Founded five years ago by educational speaker Paul Register, the Stan Lee Excelsior Awards is an annual award for comics and graphic novels where the results are voted for by school pupils. Register, self-styled as The Bloke of Steel, designed them with the dual goals of elevating the status of comics in schools and promoting literacy among teenagers, and every year organises and hosts the event.
This year it was held in the high school of Peebles in the Scottish Borders, the reasoning being that despite being a national award it has so far always been held in England, so it was decided that some attempts of integration were in order. Peebles was selected for being “a really nice school in a really nice town in a really nice area” and also its (relative) proximity to Edinburgh and Glasgow. A former school librarian, Register wrangled the assembly hall full of teenagers with deft skill, his genial presence and wry sense of humour maintaining the attention of all in attendance, while being ably assisted by local pupil ‘Green’ Aaron.
Things were warmed up by a few fun trivia questions thrown out to the audience that wouldn’t have been out of place in a nerdy pub quiz, before Register began with a brief history of the awards and how in just a few years has grown from a local book award in Sheffield to a national event and the biggest comic book award in the country, with schools from all over the nation taking part. He also gave a rundown of the career and most famous creations of Stan the Man himself, without a hint of patronisation or expectation that everyone should know who he’s talking about. He also included his story of meeting Lee and getting his blessing to use his name for the awards.
To give things some variance, there was then a game inspired by the missing words round of Have I Got News for You. Instead of a news quiz (“because that would be dull”) numerous comics covers were presented with part of their titles blanked out, along with an estimation of the comic’s age and even a couple of critiques over inconsistencies in the artwork. Each question saw the room erupt into that general murmur crescendoing into seismic hubbub you get when several hundred gathered schoolkids each discuss something simultaneously, and great amusement was had from some gloriously esoteric selections such as ‘80s Judge Dredd tale The League of Fatties and a caption from a Star Trek comic of “Can Dr McCoy Cure the Brain-Damaged Planet?”
Aside from the announcement of the actual winners, a particular highlight was a keynote speech from John Ferguson, the creator and writer of Scottish fantasy/superhero comic Saltire, giving a lengthy and eloquent discourse on his perspective of superhero comics being modern-day mythology. As well as direct allusions like the Norse god Thor and it being no coincidence that Wonder Woman shares the name Diana with the Roman huntress goddess, he also observed that mythology is how a society defines its archetypes and that since America is such a young country and thus has no mythology of its own, it instead created some in the form of superheroes. All of which was explained with the intent of providing some ammunition of the literary merit of comics to any kids whose parents might have issues with them. He also observed that as a general rule US comics tend towards the optimistic, whereas the UK, being a far older and much more cynical nation, instead gave the world 2000 AD and its flagship title Judge Dredd, which is “where Superman would go if it all went horribly wrong.”
Finally were the awards themselves. To decide the winners, all participating schools were sent rating forms that asked the readers (of which there were 4,781 this year) to give a rating of 1 to 5 each for the shortlisted books’ story, artwork, characters and dialogue, thus allowing the kids to give a more thoughtful analysis than some professional reviewers do.
In its second year was the Stan Lee Award Junior, utilising the same format but for comics aimed at a primary school audience. Shortlisted were Oddly Normal, The Pirates of Pangaea, Cow Boy: A Boy and His Horse, Fantasy Sports, and Troy Trailblazer and the Horde Queen, this last one emerging victorious.
Covering a wide range of publishers and recognisability, the shortlisted titles for the main award were Ant Man: Second Chance Man, Edward Scissorhands: Parts Unknown, manga title The Devil is a Part Timer, Rocket Racoon: A Chasing Tale, Doctor Who: Revolutions of Terror, Copperhead, Darth Vader: Vader, and Lumberjanes: Beware the Holly. More than a few cheers erupted from various pockets of particular fans as the titles were read out. As for the results, third place was Rocket Racoon, second was Ant Man and the overall winner was Darth Vader. Each book in the top three scored higher then the previous year’s winner, highlighting the both the quality of the selections and their popularity among the readers.
The ceremony was a fun and lively affair and the kids in attendance all seemed to have a great time. Judging by the excited conversations between pupils overheard afterwards about which titles they would investigate next, it certainly seemed to have done its work.
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