Thomas Woodruff withdraws his work from Eisner consideration

‘Francis Rothbart! The Tale of a Fastidious Feral’ and the creator himself received widespread criticism since the nominations were announced.

After criticism on a number of points related to his graphic novel Francis Rothbart! The Tale of a Fastidious Feral, Thomas Woodruff has removed his work from consideration for the Eisner Awards.

The quick version:

  1. Thomas Woodruff received nominations in four categories in the 2023 Eisner Awards, including “Best Graphic Album—New” and “Best Painter/Multimedia Artist.”
  2. Many people, including his former students, raised an issue with his nominations, with the points of contention being a) accusations of mistreatment of students while he was the head of the illustration and cartooning departments at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and b) that the work itself, about a feral child with brown skin, has racist overtones. A petition aimed at the Eisners was started to have his nominations withdrawn.
  3. After Woodruff and his publisher, Fantagraphics, released statements mid-week defending the work, Woodruff has since withdrawn himself for consideration for the awards.

So what’s this all about? Let’s break it down …

Let’s start at the beginning. Who’s involved here?

Francis Rothbart!: The Tale of a Fastidious Feral, a graphic novel by Thomas Woodruff, was published by Fantagraphics at the end of last year and nominated for multiple Eisner Awards this month, including:

  • Best Graphic Album—New
  • Best Painter/Multimedia Artist
  • Best Lettering
  • Best Publication Design

Woodruff was the head of the illustration and cartooning departments at the School of Visual Arts in New York for roughly 20 years, before he left that position in 2021. He’s still listed on their website as “Chair Emeritus.” It notes that he had an art book published in 2006, and that his work has appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, The New Yorker, Juxtapoz and many other publications. His work has also been feature din exhibits everywhere from the Brooklyn Museum to Australia to Honolulu.

Fantagraphics has published comics, graphics novels and more since the 1970s. Creators they’ve published include the Hernandez Brothers, Dan Clowes, Jason, Joe Sacco, Simon Hanselmann, Emil Ferris, Kevin Huizenga, David B., Chris Ware and many more. They’ve been a staple of any Eisner nomination ballot since the awards came into existence. This year they received 13 nominations, including the four for Francis Rothbart! On their About page, they note that they “honor the rich history of comics while providing a platform for bold new stories, styles and perspectives that push the boundaries of the medium.” They are no strangers to controversy.

The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, commonly referred to as simply the Eisner Awards, are a comics industry awards program run by Comic-Con International, also known as the San Diego Comic Con. They are named after The Spirit creator Will Eisner and have given out awards since 1988 in a number of categories. They’ve been referred to as “The Academy Awards of Comics,” and are arguably the most prestigious awards program focused exclusively on comics.

When did the controversy around this book begin?

The book itself was released in late 2022 — Dec. 14, according to Diamond Comics Distributor. As someone who does a weekly round-up of what’s hitting comic shops every week, I honestly didn’t remember seeing the book on Diamond’s list at the time, and it didn’t garner much press in comic circles. There were a few press outlets that interviewed Woodruff at the time, including Print Magazine, and it was mentioned briefly in a New York Times round-up of new books. The AV Club also included it in a round-up, saying :

This “graphic opera” from artist Thomas Woodruff, the recently retired head of the School of Visual Arts’ illustration and cartooning departments, is gorgeous and beguiling from beginning to end. Hand-lettered with lush color paintings and moody charcoal drawings, Francis Rothbart! is a supremely sui generis illustrated story told alternately in melodic prose and rhyming verse. The infant son of nudist balloonists, Francis is orphaned in the wild by a lightning strike. Protected and nurtured by an ensemble of affectionate animals and maternal magpies, he survives and grows into a strong youth, with subsequent lightning strikes seeming to imbue him with otherworldly powers. After twins from a nearby town discover his presence, Francis attempts to connect with the locals via progressively stunning costumery, with decidedly dramatic results. Fans of arty graphic novels will want to move this oversized hardcover to the top of their reading pile immediately.

Publisher’s Weekly had a less-than-stellar take on the $75 volume, noting its stunning art but calling out the disturbing sexual themes it contains. “This grotesque-erotic epic will call to curious and particular collectors, while raising eyebrows and questions about the boundaries of art publishing.”

But the work did not appear to be discussed much or even widely reviewed prior to the Eisner nominations, which seem to be the catalyst for this controversy, particularly as it spread across social media. I’m not sure who started the petition, but this is where I first saw it:

You mentioned people had two issues with the work. What’s the first one?

Let’s start with the accusations against Woodruff from his time at the School of Visual Arts, as it’s what was called out specifically in the petition. That petition went live six days ago and currently has 760 signatures.

The petition accuses him of:

  • verbally abusing cartooning students, as it claims he had a “passionate distaste for comics”
  • “yelling, insulting, verbally intimidating, harassing and otherwise acting inappropriately towards students in the classes that he supervised.”
  • cultivating “an atmosphere of distress, fear, and shame” to the point where “many young and vulnerable creators were severely hurt, some even getting pushed out of pursuing their dreams.”

In addition, an article on the Beat says that his former students also accused him of “inappropriate overtones of sexism and racism.”

Popverse has a piece with quotes from his former students from social media, including Jen Bartel, who said, “My sophomore year he told me I should just go ahead and drop out bc I’d never make it as an artist. Over a decade later, his words still contribute to my own ongoing severe impostor syndrome.”

