Announcing the 2023 Comics Industry Person of the Year: Sloane Leong

These are the people who made a difference

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In 2023 the comics industry faced a lot of hard truths and put a name to them. The Beat has been naming a Comics Industry Person of the Year since 2010, and usually it’s a semi-clear cut selection. The time out, people had many different choices, but if one theme stood out in all the thoughts about the industry, it’s how to make things better for working cartoonists. The need to make it a more equitable place, that values the health and safety of its workers, was foremost in many people’s minds. 

With that in mind, we’re announcing the 2023 Comics Industry person of the year is Sloane Leong. An acclaimed cartoonist for books such as Prism Stalker and A Map to the Sun, in 2023 Leong made news for co-founding Cartoonist Coopertive, a “a member-driven organization working to improve and protect the labor rights of comic industry workers worldwide.” Springing up in the aftermath of the #ComicsBrokeMe movement – and ongoing calls for labor organization at many levels of the industry – Cartoonist Coop became a leading example of how creators can make things better. The 700 member group is working together to give members “career development resources, creative feedback and assistance, promotional campaigns for members’ comics, exclusive discounted benefits, and more.” 

In a statement, Leong told The Beat: “Wow, thank you so much to everyone who thought of me, this is such a surprise! I’m so honored to be recognized by the comics industry at large. Besides the 2nd installment in my scifi series Prism Stalker coming out through Dark Horse this summer, the other big highlight of 2023 was launching the Cartoonist Cooperative with my co-founders Zach Hazard Vaupen, Nero Villagallos O’Reilly, Reimena Yee, Joan Zahra Dark, and Aaron Losty. I adore this medium both as an artist and reader and it’s important to me that we nurture the artform by sharing educational and financial resources, as well as community to cultivate it. We also need to protect comics workers by fighting for livable pay rates and fair contracts. I want artists everywhere to flourish creatively without having to sacrifice their health to do it. It’s a daunting goal but with over 700 members who’ve joined to create comics and fight in solidarity with each other, I’d say we’re making strides towards reaching it. Just like our union siblings have done at the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, together we can demand change and transform our industry for the better!”

Obviously this is just the beginning of action to make the industry a better place, but given  the medium’s long term emphasis on independent creators, it seems a natural way to start things off. After nearly 50 years of trying stop-and-start labor movements, somehow, this feels different. Labor organizing is everywhere, and the comics industry has never been in a better atmosphere to make meaningful change. And our voters agreed:

  • Sloane Leong for getting the cartoonist co-op off the ground and organizing it.
  • Sloane Leong was the driving force behind founding the Cartoonist Co-op. This is a young organization which is still finding its legs, but I’ve already seen lots of young cartoonists obtain a better understanding of the medium and market that they’re working in, just by participating in discussions on the Co-op’s discord server and forum. It’s essential that creators who have been through the machine a couple times help their younger counterparts avoid the same traps.
  • The co-founders of Creators Cooperative for making a step forward toward change in the industry 

THE ACTIVISTS

Leong wasn’t the only activist to get a mention. Last year’s co-winner Maia Kobabe, still the victim of book bannings across the country, was noted several times, as was the founder of the #ComicsBrokeMe movement, Shivana Sookdeo, and the person who sadly inspired it.  

 

  • Maia Kobabe unjustly became the face of banned books when Gender Queer became a frequent target of the alt right. Ey have handled this unfortunate title with incredible pose and bravery. I wish ey didn’t have to be, but ey are inspiring.
  • Shivana Sookdeo — The person who started the #comicsbrokeme hashtag earlier this year and also helped to get the new Comics Advocacy Group off the ground as their Creative Director. She’s a major force for good in comics as an advocate for working artists, and deserves more recognition.
  • Ian McGinty – his passing forced painful discussions about how artists are exploited by their employers, and demonstrated just how far the comics industry is from being humane and fair – and getting even further from that every day.

 Publisher of the Year

As noted in the survey, change is needed on a grassroots level, but the industry also needs innovative business ideas to move forward. DSTLRY, the new publishing company founded by David Steinberger and Chip Mosher was mentioned many times as a company that was making a splash, and with their innovative – and sometimes controversial –  print/digital/collectible model they are truly trying new things. 

