This piece of writing is the second of two concerned with the UK comic scene. The first reflected on the need to be reflexive where questions of diversity are raised; this piece reflects on the challenges facing the British Comics Awards. I share these thoughts in the spirit of intervention and discussion, not in the spirit of antagonism. That said, I don’t expect everyone will agree with what I have to say.
In the first of these two posts, I reflected on the fallout from a recent exchange between British comic artists about the issue of gender representation in the shortlist of the inaugural British Comics Awards (BCAs), which included an article on the New Statesman blog by Laura Sneddon. I argued that although problematic, the article was important because it asked us to think carefully about how we react to accusations of prejudice. Being aware of our position and privileges is key to recognising when and where others might feel marginalised.
Reflexivity of this kind, looking carefully at ourselves to identify what good and what harm we do to others around us should be a key ethical principal for anyone, including organisations that have the difficult task of representing a diverse public, such as the BCAs.
I believe that one of the key ways to ensure this reflexivity is via transparency in organisational processes, because it engages debate, engenders trust, and compels vigilance. Transparency should be for any organisation an absolute component of all processes. It needs to be a first principle, showing inner workings, engaging public debate, supporting dissent and offering a platform for criticism – not just allowing it to happen, but also giving it voice with which to speak. Enabling this kind of process requires constant self-vigilance and isn’t always easy.
I think this kind of transparency was lacking in the BCAs this year. Consequently, I think that the questions that arose around representation and diversity – both stylistically and in terms of creators – did so because we couldn’t see the systems in place to select and choose from such a varied scene: it wasn’t necessarily that the BCAs were unfair, or biased, it was that we didn’t know how the committee had been chosen and how they were arriving at their decisions.
This lack of transparency also extended to the notion of merit. I strongly feel we need a more carefully articulated understanding of merit if the awards are to be successful. Merit is a highly sensitive term, operating in a contested political terrain: is merit artistic experimentation? Commercial appeal? Innovation in the form? Overcoming obstacles to produce great art? All of the above? Transparency in decision making-processes will show how these questions are tackled. This will provide the committee with some protection from accusations of favouritism or bias or at least open up the conversation.
I’d like to emphasise that I think these problems are systemic, and not personal – I’m explicitly NOT accusing the committee of any impropriety, and I believe in their sincerity, passion and integrity. However, I do think a lack of transparency around the selection of the committee and the shortlisting process has made things far worse for the BCAs than it needed to be. If next year we can see that the ethic of transparency is more deeply embedded in how the awards are run, that the selection process for both the committee and the comics are more public, and there is an invitation for public critical commentary from people in the scene in the interim, for instance via the BCA blog, I think the scene and the awards will benefit.
That’s all I’d like to say for now. We have an opportunity here to build a fair, resilient awards scheme, and that is only going to take time, patience and conversation. In a scene as small and passionate and ours, it is going to be hard for anyone (myself definitely included) to untangle our own intertwined tastes, friendships, beliefs, values, hang-ups and ambitions for the UK comics scene long enough to offer praise and engage in constructive critique, especially when embroiled in messy Internet debate. It’s easy to soapbox, but harder to listen to one another.
Consequently, I think further commentary would be unconstructive since the BCA organisers have not yet had time to reconvene and respond to the criticisms already voiced. I believe they intend to do this in the New Year. I’d like to make it clear that although I believe the organisers need to go further in facilitating debate if the awards are going to grow and flourish, I also believe they are willing to do so; I also recognise that as this is the first year of the awards, it was unlikely that such an undertaking would be met without criticism. Finally, I think the organisers should be commended for the hard work already put in - it must seem like a pretty thankless task given some of the public reaction, and I hope my intervention here doesn’t add to that feeling. I just believe that in order to do things right, we shouldn’t shy away from rigorous public debate.
EDIT: Later this week I’ll be running an interview I conducted BCA founder Adam Cadwell. It was carried out before these pieces were written.