She added: “It’s embarrassing to admit that someone like him had this kind of power over so many of us who studied under him at SVA but the truth is, a lot of students actually DID drop out and/or gave up on pursuing art entirely bc of him. It’s fucked up that he issue chair for *20 years*.”

Women Write About Comics spoke to several former SVA students who encountered Woodruff while attending the school, including Steen and Kendra Wells.

And what was the second one?

Cultural appropriation and racism in the work itself. As Heidi at the Beat notes, the “graphic opera,” as Woodruff refers to it, “follows a rather Mowgli/Tarzan-like narrative about an orphaned child, seemingly of South Asian heritage, who goes feral and is raised with indigenous trappings – while also scaring the wildlife with erotic urges.”

Given these two points, how in the world did this “graphic opera” even get nominated, much less for four awards?

That is an interesting question that many people have asked this week. Popverse has a piece that dives into the Eisner Awards judging process with perspective from an anonymous “insider.” It’s written by Chris Arrant, who is a former Eisner judge himself, so it’s a good piece to read for how everything works.

Regarding the first point — the fact that Woodruff has been accused of being abusive — it’s unlikely that the judges involved this year would have known about his reputation when they were judging. I haven’t been able to find anything online that called him out for being abusive prior to the nominations being released, and as I mentioned above, this book was fairly under the radar when it was released, at least in the usual comic circles.

But on that second point, about cultural appropriation and racist overtones, many people have called out that the Eisner judging committee this year had no people of color on it this year:

The six judges this year were: Moni Barrette, Peter Jones, Jen King, Sean Kleefeld, A. David Lewis and TJ Shevlin. You can read about why they were chosen/qualified for being an Eisner judge on the Eisner website. I don’t know any of them personally, but several of them I know from their professional work. The issue isn’t so much as to who was on the judging committee, but who wasn’t.

Update: Here’s an open letter from Mariah McCourt and Jennifer de Guzman to the Eisner Board of Directors calling for more transparency from the organization on how the Eisner judges are selected.

So the controversy starts, and then spreads through social media. The petition is out there. How did Woodruff and Fantagraphics respond? What did the Eisner Awards folks say?

A few days ago (prior to the withdrawal), Fantagraphics issued a statement:

Francis Rothbart! is an allegory of an outsider child, who is orphaned in the wild as a toddler. He is different, trying in vain to be accepted by the local townspeople. He is an avatar of innocence, devoid of savagery, attempting to survive. His ethnic origins refer to The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, but Woodruff wanted his character’s personality to appear more gender fluid, with a feminine side. With all his attempts to fit in, his mother-figure is stoned to death by a gang of intolerant thugs; and in the ending sequences, the townsfolk come after him with pitchforks and torches.

In our current culture where the “other” is constantly under attack, and creative, challenging, and underground art is being maligned and banned, this story seems eerily prescient.

And Woodruff said:

This book was carefully made over nearly a decade. It was never made with the intention for accolades, awards, or even an audience. It was made only with love: my love of comics, of drawing, picture-making, storytelling, design, type and letterforms, grand opera, Venetian painting, and heartfelt sentiment. These are themes I have explored for years.

When I took the position of Chair of Illustration and Cartooning in 2000, my dedication to both departments was strong and sincere. The Cartooning department grew from 121 students to 166 students in 2020, the Illustration Department grew from 312 to 746. During my tenure, we presented the students’ best 20 page comics in a large end of the year Junior exhibition. I instituted and oversaw the creation of  a  full color annual Cartooning Magazine, designed to showcase the impressive work of our Seniors. I worked closely with our library to assemble one of the best Cartooning collections in the country. A Cartoon industry leader referred to the department as the “Harvard of Cartooning” referring to the impressive faculty I assembled over time, and the level of sophistication of our students, (many of them Eisner award winners and nominees, including this year). In working with students, my frank critiques were intended to help them develop keen minds and strong spines.

As a openly gay man in my late sixties, I have been called “f—-t” more times than I would choose to remember, and seen too many die too young during the AIDs epidemic.

In my work as an artist and educator in my over 40 year career, I have attempted to help break and blur some cultural barriers that are still deeply enmeshed within our present day society. Artists must be brave, particularly telling the stories that they need to tell. Francis challenges the torches and pitchforks, he is stronger than the misunderstandings, the bullying, and the hate. I am too!

The Eisner Award committee did not issue a response.

When did Woodruff withdraw his nominations?

Today. ICv2 has the statement, which says:

I have decided to respectfully decline the four nominations for my book, Francis Rothbart!, from this year’s Eisner awards. I greatly appreciate the people at Fantagraphics and the Eisner Organization for their support of my metaphorical comics fable about an outsider and his struggles for acceptance in a hostile society. My graphic album being recognized by the panel of judges is a wonderful honor. I wish the best to all of the deserving and talented other nominees, and I applaud their achievements.

It’s a change in tone from his earlier statement.

And how have the Eisners responded?

With a matter-of-fact statement to Popverse about how they plan to handle it:

“We have been notified that the creator of an Eisner-nominated book has requested that any nominations for the work be removed from consideration,” reads a statement provided by the communications and strategy department of the Comic-Con International: San Diego, the organizer of the Eisner Awards. “While it is not possible to remove the work from the ballot, any votes cast for it will not be tabulated, and the work is no longer in consideration.”

But nothing on the controversy itself?

Not that I’ve seen. I’ll be happy to update this if they ever do.

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