  • Chip Mosher, Chip has spent years building goodwill in Comics and really looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do with this new company.
  • David Steinberger/Chip Mosher, DSTLRY – strong creative and commercial debut for a company with big plans, an attractive business model, and a solid creator lineup. If traditional comics publishing has a future, it looks like this.

And the in the Rising Star division:

  • Avi Ehrlich, publisher of Silver Sprocket. They’re the engine behind the team that has built up an entirely new audience of comics readers, most of them young adults, with a wide variety of well-designed books. Their focus on queer and punk audiences (and their intersection) along with ethical publishing practices and ambitions to grow audiences for everyone make Avi one of the indispensable, inspiring figures in comics. 

The Legends

Bill Griffith was noted by a few people as having a career year with Three Rocks, his Ernie Bushmiller graphic bio.

  • Bill Griffith, because he is one of the last of his era and he put out such major peak level works in 2023.

Other legends – including several previous Person of the Year winners- were mentioned: 

  • Annie Koyama – she has always contributed greatly to the comics industry as a publisher, and she now continues to contribute (literally) as a philanthropist in support of individual artists through grants.
  • Bill Watterson. I’m not sure if his new book with John Kascht is technically comics, but it’s great and goes to show how much outsized impact Watterson’s career has had on the comics industry
  • Calvin Reid – who claims he’s retired this year, but remains essential to the industry. He’s the comics person of the decade+ but let’s give it up this year.
  • Cliff Biggers, the co-founder of Comic Shop News and owner of Dr. No’s Comics in Georgia. Sweet guy, great writer, hopeless optimist and tireless promoter of the industry.
  • Daniel Clowes: He was already one of our medium’s foremost practitioners and someone who helped usher in the graphic novel as a legitimate literary medium, but with MONICA set the bar even higher in reminding us just what a powerful storytelling medium and artform comics can be, in and of itself.
  • Gene Luen Yang: Even w/ the awesome AMERICAN BORN CHINESE TV show keeping him busy, he still stayed very prolific with his comic book work. Monkey Prince, Shang-Chi, The Books of Clash series, upcoming Lunar New Year Love Story & more.
  • Gene Yang and Bryan Lee O’Malley for their graphic novels making it to streaming series aired in 2023
  • Robert Kirkman for landing the Hasbro licenses, I suppose. Although that just made me think back to the Image Expo a decade or so ago when Eric Stephenson decried licensed books as not being “real comics.” Laughable at the time and all the more ridiculous now.

 Creators of the Year

If we were going to pick creators of the years, it’s the inevitable James Tynion IV who continues to lead the way with best selling books (and his dissection of his method and industry trends in an ongoing dialog with SKTCHD helped give voice to them). But Dan Santat, the first solo cartoonist to win a National Book Award for his YA graphic novel A First Time for Eveyrthing, also ranked high. And Rachel Smythe, whose groundbreaking Lore Olympus helped launch an entire imprint, was also on voter’s minds. 

  • James Tynion IV – relentlessly supportive, changing the game for folks to tell independent stories, supporting creators making them. Phenomenal human.
  • James Tynion IV continues to churn out hit after hit. No one else working in the creator-owned space navigates the infrastructure of a traditional publisher like Tynion does. He knows how to work with a publisher to market his books to both fans and retailers in a way that has them all lining up for more. His conversations with David Harper have been particularly insightful. Along those lines, I’d also nominate David himself for the work he’s done this year and conversations he’s had with retailers… and Morgan Perry who I think is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the industry. Where she ends up next year after her surprise departure from Skybound is intriguing.
  • Rachel Smythe (continues to kick ass and gain more readers)
  • Dan Santat! His phenomenal graphic novel ‘A First Time for Everything’ is the first comic to win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Others who made a difference:

 

