After more than two years of preparation, the first books from First Second, the new graphic novel imprint at Henry Holt's Roaring Brook Press children's book division, will arrive in stores in May. Along with Scholastic's Graphix imprint, First Second (www.firstsecondbooks.com) represents a new and impressive step by a traditional book publisher to seek out and publish significant comics works for a broad readership.
Mark Siegel, editorial director at First Second, is the man behind the imprint. Siegel, a comics artist himself, has more than 30 book properties under contract to First Second and plans to release six books in the spring and six more in the fall. His list, with books for both young and mature readers, is impressively international in scope and features the much-loved Malaysian cartoonist Lat as well as European comics luminaries like Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim and Eddie Campbell. And there are also newly discovered talents like Grady Klein (Lost Colony) and Leland Myrick (Missouri Boy), and new book-length works by American art comics favorites such as Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Yang (American Born Chinese).
And while Siegel's been busy with all of this, he's also managed to find time to prepare to publish several of his own books. PW Comics Week sat down with Siegel to talk about his background, how to create a comics imprint from scratch and the first list from First Second.
PWCW: Beyond being a publisher, you are a much-praised comics author, designer and illustrator. Can you sketch out your background for us?
Mark Siegel: I grew up in France, and always dreamed of living in the States. From the youngest age, I was pickled in all kinds of graphic traditions. I came to the U.S. for college, went to Brown, and majored in fine arts and creative writing. That's where I met Siena, whom I later married. She and I recently finished To Dance, A Ballerina's Graphic Novel coming from Atheneum and editor Richard Jackson, in the fall of this year. It tells of Siena's years as a young dancer in the School of American Ballet under George Balanchine. It's one of the few new graphic novels, other than manga, aimed at girls and young women.
Before starting up First Second I worked at Simon & Schuster as a senior designer, working on kids' books. I slowly began to bleed over into the editorial list. I acquired Joann Sfar's Little Vampire books, which made the New York Times bestseller lists, one of the early infiltrators into the kids' picture book world by comics. I published my own Sea Dogs, a comics and picture book done with author Lisa Wheeler at S&S, and it has been very well received. The book just won the Texas Bluebonnet Award—my favorite award, because it comes from actual young readers.
I have several other projects of my own in the works, another picture book for Richard Jackson and a couple of graphic novels of my own that are not for children. I also like to sprinkle the First Second blog with doodles and little strips I draw about life in the weird world of publishing.
PWCW: Give us some background on the beginnings of First Second.
MS: I called [comics artist] Jessica Abel when I decided to take this job at Holt. Jessica was my guru for American comics artists. I knew historical artists like George Herriman and artists like Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Seth—all the big contemporary indie artists. I went to [the New York City comics shop] Jim Hanley's Universe with Jessica and she introduced me to Paul Pope, Sara Varon, Greg Cook and Eddie Campbell. First Second began at Jim Hanley's. Maybe a quarter of the list I owe to Jessica's introduction.
Holt president John Sterling and Simon Boughton, publisher of Holt children's imprint Roaring Brook Press really instigated the startup. But before that John Sargent [CEO of Holtzbrinck Publishing, Henry Holt's parent company] set the whole thing in motion by getting us together. At the time I was working as a designer at S&S and trying to decide whether to just be an illustrator and forget the publishing side. But I also had a vision about how a graphic novel imprint might work in America. We had a breakfast meeting and I laid out my vision for them.
We had a second breakfast meeting and Sterling said, "I really like your vision. I like the international dimension and we'd like to offer you your own imprint." Well, I didn't think anyone would actually give me a clear run at this. So, my next question was who would be on the editorial committee overseeing what I did. They said, "You are the committee." I told them we can't be cautious or timid breaking into the market.
PWCW: Pantheon has been very successful over the last few years by being cautious. But you're publishing 12 books this year.
MS: Of course there are risks to our approach. But that's how you find major authors. We're doing it in the opposite way from Pantheon, which built its list slowly over time. Unlike Pantheon, I want a body of work to release. No matter your age, there will be something for you. Pantheon is after adult readers solely. I want to bring up a new generation of comics readers. Now they'll have new authors like Grady Klein. We have books for young readers and for more mature readers. But I also want to push the medium to new forms—visual essays, works for girls.
PWCW: You've got six books coming in the spring; could you discuss a few of them?
MS: In The Fate of the Artist Eddie Campbell, the author of this memoir, investigates his own sudden disappearance. Campbell flits effortlessly between styles and storylines, including a newspaper comics strip that subtly echoes the themes of the book. Stassen's Deogratias is a harrowing tale of the genocide in Rwanda. It's an important book that inaugurates an avenue First Second wants to open: high-grade graphic novels about the world stage, human-race issues, in the hands of true authors and masters of the comics form. Stassen lives in Rwanda with his young family, so when he writes of Africa, it isn't from some intellectual armchair. Grady Klein is a newcomer to graphic novels, having cut his teeth in animation. When a friend of his showed me the first few pages his Lost Colony [a story of American slavery] I knew it was something special, highly original and uniquely American.
