SF State Humanities professor takes home Eisner Award
Nick Sousanis’ graphic story about a Columbia University librarian and her quest for comics wins for best short story
For the comic book and graphic novel world, an Eisner Award is the equivalent of winning an Oscar. For Transportation Security Administration agents, on the other hand, it’s something very different: suspicious. San Francisco State Assistant Professor of Humanities Nick Sousanis found that out the hard way when his new Eisner — which he’d stashed in his carry-on luggage — caught airport security off guard. Fortunately, Sousanis was able to explain what the award was and it’s now sitting safely on his desk at home.
Sousanis had traveled to San Diego for the annual Comic-Con convention, where the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards are given out, and accepted the award for Best Short Story.
“I’m a guy who grew up reading comic books, so to be included alongside people I read, and now so many that I teach, is a big deal for me,” he said.
Sousanis won for “A Life in Comics,” a graphic novel-style biography of Columbia University librarian Karen Green, which appeared as a six-page feature in the university’s alumni magazine. Both Sousanis and Green are alumni of the university, and the two met while Sousanis was pursuing his doctorate in education there in 2008.
Sousanis’ comic follows Green from girlhood, when she discovered her love of comics, to adulthood working as Columbia’s curator for comics and cartoons and librarian for ancient and medieval history. When Green first began working in the university’s Butler Library, there were only three graphic novels in the entire collection. But that soon changed.
“She started collecting and using her budget to buy comics,” Sousanis said. “When I became a student there she was in her third year of collecting. The university had a feature about her on their website, and I thought, ‘Oh, cool — someone else here is involved in comics.’ So I wandered over to her, and we became good friends.”
Around that time, X-Men comic book writer Chris Claremont donated his archives to the library, which included his manuscripts, sketches and original artwork. That put the library on the map for other artists and writers in the field and now the collection has 14,000 volumes.
When Sousanis’ alma mater approached him about creating a piece on Green for their magazine he told them he would do it if the right idea struck. One did, and four months later he finished the piece. His comic weaves together Green’s life, a history of comics and references to some of Green’s favorite comics and artists, including an Al Jaffee-inspired fold-in comic like the ones found at the end of MAD magazine.
“Comics are a huge part of her life, and she’s become a celebrity in the comic book world in this unique way,” he said. “She was touched and thrilled to see her life done in a way that inserts her into many of her favorite comics.”
This is Sousanis’ first Eisner Award, but his award-winning novel “Unflattening,” originally his dissertation created entirely in comic form, received an Eisner nomination for Best Scholarly/Academic Work in 2016. He’s currently working on a follow-up to that book. “It’s going to be a philosophical exploration of the intersection between drawing and thinking,” he said.
In related news, the comic studies minor at SF State, led by Sousanis, launched in the spring of 2018, and five students graduated from the program in May. This fall, local cartoonist Tyler Cohen will teach a class on the Underground Comix movement in San Francisco during the 1960s and ’70s, which gave rise to women’s and queer comics. Students can also look forward to a class about Afrofuturism and one on manga, comics created in Japan or by creators in the Japanese language, next spring.