLUB (with his wife, Kim Hyun Sook, and artist Ko Hyung-Ju) was exactly the story of fighting an authoritarian regime we needed in 2020, and every time you turned around it was being featured someplace else. He’s got a lot of pitches that couldn’t get the time of day over the years that are suddenly in the pipeline, and he’s going to be looking at 2020 as the year everything started in high gear.
  • James Tynion IV stepped out from Scott Snyder’s shadow and showed that he’s a powerhouse with top-selling work-for-hire and creator-owned titles hitting almost every month. He proved he can hold his own with some of our best and brightest.
  • James Tynion IV, for being elevated from caretaker writer of Batman to the head of the line’s creative direction, and for launching the best new comic of 2020, Department of Truth.
  • Simon Hanselmann blew me away with his pandemic webcomic seemingly written in real time. That and Alex Graham’s “Dog Biscuits”, also a pandemic themed webcomic), have given me something engaging to look forward to each day.
  • Hannah Berry – UK Comics Laureate.
  • Robert Kirkman. He had a bit of a low-key year as far as his broader media but when you did hear his name, it was because he was offering comic shops surprise releases, exclusive material, and the kinds of print-only books, often at his expense and not theirs, that stores really needed to help prop them up during such an exhaustively trying year. All done without much chest-beating or fanfare, which is another rarity in this business.

 

And finally last year’s winner was mentioned again for 2020 as well:

  • I think it still has to be Dav Pilkey. You can’t deny his importance to the industry, especially in a year that needed to lean on tent poles to get to the other end.

 

PANDEMIC HEROES

 

In case you didn’t notice there was a pandemic going on, and the people and things that helped us deal with it made a huge impact. (On the voting sheet we suggest not picking an entity, but this year it was certainly appropriate.)

  • I’ve got to go with The Comic Shop Owner. These guys have been relentless in keeping their businesses open, maintaining Tuesday/Wednesday traffic, and in general getting entertainment out to their customers. I don’t know how you’re doing it, but thank you.
  • Jim Lee for his art auctions benefiting comics retailers.
  • Kickstarter – It was a lifeline this year for a lot of creators on all levels, from self-publishers to people like Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire. A lot of work that would otherwise have to have been shelved made it out thanks to the platform.
  • OK, I know it’s semi-against the rules, but the comics industry “person” of the year is Zoom. Zoom is what kept cons, book tours, library talks, etc. (albeit in significantly altered form) going during the pandemic. It’s also what’s allowed so many of us in the comics community to stay in touch with each other. It’s a pale substitute for the irl conventions and interactions that are such a huge part of what makes the comics community so great… but it was *something*.

 

  • Steve Geppi. When the shutdown happened – and when DC piled on by making its moves – he came out of semi-retirement, making the rounds on podcasts and banging the drum for the restart. The complete distribution shutdown was by no means a soft landing, and it was clear nobody had ever gamed out such a thing – but the gradual industry relaunch does seem to have succeeded, and Diamond and its capabilities have been essential to it.
  • Who had the most impact on comics and set the pace in 2020? I mean, Steve Geppi. But the industry persons of the year, to me, are those embattled retailers who were able to hold on during the lockdown economy, think of innovative ways to stay successful, and keep their doors open for business.

 

THE STUDIO

Some of the players in the recent DC drama were mentioned:

  • John T. Stankey – He is the current CEO of AT&T who has screwed everything up with Warner Media. Nuff said
  • Pam Lifford, because she’s the “face” of the DC move and not one thing other this year will prove to be more impactful than that.
  • The unnamed exec who decided DC should turn its collective back to the direct market in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic.

 

HALL OF FAME

 

  • Annie Koyama for the wonderful charitable work done with Koyama Press Provides.
  • Gina Gagliano along with Whitney Leopard and Patrick Crotty for debuting Random House Graphic, which produced amazing books this year.

 

MOVERS AND SHAKERS

 

As we mentioned, a lot of people got a single vote – A LOT – but taken together they paint a picture of the year we just survived.