Trondheim's A.L.I.E.E.E.N. (We pronounce it like "alien," by the way) is the very first extraterrestrial comic ever in print on planet Earth—uncensored, and untranslated! The text bubbles are entirely in an alien language—which a dedicated reader can decode, with a bit of application. Trondheim just won the much-coveted Grand Prix at the recent Angoulême Comics Festival in France. First Second will introduce some of Trondheim's most exciting projects to American readers in the next seasons. Some is for young readers (like A.L.I.E.E.E.N, for 12 and up) and some of it is for adult readers. And for those who've been discovering Joann Sfar and works like The Rabbi's Cat, there's Vampire Loves. I really have a soft spot for Ferdinand, the vampire of Vampire Loves, who's a hopeless romantic wafting around from one disastrous relationship to another. We have lots more Sfar in coming seasons, including his new series Klezmer.
Look for Paul Pope's Battling Boy in 2007. Pope is a legend among comics connoisseurs. The three great schools of comics—the American, the Japanese and the European graphic modes—are seamlessly blended in Pope's virtuoso work. I expect Battling Boy to be a major event. It's a huge adventure in full color and the first of Pope's projects to aim squarely at young readers
PWCW: How do you get a traditional house that is unaccustomed to selling comics to do it well on this scale? Were there in-house skeptics?
MS: That overall discussion is still going on. I don't assume anything. You have to be open to start small talk about the category to everyone at the house. The First Second catalog [which includes short essays about graphic novels by an artist, librarian, a reviewer and an editor] is meant to educate Holt's in-house staff as well. Of course now there is institutional experience with comics. Holtzbrinck also distributes Drawn &Quality's books as well as the Papercutz line of graphic novels from NBM.
I also have a missionary zeal about this. It's enthusiasm, not a chip on my shoulder. And it's not like I'm supporting a lost cause. The growth of the graphic novel is an opportunity that is becoming contagious. I have to say that I've not encountered as much skepticism about this whole project as I expected.
PWCW: What are you hearing from retailers?
MS: We've received very enthusiastic reports from our sales reps—more and more encouraging. Graphic novels are hot. People know about them. When you have great stories, people will find something to connect to. Retailers are definitely interested in Grady Klein's Lost Colony. They want us to differentiate the different ages. We're also working with Diamond in the direct market. We're doing author events, mailings and previews. But we also understand that there's a bigger retail market out there beyond the direct market—in particular the nonbook market, like retail clothing stores.
PWCW: Because you're an imprint of Roaring Brook, a children's book publisher, your list is perceived to be aimed at kids and teens. But the books like the Fate of the Artist and Deogratias are really for mature readers. Is there a potential for confusion?
MS: First Second isn't a children's list. First Second aims to build a collection of high-grade works to span every age group. New readers of every age will find something just right for them. And they can keep growing with First Second titles. Graphic novels often blur age categories more than almost any kind of book, and I see that as one of their greatest appeals. This sometimes makes logistics a bit unusual for our sales people, but they're up to it and they get it. The Lost Colony, for example, is getting early raves from nine-year-old girls and 40 year-old men alike.
We do realize there are practical issues of shelving and categories for booksellers and librarians, which we'll address in many ways; for one, First Second will cross-catalog its youngest titles with the list of Roaring Brook, our parent company. In each season, First Second will always have at least one or two young titles, as in this first catalog with the titles Sardine in Outer Space and A.L.I.E.E.E.N. To me, it's important that we keep nurturing this side of our list with the same care and attention to quality as we do works for grown-ups. How else do we raise the next generation of graphic novel readers to expect the best?
PWCW: What about the production of the books?
MS: I decided on a 6" x 8 1/2" format. It's cargo-pants friendly. The European size graphic album [8 1/2" x 11" or larger] will never work in the U.S. All of our books will be at the 6" x 8" trim size. We're building a shelf of titles that will work together. Our trim size proportions are at the crossroads of European comics, U.S. comics and manga. The size is ideal for foreign rights sales and importing. It can be easily enlarged for the European market or reduced for manga. Our first list will have more foreign imports because the original works we've commissioned are being worked on now
PWCW: What is the process for acquiring a book for First Second?
MS: When I make an acquisition I discuss it with Simon Boughton, but he always ends up saying "your call." Before making an offer, we do P&L's and check what's a worthwhile gamble. We've based everything we do on the book industry model, rather than the comics model. Many of the artists have agents, so the rest of the negotiation is with them. We have had very few setbacks in acquisitions. I wanted to do a series of biographical nonfiction comics but since Hyperion jumped into that area with some very interesting talents I decided not to.
PWCW: What are you doing to promote the list to retailers and readers?
MS: Our marketing director has been doing mailings to target groups. We're out meeting people to get feedback. We're discussing our authors and their accomplishments and their stories. Our catalog, which contains essays from industry professionals from each part of the graphic novel publishing process, has become a collector's item, and works as a general door-opener for graphic literature.
Things happen sometimes because they just have to. Sometimes there's a certain inevitability at work, and that's what seems to be going on in comics right now. Ten years from now, people will see this moment in the comics category as a truly significant time.