This year’s Eisner nominations were announced this week and, as this column focuses on webcomics, naturally, I’m going to take a closer look at the five comics in the “Best Digital/Web Comic” category. Let’s start with a listing of the nominees themselves…

Bandette by Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover
Failing Sky by Dax Tran-Caffee
The Last Mechanical Monster by Brian Fies
Nimona by Noelle Stephenson
The Private Eye by Brian Vaughan & Marcos Martin

The first thing to note is that all five are extended dramas; there aren’t any gag-a-day strips here. But beyond that, there’s little in common here. Bandette is a digital comic available through comiXology; Failing Sky is a webcomic in the best sense of the word, taking advantage of the medium in ways that print can’t operate; The Last Mechancial Monster is more straight-forward story that picks up from the old Fleischer Superman cartoons; Nimona is a webcomic that is no longer online because it was picked up for publication; and The Private Eye is a digital comic available on it’s own platform. Despite being all in the same category, and generally being available electronically, they all function very differently from a user experience perspective.

Naturally, any grouping of comics in any of the Eisner categories are going to speak to differences among the nominees. There’s a far cry from Hawkeye to Saga even though they’re both in the “Best Continuing Series” category. But regardless of differences in genre or tone or style, they’re viewed in the same manner. That’s why there are categories for “Best Single Issue” and “Best Graphic Album”—the formats themselves are distinct enough to justify a differentiation, so you’re not trying to compare Astro City #16 to The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. The reader experiences are fundamentally different. You don’t approach a 32 page pamphlet comic that’s part of an ongoing, serialized title in the same way you would a hardcover, stand-alone graphic novel. Similarly, you don’t approach all comics the same way just because they’re delivered electronically.

The Last Mechanical Monster, for example, can easily be read through the site itself, of course, but it’s also delivered through an RSS feed that can be seen through any of a variety of readers on any of a variety of devices. Bandette, by contrast, needs to be read through the comiXology app after a user sets up an account and logs in. That inherently limits the type of device or reading experience you can have with it. (Technically, it can also be downloaded, but that download still needs to come through comiXology.) And Failing Sky can really only be functionally read on a desktop computer. Yet they’re all lumped together in a single category.

The Eisner categories are changed all the time. The digital/webcomic catgory was added in 2005 (in which current nominee Brian Fries won with Mom’s Cancer) which was in a pre-comiXology environment where “digital comics” were mostly limited to PDFs of print comics. In the past decade, the landscape for electronically delivered comics has changed radically, and it might be time to re-examine how and why they shouldn’t all be in the same category.