  • Al Ewing
  • Alison Sampson!
  • Austin English – really took the reins of his online store and pushed fascinating work. Picked up the slack in the absence/decline of the brick and mortar comics retail market
  • Brian Pulido. He has built a tremendous business with crowdfunding, mainly Kickstarter, and shown that you can be highly successful by building your fanbase and publishing outside the traditional distribution model. Plus, he’s happy to share what he’s learned and boost others. He’s been a inspiration to me.
  • Christina & Cameron Merkler – for taking risks where no one else would. Comics is an industry steep in nostalgia with a myriad of unchanging business practices. Having Lunar step up and at least try to do something different is important to the continued health of our business.
  • Derf. Kent State is the book of the year, and he deserves every accolade he can get for it.
  • Jeff Trexler. Taking on the thankless and disgraced job of temporary executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Jeff has quietly reset that organization’s entire working paradigm to become useful to working cartoonists on a daily basis, not just for those encountering free speech issues. Best of all, he’s doing it on a deliberately limited tenure
  • Jul’ Maroh for speaking openly about their transition to an European public
  • Chip Zdarsky and Donny Cates seem to remain consistently at the top of their games and industry. Both just put out hit after hit – good dudes, doing good work and they deserve all the accolades they’re getting.
  • Liana Kangas. She has curated one of the most loyal fan bases that she supports in equal measure of what they do for her. She expanded her cover work, spectacularly funded 2 Kickstarters, worked with everyone in the industry and announced drawing Star Wars books next year! This. Girl. Is on FIRE!!
  • Literary agent Judy Hansen, whose clients such as Raina Telgemeier, Jerry Craft, Gene Yang, Jen Wang. Kazu Kibuishi and others raised the graphic novel format to an entirely new level.
  • Rob Salkowitz of Forbes. At a time when everyone in the industry is being forced to spend all our energy on day-to-day, moment-to-moment crises just to stay afloat, Salkowitz has been invaluable for providing an antidote to myopia with reporting that helps us all see how we fit into the big picture.
  • Sanford Greene. BITTER ROOT was a force this year, winning Best Series at the Eisners and the Ringos, and Sanford picking up the Best Artist Ringo. Obviously, the whole team deserves recognition and the series so strongly resonated in a year where social injustice in America was so widely exposed. I have no doubt that over time both the series and Sanford’s work on it will go down in comics as one of the seminal works of the 21st century.
  • Simone Di Meo, with his work on “We Only Find Them When They’re Dead”. He’s giving such a new and unique spin to comic art, that I believe is incredibly inspiring and welcome! Something new, a clear mix of influences that really stands out in the current industry.
  • Steve Lieber, for being one of the most beloved and supportive dudes in comics, and for his excellent run on Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.
  • The Comics Kayfabe boys: Jim Rugg and Ed Piskor. Totally changed my customer base and served as the introduction for a large number of people of what comic’s history and ‘canon’ was and is. It also served as a much needed corrective to that narrative. It put the fan back in the driver’s seat in a meaningful way that I think fell away in many ways, with the loss of fan and review sites and databases; the consolidation of much of that sort of information on the likes of fandom.com and wikipedia; and the increasing corporate manipulation of that narrative.
  • Travis McIntire – EIC- Source Point Press
  • Trung Le Capecchi-Nguyen (aka Trungles)
  • Zack Snyder –for getting an extra $70 million for making a movie that was already made.

And there you go! 2020 may have been the Hell Year, but these are the people that helped us survive it. Onwards to the adventure of 2021!

PREVIOUS PERSON OF THE YEAR WINNERS:

2019: Dav Pilkey and Tom Spurgeon
2018: Stan Lee and Olivia Jaimes
2017: Emil Ferris
2016: Gene Luen Yang and the March Trilogy Team
2015: Noelle Stevenson

2014: Raina Telgemeier
2013: Kim Thompson
2012: Eric Stephenson
2011: Kate Beaton/Jim Lee & Dan DiDio
2010: Robert Kirkman

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