  • Brian K Vaughn & Fiona Staples for the work and strategy on Saga. Proving that it is possible to create a high quality comic, on a schedule that allows for sanity and to be part of a family. They are providing a model for how other creators can combine career and family.
  • I think I’m gonna pick Mari Naomi for their fiercely visionary, convention-destroying I THOUGHT YOU LOVED ME, which was so refreshingly libertine from a narrative standpoint.
  • I nominate Mike Curato, the author of FLAMER and many wonderful picture books. Mike has faced some of the most intense book challenges in the country for his memoir, and has constantly spoken up against censorship, especially the censorship of queer POC stories. Mike gave interviews with PEN America, Geeks OUT, The National Catholic Reporter, Boston Globe, Unite Against Book Bans, Brooklyn Public Library’s Borrowed and Banned Podcast and he was featured in a Harper’s Bazaar article on book bans! He also just released the new picture book “If I Were A Fish” in December 2023.
  • Rina Ayuyang killed it this year with The Man in the McIntosh Suit, which was such a fun and surprising and beautifully illustrated book.
  • Ryan Estrada, for his tireless work combatting school and library censorship
  • Sarah Myer, creator of Monstrous: A Transracial Adoption Story. Their beautifully illustrated graphic nonfiction vividly showed their experiences as a Korean orphan adopted into a White family living in rural Maryland. This in one of my absolutely favorite books of 2023. I’m hoping Sarah will continue to create even more wonderful stories for us all to read.
  • Thien Pham and Briana Loewinsohn. Their books FAMILY STYLE and EPHEMERA were my two favorite graphic memoirs of the year, and two of the best ever.
  • Tom King. Creatively, a great year for him, both at DC and with his indie productions.
  • Taylor Swift! Ha ha…no, I’ll go with Tom Taylor, who really had one heck of a year.
  • Zoe Thorogood. She marks a generational shift in where comics’ head is at, and is a figurehead for new people (and everyone else) to follow with their work, their thoughtfulness and their bravery. GO Zoe.

 

The Foundations

As mentioned above, this was a very, very diverse year for Person of the Year voting. So many people were mentioned who support the industry in various ways. Creators who podcast. A studio exec who promotes comics. Marketers, retailers, authors….here’s a snapshot of people who helped change comics in 2023.  

  • A two-fer—Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg of the Cartoonist Kayfabe YouTube Channel. I discovered their channel during the pandemic and have been impressed by the depth of their knowledge and appreciation for comics history and a wide variety of comics work. They’re always clear eyed about the industry, but are also effective and enthusiastic comics boosters as well. As an indie creator myself, I also admire and envy how they’ve hustled and leveraged the success of their YouTube show to reach a wide audience and to promote themselves and their comics (and those of others)—while putting in the hard work as well at the drawing board.
  • Allison Pond, Mad Cave VP of Marketing) 
  • Bryce Gold, Comics @ Kickstarter/DSTLRY)
  • Drew Zucker 
  • Eric Tapper, VP of GlobalComix), 
  • Gina Gagliano. She has had such an incredible career in comics publishing, at First Second and at RHGraphic, and co-hosted the fascinating podcast called “Graphic Novel TK” as well as the monthly meetups in New York called “Women in Comics Publishing.” And now she is operating more under the radar, but is sharing her wealth of knowledge and insight with me and other small indie publishers as a freelance publicity manager.
  • Heather Antos. I just think she’s doing an incredible job invigorating life into licensed comics such as Star Trek with some wonderfully talented creators.
  • I’ll have to say James Gunn, between his continuing moves at DC and the well-earned success of GUARDIANS Vol. 3.
  • Jenn Haines of ComicsPRO has to be recognized for her incredible perseverance with publishers, distributors and retailers, and has also built an incredible business in The Dragon in Guelph Ontario.
  • Karen Green, Columbia University Librarian
  • Maggie Tokuda-Hall
  • My pick is Zainab Akhtar. 2023’s ShortBox Comics Fair was a triumph, Cuckoo was fantastic, and even though the official-ish end of ShortBox is nigh (or here?), I hope we get much, much more from Zainab going forward. Chris Benamati & Tim Stolinski (Band of Bards
  • Oriana Leckert. There’s no question that Kickstarter as a platform, and more broadly the direct-to-consumer/crowdfunding space, has exploded in the last few years. As Head of Publishing at Kickstarter, Oriana’s support and enthusiasm for comic books as a category has been a big part of that growth.

And finally, the ones we’re all thinking about:

  • The modern comic book retailer.

That wraps up this year’s creator’s survey. Thanks again to everyone who voted, and congratulations to the people who made this industry a better place. 

 

PREVIOUS WINNERS: 

2022: Maia Kobabe and Kate Beaton

2021: Judy Hansen

2020: Gene Luen Yang

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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